Whoosh! Issue 40 - January 2000

Exclusive to Whoosh!
By Bret Ryan Rudnick
Copyright © 2000 held by author
2216 words

Author's Note: Most XENA fans in the USA will recognise Willa O'Neill as Lila, Gabrielle's sister. But this is only one role and but one facet of the multi-talented gem that is Willa O'Neill. She has appeared also on HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS as Phoebe, and as Althea in ...AND FANCY FREE and GREECE IS BURNING. New Zealand fans of SHORTLAND STREET will recognise her as Serena. Her film credits include the highly acclaimed TOPLESS WOMEN TALK ABOUT THEIR LIVES (as Prue) and her most recently released project SCARFIES, in which she plays the lead character Emma. Both of these films could be classified as dark comedies, but they are both very unique and really defy such classification. Ms. O'Neill is a very busy and intense actress, engaging and thoughtful, and she was gracious enough to sit down with me at an Auckland cafe to answer some questions. USA fans will have a rare opportunity to see her in person at Creation Entertainment's huge HERC/XENA bash in Pasadena on 21-23 January, 2000 (see Creation Entertainment website for details).

An Interview With Willa O'Neill

Incorrectly fingered as the perp in a lineup, Lila decides to
embark on a life of making Gabrielle feel guilty.

Willa O'Neill (centre) debuted on XENA as Lila, Gabrielle's sister.

[01] Tell me about how you first began your acting career.

[02] I've been talking about that recently, actually. I came home from school one day and turned on the TV and said "Ah, that's someone's job." You put on a tape or you listen to the radio. It was a wonder to me that this was someone's life, they did this for several hours a day and came home again. I thought well, there was always room for entertainment, I'll be an entertainer. I remember thinking and saying those things, I must have been about eleven. My mum said "Yes, those things do actually happen." I had already been performing on stage since I was about eight. I had a good singing voice as a child. We did a lot of musicals and my teachers put me in roles that would emphasise singing. After I made a conscious decision to be an actor I didn't get any roles. I went to school, didn't get into productions.

[02a] I moved up to Auckland to go to high school and started to work in community theatres. I'd do ALADDIN or BUGSEY MALONE, always a musical back then. When I attended third or fourth form, some friends and I got hold of a video camera and we'd make our own short films. By the end of fifth form we made a full-on Western. It was an hour and ten minutes long. We did a horror film as well. They weren't the most interesting programmes to watch, but it was something *we* did and it was fun. All of us have gone on to do whatever it was we decided to do. We don't really see each other much anymore, but we do appreciate those three years we had with our own creative talents.

[02b] Then I was in a play and got an agent. That was an interesting year -- all year she kept asking me for more photographs, and I kept asking "When are you going to get me an audition?" I did several auditions but none of them came from her. I got very close each time, but I was a short, fat body type and that wasn't what people wanted to see on TV. I had to learn that "no" is generally the answer that you get when you go for a job. Don't count your chickens and you won't be disappointed. I relaxed and I was in another production. Someone said "Oh, there's a new guy in town, he's fantastic and decided to open an agency, he's looking for people." I went to see him, and he was wild, enthusiastic, and we hit it off. I've been with his agency ever since, ten years later. I've been really lucky. I was one of the first 20 people on his books. We've got a great working relationship and we're friends underneath. I can go to him with all my insecurities and madness and problems and he listens and doesn't judge me for being an insecure actor or whatever. I hear a lot of agents scare their clients into taking parts, but not mine. Graham's fantastic.

[02c] When I was a teenager I got a bit insecure because I was small and round and a bit different from everyone else. I decided that being famous would be the thing to pick me up. I hit a lot of brick walls in that ego-based drive, but I've come out of that in the past year or so. I'm stronger now, and forgetting the whole star thing, remembered what I want to get across to people which is just to get out there, tell the story, and entertain people. I feel comfortable in my own skin now. I think that's a big trap for actors, the whole fame thing and the "vehicle to succeed" thing.

I feel pretty, Oh so -- hey!  No need to push!

Lila was also seen in THE BITTER SUITE.

[03] In my admittedly little experience in observing actors and the craft in New Zealand, I've noticed that actors here, even though they are quite well known for what they do, are not put on a pedestal nearly to the degree as they are, say, in America.

[04] That doesn't really happen with actors here. It does with our sports community. I'm actually fighting at the moment the battle of "New Zealand Quota". I think we need more local content on our television. We have the lowest in the English speaking world, which is ridiculous. We have 20 minutes of sports news, why don't we have the same for art? Why? It's not thought of as a commodity. We have an artistic community and it's dammed good -- writing, cinematography, acting, painting, fine art. I'd like for us to acknowledge that within ourselves.

[05] It's sad that even abroad, especially Stateside, we don't get wide exposure to some of New Zealand's finest artistic products. For example, TOPLESS WOMEN TALK ABOUT THEIR LIVES is a really good film. If I sit people down in front of the video most agree. But it's not widely released in the States because it's thought of as an "art" film and that's too bad because the people are denied an opportunity to see a really great product.

[06] It is an interesting film. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback about that. Only one person has come up to say "Oh, what a tragedy!" To me it is a tragedy. It's about a bunch of people who have lost all hope. I heard it didn't get picked up in America for two reasons, one is the sad ending, and two that there was a mixed [racial] marriage.

Oh, yeah, Lila, and another thing -- you're adopted

Again as Lila in A FAMILY AFFAIR.

[07] As far as Pacific Renaissance projects go you first started on XENA?

[08] Yes, as Lila, Gabrielle's sister. Someone early on suggested I go for the part of Gabrielle, but they already had Renee [O'Connor] and she's great. So I did Lila. I can do young. I'm 26 and can pass for 18. I hadn't had any luck until Lila because of the whole "barbie" syndrome on HERCULES. I wasn't what they had been looking for. But I ran a theatre business in Auckland next to the Watershed called The Basement and at the time the Xena workshop was right next door so we'd chat with the people there. Pacific Renaissance used to film down there as well. That's where I heard about and finally got the part. At the beginning we had these sisterly, touching moments. But the last episode I did [TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE] I just did reaction things in the background. For that episode I just had to be sweet and charming and in love with Joxer. [both laugh] Ted [Raimi] was really great. When I first met him we got to talking about someone I really admire, Jim Henson. I grew up with the Muppets and really like them. I wish they had just let Kermit die too, because some things just can't be re-voiced, not to a purist like myself, anyway. Ted said that he'd met Jim Henson and I really admired him for that. It wasn't too hard to pretend to be in love with Joxer after that. [both laugh]

An ancient Greek Klingon prothesis

As fashion designer Althea in GREECE IS BURNING, a HERC episode.

[08a] Because of what I'd done in XENA, Rob Tapert said "We've got a part coming up, young Argonaut girl, you'll play it." "Will I?" I said. "OK, thanks!" So I got to be Phoebe, this Amazon girl with knives and boots and that was cool. Awhile later I got to repeat both characters on both shows. Very cool. Then I didn't do much for awhile out there apart from hang around. In 1997 I auditioned for the part of Althea, the dancing girl. I had a good feeling about that and I got the part.

[09] Did you have any experience with ballroom dancing prior to that part?

[10] No. I'd done ballet when I was twenty. When I was a kid I wanted to do ballet but was told I was too fat. So I started to learn when I was twenty. My teacher taught me as though I were five. It was wonderful. She told me to look on the inside and I freed up and it was fantastic. When I did get the part though, I got a call from someone saying that the producers were worried I was too fat. They hired a nutritionist for me and gave me a gym membership. I said to myself "They expect me to lost weight in two weeks." I went to the gym once, walked in and walked out. I much prefer a walk. I also got a craving for spring rolls. I didn't give two hoots about their problem with my weight and they weren't going to cast me and this and that. Then I get on set after not doing any of what they wanted me to do and people said "Willa, you look amazing! Wow! What a transformation!" I said to myself, "Oh, spring rolls are good for a girl!" [both laugh] I lost more weight during the shoot eating three meals a day more than anything else.

[11] Because you were so active.

[12] Exactly. Precisely. And they had me in this costume where the fabric rolled up and made me look bigger than any bit of belly would. It all worked out though. It was great to work with Michael Hurst and Kevin Sorbo. I went in with the attitude of being "one of the boys" rather than just "some girl" and that worked out really well. That's how they saw me.

Admonishing the competition to 'kiss my brass'

Althea and The Widow Twanky in ...AND FANCY FREE.

[13] You were quite good in that episode, AND FANCY FREE. I can see where you'd draw a lot on your past experiences for that role. You were very expressive and made it a fine episode.

[14] Thank you! I did enjoy doing it. Deep down I thought it was a one-off appearance and I wanted to give it my best shot. Althea was a village girl but she was also a dancer and that was interesting. We were all worried about the Widow Twanky and how the rest of the world would get that. But I think it's one of the better episodes. It's not all boysy-boysy, it's still got a feminine touch. It's still a full-on HERCULES episode too.

[14a] Then I did GREECE IS BURNING as that character too. I couldn't believe it when Althea came back. I was surprised to have her come back as a fashion designer. I just the day before coming up for that episode finished a six week shoot in Dunedin. I got into town at ten o'clock Tuesday night, at eight o'clock the next morning I was sitting in a makeup chair. I trust Michael Hurst with my life, and everyone on that set treats you very well. We did all our major dialogue for that episode the first three days of the shoot, and those were my most tired days.

Nominated for Janine Garafolo lookalike contest

As Emma in SCARFIES.

[15] Now the film you shot in Dunedin was SCARFIES?

[16] Yes. It's a colloquialism for Otago University students. It's very cold there, so they always wear scarfs and hats and coats. Lately I'm working on a new Harry Sinclair film. I think it will end up being quite an amusing and funny film. I feel very responsible lately. I'd like to get a car and get a license. I felt that if I had learned to drive when I was a teenager I'd probably not be alive today. But I feel responsible to do that now. I'd like the responsibiliy of holding a show together, maybe not a Xena, but like a Gabrielle. A sidekick role would be cool. Something where I had the continuity of a character that lasted awile. Ted said I was their version of Drew Barrymore. I said "Beg pardon?" "Hippie chick," he said. Well, I suppose that's fair. I look at the stars and we're from the earth and all that. I get vibrations a lot and I understand my instincts. And my instincts tell me there will be something for me to sink it all into.

[17] Well thank you very much for your time.

[18] Thank *you*. It's been a pleasure to talk and share.


Bret Rudnick Bret Rudnick
Whoosh! Staff
IAXS Executive Committee
"You can never have too much money or too many Amazons"
When he's not working for a big Science/Engineering company that (amongst other things) designs, builds, launches, and operates exploratory spacecraft, Bret writes fantasy novels and short stories. Bret is a man of many skills, having also previously been an Olympic-qualified archer, a drummer in the Butch Grinder Band, a news reader for Public Television Station KVCR, and a Deputy Sheriff for the County of San Bernardino, California. He also collects Japanese swords, armor, and art. He and his dog hunt down stray Bacchae in New England.
Favorite episode: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110), WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (30/206), and THE QUEST (37/213)
Favorite line: Xena: "What's this?" Gabrielle: "I'm... an amazon princess?" Xena (rolls eyes): "Great." HOOVES AND HARLOTS, 10/110; Xena after being goosed by Joxer: "Are you suicidal?" WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP, 30/206; Joxer: "Ha. Ha." A COMEDY OF EROS (46/222); Autolycus: "I'm not just leering at scantily clad women, you know, I'm working!" THE QUEST (37/213)
First episode seen: CRADLE OF HOPE (04/104)
Least favorite episode: IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404)

Return to Top Return to Index