A few years ago, Lucy Lawless got an email that changed her life. It came from Joe Duran, a former CNN cameraman reaching out to various Hollywood types to pitch one hell of a story. Duran wondered if someone might want to make a documentary about Margaret Moth, a friend and colleague of his who spent years risking her life to capture combat zones in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel. Moth, like Lawless, was born in New Zealand, and Lawless remembered Kiwis’ fascination when Moth kept working even after a sniper’s bullet shattered her jaw during the Bosnian War.
Lawless says she responded to Duran’s message within 90 seconds, promising to help the saga of this intrepid videographer who resembled Joan Jett see the light of day. She offered to produce the movie. Quickly sensing that Lawless understood Moth’s drive, Duran suggested she direct it, too. “The moment I got that email, it owned me,” Lawless tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. “The spirit of Margaret compelled me to make this film.”
Roughly two years later, Never Look Away is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, an institution Lawless never saw herself fitting into. Almost by accident, she forged a career in sci-fi and fantasy, genres that don’t have much of a footprint at North America’s premier indie fest. Few actors’ résumés are less Sundance-y than Lawless’. Now, the 55-year-old Xena: Warrior Princess and Battlestar Galactica actress is infectiously chipper about her newest chapter. On the morning of the film’s premiere, she deems this her best year yet.
Lawless had been invited before to direct episodes of Xena and other TV shows. She was never interested, partly because acting felt like plenty without the weight of steering someone else’s ship. But her early conversations with Duran opened up an entire untapped world, at once familiar and foreign to Lawless. Moth was her own sort of warrior princess, a hard-partying, punk-rock daredevil who became the first female camera operator at Television New Zealand. By 1990, she’d relocated to Houston, and then to Dallas, where she took a CNN job that soon sent her to the dark heart of Desert Storm. There, amid tanks and generals and horrific combat, she realized her potential. As one of Moth’s ex-boyfriends observes in Never Look Away, “War was the ultimate drug.”
The question Lawless set out to answer was, simply, Why? What motivated this person to move to the United States and implant herself on dangerous terrain time and again? Sure, the realities of innocent children trapped in violent strife needed to be documented. And if not her, then who? But still: Why Margaret Moth? Why someone who seemed so full of life, someone who loved to skydive, drop acid, and maintain a coterie of lovers?
Moth died of cancer in 2010 and can’t respond to those queries for herself. In Lawless’ eyes, she wouldn’t be able to anyway. Moth, who dyed her blond hair and changed her last name, had invented a new persona as an adult. She often claimed not to remember much about her childhood, but people sensed an underlying anger in her that had to come from somewhere. The Margaret Moth we see in the film’s footage is a sort of character she invented to escape the brutalities her parents inflicted. One of Moth’s siblings describes their mother as having had eyes that “would go black like a demon.”
While making the film, Lawless understood that truth is an aggregate. When someone conceals parts of themselves, they are no longer a reliable narrator. The Margaret Moth of Never Look Away is the sum total of what her friends, colleagues, and relatives saw. Added together, the film presents a more thorough portrait of Moth than the one she might offer about herself. When she and journalist Christiane Amanpour spent the summer of 1992 in deadly Sarajevo, where gunmen on so-called Sniper Alley fired relentlessly, the injury Moth suffered took part of her tongue and her ability to speak clearly. But it didn’t take her resolve: After a tough recovery, Moth continued to work in war zones. That biography alone helps to explain the ticking time bomb inside her. Relinquishing her moxie would be a fate worse than death.
Lawless and her team recreated the scene of Moth’s wounding using a large-scale diorama made in collaboration with Wētā Workshop, the New Zealand-based special-effects company whose credits include The Lord of the Rings and Dune. During that process, Lawless learned what it means to construct a film’s visual style. Blending visceral war footage, photographs, home movies that various sources loaned her, TV interviews Moth gave after she was shot, and recreations, Lawless has constructed a confident profile of an iconoclast.
“I made this for New Zealanders to meet the least-known famous person, who was just an outrageous, outstanding character,” she says. “I also wanted to honor her profession.”
This, she hopes, is the start of a new chapter: Lucy Lawless, director. Eyeing a scripted feature next, she’s working with an up-and-coming writer and seeking out possible novels to adapt. After so many larger-than-life genre roles, she’s ready to focus on everyday people. And before the film had even screened at Sundance, she seemed awestruck by the response it had received. “I trust that if it moves me, it’s going to move you—but all you can do as an artist is please yourself,” she says. “If you’re slaving to somebody else’s approval, you’re screwed. I’m absolutely flabbergasted, though. People seem to be enjoying this. I’m so delighted. It’s more than I ever dreamed.”