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Lawless in Chicago

Nov 1, 2013 Theatre

Starring in Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Chicago, Lucy Lawless talks to Frances Morton about mischief, musicals and why she is drawn to being on stage.


Lucy Lawless is relishing being her worst self. As Velma Kelly, a nightclub singer accused of murder in Auckland Theatre Company’s Chicago, she plays a queen of low places. “If Velma was weather she’d be squally with sky the colour of a bruise,” says Lawless. “And if she was an animal it would be a cockroach. She’s a happy-go-lucky sadist.”

It’s Lawless’s second appearance this year in the hit musical. In July, she played jailhouse matron Mama Morton in an all-glitz production at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 15,000 people. Brooke Shields directed. Lawless’s castmates included Ashlee Simpson, Drew Carey and Stephen Moyer. Lawless had just 10 days to prepare for the three-day run, which strictly adhered to the New York revival style that has made the show the longest-running musical on Broadway. “It’s quite a religious experience working in America on this because they are such purists,” says Lawless. “It’s a bit hard for an instinctive actor like me. I find it extremely difficult to fit the mould.”

Director Michael Hurst is smashing the mould with a much darker, raunchier reinterpretation. “I wonder how my friends in America would feel about that,” says Lawless. “I’m a little scared to tell them.” Lawless is sure the show’s writer, Bob Fosse, would have approved. She says the original choreography was “quite orgiastic and animalistic”.

Lawless is one of our most famous and widely adored screen faces, yet you get the feeling she’s right where she wants to be as she rehearses tirelessly for this intimate singing/dancing role. It was in an Auckland theatre that she decided to become an actress. She was about eight, watching Snow White with her mum, when a black light illuminated fluorescent paint, picking out dormice and fairies. “It was like magic. I was like, ‘I have to do this.’”

Today, she says she’s in a “sweetbox spot creatively”. She missed the first week of Chicago rehearsals because she was in the Outback filming a political thriller for Australian television. That job opened her eyes to Australia’s indigenous communities. Lawless is an actress who cares. She’s not afraid to state her opinion, or scale an oil ship in protest. Soon enough she is in deep political discussion about the social and environmental struggles of Aborigine people she met. How something as simple as a handshake can be so wrongly interpreted in this mixing of cultures. Lawless is grateful that her profession introduced her to this world. “I never thought that would happen to me. It was filled with beauty and cruelty.”

After Chicago, her next move is likely to be back to Los Angeles to pursue work. Lawless’s husband, Rob Tapert, has helmed big-budget television projects in Auckland, but with increasing global competition for the film-industry dollar through tax breaks and incentive programmes and an unfavourable exchange rate, that is no longer feasible. “It’s very painful to me because it’s our family business,” says Lawless, accusing the government of being misguided. “They have changed their focus and put it into fossil fuels, which I so hate, instead of driving clean energies, driving geothermal, instead of investing in film and culture. It’s something which is going to cause more pain for our kids and kill the film industry.”

Chicago: Auckland Theatre Company, Q Theatre, Nov 1-30,

First published in Metro November 2013


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