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Lucy Lawless attended the death-bed of a Xena Warrior Princess fan

When their friendship began, Xena’s fanbase could still be called a “cult following”. But it wasn’t long before the fantasy action series, which aired between 1995 and 2001, became a global hit. Feminist scholars praised Xena’s “badass” physicality, lesbian viewers anointed her a queer icon, and Lawless even made the cover of Rolling Stone.

Lucy Lawless plays a retired homicide detective in My Life is Murder – who keeps getting roped into cases by an inspector, played by Bernard Curry.

Lucy Lawless plays a retired homicide detective in My Life is Murder – who keeps getting roped into cases by an inspector, played by Bernard Curry. Credit:Ten

After Santiago was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she chose to spend her final days in her Los Angeles home, nestled into a recliner. When Lawless visited, she found the 65-year-old had difficulty speaking, so she suggested putting on a home movie from Santiago’s childhood. (This required her to dig through Santiago’s VHS collection, dominated by old Xena episodes, until she found the right tape.) Together, they watched the young Santiago ride a pony through tall grass, led by her smartly dressed grandfather.

“I was there two days later when she died with Grace beside her, surrounded by her Xenite friends,” Lawless wrote in The New Zealand Herald. “They lovingly laid her tiny body out in the spare bedroom, put a Hawaiian shirt on her and, incongruously, a baseball cap. At the funeral … it struck me that the tables had turned. I was a fan of hers.”

We’re in a meeting room at Channel 10’s South Yarra studios; a sliver of city skyline visible through a narrow window. Lawless hadn’t visited Melbourne until she was cast in My Life Is Murder, playing the lead role of former homicide detective Alexa Crowe.

It might have been a cult hit early on, but Xena: Warrior Princess quickly became a global phenomenon.

It might have been a cult hit early on, but Xena: Warrior Princess quickly became a global phenomenon.

“I have a lot of city envy,” she says. “The public art and architecture here is amazing.”

Despite its “case of the week” structure, the series is not a gruesome crime procedural. “Somebody said that it’s Miss Marple meets Sex and the City. We’re all so jaded and hurting, and news and social media so grim, so it’s nice to have something that’s fun and sexy and looks good.”

It also subverts a few tired TV tropes. In most dramas, a single woman with a cat equals “sad and lonely”; in My Life Is Murder, according to Lawless, the moggy “is just another unwanted visitor”. When Crowe mentors data analyst Madison Feliciano (Ebony Vagulans), she discovers her young charge has a lot to teach her. And a hint of romantic interest from Detective Inspector Kieran Knight (Bernard Curry) does not trigger an Ally McBeal-style giggling fit.

“Alexa is a bit oblivious to all that,” Lawless says. “She’s a bit of a misanthrope and she has no time for relationships, but she does have a sexuality which she exercises at will.”

They’d have a few pictures of me giving them the finger.

Lucy Lawless on the ‘shonky’ Australian private eyes who trail her around New Zealand.

On a sunny Tuesday morning, Lawless and Curry are filming a scene in Melbourne’s Hosier Lane, famous for its street art. Knight is trying to crack the case of a plastic surgeon who seemingly died after injecting herself with homemade Botox.

As the series progresses, we learn exactly why Crowe quit the force and opened a bakery. This doesn’t stop Knight from roping her into his toughest cases.

“She’s still the best investigator that he knows,” Curry says. “She can look at a case like nobody else and because she’s a civilian, she can cross the line between the legal and not-so-legal.”

While Offspring was set in Melbourne’s trendy inner-north and The Secret Life of Us showcased St Kilda, Murder takes a broader sweep: from sleek Docklands apartment towers to gritty laneways and leafy suburbs.

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“It’s an unabashedly Melbourne show,” Curry says. “We’ve shot bits in Federation Square and Birrarung Marr near the boat sheds and underneath the Bolte Bridge. It’s using a lot of the structural and architectural points of Melbourne to punctuate the drama.”

As a visitor, Lawless was struck by the “generosity” of Melbourne’s public art and architecture.

“Every time I’d look at some crazy building, I’d think, ‘Somebody had to commission, design and sign off on that,’” she says. “So many people worked to make that building distinct, yet complementary to the buildings around it [despite the added cost]. That blows my mind.”

When Lawless was 19, she and her then-partner moved from New Zealand to Western Australia, working at a gold-mining company near Kalgoorlie. Her thankless job was to drill through metres of rock samples.

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“I had to push it through a diamond saw, which looked like something a mustachioed man would tie a lady to in an old movie,” she says. “I’d get to work and there’d be three kilometres of bloody rock for me to cut – then a geologist would come along and say, ‘It’s all rubbish! Get rid of it.’ I felt like the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin. But I think it’s good to have a few crappy jobs in life.”

Not that she’s romanticising low-paid employment. Indeed, Lawless and her mother volunteer at an Auckland refugee centre, helping new arrivals prepare for job interviews.

“They’re very confused by questions like, ‘What are you passionate about?’ and ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’,” she says. “If you’ve come from Damascus, what you’re passionate about is not being bombed or having your children killed.

“All that navel-gazing – the freedom to explore your desires and talents – is a luxury of a stable society.”

In 2005, Lawless was filming a movie in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. As the storm approached, telephone and broadcasting systems collapsed and the streets became grid-locked.

Lucy Lawless takes part in a Greenpeace protest against a Shell-contracted drilling ship in New Zealand.

Lucy Lawless takes part in a Greenpeace protest against a Shell-contracted drilling ship in New Zealand.Credit:AP

“We saw all these little kids, with no hope or thought of saving themselves, because where would they go? I got to see what civic terror feels like, which sensitised me to the threat of climate change.”

While most celebrities limit themselves to “raising awareness” on social media, Lawless joined Greenpeace and boarded an oil drilling ship with other activists before it could leave New Zealand for the Arctic. In 2012, she was fined after pleading guilty to trespass.

Since then, she’s been trailed around New Zealand by a “shonky” private eye company from Australia. “They’d have a few pictures of me giving them the finger,” she says. “I live my life out loud anyway, so it would be easier for them to follow me on social media.”

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The second-youngest in an Irish Catholic family of eight, Lawless grew up in the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert, situated near a volcanic peak. As a teenager, she embraced that adolescent rite of passage: boozy house parties.

She expected her three children to enact cosmic justice but with her youngest now 17, they’re yet to indulge in binge-drinking.

“They’re so square! That generation is a mystery to me. I think they saw their parents as part of this profligate generation, so they don’t really drink themselves. My grandchildren will probably be holy terrors when they rebel against their parents.”

For Lawless, the concept of family goes beyond biology  and the friendships Crowe cultivates is something she loves about Murder.

“It’s not an ensemble drama from the same old mould,” she says. “It’s this bunch of unattached people  and, as people do these days, they form their own little family.”

WHAT: My Life Is Murder
WHEN: Ten, Wednesday at 8.30pm.

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