She's a ditzy blonde who wears little more than a Wonder-Bra and some pink gauze. Nevertheless, Aphrodite is the last of the Olympian goddesses left alive on Xena: Warrior Princess.
"I'm not sure why I was spared," actress Alexandra Tydings said recently at the Toronto Trek 2000 convention, where she made two stage appearances and attended a dinner with fans. "We know there's a rumor that this is the last season, and I'm hoping I can go out in a blaze of glory with them."
Aphrodite made her first appearance on Xena's predecessor Hercules: The Legendary Journeys in "The Apple," a 1996 parody of the start of the Trojan War. The clamshell-surfing California Girl quickly became a popular deity in the pantheon of Renaissance Pictures, which produces Hercules and Xena. Though she's sometimes a thorn in the side of her half-brother Hercules, whom she calls "Bro" (and occasionally attempts to seduce), the goddess has become a good friend to Xena and especially her partner Gabrielle.
Still, Aphrodite's sly, seductive has gotten them into fishy trouble at times. In "Fins, Femmes, and Gems," for instance, she stole the North Star to wear as a gem and used "Obsession" perfume to confuse Xena when she tried to set it right. In "The Quill Is Mightier," she lost her powers after putting a curse on Gabrielle's scrolls, and discovered that as a mortal, she had terrible body odor.
Goddess of Love
Even at her glamour goddess best, Aphrodite is...well, a bit distracting. The first time Tydings saw her extremely revealing, cleavage-coddling costume, "I said, 'Oh my god, you want me to wear this? Could we get a little something else to stuff in here? It's a little over the top, guys!' It's a strange sort of medieval torture that they enjoy foisting upon us."
"We have plastic boobs that look like chicken fillets," she adds. "You just pop them in. There was one episode where they changed my clothes, but they decided halfway through shooting that it wasn't exciting enough. It was a serious episode -- Aphrodite cries -- and right before we're about to shoot, they hand me these two giant pieces of foam and say, 'Would you mind putting these in your bra?' The most input I had was, 'I'm not getting any bigger!'"
After her first episode aired, Tydings laughs, "Good friends of mine called: 'Alex, did you get some work done?' And I'm like, 'No!' Wonder-Bra must have stock in the show. Sometimes at five o'clock in the morning when I'm sitting in the makeup chair and I'm tired and they're nailing the wig to my head and I'm getting the Wonder-Bra strapped on, I whine. But it's my job, I'm an actor, so I get it up and I go."
Tydings claims that although she doesn't get much input, she tries not to interfere as a matter of policy. "It's also a political thing -- I think my job is to be an actress, not to be a costume designer. So if things really make me uncomfortable, I'll say so, like if I'm freezing in the middle of winter. Recently they had me in these boots that I didn't really like. What I like are fluffy mules. So I got them to get rid of the boots."
In real life Tydings is very slender, has reddish hair, and sports two Celtic tattoos she designed herself. She speaks like a native of her home town, Washington, DC, rather than in the San Fernando Valley slang of the Grecian goddess. She auditioned with the California Girl persona, then arrived in New Zealand to learn that Kevin Sorbo -- who was directing her first episode as well as playing Hercules -- had some other ideas.
Explains Tydings, "I made Aphrodite speakable to myself and doable and actable. Then I got to New Zealand. They take advantage of the fact that the writers live in Hollywood, so if you're shooting on Monday in New Zealand, it's Sunday in Hollywood. They make changes at the read-throughs, especially on Hercules -- they would come with pens and hack up the scripts. Kevin said, 'If you want to change anything, go ahead.' I had never been to a read-through like that!"
Since Sorbo was the director as well as the star, he had some suggestions for Tydings. "He said, 'I don't really know about this whole Valley Girl thing. I'm not sure I like that. I think she should be more like a snobby East Coast Ivy League girl, so if you want, make those changes.' And I went eek! Because I'm not a writer, and here I've been spending two weeks working on this Valley Girl character. Three hours to rewrite the dialogue?"
Tydings decided to "stop panicking" and go with what she had planned from the audition. "I did that at the read-through. He enjoyed it, and said 'Keep it.'"
After that, she appeared as Aphrodite in such larks as "Love Takes a Holiday," in which the Goddess of Love's decision to switch careers caused women everywhere to leave their lovers; "The Green-Eyed Monster," in which she became jealous of the beautiful Psyche, with disastrous results for her son Cupid; "For Him the Bell Tolls," in which she tried to turn Joxer (Ted Raimi) into the perfect lover; and "The Reign of Terror," in which a rare selfless impulse inspired the goddess to protect a village from a power-mad king who believed he was Zeus.
Aphrodite showed warmer maternal impulses in "If the Shoe Fits" and "Little Problems." She even tried to help the sick once she realized they would give her lovely tributes. She also transformed into Zeus' wife in the alternate universe episodes where Hercules' evil double The Sovereign reigned over humanity. "The ones where I change my clothes are my favorites," jokes the actress. "'Love Takes a Holiday' and 'Little Problems' were excellent."
In "Little Problems," Gabrielle and Aphrodite had to pretend to be Siamese twins to crash a party given by Castor and Pollux. Pretending to be "Brune" and "Hilda," the two women wrestle the Gemini Twins and get their butts groped by the cunning linguists. "That was really fun. The director was wonderful," Tydings recalls.
Then there was "Married With Fishsticks," which Tydings mockingly refers to as "everyone's favorite Xena episode" because it had Gabrielle temporarily married to Joxer. Tydings describes the episode as "the one where you're expecting to see all this brown leather and swords and stuff, and instead you see like the Flinstones, turquoise and pink and Gabrielle with a big tall wig and too much makeup! And a hideous wig for me, surprise surprise."
In the story, Aphrodite and Discord have a fight which results in Gabrielle getting knocked out and dreaming she's a mermaid named Crustacea with a husband and three kids. In this alternate universe, both Aphrodite and Discord -- that is, Crabella and Sturgina -- are Crustacea's best friends, but they secretly covet her husband. "We're all mermaids and we have way too much hair, and Discord and I have these terrible accents and these terrible nails. Forget about bound feet or broken ribs from corsets; with these fake nails, you can't do anything!"
Tydings was excited when she heard about the undersea episode because she had recently gotten her scuba diving license, and was looking forward to using her skills onscreen. But the tails were quite heavy, and it was hard for her to move. "You want to be this graceful fish girl, but I could barely manage a little flutter. And it's kind of scary because they're so heavy. You're bound up in this thing in the water."
The director was working on a very brief shot where Crabella and Sturgina morph into leggy girls on dry land. "For those two seconds, we shot for like eight hours," groans Tydings. "The tails were too buoyant, so even though we were 20 feet underwater, they strapped ankle weights on us. You're in your little bikini, and they're holding this tail thing while you wiggle into it. Then they flop you on your belly and start lacing up your butt. So now you're ankle-bound like a fish, and they just lob you into the water. I'm still too buoyant, so we have guys down in the bottom of the frame you can't see out of range of the camera, holding onto you."
Each actress had someone in charge of her scuba tank and regulator. "The guy swims away, and I'm sort of sitting there, no mask, can't see anything, 20 feet underwater, no air, ankle weights, men holding my feet down, trying to look like a cute little Jersey girl." To make matters worse, "When you breathe in, it sounds like Darth Vader; when you breathe out, the air bubbles make noises like bloop, bloop, bloop. Discord and I had to coordinate so we would both breathe out at the same time, while the director wasn't using the underwater speakers."
Just a typical day shooting Xena? "That's, like, a day at the office," Tydings says with a laugh. She had more fun working on "The Quill Is Mightier," in which she got to fall from the sky on top of Ares, played by hunky actor Kevin Smith. "Every girl's wet dream, right? I had to fall on him seven or eight times from all these different angles! I think that was the first episode Kevin and I had ever done together -- I think that was the first shot, in fact. It was a tight angle, we had to do it over and over. I kept getting it wrong. 'Sorry Kevin, I have to fall on you one more time!'"
In the shot, Aphrodite plunks down on top of him, but a stunt double did the long fall from the sky. "I wasn't there that day!" admits Tydings. "More fun than that was the scene where Joxer gets hit in the face with a fish. Xena comes up carrying a cart full of fish. Most of those fish are fake. But the one that they hit Joxer in the face with was real, and they came at him at all different angles, eight or ten times. So the makeup girl is there with a tissue to get the scales off his cheek, and Ted's ready to go again. He's a good sport. 'Sorry Ted, the focus was a little fuzzy, we have to do it again!'"
Tydings seems very fond of Raimi and of Claire Stansfield, who plays evil sorceress Alti and who appeared at Toronto Trek with her. The two women joke that Raimi gets lots of attention from women, telling suggestive stories about their trip to DragonCon. "I've been out to bars with Ted where people have pushed me aside to talk to him," claims Tydings.
Yet she doesn't get recognized much herself. "Would any of you recognize either one of us if you didn't know?" she asks the convention audience rhetorically, pointing to Stansfield -- who looks decades younger than Alti -- and her own dark hair. "People walk by and go, 'Where's Alex Tydings, for real?' Outside of conventions I've been recognized twice...once when I was using my credit card. It's not an issue."
At conventions recognition can be an issue, but she's only there for a few days at a time. According to a source at Toronto Trek, Stansfield -- who has filmed shorts for scribline.com -- has plans to write, produce and direct a documentary called Con Artist, in which Tydings will star and do the interviewing.
An Irish dance champion who graduated from Brown University, Tydings has starred in episodes of The Red Shoe Diaries, Party of Five, and UPN's new pilots Walking on Sunshine and Dodge's City. She was in Michael Cimino's The Sunchaser opposite Woody Harrelson, plus the independent films Queerbait and Angst. A singer and bass player, Tydings has performed with the bands Annabelle Kickbox and She's Seen You Naked.
What will she do if this turns out to be Xena's final season? "People were saying that last year also, so I never like to say anything's happening," she notes. "We're certainly talking about scheduling and stuff like that. It's always subject to change. I have no idea what they're going to do, I never know until I get the script, which is usually two days before we start shooting."
Well, what would she like Aphrodite to do in what may be her waning days, as one fan asked at the convention? "I would love her to hook up with Ares," leers Tydings. "Although there's that whole incest problem." Ares is, after all, her half-brother. "But in the real mythology, it wasn't an issue. They were married in the stories, but of course Aphrodite got around -- she was sort of married to everybody. We could do that, too! I would like to find Aphrodite and Ares in some real head-to-head, love-vs.-war kind of stuff. Love and war are what it's about."
Surprisingly, she cites last season's dark finale, "Motherhood," as her current favorite episode. "I'm fickle, I have to be honest -- I think 'Motherhood' is my favorite because it's the last one I did." She enjoyed working so closely with Renee O'Connor, even though Gabrielle was unconscious for most of their scenes together.
"That was Renee getting dragged on the ground, every take, with strawberry jam on her head. That was intense. I had never been in a bloody episode before. The first day I was shooting was that scene where Lucy is dragging Renee and sort of carrying Eve out of the burning house into the rain and she begs to be taken to Olympus. I burst into tears, and I wasn't even on camera -- I burst into tears as soon as I saw them, Eve all battered and Renee with this gash on her head."
During the scenes set on Olympus, the cloudlike white haze filling the palace was created by dry ice smoke. "The studio was filled with dry ice, which is pretty toxic. Renee, of course, was playing Gabrielle, who was unconscious, lying there take after take. We had to stop shooting for a couple of minutes because she got dizzy. She's such a trooper."
Tydings calls O'Connor "a lovely girl, so professional, endless patience, endless energy, focus, stamina, she's really someone to admire in terms of professionalism. And also she was fun to hang out with." She also has high praise for both Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo, plus many of the directors and co-stars of Xena and Hercules.
"I think my job is to bring as much of me as I can into every character that I play. There's Alex in Aphrodite, and Aphrodite has influenced a lot of Alex...isn't that creepy?" she muses.
Fans can learn more about this dynamic actress at her web page, http://www.alextydings.com.