A spin-off to the 1995 series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess soon soared past Hercules in popularity. It’s been credited with changing the face of television, as it pioneered a female action hero while exploring themes of violence, justice and sympathetic villains.
Shot in New Zealand for American television, but adored worldwide, this fantasy television show won a cult following for its blend of melodrama and comedy, following the adventures of a once-murderous leader who is trying to make amends. Here are some things you probably didn’t know about Xena: Warrior Princess.
20. Astronomers have nicknamed a planet after Xena
- Credit: AstroBalrog via Wikimedia Commons
In 2005, US astronomers discovered a dwarf planet – the second largest in our solar system after Pluto. This astral body was formally named Eris in 2006, but it had an informal nickname beforehand. That’s right, the team of astronomers who found the dwarf planet nicknamed their discovery Xena after the TV legend.
Astronomer Mike Brown explained the nickname was a play on ‘Planet X,’ a term often applied to mysterious worlds in sci-fi fantasy. While Xena would not ultimately become the dwarf planet’s official name, the astronomers paid homage to the show in another way. Eris’s moon was officially named Dysnomia, after the Greek goddess of lawlessness – an homage to Lucy Lawless, the actress who played Xena.
19. Xena was originally meant to be killed off in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
It may be hard to imagine now, but the character of Xena was not conceived to be a long-lasting heroine. The character was originally introduced in early episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys as a villain. This initial version of Xena was meant to be a tragic figure who would die at the end of her three-episode arc.
It wasn’t until filming began that the producers realised how captivating Lucy Lawless’ take on the character was and decided to save her. In fact, Xena’s episodes enjoyed such high ratings that the team who created her managed to persuade the network to approve a new Xena spin-off series. Xena: Warrior Princess premiered on 4th September 1995, barely eight months after Hercules: The Legendary Journeys began.
18. Xena was inspired by Taiwanese action star Brigitte Lin
The series Xena: Warrior Princess was created by American writer and producer Rob Tapert. The inspiration behind the character herself (originally introduced as a villain on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) came from the Far East. Tapert is a big fan of Taiwanese and Hong Kong martial arts movies, and hoped to introduce their style to American audiences.
One of Tapert’s favourite Eastern action stars is Brigitte Lin, best known for The Bride with White Hair. Directed by Ronny Yu (who later helmed Hollywood horror movies Bride of Chucky and Freddy Vs Jason), the 1993 film casts Lin as a vengeful magical warrior. The Bride with White Hair became the model for Xena, who is similarly torn between her desires for revenge and peace.
17. Quentin Tarantino is such a fan of the series he cast Xena’s stunt double Zoe Bell in his movies
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has poured praise on Xena, describing it as “a really cool show. Xena is the show I always wished Charlie’s Angels was, Wonder Woman was,” he has said. The Oscar-winner says “the whole lineage of the story, the backstory of Xena’s character is quite magnificent.” Tarantino’s films have a special connection to the cult TV series: stunt performer turned actor Zoe Bell.
Bell broke through as a stunt performer doubling for Lucy Lawless on the show, and Tarantino later hired her to double for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Vols 1 and 2. The filmmaker was so taken with Bell, he lured her to move into acting, casting her as herself in 2007’s Death Proof. Bell has enjoyed a successful acting career since, while continuing her stunt work.
16. Lucy Lawless says Xena and sidekick Gabrielle were in love
Lucy Lawless was joined in Xena: Warrior Princess by Renee O’Connor as Gabrielle, Xena’s more peaceful companion. The TV series never openly portrays Xena and her close companion Gabrielle as a couple, although many viewers and critics picked up on the implication. Speculation about Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship was confirmed by Lucy Lawless, who has said the characters are clearly in love.
In an interview with Lesbian News in 2003, she said, “It wasn’t just that Xena was bisexual and kinda liked her gal pal and they kind of fooled around sometimes, it was ‘Nope, they’re married, man.'” Speaking to PeopleTV in 2019, Lawless noted that the crew deliberately designed Xena as a lesbian icon. “I think it was intended by the writers and producers, they knew what they were doing,” she said.
15. Ares was originally intended to be Xena’s father
Today, Xena: Warrior Princess is probably best remembered for its implied same-sex love story, so it’s easy to forget the characters occasionally had romances with men. In an early episode, Xena had love scenes with male warrior Marcus – which the producers considered bold at the time, as the character was portrayed by African-American actor Bobby Hosea. Later, Xena met the god of war Ares (NZ actor Kevin Smith, not to be confused with the US filmmaker of the same name), a recurring character with whom she had distinct chemistry.
However, had the producers stuck to the original plan, the Ares storyline would have been considerably more shocking. As scripted, 1997 episode The Furies was originally intended to reveal that Ares was in fact Xena’s father. Given the sexual overtones of their relationship, the producers realised making them father and daughter would be going a bit too far.
14. Writers planned (but never made) a disco musical episode that would have made Xena and Gabrielle’s romance official
Xena: Warrior Princess had more than its share of outlandish episodes, but one of the strangest of them all never got made. In the show’s sixth and final season, an episode was written entitled Last Chance, also referred to as The Sappho Episode. This truly bizarre-sounding episode would have been a disco musical, with guest characters including the goddess of love Aphrodite, and Sappho, the romantic poet from the island of Lesbos (from whom the terms ‘sapphic’ and ‘lesbian’ are derived).
Given Sappho’s presence, it’s fitting that Last Chance would have finally confirmed Xena and Gabrielle were in love; with script ended with a scene in which they “kiss with deep and sincere passion.” Officially the episode never got made for budgetary reasons, as buying the rights to all the disco songs was deemed too expensive – but it seems likely the love scenes were also a problem with the financiers.
13. Lucy Lawless and Ted Raimi each played six different characters over the course of the series
Ted Raimi is best known for his roles in the Evil Dead franchise and the Spider-Man trilogy. The actor (brother of filmmaker and series producer Sam Raimi) also features widely in Xena: Warrior Princess. While Raimi’s main character on the show is recurring comic relief Joxer, this wasn’t his only role on the show. At different times, he also portrayed the characters Jace, Jett, Joxer 2, Jack Kleinman and Harry O’Casey.
Raimi wasn’t the only Xena: Warrior Princess actor to play multiple roles across the show’s six seasons. Lucy Lawless herself also played plenty of roles including Princess Diana, Meg, Leah, Annie Day and Melinda Pappas. What’s more, in the original series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Lawless stars as Lysia and Lyla, bringing her total roles in the extended franchise up to eight.
12. Lucy Lawless regrets how the series ended
SPOILERS AHEAD: when Xena: Warrior Princess ended, many fans who would have preferred to see Xena and Gabrielle ride off into the sunset together, but this wasn’t what the producers had in mind. 2001 series finale A Friend in Need, Part 2 sees our heroine die by beheading, leaving Gabrielle to fight on alone. It’s a downbeat conclusion which Lawless feels remorse about.
The actress reflects, “The time was right [to end the series], but I do regret that we cut Xena’s head off. It meant [Xena and Gabrielle] were never going to live happily ever after… it took away everything that we set up. At the time we thought it was a really strong storyline, but it really pained our audience. I think it was a terrible thing to do to them, actually.”
11. Xena’s costume is now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History
It might not be the most historically accurate show, but Xena: Warrior Princess has doubtless encouraged audience interest in mythology and ancient history. Even so, you probably wouldn’t expect items from the show to be given pride of place in bona fide museums. However, this is just what happened to the title character’s iconic costume after the series ended in 2001.
Lucy Lawless decided to donate her costume to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. This included the full skirt and body armour she wore as Xena, complete with her sword and chakram. The costume is made from a mixture of plastic, foam, mother of pearl and brass.
10. The writers created a body-swap episode after Lucy Lawless fractured her pelvis during shooting
Disaster struck in 1996 when Lucy Lawless suffered a serious injury – ironically not whilst filming Xena: Warrior Princess. Lawless had a horse-riding accident while filming a skit on The Tonight Show, and she was left unable to walk due to a fractured pelvis. While she was recovering, the Xena writers scrambled to make certain season two episodes work around Lawless’s injury.
They came up with a storyline which sees Xena swaps bodies with recurring antagonist Callisto. This meant they could continue shooting with Callisto actress Hudson Leick temporarily playing the title role. The writers also came up with several episodes that focused on background characters, giving their lead star time to recover.
9. Xena was almost played by Kingpin actress Vanessa Angel
It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Lucy Lawless playing Xena, but Lawless was actually the sixth actress offered the part when the character first appeared on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Initially, the producers gave the role to Vanessa Angel, the British actress who was best known at the time for TV’s Weird Science (based on the movie of the same name), and was later better known for her role in 1996 comedy Kingpin. Unfortunately for Angel, she had to drop out of playing Xena at the last minute, due to illness.
After a further four actresses said no the Hercules: the Legendary Journeys producers offered the role to Lawless, who had impressed them in her earlier appearances on the show in other roles. Similarly, Renee O’Connor was not the first choice to play Gabrielle; the Texan actress only got the role when another US-based actress was offered the part but didn’t want to relocate to New Zealand.
8. Lawless based Xena’s look on tennis player Gabriela Sabatini
Xena is celebrated as one of TV’s most powerful women – but it might come as a surprise which real-life powerful woman Lucy Lawless was most inspired by in building the character. Lawless decided to base Xena’s look – in particular her signature dark hair – on tennis player Gabriela Sabatini. Argentine tennis ace Sabatini made a huge impact in the sport from the late 80s to mid-90s, winning 41 titles.
Lawless has naturally light brown hair, and the plan originally had been for Xena to be a full-on platinum blonde – but the actress had other ideas. Lawless explained in 2015, “Gabriela Sabatini was the big noise in tennis. I was like, ‘What about being like her? She’s big and bronze and dark-haired.’” Lawless was pleased the showrunners agreed, because “my hair would have fallen out if we tried to keep it blonde.”
7. Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo resented the spin-off show’s success
Often, TV spin-offs enjoy similar success to the shows from which they originated: take Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, or the numerous CSI shows. In the case of Xena: Warrior Princess, however, the spin-off was so successful it completely eclipsed its origin series Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. This may have delighted the showrunners, but one person who wasn’t pleased about it was Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo.
In an interview with SFX, Sorbo complained, “Xena took all my directors, they took half my writing staff… I just think of it as like, why are you stabbing us in the back? We’re the show that started it!” Sorbo also objected to the show’s tone and content of Xena: Warrior Princess, complaining it was “heavily into lesbianism” and “far more violent than Hercules was.”
6. One episode starring Selma Blair was actually a rejected pilot for another spin-off show
American actress Selma Blair (Hellboy, Cruel Intentions) made a one-off appearance in Xena: Warrior Princess season five. The 2000 episode, entitled Lifeblood, features Xena being shown a vision of how her race, the Amazons, will fare in the distant future. But this vision, in which Blair appears as a 20th-century teen magically transported to the times of legend, was not originally intended to be part of Xena: Warrior Princess.
In fact, this footage had been shot three years earlier as a pilot episode for another proposed series in the Hercules/Xena universe, entitled Amazon High (also featuring Farscape actress Claudia Black and Lord of the Rings star Karl Urban). As the pilot did not get picked up for a series, the producers decided to repurpose the footage rather than let it go to waste.
5. A reboot was planned, but it fell apart over creative differences
In 2015, plans for a Xena reboot were announced at TV network NBC, with writer-producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Charmed, Lost) as showrunner. In a statement, Grillo-Marxuach said he was committed to “fully exploring a relationship that could only be shown subtextually in first-run syndication in the 1990s” – which clearly suggested this new series would directly portray Xena and Gabrielle as a couple.
However, the Xena: Warrior Princess reboot ran into big difficulties behind the scenes, leading Grillo-Marxuach to quit over creative differences. The reboot’s cancellation was finally made official in 2017, when NBC president Jennifer Salke declared the project “dead.” However, Salke also said they were open to revisiting the material.
4. There are multiple connections between Xena and the Evil Dead series
Xena: Warrior Princess was produced by Renaissance Pictures, the film company founded by Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi (who went on to direct the original Spider-Man movies). Raimi and Tapert broke into the entertainment industry in a big way with the notorious but acclaimed 1980 horror movie The Evil Dead. Many figures from the Evil Dead series who went on to work on Xena, including actor Bruce Campbell, who appears on Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys as the dastardly Autolycus.
In addition, Joxer actor Ted Raimi and composer Joseph LoDuca previously worked on the Evil Dead movies. Later, the three men would reunite on TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead – in which Lucy Lawless also had a leading role. And just to make it that bit more of a family affair, Lawless and Xena creator Rob Tapert have been married since 1998.
3. The show frequently got in trouble with networks and sponsors over its more controversial content
Considering how graphic fantasy TV shows have become (Game of Thrones, The Witcher etc.), it’s easy to forget that small-screen entertainment used to be a whole lot less permissive. For the time, the violence and themes of Xena: Warrior Princess were often quite shocking, particularly as the show was broadcast in the early evening. Some scenes which pushed the envelope too far were re-edited at the eleventh hour on orders of network executives.
A minute was cut from 1996 episode Is There a Doctor in the House? including footage of a leg amputation and a Caesarian section birth. The appearance of religious deities was also a problem: Hindu groups complained about the portrayal of Krishna and Kali in 1999 episode The Way. Then, of course, the implied nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship also made some executives and advertisers unhappy.
2. Xena’s birthplace was a real ancient Greek city
Like its forebear Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess draws on Greek mythology in a loose manner. Aspects of the series are rooted in mythology and history, but plenty more are purely the invention of the show. For instance, Xena herself is not based on any mythical or historical figure, but one aspect of her character has basis in reality.
It’s stated that the warrior princess was born in Amphipolis – which was a real ancient city. Founded in 437 BC, Amphipolis was first ruled by Athens, then Sparta, and it later became part of the Roman and Byzantine empires. It was ultimately abandoned, although the modern Greek city of Serres stands where Amphipolis once was.
1. A Bulgarian choir sang the title sequence tune
The theme music of Xena: Warrior Princess was composed by Joseph LoDuca, who has provided the score for many Sam Raimi productions dating back to the original Evil Dead movies. LoDuca’s Xena theme is based on a traditional Bulgarian folk song called The Flute Plays, and it includes an interesting flourish. Towards the end of the title sequence, you can hear the voices of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir.
The choir are singing lyrics in Bulgarian which describe the character of Xena herself. The lyrics translate to English as, “The Warrior Princess rides alone… Horns sound her coming, blare her name. ‘Make way for the Warrior! Cheer!’ Drums beat a rhythm. Let villains beware, the Warrior Princess is here.”