What do these three powerful villains have in common? Funnily enough, they all bear a striking resemblance to Ilainus, devoted General of the goddess Athena`s mortal army in the Xena episode "Amphipolis Under Siege".
Even without hits like Buffy, Mortal Kombat and Wild Wild West, the woman behind Ilainus has certainly established herself in the screen community as a major force to be reckoned with. Musetta Vander has been acting on screen since her first television role, hosting an MTV-Iike music show called Telemuzik in her native South Africa. That was over seven years ago, and since then, Vander`s career has skyrocketed, with roles in over 13 feature films. From 1994 (when she guest-starred in an episode of Murder, She Wrote), Vander has also appeared in guest and regular roles in many well-known television series. Some examples include Highlander: the Series, The Sentinel, Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager, Viper and Superforce, in which she was a regular for almost three years.
Keen-eyed readers may spot a pattern here: most of Vander`s screen projects have been science fiction, fantasy or just plain action. Considering Vander`s background and obvious interests, this comes as no surprise. "I have a dance back- ground," she says. "I think that`s what leaned me into getting this kind of work. it`s easier, I guess, than for somebody who doesn`t have that kind of a background. I naturally take to kicking or being flexible and making the moves."
Even though she says she`s "never done anything quite like this", there have been similar roles to such as Sindel in Mortal Kombat, which Vander describes as "in this direction; lots of fighting and more warrior-like." But even the role of short-fused Munitia in Wild Wild West was "not as over the top" as llainus. "This one beats Munitia," says Vander with a laugh. "This one is really out there!"
Out there it may be, but Vander seems be taking to her role in Xena just as naturally she has to all the others. "Basically the character is a warrior/fighter," she says, explaining her take on the role. "I`m the general of Athena`s army. I live by her word and deed, and I will lay down my life for her."
In the world of Xena, words like that will often lead a person straight into trouble, as Vander`s character Ilainus discovers. "Athena has sent me to stop Xena from coming down the tunnels and trapping us," Vander says of the events in "Amphipolis Under Siege". "The idea is to blow up the tunnels so Xena can`t enter. But it kind of backfires on me..." Ilainus may get a rough time of it from Xena, but Vander herself has nothing but praise for the Warrior Princess, especially when playing similar roles involves working in hard-to-manoeuvre costumes! "It`s a lot of action, a lot of hard work and some pain in these metal costumes." Vander is referring to the stiff silver corset costumes worn by llainus and the rest her female army. They look very impressive but aren`t all that easy to get in and out of. "There`s a lot of lacing in it; it takes quite a while to lace me into it in the mornings. I have two people working on me at the same time and it takes 15 minutes, maybe a little longer. It`s not like an outfit you can quickly take off and put on. I stay in it the entire day, and by the end I`m quite happy to take it off!
"What`s more," she adds, "I`m part of the mortal army and Xena annihilates me. It`s very challenging, physically. I think Xena deserves medal; I tell you, it`s a tough job being a tough chick!"
Vander says all this with a smile on her face. It`s clear that in spite of all that strenuous exercise, she`s having a great time. "It`s really fun to do," she agrees. "I have a lot of fun here. It`s really great to have women battling it out like this, just for the fun of it!"
She thinks its also great to have Lucy Lawless in the role of Xena. Lawless, says Vander, is one of the main reasons behind the shows success. "I think Lucy`s very talented," she affirms. "I think she has the ability to do everything. The action, the singing, the acting... just the energy she puts into the episodes is very positive and very strong. I think what makes any show successful is the person who drives it. There`s everyone else around that too, but it`s mostly that main character. People love to watch her, and people love watching women kick butt, basically, which is what Lucy does wonderfully! "
In her own colourful career, Vander has kicked some butt herself, or at least her stunt doubles have. Again, her background in movement has paved the way for Vander to take part in some pretty fancy moves. In Xena, as with other filming, the actors block out their moves, then stunt doubles are brought in for the more difficult or dangerous action. "The stunt doubles do all the major flips and kicks or whatever," Vander explains, "like the rigs and all that stuff. I`ve never been rigged up to fly through the air, but I can pick up the other movements quite easily."
This year, Vander stars in at least two big-budget movies, and neither character bears much relation to liainus or any of the actor`s previous heavy action roles. In O Brother, Where Art Thou, a 1930s-style comedy from the Coen brothers, starring George Clooney, Vander plays a seductive siren. She also features in the Jennifer Lopez thriller The Cell, playing the mother of a comatose boy. These characters, she agrees, are "a far cry from wielding a sword!"
However, the fantasy element of Vander`s acting skill is never very far away. In a remake of the 1960s classic series Secret Agent Man, she plays a recurring character named Prima. Vander describes the series as "very James Bond", perhaps a little more similar to the roles for which she has become known.
Variation is fun though, insists Vander. "That`s the part I like about acting," she says. "Its not every job where you can just dress up and become all these different characters... all these crazy people. I`m finding it quite wonderful!"
So is there any stunt or role she would feel less inclined to take on... such as Xena as she`s getting chased up a tunnel by a gigantic fire-ball? "It all depends," Vander says, smiling, "on the size of the fireball! I like to try and do as much of my own [stunt work] as I can," she says. "if I think it`s a really dangerous stunt or something that`s going to involve major rigging, I probably wouldn`t... it just depends on what it is. Running away from a fireball is fine; being actually on fire is different...
"I think I`d probably go as far as doing almost anything," Vander adds, "unless it`s going to be really dangerous. But then if there were too much of a risk involved, nobody would let you do it in the first place. They take very good care of you here."
It`s fair to say that Vander sizzles in "Amphipolis Under Siege". After all, llainus does get fairly close to the flame. "Oh yes," Vander agrees, grinning. "Nice and warm and toasty. It gives new meaning to the term hot-head!"
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