Xena and Hercules once held sway in these lands. Now a new locally-made fantasy series is upon us. Joanna Hunkin talks to the stars and creator of Legend of the Seeker

The phone clicks as Legend of the Seeker star Craig Horner comes on the line, connected via his Los Angeles publicist.

He's actually just up the road in Herne Bay but there are procedures to be followed; such is the nature of a big budget American production.

Even if they do mean paying international rates for a local phone call.

Horner - a strapping, bronzed 25-year-old from Brisbane - is the first to see the humour in the situation. After all, he's an Aussie, playing an American (he plays the title character, the Seeker) in the fictitious realm of the Midlands, filmed in West Auckland.

"I'm losing my Australian accent," he laughs. "I play an American, I'm surrounded by Kiwis. I don't know what's going on. I'm all over the place."

Fortunately, his leading lady Bridget Regan, who plays Kahlan, is a San Diego native and more than adept at keeping his intonation in check, as he stars opposite fellow Aussie Bruce Spence and a host of Kiwi actors, including Craig Parker, Jay Laga'aia and David de Lautour.

They play an assortment of wizards, woodsmen and confessors (mysterious women with magical powers - but not witches) in a classic fantasy tale of good against evil.

Created by the producers of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, the story is based on the The Sword of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind and has already earned a loyal following in America, where it began screening last November.

So it doesn't hurt to have a few muddled accents in the mix, according to Regan.

"I think it's kind of cool that they're a bit grey and a bit vague. It adds a little bit of 'Where is this? Where is this world?'," she explains. "If we all sounded like we were from California, it would be pretty distracting."

To New Zealand ears, however, most of the characters do sound American.

Which is of slight concern to the cast, who were warned Kiwi audiences don't take well to local actors putting on a West Coast drawl.

"It will be interesting to see once the show's on," says Regan. "Rob Tapert says Kiwis don't like it when they put on American accents. So maybe they won't like the show," she laughs.

Tapert would know. Credited with creating both Xena and Hercules with producing partner Sam Raimi (director of the Spider-Man movies), he is the ultimate authority on sword-swinging fantasy.

A call to Tapert finds him navigating the traffic to Sylvia Park where his next ancient world series, Spartacus, is about to roll.

Legend of the Seeker represents a double return - to the world of fantasy television and a big New Zealand-based production.

Only Seeker isn't another Herc or Xena and it doesn't star Mrs Tapert, Lucy Lawless. The tone is more earnest and the special effects are many generations on. This is a post-Lord of the Rings/Narnia television series.

"We really tried to differentiate, yet play to some of the strengths that Herc and Xena once did," he says. "[On those shows] we knew the special effects were going to be lacking and a little bit cheesy because we didn't have the money or the technology.

" Now we can get motion picture quality effects for television prices.

"So that actually has helped us in terms of being able to attempt things and take them in the fantasy world without getting a cheesy aura attached to it."

As the series heads to New Zealand's airwaves this Sunday (8.35pm, Prime) it has also been picked up by more than 60 international markets.

Though it's a much different world in which to make and sell a show than it was in the Herc/Xena days.

"You can't even really compare," says Tapert."

There are so many more outlets for people to view things. The show does incredibly well on these online carriers which are very tough to monetarise - iTunes and all that, there is very little money there. So the ratings are still determined by how many people watch it when it's on the air.

"It's really hard to compare those things so it's harder to get shows off the ground especially in this economic environment.

"If we were trying to do this this year it would never have got made."

So far as the local screen industry is concerned it's meant a 40-plus week shoot making 22 one-hour episodes with more to come in the show's confirmed second season.

Tapert says of its 225-strong cast, about five came from Australia and two are Americans, while behind the camera, the show has been produced and frequently directed by local Mark Beesley, who Tapert credits with preventing Seeker taking the tongue-in-cheek approach, among other directors including former Hercules co-star Michael Hurst and Garth Maxwell.

Tapert isn't afraid of the inevitable comparisons to his previous shows - or to the LOTR trilogy.

"It's so different ultimately that I am not worried about the comparison. It's a TV show, it's: will they tune in on a weekly basis and find it entertaining?"

Though he has qualms about how the show might play here.

"I actually think - and this is a bit jaded - it will be judged slightly harder. It's just a phenomenon of how these things work.

"People recognise local actors and so on. But I am hoping I am wrong."

Horner says he respects the Hercules and Xena foundations of Seeker.

"They basically showed what you can do with a smaller budget - go to another country and stretch a dollar. It worked for the time I think. It needed a camp kind of fantasy show when everything was really serious.

"But now if they tried that kind of stuff, I just don't think it would work."

Regan agrees, saying the fantasy setting and magical elements are enough on their own, without trying to add comedy.

"To make people buy into the impossible elements of the show, the human behaviour has to be even more real," she explains.

But ultimately, the stars both say, the series is about love.

"I would pitch it as Romeo and Juliet meets Lord of the Rings," says Horner.

"You've got all the cinematic qualities, but you've got two central characters that you can fall in love with and see them progress."

Regan also praises the production values but says the series is really a love story.

"That's what attracted me to the story, the connection between these two characters. That's my favourite thing about the job, that they're not alone on this journey.

"They're not superheroes. They do have powers but they're flawed and they're interesting characters."

Horner had ulterior motives for accepting the part - he just wanted to play with swords. In fact, the actor has been known to jump in for reverse shots, where stunt doubles would normally takeover.

"I really, really enjoy the fight scenes. It's like a childhood obsessions. The kid in me can't believe I get to do swordfighting every day."

Wielding the heavy swords takes quite some skill but Horner soon picked the art up thanks to his expert stunt coach, Allan Poppleton.

"He really knew the best way to teach - at a dinosaur's pace. It was really paint-by-numbers.

"He would break down a fight - any kind of fight - into eight simple strokes. If you know those eight strokes, you can just put them in different combinations.

"All you have to do is remember a few strokes and suddenly you've just killed 20 guys."

Who: Craig Horner plays Richard Cypher - the Seeker - opposite Bridget Regan's Kahlan in Legend of the Seeker
When: Movie length premieres Sunday, 8.35pm on Prime; Screens Monday from 7.30pm