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Lucy Lawless returns for battle in 'Spartacus'

PASADENA — Lucy Lawless used a lot of sweat and swordplay to become a female action hero in “Xena: Warrior Princess.” She didn’t mind the swords.

The sweat was a different matter.

“I always hated action,” says Lawless, accenting the comment with a smile. “But with ‘Xena’ I didn’t have any choice in the matter but to knuckle down and do it.”

She sweated her way through countless action scenes for six years before turning to less physical — and more modern — roles in “Battlestar Galactica,” “Two and a Half Men,” “CSI: Miami” and “The L Word.”

Lawless has returned to the genre that brought her so much fame to star in the new Starz series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” It launches at 10 p.m. Friday.

The role certainly calls for as much sweat, but she won’t be swinging a sword. The 41-year-old actress portrays Lucretia, who with her husband, Batiatus, owns the gladiator camp that produces Spartacus. Lucretia prefers a bedroom as her arena.

She almost passed on the role because she was content with less action-oriented projects.“But the role is just a knockout. I’m so grateful to them for writing such brilliant women’s relationships. A lot of intrigue. It’s terribly deadly and very subtle,” Lawless says.

“I felt like I still want to adventure on in life. But the universe always knows what’s good for you, you know.”

Besides, her husband is series executive producer Robert Tapert, who was also behind “Xena.” She says he has been trying to make a serious project set in ancient Rome for years.The hour-long cable drama, shot in Lawless’ native New Zealand, stars Andy Whitfield as the gladiator warrior hero Spartacus.

He’s a soldier who is sold into slavery and then forced to train to do battle in the arena. Outside the blood pit are sexual contests and emotional battles that are just as brutal.

“Xena” is remembered for its action and comedy, but Lawless says none of that matters if the characters aren’t three-dimensional, truthful and interesting enough to draw viewers back.

She finds her role in “Spartacus” interesting indeed, comparing the manipulative, scheming and sexually charged Lucretia to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

The series features nudity and the idea made Lawless nervous. But she says the sexual element is an important part of the story.

“Lucy might not want to do it, but it is truthful and right for the character,” Lawless says. “In Rome, all bets are off. The nudity fulfills the scenes properly, and because of that, you just can’t hold back because of your own ego.

“There’s a lot of sex and violence in this, but there’s nothing gratuitous about it.”

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at rbentley@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6355. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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