What a Witch!
Claire Stansfield has played evil sorceress Alti on Xena: Warrior Princess for several seasons now, but you wouldn't recognize her if you passed her in a hotel lobby, as happened to several fans at the recent Toronto Trek 2000 convention. "I look so different from my character that nobody really comes up to me and goes, 'You're that ugly old hag on Xena!'" the actress laughs. "I've tried to make her flirtatiously, deliciously evil with my eyes, and I think that's what I do to seduce and flirt, I do that look. So there's some Claire there."
Stansfield appears to be several decades younger than Alti...and several inches taller, which shouldn't be so surprising since she has to hold her own with Lucy Lawless. Born in London and raised in Toronto, Stansfield was already six feet tall at age sixteen, when she began to model. She returned to Britain to attend the Central School of Drama, then followed her father to California, where her acting career took off.
"I rarely get recognized as Alti," she notes. "I did an episode of Frasier, and I was in a movie called Drop Zone, so a lot of people who are fanatical about skydiving or Frasier will come up to me out of the blue. Those are the two things I get recognized for."
Alti first appeared in flashback in "Adventures in the Sin Trade," as an ally of then-evil Xena, who wanted to destroy the Amazons. Alti cursed Xena's son Solon so that he would never know his mother's love. After she reformed, Xena wanted to free the souls of Amazons Alti had trapped in the Amazon equivalent of purgatory, so she battled Alti on the spiritual plane with the help of young Amazons made orphans by the sorceress. Xena won that struggle and killed Alti, but Alti rose from the dead in "Between the Lines" and again in "Them Bones, Them Bones."
"I've died like three times...I think the last time you saw me I was a skeleton, and then a pile of ash. But I could come out from the ash!" laughs Stansfield, who cackles like Alti when she's feeling devilish onstage. Having heard the rumors that this is probably Xena's last season, she is anxious for one more resurrection. "I'd like to come back. I'd like Alti to kick Callisto's ass. I'm working on that."
Hudson Leick, who plays Callisto, is due to appear at another convention in Toronto in the fall, and Stansfield joked that if she ran into the other woman in her home town, she'd get her chance. In reality, she is very close to many of the Xena cast members. Alexandra Tydings, who plays Aphrodite and who appeared onstage with Stansfield at Toronto Trek, is a friend with whom she is working on a film, while Ted Raimi "is a wonderful man."
"Ted does a lot of driving, he got a new car and he drives to all the conventions, to Detroit and Florida and Atlanta. Everywhere we go, there's Ted and he's got a car. He's very funny and very talented." Then she joked of Ted and his brother, film director and Xena producer Sam Raimi, "Ted's going to be a part of Spiderman with that guy, Sam something, who's trying to mooch off Ted's fame."
Stansfield had never watched Xena until I she was offered the part of Alti, and didn't know much about the series. "When I started watching, I was so impressed. It was shot so beautifully and they spent a lot of money on wonderful costumes. The production values, our costumes are real possum pelt and bone work, they have a whole factory, three or four rooms just for the wardrobe people, and they've gone on to do Lord of the Rings, so it's like the best of the best. Especially the episodes I was in, and not because I was in them -- I think Sin Trade I and II were almost like a feature film."
"I've become a huge fan of the show, and I think it does get better and better," she adds. "The first episode of this season with the angels and the wings is just phenomenal. I'm really proud to be a part of that."
Still, her first days on the set were rather intimidating. "The first fight scene, you don't really know what you're getting yourself into. It's pretty big, and Alti, in everything that she's done -- every situation where there's a fight -- there's a lot going on, there's fire, there's these huge fans blowing, there's horses, there's troops of guys. So from the first shot there was a lot of pressure."
A few minutes before she did her first scene, she got minimal coaching. "Some stunt guy comes up and hands you a stick, and you're supposed to pretend it's your sword. 'Six or seven guys are going to come at you, and then you're going to fight Xena. So you have to slash that guy, slash that guy, slash that guy, spin, duck, parry, and go running after Xena. OK?' I have some dance training, so I tried to remember it in beats. Slash, slash, slash, duck, spin, ow! Got it. Then the wind starts and the fire starts and the horses start and 'Action, Claire!'
Then the real fun begins. "These stuntmen are really coming at me, and then there's Lucy coming at me, 'AIAIAIAIIIII!' [a perfect imitation of the Xena yell]." Stansfield did the logical thing -- she panicked. "And the director's like, 'Cut, cut, cut! Claire, you are Alti, you're an evil bitch, and you're mad! Now you've got to do it!'" Claire's own response, however, was, "Get me out of here! These people are nuts!"
Then she got some advice from Xena herself. "Lucy said, 'Claire, just be her, embrace her, be that bitch!' You think you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, but you've got to really feel it. I've gotten used to it, but the first time I was petrified. Sometimes, afterwards, you get to watch on the monitor a little of the video feed, and the director said to me, 'Look at the difference.'"
Stansfield has great admiration for Lawless' committment to her role, and also to the way she conducts herself in public. "Lucy is very recognizable, but she's very focused on what she's doing and who she's with. She doesn't go with a whole gaggle of bodyguards even though she's very recognizable. People get the sense that she's busy and doing her own thing, and they stay away. I think there's an energy that you put out there."
The actress also says she learned a lot from Renee O'Connor, whose stamina earned praise from both Tydings and Stansfield. "One of the fight scenes in 'Between the Lines,' where her hair is getting pulled and she's getting dragged, she loves it!" recalls Stansfield. "Those are real tears. She was saying, 'Pull harder!' I'm going, 'Are you OK?' Renee just inspires me because she goes for it."
Asked whether she has to wear a Wonder-Bra which enhance the cleavage of most of the women in the cast, Stansfield deadpans, "No. Alti has no tits. Alti doesn't need them. She has other powers." Her favorite line, from "Between the Lines," is when Xena gets pushed too far and yells, "'You bitch!'"
But she was very uncomfortable doing fight scenes with a pregnant Xena in "Them Bones, Them Bones." In the episode, Alti shoves her hand through Xena's skin into her belly to steal the soul of her unborn baby. "Lucy was fully pregnant, and we were both really uncomfortable. She didn't like it lying there crying and screaming -- she's so spiritual, always talking to Julius, she was afraid that her upset and anger would transfer to the baby. So it was a really difficult episode to do."
"As I thrust my hand into her stomach, I say a slightly subliminal, 'I've always wanted to be inside of you, Xena,'" recalls Stansfield. "That was all done with a stunt woman. Obviously the camera's on me, and you see me thrust my hand -- I'm not anywhere near even the stunt woman, that was all done in the editing room. I'm doing the lines to a stand-in. Because Lucy was pregnant I didn't work with her much. She called me after she had shot that stuff at the beginning where all of a sudden this weirdo skeleton alien thing comes out -- she was really happy to have that episode over."
The fight between Xena and Alti's skeleton was much easier for Stansfield. "They just had me in a black unitard with ping-pong balls on all my joints, while Lucy sat in a corner laughing at me. The guys with the computer later followed my movements with the ping-pong balls so they could match it. That was fun, the ping-pong unitard, because stealing the soul of someone's baby is pretty awful -- it's about the worst thing you could have done."
A Virgo and a Neat Freak
What does Stansfield draw on to play a horrible person like Alti? "I'm a bitch sometimes," she admits with a laugh. "I don't think there's any of Claire in Alti's evil, but I there's a lot of Claire in Alti in getting what I want. You can see it in 'Between the Lines,' she's sort of taunting and flirtatious in her horrible evil way. When I look at some of the pictures, there's Claire there."
Stansfield's film roles include Oliver Stone's The Doors, Eric Roberts' Best of the Best II, Soleil Moon Frye's Lunchtime Special, plus Sweepers and The Favor. She has made guest appearances on The X-Files, The Red Shoe Diaries, Cybill, and The Flash and played a recurring role on Twin Peaks.
She is also a director, having worked on The Lovely Leave in 1999 and two series for scribline.com this year, Chickmate and The XXX Revue. "Xena fans will get a kick out of the voice-over for the Chickmate series," she notes on her web site, www.clairestansfield.com. Stansfield is also producing, directing and scripting the documentary Con Artist (working title), in which Alex Tydings will star.
Stansfield has a boyfriend and an adopted dog named Dino. "Besides the gas and occasional ear infection he is the greatest!" she notes on her web site. She also admits to being "insecure, jealous, competitive and moody at times," and to having "way too many shoes and handbags" and watching too much TV.
The daughter of a flight attendant for Air Canada, Stansfield has traveled all over the world, spending summers in Germany with her grandmother. Now her mother lives in Vancouver and travels on location with the actress, who is grateful for having had the opportunity to see so much of the world and to meet so many people. Stansfield invites fans to download badges from her web page so that she can recognize them at conventions.