This Miss America Reigns Forever
When I finally catch up with Highlander the Raven star Elizabeth Gracen, she's on a mobile phone traveling through Paris. She sounds relaxed and down-to-earth, although (or perhaps because) her dog Mack the Knife is attacking her. "It's the end of the day, and he just wants to play," she explains. She laughs more readily than does Amanda, her character, becoming very animated when she discusses her work on Highlander and her plans as a director. Gracen is a little bit tired, having just finished filming a swordfight on a stairwell in a beautiful chateau, but she's in a good mood because her schedule is actually light at the moment. "This week has been a lot easier than the past couple of weeks - the last episode was a killer, I did three swordfights and a two-day flashback. It was pretty exhausting."
Ironically, Gracen had no fencing training at all before being cast as Amanda. Having entered the world of beauty pageants in the hopes of winning a scholarship to pay for law school, the Arkansas native won the nation's most coveted title after only a couple of years of competing, and decided relatively late to become an actress rather than a lawyer. She faked the theatrical fencing for several years. As she recalls, "I'd never picked up a sword; the first episode I did of Highlander, I cheated, I sort of hopped in at the end and took someone's head. In the years after that, I did a couple of swordfights but I didn't know what I was doing, and then the fourth year I took a couple of classes."
Before starting the spinoff series, which centers around her popular character and a new mortal sidekick, Gracen put in a lot of hours training in martial arts. She never needed to learn swordfighting before because she was never certain that she would be back: "Amanda was just one of those characters who came on and the fans really liked her, so they started bringing her back." Her initial connection to the show was through a producer with whom Gracen had worked on The Death of the Incredible Hulk, who called her agent to ask whether Gracen would be interested in going to Paris. "To play an Immortal who's 1200 years old, a thief, an acrobat? I said, of course!" the actress laughs. At the end of the year, her episode was one of the most popular with fans, so then the next season she was brought back for a couple more episodes, and a few more each season after that.
When she was asked to sign on as the main character for Highlander the Raven when the original Highlander series wrapped after six years, "initially the attraction was coming to Paris," says Gracen. But she was also drawn to Amanda herself, whom the actress describes as "very feminine but tough, learning lessons as she goes along." Noting that "it's an actor's dream to dress up in costumes and do accents and swordfights and wear different wigs - just transform yourself constantly over time, and 1200 years is a long time - it's a lot of fun," Gracen adds that she is pleased with how the writers have developed and matured Amanda from Highlander to The Raven. "They gave her the wisdom she would naturally have as a 1200-year-old woman, streetwise as well as life lessons. She gets all the good lines. She's had such a life."
Though Gracen "can't even think about what it would be like to be Immortal, it's beyond my comprehension on what it means to be that old and to have seen that much happen," she does not find Amanda difficult to play. "She's definitely human. In every episode I have to deal with the fact that so many people come and go in her life - it's a transient existence." The prospect of Immortality doesn't particularly appeal to her personally. "I figure it looks better on paper than it would actually be. Every week someone's dying; either I'm taking their head or someone close to me is suffering. I think it would be very difficult to have to deal with so much loss all the time. It makes the character a bit more melancholy, which I think is interesting."
While she agrees that Adrian Paul's MacLeod was much darker than Amanda, Gracen thinks this can be attributed to the fact that she's lived so much longer than he has. "She can be very trivial on the surface; I think that's her defense against everything. She does get more frivolous at times. I think that if she was ever going to be with anyone permanently - or as long as permanently can be in that lifestyle - it would have been MacLeod. She was always trying to get him to settle down with her for eighty years or so! But she's been in love with people in the past and you sort of see that in the flashbacks, and I have a feeling that as sort of a modern woman with all that experience and loss in her life, she's really not going to get attached."
Of course, this rasies the question of how devoted we can expect Amanda to become to Nick, her mortal sidekick on The Raven. In a recent Mania interview, co-star Paul Johansson described Nick's feelings for Amanda as "one of those kinds of loves that you think maybe your life would be better without, but then it would be empty." Gracen concurs, but is adamant that while Amanda might find herself attracted to or infatuated with a mortal, she thinks it would be too painful for her to fall in love with someone whom she knows she will have to lose.
"What's great with the series is that they've allowed our characters to develop a real bond that I think is much more realistic - they're not jumping into bed together," she observes. "There's sort of a chemistry that's sometimes oppositional and sometimes it's a teamwork thing. They've become very good friends, they're earning each other's respect, and I think it's a nice relationship, much more intriguing."
Gracen's favorite scenes tend to be flashbacks, which she believes "give the magic to the show. I think it's more interesting for me personally, and I suppose it's much more romantic as well, which is probably what I'm attracted to. The lessons are the same all through life, but there's something about seeing it in the past, a bit heightened. The show is very romantic, and the men who have been involved with it have a lot of charisma."
She is also partial to the spectacular locations; "some of them are just amazing as you walk the grounds or walk through the halls of the beautiful Napoleonic capital, there's nothing like it." Though she isn't sure she has a favorite episode yet, the recently completed "Inferno," which Gracen has not yet seen, was enjoyable for her because she went head to head with a female Immortal played by a Scottish actress "and we just had a blast working together."
Gracen consults the "Timetables of History" books for assistance with historical research. "Those great books tell what happened all across the world at different years, which sort of helps me place what's going on and maybe what the character would have been feeling at that time, what she would have experienced from each flashback." Because she is a painter, Gracen does know quite a bit about art, and has been taking correspondence courses over the past three years for an art history degree. "I'm an art history buff, but unfortunately in school I was not that interested in history. Obviously, being in Europe - in Paris and in Italy - it's perfect, I'm fascinated with it."
The actress adds that she feels "very much at home" in Europe and expects to live there even after this series concludes; she and her boyfriend "are looking for a winery in Italy." After a difficult few years in which her private life was splashed all over the tabloids because of her onetime connection to President Clinton, she moved out of Hollywood "determined to put a wider-angle lens on my life and experience it in a bigger fashion. I don't have a lot of intense acting ambition anymore; not that I won't do other projects and not that I don't have my eye on a couple of things." She recently finished directing her first movie, a 30-minute documentary which was just purchased by the Independent Film Channel called The Damn Deal. The film consists of three intimate black and white interviews with three female impersonators in Arkansas who compete in beauty pageants.
"It's a fairly simple film - you see them morphing from male to female with me asking all sorts of questions, although I'm not really present in the film at all. They're around the same age as I was when I was competing in beauty pageants, so I had a lot of questions just about competition and why people put themselves through that whole wringer, the beauty pageant world. It's a really nice little film just because they're incredibly honest regarding dressing up female and growing up gay in Arkansas, things like that. It's a special film to me because these guys are just so interesting, so kind."
Though becoming a beauty queen made Gracen famous and gave her the experience of performing daily, she notes emphatically that "it's not something I would ever recommend to a young woman to do. I think beauty pageants have a negative influence on women in general, putting women in competition. I thought I had to set the mold, but you have your handlers who sort of mold you further into it, and all of a sudden you're an image, not a person. It took years of being away from it, and therapy...now I know I don't have to be perfect."
Making the documentary was therapeutic as well. "The first time I sat backstage with one of the guys, I saw it was very different, though certain aspects are very similar to what I went through. It's more of an acting performance, it's a creation. They don't identify in the same way; they are just much more out-and-out bitchy about the whole thing, which is great! It's different than women competing." Having completed this one, Gracen would like to do more documentary film work. "I thoroughly enjoyed the process from the actual directing and conceiving the project to the editing," she says. "I really liked it and I'd like to do more educational things like that."
She also plans to attend more Highlander conventions so that she can keep up with the fans. "They're very loyal and very sweet, amazing women - they've always been very supportive of me and of Amanda. I'm probably more cheeky than I usually am as a person when I get up there, I probably hype myself up a bit into an Amanda frame of mind." Still, the experience can be uncanny for her. "It's strange when I sit there and start signing autographs - I immediately have a sense memory of being Miss America, and having to go through that every day."
In addition to directing, Gracen is producing a few projects and sees herself in a few years "definitely with children, just trying to make my life really full. I've worked hard - I've had a rough couple of years with personal things - and I just want to be a better person, trying to contribute back into society. It's not necessarily a career thing, it's just a life thing."
Highlander, she concludes, has taught her about her own strength. "I've always been a survivor, very similar to Amanda, but I feel stronger - I'm owning my power as I go along," she says. "From pageant training, you want everyone to love you. But I'm learning to stick up for myself. I think doing the martial arts training, I can feel myself becoming stronger. And when I identify with Amanda's strength, I feel like a stronger person as well. It's kind of nice being so powerful on camera, it's good, and I think more women should listen to that voice in them - finding your own voice and finding your own power. It's a very positive thing, and I hope that Amanda does that for the women who watch."