Welcome to our series Talking to a Famous Person. In this series we publish our conversations with high-profile nonprofit founders, actors and everyone in between.
Known internationally for her role as Xena in Xena: Warrior Princess, Lawless has had a diverse career onstage, behind the camera, and working with organizations to help children in need around the world. Lawless was named one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" by People magazine in 1997, the same year she first appeared on Broadway in the remake of Grease. Her long career spans music, television, film and the stage. In addition to working on blockbuster films like Bedtime Stories and Eurotrip, she has also appeared as a guest star in episodes of The Simpsons, The X-Files, Just Shoot Me!, Veronica Mars, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Burn Notice, Less Than Perfect, Flight of the Conchords and Battlestar Galactica. This year you can catch Lawless on Spartacus.
Beyond the studio sets, Lawless is involved in a number of different charities, many in her home country of New Zealand. Read on to learn more about Lawless' charity work, her views on climate change skeptics, and the strangest Xena fan request yet (hint: it involves an axe).
GOOD: You are perhaps most involved in the Starship National Children’s Hospital in New Zealand, having recently jumped from a building to raise money and awareness for the new Puawaitahi center for investigating alleged child abuse. How did you get involved with the board and what is your involvement on a day-to-day basis?
Lucy Lawless: After reports of a particularly vicious child abuse case, I and a few other highly visible New Zealanders got involved to say "No more." Sadly, the reality is that child abuse is never going to be expunged totally but they are finding that getting trained assessors from the police, social workers, and doctors under one roof dramatically improves communication and efficiency in catching kids before they fall through the cracks. Letting battered and sexually abused kids "fall through the cracks" is in itself an obscenity. Anyway, the idea of multi-agency centers is so sensible, you'd think they would be the model in every town in the world.
As as actress there is no role for me in a multi-agency center. Families there require dignity and privacy and what celebrities do is help create noise and attention. However I do sit on the board of the fundraising arm of the Starship Hospital which means showing up to the board meetings once a month. Really, I just do what I'm told. They are an amazing organization.
You’ve been involved with a variety of different charities, all over New Zealand and the world, how do you find out about different causes? Do organizations approach you or do you prefer doing independent research and seeking them out?
People seek me out. They want me to do everything from rep autism to lobby the government about free left-hand turns. I try not to jump on every bandwagon. There's a lot of need out there but I believe it's important to be more effective in fewer areas. So I stick to the few things I desperately care about.
What is one under-the-radar charity or nonprofit that you’re involved with that you think everyone should know about?
They are not under-the-radar but I think NGOs like World Vision are fantastic. They have learned through much trial and error the psychology of not just being helpful but of being helped. They know that if you don't give a community ownership of a project, so that their own sweat is in the building of that road/well/school, there will be no pride nor ownership after the fact. They also cooperate very well in the case of natural disasters to divvy up the work so that doubling-up precious resources is avoided. Don't believe that propaganda about them selling several photos of the same child. I won't say it is impossible that such a mix-up has occurred, but on my trip to Bangladesh I saw there is no end of children in poverty!
After Climategate and other reports questioning climate change science, many people worldwide are still skeptical about global warming. What would you say to disbelievers to get them to change their minds?
I think the people running climate change denial campaigns are sociopaths. They don't want you to get off the grid in any sense because then you'd be autonomous and they couldn't make you buy their poison.
Since your Xena days you’ve done concert tours and you have also been involved in Broadway productions. If you could play a part in any Broadway production which would it be and why?
Annie in Annie Get Out Your Gun. Dumb-ass story but great, great songs.
A lot of your charity work is focused on helping young children. What is one story that exemplifies why you continue to stay so involved? When working with sick or underprivileged children, what is the one thing you hope to leave them with?
I noticed that many of the street kids I met in Bangladesh were abandoned at the age of 4 where (and I am only guessing here), a child individuates from the parents, who themselves were born into material and emotional poverty. Often the mother would put her 4-year-old on the roof of a train with no food or money and send the kid off to god-knows where. If they don't fall off, they may end up at the end of the line at Dhaka Train Depot, living under concrete benches, beaten by the police with a length of hose and being preyed upon by sexual predators. I saw an 8-year-old girl shot up with heroin.
What can I hope to leave with them? All I can do is support programs in their area. World Vision was amazing. I believe it was started as a Christian organization but the people working there were Hindu and Muslim and Christian all mixed in together. They are fighting poverty and ignorance. I visited one convent where nuns are teaching women's health and baby care — not converting the natives. They live in danger all the time because banditry is rife but they love their people and will not abandon them.
Xena: Warrior Princess has attained a cult status. What has been the weirdest request from a Xena fan? Be honest, do people ask to fight with you?
No one asks me to fight. I am being honest. What else is there to be?
A guy in a wet raincoat asked me to sign his axe once. I was a bit creeped out by that.
What is one thing everyone can do that would have a huge impact on our environment?
Plant something! Anywhere you can, plant something! I am digging up my tennis court and putting in native trees to encourage the native birds to come in. We have bees, which I highly recommend — makes the garden go off.
I know we don't all have tennis courts to dig up, but we can all plant a window box or a tree. Just consider the kind of light and drainage and the mature size of the tree. Make sure you can live with it in the long term.
A version of this story originally appeared on GOOD. Read it here.
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