One of the most memorable comedy based characters to be featured in Xena: Warrior Princess, New Zealand actress Alison Wall was called in to audition for the part of Minya because of her past work in a pantomime with Michael Hurst, who directed A Day in the Life.
"Michael and I got on really well and I think he liked my work, so when he was asked to direct, he brought me in to audition for the part. I`m sure that there were other actors up for the part as well probably a lot of people who didn`t look stunning!
"I auditioned very specifically for Minya," she recalls, explaining that Renaissance Pictures only tend to bring people in to audition for specific characters. "Renaissance don`t go, `Oh, she`s interesting, I`d like to see her play that in a completely different way` They basically want to know what you can come up with for a character and you hope that your performance is pretty much in the ball-park of what they want.
"I had seen quite a lot of the script from the auditions and I thought the part was charming," Wall remembers. "It was also quite nice to play a `try hard` type of character who was very keen, because the first time you are on set, you are a bit like that as well. You think to yourself, `Oh, I`m not very good, but I`ll give it a go!` and that is exactly how Minya is.
"There was a scene that I read at my audition which was the first I filmed," she recalls. "It was where Minya sees Xena for the first time. It was quite tricky because I`d been on set since l0am and nothing had happened. We were hours down [in the shooting schedule] because something had gone wrong with the camera in the morning and there were also problems with the light.
"It got to about 5.00pm and we were due to wrap, but they said, `Look, we`ve got five minutes before the light goes, shall we go for it?` So they kind of looked at me and I said `Oh, OK!` I had never been on a huge film set like that before and it seemed like there were a hundred people around. It was an enormous crew and they were all waiting for me to get the scene right so that they could go home.
"So that was scary," she admits. "My character had to get excited at seeing Xena and, it being my first day, I was quite nervous. There were goats and chickens running around all over the place and I was holding a little goat that caught this energy, panicked and started climbing over me! So I ended up with bruises from these little goat hooves!"
As a guest star, Wall was given a fair amount of freedom with the character, but she recalls that the down side to that was having to be very much on the ball at all times. "You really have to know what you are doing when you get on set," she explains. "The director will give you guidance on occasion, but quite often they will have a look at what you have brought and then see how they can shoot it.
"The directors on Xena and Hercules are very quick on their feet like that. If you know your character, most of them are not going to tell you what their concept is. Michael [Hurst] is fantastic to work with; he`s such a good director and is great at using what you come up with or giving advice to enhance it."
So was Wall happy with the way the character of Minya turned out? "I never watch myself, I hate seeing myself on screen," she admits, "so I`ve never seen the episodes I was in. I did have to watch a little when I was doing the sound synching, and I thought I was terrible - so embarrassingly awful! I thought I`d let everyone down. But then I won an award for A Day in the Life!" she says, referring to being named Best Supporting Actress in the New Zealand Television Awards. "I was like, `I can`t believe this!` It was a good lesson for me to shut up. But I always look at myself and go, `Oh no!`"
In spite of her self-criticism, Wall had a great time on the set of Xena, and was very impressed by the crew`s professionalism. "The cameramen and the whole crew are so slick," she says. "They get those magic little things to happen between people. They don`t seem to miss any of them, which is great. I remember that on one occasion I tripped over during a take and thought that I`d better keep going but that we`d have to reshoot it. They liked it and it stayed in. The production team are quite flexible, and I think that`s what keeps it so alive.
"Also, some parts of the script may change during shooting," she reveals. "I remember that The Play`s the Thing got changed quite a lot from readthrough. But that episode was so much fun, because it had a lot of physical comedy and improvisation in it. And with people like Ted [Raimi] on set, you start to ask yourself, `Why am I getting paid for this?`, because it`s all very silly and very enjoyable."
"Very enjoyable" is how Wall would describe much of her time on the show, and she can recall many highlights. "I remember laughing a lot at anything Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi were involved in! I remember having fun being given whip training by a guy from Uzbekistan who was with the Moscow State Circus. He was one of the world`s greatest whipping masters, and he would go from walking or standing on the ground to jumping on the back of a horse and then whip things out of the air. That was like, Wow!
"I enjoyed working with Renee [O`Connor]," she continues. "I think it was in A Day in the Life that we had a scene where we just had to sit there while she read me a poem that Gabrielle had written. I remember that I had to be really impressed by this poem which was really rubbish! But we just had a lot of fun together adding to it all and delighting in its awfulness, pretending that it was fantastic!
"I knew Lucy [Lawless] before Xena because we had both attended the same acting classes and I`d been in a television show called Funny Business with her," she reveals. "Also, I`ve been to her house for dinner and things. So Lucy is just like an old friend. She doesn`t play the big star or anything like that at all. She`s just Lucy; she hasn`t changed. She`s lovely, and Renee was really charming to work with. We were both interested in getting it right or finding funny little details.
"Lucy and Renee are both really enthusiastic about the work they do and neither of them are `ego` people. They are not like, `How am I going to be seen in this... what is my best side?` They are just interested in the work and finding the right essence of a scene and making it work, which is great."
Wall admits that she drew on characteristics from previous acting roles when developing Minya. "Years ago I was in a touring theatre show and played a girl guide, and the character was a bit of a loser," she explains. "I don`t think Minya is a loser, because she has a go at everything and is out there to help others and is kind, but there was a bit of that character in her."
So do Minya and Alison Wall have many similarities? "There are elements of me in her when I was about 20," Wall responds, "but I do think people are pretty infinite. I do have a side to me that is kind of overly keen and I was certainly like that at drama school and a bit nuts, like `Me! Me! Pick Me!` But I have the opposite side to me as well. There is a side of me that knows how embarrassing being overly keen is and doesn`t want to be like that.
"I think the great thing about acting is that you can select certain aspects of yourself at different times but you can also change them," Wall remarks. "In my solo show, Blossom, for example, I have to play characters who are all completely different from each other. I`m sure that I`ve got a horrible, evil character in there somewhere, which would be quite fun to do sometime! But in some ways you`re tied to people perceiving you as the characters that you play."
Roles in the Renaissance shows Young Hercules, Cleopatra 2525 and Jack of All Trades allowed Wall to broaden her horizons a bit more, however. "We did a lot of work for over a year on Young Herc, and I did a whole range of characters, including voiceover work," she recalls. "That`s fantastic because you are not ruled by what you look like and I got to do voice-overs for little nymph girls. I also did some sound effects for stunt fighting and created strange kinds of calls for bird-women who jumped out of trees and things.
"I`d get into work in the morning and not know what I was going to be that day. There were about 10-12 of us in the Loop Group, and we provided background sound effects for all the bar scenes, all the stunt fights and everything. It was lots of fun, and as Young Herc was a kid`s show, you had these bar scenes where there was a background conversation with somebody ordering milk or something! So the dialogue there had to be realistic but not interesting. If it was too interesting it would draw the viewer`s ear away from the main dialogue."
Always keen on drama, Wall seemed destined to follow an acting career from an early age, but she nearly opted for an entirely different vocation. "When I left school I was accepted both for art and drama school," she recalls. "I chose drama and went to the school where Michael Hurst was teaching. He became one of my tutors there and I`ve been acting ever since, doing all sorts of things.
"Because New Zealand is a small country, you have to be a jack of all trades to survive, especially if you haven`t got love interest looks (which I don`t, and never have had). So I drifted into comedy really in order to survive. I did a lot of comedy sketches, and I did nine years of those on television. I also took on Shakespearean roles in the theatre.
"Stage work is really what I love doing, although I`d like to do more television and film work. I think once you get familiar with acting for television, you really enjoy it. But the buzz from acting on stage is the buzz of energy, the audience`s laughter and the atmosphere that you can feel in the room. It`s like you know when it`s working and when you are in control of it.
"I`ve also done a lot of improvisation and corporate entertaining, radio voice-overs and other voice work. That`s really how I got started on Hercules and Xena, because the first thing I was involved in for Pacific Renaissance years ago was an animated Hercules and Xena feature film they did. There were basically the four leads and then about six other people who did other voices and sound effects. I was both a water and a fire monster in that film, which was a lot of fun!"
Asked whether there are any particular characters in Xena or Hercules she would like to have played, Wall ponders for a moment before replying. "I would have liked to have had a go at Callisto, but I`m not very good at fighting! I remember doing a play with Michael Hurst where I had to be the tough, butch one that everyone had to be frightened of. Michael is an expert on martial arts and things, and he had to teach me to punch properly and convincingly, because I`m such a coward! I remember that I had to punch three doors and slap people and stuff like that!
"But most of the women are so beautiful," Wall muses, "at least the arch-villains. I`ve realised the limitations of acting, because my work has been defined by what I look like. Most people can go and be a good computer expert or a good plumber or a good landscape gardener - it doesn`t matter what they look like. But it does with acting, because you may not look like a mother or a love interest. So the roles for women are quite few and not so interesting."
Wall has first-hand experience of the Xena fans, and is extremely impressed by the devotion convention audiences show the actors of the shows. "I went to the Hercules and Xena convention at Pasadena [California] in January 2000 and it was huge," she enthuses. "I had previously gone to a smaller one at Atlanta [Georgia], which was sweet, with just a couple of hundred people attending. but the one at Pasadena was just a sea of people.
"I had to go out on stage and answer questions, and the guy who was on before me said, just tell them about yourself. That will warm them up.` So I went out there and I didn`t have a clue what to say! If I had known how many people were going to be there, I would have prepared something beforehand that was vaguely amusing.
"The people there were really genuine," she continues, "saying `thank you for coming and good luck with everything,` or, `I hope your career goes really well,` and just nice things like that. It was so lovely to have all that positive and personal well wishing. It was delightful really. I`d love to do a convention in the UK or another part of Europe. I love the UK and have a friend living in London. I`d also like to take my solo show to the Edinburgh Festival."
As the conversation draws to a close, the subject turns to the success of Xena and other Pacific Renaissance ongoing series. Wall attributes this to the unique combination of New Zealanders` gung ho approach to life and the expert knowledge of the cast and crew members from all over the world. "There has been a kind of merging of the two worlds," she explains. "This has resulted in a uniqueness that we all feel a part of and, while it may sound corny, it`s like a big Pacific Renaissance family. What they have created here in New Zealand is amazing.
"Renaissance have done outrageous things that you can`t imagine in the context of Los Angeles or back in the States in general with the pressures they have there. Maybe here, as it`s away from it all, they can just cut loose. "But it`s all wonderful and everyone has such a great time!"
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