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Lucy Lawless goes a bit batty

Former ‘Xena’ star reprises a role fighting bioengineered ‘Vampire Bats’
/ Source: The Associated Press

For someone used to confronting vengeful gods, vampire bats must seem like chicken feed.

In the CBS movie “Vampire Bats,” Lucy Lawless — forever famous as the scantily clad, weapon-wielding superwoman in the syndicated action series “Xena: Warrior Princess” — plays Dr. Maddy Rierdon, “an everywoman,” as Lawless calls her.

Lawless, 37, first appeared as Rierdon in April, taking on a plague of bioengineered insects in “Locusts.” That movie’s appeal to a younger demographic (so vital now that the CBS Sunday night movie is up against the ABC hit “Desperate Housewives”) has spawned this sequel, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m Eastern. Dylan Neal reprises his role as Rierdon’s husband, and Timothy Bottoms and Brett Butler co-star.

Lawless has no pretensions about “Vampire Bats” having a serious message, although the two-hour tale does indicate industrial pollution mutated the bats into little monsters.

“It’s really fun and the people who make it are fun. They don’t take themselves too seriously,” says Lawless, explaining why she again signed on to play a character, who is — bats aside — closer to her own reality as a working mother of three.

She’s usually more interested in roles that provide escapism from her daily norm.

Producer Frank von Zerneck says Lawless was an apt pick to play “a smart, headstrong woman, very well-trained, with connections in Washington, who really takes charge.”

“Lucy’s got two feet on the ground; she’s very, very strong and yet has a wonderful soft side that she reveals here. She’s a dream to work with — and talk about tricky circumstances,” he adds, referring to Hurricane Katrina, which forced the production to move out of New Orleans.

Lawless spent hours in a car with “dramatic weather rolling over us,” en route to Baton Rouge, where she stayed with other crew members for a few days.

Luckily, no real bats had to travel with them because the creatures are computer-generated. “Live bats are very hard to wrangle,” quips the New Zealand-born actress.

But one oversized animatronic bat was created. “Its mouth opens. Its tongue comes out. Its eyes bulge. Its head moves side to side. All those delicious things,” von Zerneck says, laughing.

Even before “Xena” ended production in 2001 after six seasons, Lawless started displaying her versatility. In 1997 she appeared on Broadway as Rizzo in the musical “Grease.” Earlier this year in Seattle, she performed in a production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Those experiences reminded her that being a musical star was her dream back in Mount Albert, Auckland, where she grew up as Lucille Ryan — possibly a “throwback” to her great-grandmother, a vaudevillian.