Meaty role to seduce the vegies

By NICK SMITH

Willa O'Neill smiles at the memory of thousands of adoring lesbians who all want a piece of her - well, at least a signature on a photograph of the New Zealand actress.

The 27-year-old is talking about the Xena convention she went to recently in the United States, a small price to pay for appearing in one of America's most beloved television series.

"I was getting paid to get told how wonderful I am and how everyone loves me," she says. "I'm having a good time. "There were thousands of lesbian women and a few men. The men were hugely emotional.

"I was put in a line-up and signed photographs. There must have been 3000 photographs."

Then there was the Xena cabaret, where she performed Guns n' Roses' Sweet Child of Mine: "They told me I put Axl Rose to shame."

She also took part in a question and answer session, talking about her other dramatic roles and her impressions of the United States.

O'Neill is grateful she did not have to field too many personal queries - fans were more interested in her opinion of the relationship between Xena and sidekick Gabrielle.

It is a bizarre taste of stardom American-style for the star of Scarfies, who has won almost all Kiwi acting awards on offer after 10 years in the business.

"After 10 years, it's nice to see an impact from acting," she says.

"Scarfies got a little bit of it, but nothing like that."

O'Neill is a busy woman. She has written two short films that are ready to produce, has a play to direct at Auckland's Silo theatre, and will fly to Cannes for the premiere of a Harry Sinclair film.

"I'm not going to play the starlet and stand around at parties," she says, laughing about screen legend Hedy Lamarr's quip that to look glamorous, women only had to stand still and look stupid.

"These days, if you look angry, people come up and say, 'Baby, you have the attitude I like.' It's so weird."

What is most occupying O'Neill's mind is Meatworks, the New Zealand-written and produced rock musical that opened at the Sky City Theatre last night.

Not since the rock opera version of Peter Jackson's zombie-horror film Brain Dead has such an improbable project reached a paying audience.

"It's a huge risk, it's a crazy idea, but it's a good story," O'Neill says. "We're taking a punt and putting it together, and we like to think that the public will take a punt and come along."

Penned by Joselyn Morton and Stephen Small, Meatworks centres on the closure of a small-town freezing works.

"I'm the bombshell receptionist, I get to play this sexy chick," O'Neill says. "It's working-class New Zealand with the socialist theme that we're all in it for each other.

"It's not about blood and guts, it's not about slaughtering lambs. It's about good, honest people who get on with their lives, fall in love, and have a good time. It's a nice story."

The workers revive the abattoir but "vegetarian activists come to town to try to shut down the meatworks and I'm sent off to seduce the vegies."

Then there is the former owner, a British magnate who ignites O'Neill's passion but discovers her with one of the vegetarians.

Directed by Roger Morton, of Berkoff Productions, and co-starring recording artist Jan Hellriegel, Meatworks will also feature different well-knowns each night.

O'Neill is particularly looking forward to Illona Rogers' spell as the bank manager.

When she started her career she was helped by acting tips from Rogers - tips she still uses. "She was my hero."

O'Neill first met Rogers on The Billy T James Show: "She came into this room ... Billy T. James is in one ear ... and then I notice her. I can't help it, but I follow her around the room with my eyes.

"In any other industry she would be revered, in a top position with good pay. Yet here she is, a top-of-the-line actress without a regular job."

O'Neill recognises that it is harder for older women to find decent roles. "Maybe I will diversify into singing now, then I can grow old gracefully."

Her musical heroes as a teenager were Debbie Harry and Annie Lennox.

O'Neill was able to indulge in some mature hero-worship when Moby played in Auckland. "I was like a teenage groupie," she says.

When equipment and paraphernalia were handed out to the audience at the end of the gig, O'Neill grabbed herself a piece of rock history: "Moby drumsticks. He played with these sticks on the congo drums. Oh, my God."

O'Neill fans can indulge in their own heroine worship at the Sky City theatre for the next fortnight - but she is not promising to dispense any personal items to the audience.

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