Xena Magazine #14: Jay Laga`aia interviewed

Author: Ian Rentoul
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #14

Jay on Draco, singing, the go-go bikini and more...

If Draco's army had not threatened Gabrielle's home village of Poteidaia in the very first episode of Xena: Warrior Princess for the easy pickings of some slaves, Xena and Gabrielle may never have met. It's almost certain that the young wannabe bard would never have left her home and family to go scurrying off after the Warrior Princess to find adventure. So without Draco, it could be argued that none of the adventures of the last five years would have happened.

"I wanted Draco to be as dashing as Errol Flynn," recalls Jay Laga'aia, who at the time of this interview was working for Australia's Channel 9 in Sydney and had just been cast in Star Wars: Episode II. "He and Xena had a thing going. I wanted him to be charming and adventurous, but a character who would sacrifice his own mother at the drop of a hat in order to advance himself.

"He was someone who, if you worked with him, people would say, 'why are you with this person? He is so evil!' He was a character who would [show no mercy to] anybody who crossed him. If he had to decide whether to kill a whole town just so that his horses could eat, he would kill the whole town and not think twice about it.

"For that first episode, I let the director [Doug Lefler] say 'yes' or 'no', but he basically liked what he saw. I didn't want Draco to be the stereotypical evil guy all the time. What I wanted was for the audience to see that he was a charming character and that he and Xena not only shared a love of battle, but there was also an intimacy there. So there was an element of affection. But at the same time, as soon as Xena left the room, he would be thinking, 'Right, how can I use this to my advantage?'

"That was the great juxtaposition from my point of view," Laga'aia explains, "because I knew characters like that and I pulled them all together. I wanted Draco to have the face of Tom Cruise and the mask of Hannibal Lecter, a combination that made him like honey on steel - it was sweet, but if you licked it you would cut your tongue. So Draco was this barbarian who you just didn't want to cross, because he would much rather clean his knife in your innards than have to talk and reason with you!

"He was also very unpredictable in the sense that he was a wolf in sheep's clothing," Laga'aia continues. "He would lure you out with a bouquet of flowers, but as soon as you grabbed them they would turn to poison ivy. I knew I needed this character to have longevity. I also needed him to have more than one dimension, so that I would be able to play him as vulnerable in a comical as well as a dramatic sense."

Laga'aia wasn't aware that he would be starring in Renaissance Pictures' popular Hercules spin-off series when he auditioned for the part of Draco. "I read for the character, and then was told about this new spin-off from Hercules: The Legendary journeys called Xena: Warrior Princess. I remember turning up on the set of Xena and having a chat with Lucy [Lawless] when everything was new and fresh, and meeting Renee [O'Connor] for the first time. I remember Renee as this young girl, but when I met her again when we filmed Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire together, I realised that she'd grown up to be a beautiful woman!"

Draco's first appearance was in Sins of the Past. "We did the scene where my army is about to beat up the townsfolk of Amphipolis in a barn and the door opens behind me and Xena is standing there. I grab the leader of the townspeople and I'm about to beat him up, when suddenly I hear, 'Hello Draco' and I turn around to see Xena at the door.

"Lucy was still trying to get used to her costume, so we did the rehearsals wearing robes. So the first take was the first time I'd seen her in the full outfit, and when the door opened I just stood there and went'hmmm... I know I have to stand here and say something, but how about ... WOW!' The director was laughing in the background and said `Cut, we'll go again...' But I was totally gobsmacked. Lucy looked absolutely stunning, and it was an image that's been implanted in my brain ever since.

Laga'aia considers the memorable fight on poles in that very first episode to be one of the best fight scenes he's seen on Xena. "I think that they have tried to re-create it several times," he reflects, "but that one has never really been surpassed."

Following Sins of the Past, Laga'aia appeared as Draco in the humorous outing A Comedy of Eros. Cupid's son Bliss causes havoc by firing off a few stray rounds in the direction of an unsuspecting populace. Three of the arrows find their targets in Draco, Xena and Gabrielle. So with Draco in love with Gabrielle, Xena in love with Draco and Gabrielle in love with Joxer (with Joxer loving every minute of it), the scene is set for one of season two's most memorable comedies.

However, Laga'aia reveals that he prefers dramatic stories to comedy episodes. "I like it when they do dark episodes because it makes an audience take a good look at themselves," he says. "We as performers are purely a reflection of the people who are watching us. The audience is endowed with element of the events that we are placed in and they tend to ask themselves, What would I do in that situation?'

"I also prefer the dramatic stories because I find that comedy is very easy to play and, nine times out of 10, it's more slapstick. It's not anything to do with acting as much as being in the right place or the way that you play the lines. Drama allows you to do comical stuff in between, whereas with pure comedy, you know that it's going to be funny all the time. I think the comedy with Draco really comes with the uneasiness of how evil he can be.

"[In Sins of the Past] Draco continually talks about going to the Stryman Pass and getting his men together while doing backwards somersaults and knocking a guy out! Now the comedy of the whole thing is that you do these backward somersaults but you still stay within the character. At the end of the episode, he throws a knife and kills a guy, and his last words are 'get someone to clean off my knife!' Those things really echo, and I think that is the great art of the dramatic side of Xena."

Laga'aia admits that he was a bit taken aback when he read the script for Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire, his last Xena outing. "I liked the idea, but was a bit apprehensive about all the heavy rock stuff they wanted me to do," he recalls. "It's not that I wasn't able to do it from a vocal point of view, because I had toured with a production of Jesus Christ Superstar and played Judas. The problem was getting one person to say, 'This is what I want you to do.'

"Xena is an evolutionary process," Laga'aia explains. "The musical director and the recording studio may say, 'Could you try it like this?' and then you go talk to the director, who wants to change the rap bit or this bit or that bit around. But in the end, we went in there, did it and I really enjoyed it because we had a week and a half of dance and vocal rehearsals before we actually shot the show.

"We had to record all the songs before shooting started, otherwise we couldn't really marry up the vocals and the spoken parts, plus the instruments that the art department had made for us were completely and utterly impractical to play! We would go in and I would rehearse one song at a time, because every time I came out of the studio I would have this huge headache from just doing the heavy rock numbers!

"I was amazed at how well Ted Raimi played his two characters, and listening to them on headsets, they were very different vocally. This is a feat that even the most accomplished musicians can't do. It was like listening to Mel Blanc who did the voices for Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd because you can't hear one voice in the other!

"Xena is renowned worldwide for its production values and it's great fun to be able to work with a bunch of performers who are always vibrant. A bonus was that I had a bunch of guys, like 'Draco's Guys'. We all rehearsed together and ended up spending a lot of our time together over the four-week period, so we gained great friendships from that.

"It was also great to be able to get together with all these dancers and work out our pieces," Laga'aia continues. "Shona McCullagh, our New Zealand choreographer, did a great job. She had to create all these vignettes as well as all the different styles - the Joxer Style, the Jace Style, the Xena and the Gabrielle stuff, the Amazons, Draco's men and all the other characters. So we went up there and just did heavy metal rock, pyros and everything, and I had a ball.

"I suggested that because it was a new costume for Draco, next time they should maybe take the insides out of the leather I was wearing, because it was so heavy. As soon as we had finished a take, we were down on the ground gasping for air, but everybody else was cheering because the look was just amazing. It was just this heavy rock look, so I was quite pleased to a certain extent that we had stolen the show!"

Laga'aia has had a lot of screen time with Renee O'Connor, in particular in the episodes A Comedy of Eros and Lyre, Lyre Hearts on Fire. "Oh, I have a huge crush on Renee!" he admits. "I think she is the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen. Renee is a lovely lady and actress. Lucy has the weight of the world on her shoulders. The last time I was there I realised that I was fighting a seven-month pregnant woman who was still vibrant and happening and still as bouncy and cheeky as ever!

"Renee has never changed. You would swear she was one of the make-up assistants because she's so unassuming and a very generous lady. I think she will [go on to] bigger and better things. She had already worked on other things before Xena, and she was able to take on a lot more dramatic stuff when Lucy was sick. I think we've just seen the tip of the iceberg with this young lady. She's still young and to have a cult following behind her is always good.

"She is always very genuine, always makes herself available and loves the idea of playing on set," Laga'aia continues of Renee O'Connor. "When she came out in her go-go outfit [in Lyre, Lyre] we were just gobsmacked! It was like, 'This is our little sister. She shouldnt be dressed like this... should she?' It was sort of embarrassing. You didn't know where to look because she was so gorgeous!"

So have we seen the last of Draco in Xena? "Getting the opportunity to do another episode before they wrap up would be great," Laga'aia responds, "and at the moment we're having conversations to try and do that. I think they would want to bring the character back one more time, which would be great. So, yes, where there's Xena, there's a way! You never know," he teases, "there could be a Gabrielle spin-off!"

Talking to Laga'aia; it's obvious he's very open about his life, his career and his friends, and that he exhibits a joy which is truly infectious. "It has always been a pleasure to work on Xena," he enthuses, "not just because of what it's done for the local industry, but also because it's touched so many people's lives.

"My claim to fame is that I was the first bad guy in Xena and they can't take that away from you!" SIDEBOX
Jay Laga'aia fondly recalls performing his particular little number, 'Always Something There to Remind Me', in Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire

"'Always Something There To Remind Me' was just so much fun to do," he enthuses. "It was like Sid Vicious meets The Clash! There was this discord of sounds and everyone who watched it would just roll around laughing because we had this beautiful line, 'I walk along the lonely city streets', and then the boys would come in shouting 'always something there to remind me...'

"Every time we sang it, the musical director would stop and go, 'Listen. I know it's hard, but I don't want to hear a tune in there!' and then say, 'Think industrial music!' So it was more just a shout as everybody was trying to sing the song without a tune.

"I've done several voice-overs and you realise you have to perform in the studio, because if you don't, you can't perform on screen. You have to put in all these vocal markers and make sure you visualise it choreographically.

"We made several versions of the song. I sang the first version, but then they wanted it more spoken, so I gave them the 'Play Misty For Me' voice, the 'Jack's Back!' version, and what I call the 'Stalker Version', which they liked a lot more!"

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