A Raven and a Writing Desk: The Immortal Elizabeth Gracen
by Mark Zimmer
The star of Highlander: The Raven talks about her amazing life as a television star, a former Miss America, and a political football, and also lets us in on her next project.
One can hardly deny that Elizabeth Gracen has had an interesting life: Miss Arkansas and Miss America, and as a result, a target of Ken Starr's investigations into Bill Clinton; a successful acting career and getting to portray a beloved character, the Immortal thief Amanda, on television's Highlander, culminating in a co-starring lead role in Highlander: The Raven. With the release of the latter series on DVD from Anchor Bay, Gracen took time to talk with dOc about her tumultuous past and her plans for the future.
Getting the role of Amanda was something of a surprise in the first place. "I had a role in The Death of the Incredible Hulk. I believe the initial producers of Highlander, or the casting directors, also worked on The Hulk. I just got a call out of the blue one day and they asked me if I wanted to do this guest spot on a new TV show that was filming in Paris, France, playing an immortal jewel thief. It took me about two seconds to say, 'Sure, that would be great.' So I went over, they stuck a sword in my hand the first day....I didn't have to do much, just cut someone's head off. It was a great script, and I totally got the character immediately. My grandmother was quite a trickster, and sort of mischievous like the Amanda character, so I sort of channeled a lot of her into the character and we did it and I had a blast. And then I don't know how many months later it was, but they said the audience has really responded to your character and we want to bring you back."
Luckily her character had avoided the headless fate of most guest stars on the series in that first episode, The Lady and the Tiger. "That's the first thing anybody does, or used to do, on that show. You flip to the back of the script to make sure that your head is still on. I mean literally, that's what you do. Because you're like, okay, do I live or do I die. Yeah, I was very lucky." Being interested in fantasy and science fiction, though, the concept of Immortals running around decapitating each other didn't put her off. "I'm not a huge science fiction person, but I have read a lot of science fiction and I know I enjoy going to see films that are in the science fiction realm, or the fantasy realm. It's great escapism. I lean more towards William Gibson and things like that."
Fantasy is definitely where Gracen's next steps will lead her: she has just finished writing her first novel, a fantasy romance. "I gave up acting about three years ago, and sort of made a decision that I wanted to find something else to do that was creative. I'm an artist, I paint and do mosaics and mixed-media stuff but it just seemed a waste of everything to sort of give up on creating characters. I wrote a couple of short stories for Highlander conventions, and I would go and read them, then they would auction them off to audience members. And I got a really great response on all that."
Although there are rumors on various fansites that Gracen has written about the continuing story of Amanda and co-star Paul Johansson's character Nick Wolfe, she says she hasn't yet gotten to that, but has written several stories about Amanda and some of the characters on the series. "I just finished the fantasy romance that I'm writing; it's not a Highlander novel, but I've talked to the Highlander people and we're sort of on the same page, and I'm working on three story ideas to bring Highlander: The Raven, the Amanda character, basically female characters, from that Highlander myth into romance. So that's what I've been focusing on the past few years of my life. Writing my first novel, which is just finished, and hopefully moving on to work on some Highlander novels. That would be fantastic, not only to do it, but to keep Amanda alive. The first story I have in mind does have Amanda and Nick, and their relationship continuing. I certainly have enjoyed doing it, and I feel as if I've accessed some of the craft I've learned over the years as an actor, in creating characters and delving into that same fantastic realm."
Getting the lead in the spinoff was something of a surprise to Gracen, who wasn't really aware what the producers were up to during the sixth season of Highlander as they auditioned numerous women for taking the lead in a new series. "It was never mentioned to me. I didn't even know they were doing it. I was on the opening titles in the last season, but I was only in the one episode. So I really was unaware. I've given up acting twice in my life. I did three years ago, but before that, I'd left L.A. the year before they asked me to do Raven. So I was very surprised when they called me. I was living back in Arkansas and I got this call that they want me to do the series and I'm like, 'What? That doesn't happen.' I really don't know how they came around to me in the end, but I'm glad they did."
There were some issues in adapting Amanda from a supporting role into a lead. "I was not in every frame, but almost every frame, and the character Amanda was not initially created to be a hero or heroine. She was sort of the trickster who would come in and stir things up for the character MacLeod and his life. He's such a good guy and she's a jewel thief and slightly amoral and a little naughty and a little wild. To try to bring that character into a series, where by the end of each episode she's taking a head, you sort of have to do a lot of adjustment to make that work. I'm not sure we did that. I think we needed another season to make that gel and make that make a lot of sense. You don't want your fun character to lose all of her spunk and her naughtiness, but you have to make her grow up enough so that you buy that she is defending good, and can be justified to take someone's head. I'm not sure that we pulled it off, but we tried." But there wasn't a detailed character bible for Amanda, such as Adrian Paul demanded for his character of Duncan MacLeod. "She's a lot older; she's 1200 years old, and it wasn't quite as thought out as Adrian's [history] was. Which is good for me thinking about writing novels with her in them. It gives me room to explore what she was doing in history."
One of the most striking things about Gracen's character in the spinoff was her short-cropped, platinum blonde hair, or as she refers to it, her "cotton-swab head." "I've had my hair that way off and on throughout my career out here. I just have always changed my hair color, especially when I want a drastic change. I was going through a lot of personal things at the time, right before Highlander: The Raven happened and I cut it off. So they sort of had to work around it, which is great for wigs. You can plop anything on top of no hair. But it was a mutual sort of thing. I think some of the producers hated it, and some of them liked it and some people in Paris loved it and some didn't, like everything you do in this business. I thought it made sense. Amanda had gone through a lot of changes in her life, and she gets bored very easily. It seemed very contemporary of her to do. One year I came into Highlander and I had my nose pierced and my belly button pierced, and the producers were like, 'Can you take that out of your nose?' I said, 'No, no, no, this is perfect for Amanda. Besides, if I take it out, it'll grow in' and came up with all these excuses. Amanda could do this; she would do whatever she wants to. I am Amanda anyway."
Shooting on location in Paris had some issues as well as its obvious benefits. "It's very difficult especially by the time you get over to Paris and you're shooting pretty much every day outside of Paris. So your day gets very long; by the time they pick you up and drive you to one of Napoleon's castles and drive back, you have a very, very long day. So I knew that it was going to be a grind. But you do get that down time, which is pretty glamorous. There's no better city in the world to live in and work. It was such a gift to work on that show."
The new DVD release also dredged up some painful memories for Gracen. "There's a documentary that runs along through each of the discs, called The Unraveling of a Series and it's just depressing. It was very hard for me to watch, although I spoke very frankly about everything that happened, and so did everyone else. I think that makes it sort of unique. It's the down side of trying to get a production off of the ground, and I found that pretty interesting. I have no idea what other people would think who aren't in the industry themselves but I think it's kind of bold. As you can see, there were lots of cooks in the kitchen, and a lot of people making decisions, and we really didn't get a chance to figure out what the series was. It started out being sort of a Moonlighting meets a cop show meets... It was very confusing."
The sword fighting that was such an integral part of the original was at first not quite the center of attention. "About the third episode we start getting a bit of the Highlander myth back in there and the sword fighting really begins. By the end of the series I was doing maybe two or three sword fights an episode, not all of them full-length ones. Still, I was never the fighter that Adrian Paul was. He's an excellent swordsman and martial arts person and I'm sort of flying by the seat of my pants on the thing. Nowadays, women are really kickass, and they look like they're really doing it. Maybe they are to some extent, but Raven is just far back in time enough that it's sort of that fringe of fantasy/Xena-like, so it's unbelievable to me. Not when Adrian was doing it, but when I was doing it."
But Elizabeth is very comfortable with the idea of women in action roles. "I worked on a project with this organization up in San Francisco called the Museum of Amazons. I did a lot of research. I was called in to do a lot of the fighting because I knew one of the people and they would photograph us and motion-capture us fighting, but you had to be faithful to whatever time period they were talking about. It was pretty interesting to see that women did fight, a lot of them with their shirts off or partly undressed, female pirates and things like that. It was awkward. It looks strange to people, because they're not used to seeing it and it's not quite as glamorous as Catherine Zeta-Jones in Zorro; she just sort of loses bits of clothing as she goes."
As the documentary makes clear, there were a lot of problems between her and co-star Johansson, and Gracen accepts the blame for this. "I was going through a lot of personal crisis. I basically was brainwashed by this psychopath I was living with that Paul was a very, very bad person. I was really paranoid with stuff that was going on in terms of the political realm. It was just a real mess, and I was in a very bad head space. I just believed things about Paul that weren't true, well I assume they're not true, and didn't give him much. We didn't get to develop a relationship, because I was too frightened to do it. It had nothing to do with him in the end, it was just what I believed to be true. It's always a negotiation with your co-star or with anyone you're acting with. You like certain people and you don't get along with others. That's just the nature of the beast. I take a lot of responsibility, or all the responsibility, for the way I treated him. I think that he reacted the way he reacted, and I can't say that I would have done any better. Unfortunately, we didn't have a relationship. It was adversarial and sort of distant and cold. I think it's amazing that we had any chemistry on camera at all. Some people say we didn't, but I look at some of those episodes, and think we're okay actors. For some reason, I think that we pulled it off, considering how bad the circumstances were at the time. I haven't talked to him in a while, but we've totally made up now and we're fine. I'll be very curious to talk to him since seeing the DVD documentary. It's just so strange and took a couple days to get over watching it. It documents that time so well."
"As soon as I figured out what was happening, and the guy that was terrorizing me was put in jail...I had to go through a lot of things. I had to declare bankruptcy, it was a real mess. It took me a while when I came back to America to sort out what had actually happened because so much of it was based on lies, down to the fact that I didn't know if that guy was really in the Mafia or not, and that I had to call Bruce Cutler, who was one of, I don't know, the Gotti's lawyer, but to have to call this man, who was my lawyer at one point, and ask him, is this particular man a relative of the Bonnannos. And for him to have answered 'Nooooo.' I just had no idea what was what. By the time I got through all of that, I could make contact with people once I found my footing again, on anything that felt real. I could contact Paul, and the producers and, oh my God, such a line of people that were involved. I mean, anyone that was involved in my life was affected by this man. I don't say his name, because I don't want to give him the glory of having his name anywhere. So Paul and I, I think I contacted him by e-mail initially, and then we spoke a couple of times on the phone, and we haven't made contact in a while just because we travel in different circles. But he's doing very well, and I'm very happy for him and wish him the very best. I think he feels the same way about me. "
Getting out of such a situation can be tricky, but Elizabeth managed to summon her internal and external resources to piece together what was happening in her personal life. "I was living in Paris at a hotel with him, and the show was on. The Raven is called L'Immortelle over there, and it was on TV at the time. I have a bit of a Nancy Drew strain in my personality, so once it became obvious that something was wrong, it unraveled very quickly for him. I was able to call him on [things] and it was a big violent episode in the hotel, and I couldn't leave Paris for a couple of weeks because of questioning, and he was still on the lam. Maybe I'll put bits and pieces of it into novels eventually. I consider myself very lucky. As horrible as all that was, I really think in the end he was going to try to kill me. He had so much of my documentation that he'd stolen, he'd stolen so many things from me, besides money, and he was sort of pushed against the wall. I consider myself very lucky that we were in Paris at the time, and not out in Bordeaux country where we'd been before, out in the middle of nowhere in a vineyard-type thing. It was just strange for my family at the time. It was such a mess. I think I was pretty lucky that I came away in once piece and that I found out how important family and good friends are. I had so much support in the end that was great. Unfortunately, that guy is out now doing the same thing to someone else, I'm sure."
At about the same time, Gracen was the subject of subpoenas from Ken Starr, who was attempting to get her to testify that she had been harassed by Bill Clinton while governor of Arkansas, which Gracen denies. But to this day, it's unclear to her how much was really happening and how much was just someone trying to control her thinking. "The newspapers were trying to find me, and they're putting me on the front [page], saying I'm running from the subpoena. But it turns out, I think, that he was actually calling these newspapers and setting me up. I don't want to call him clever, because that gives him too much glamor. It's like the mob, you just don't ask questions. It's like politics, there are some areas you just don't want to know about because it's an arena that is scary for your average person to enter into. It's sort of exciting initially and then becomes a nightmare. He was good in that domain, but I guess that's how sociopaths work. They set it up where it's very hard to trace their origins, who they really are. There were people coming to my parents' house. There was a neighbor, a friend of mine from the past who actually testified about me in front of Ken Starr saying I'd been harassed. Of course I'm not in contact with her any more, and she really hasn't been my friend in a long time. I don't know where everything originated. I don't know if [Starr] was calling them and saying I was there, and he knew I wouldn't be there but my parents would, and get the server to the house. I don't really know. One of those strange areas."
The entire fiasco has soured her on the subject of politics. "I definitely vote, and I have strong political beliefs, but it's an area I just don't talk about because I had such a bad experience with the whole thing, and I felt like I was sort of in the middle of it all. I don't know if I was in the middle of it, but I felt like it. And that's enough to make me back away from making any political comments at all. Which is unfortunate, because I do believe that people should get out and vote and speak their mind and stand up for what they believe, but I would never march at any rally. They have a nice file on me anyway, so I'm not about to show up for anything."
Although Adrian Paul describes himself as a control freak, Gracen didn't really exercise that kind of control over the series and casting. "I think I tried to get a couple of people cast for different things, and I think they got in for interviews, but I'm not sure even a big star has very much control over what happens on a series. You could complain about scripts and make sure your contract is in place and you have everything that you want, but no, I didn't have much control over casting." One area where she did make an attempt was in getting some of the original Highlander cast to take part. "I tried to get Peter Wingfield, and Jim Byrnes did actually do an episode. I was, 'Why don't we do an episode with Roger Daltrey", because I'd done an episode with him and Adrian when Highlander was going. I think they were afraid. I don't know if they were trying to make it entirely separate. I don't think anyone knew what they were doing in terms of the concept, because I think at least you could have kept one fan base really, really happy if you'd had those other characters appear a little bit more often."
"Adrian is an amazing workhorse. Very professional. He works harder than any actor I've ever worked with, and he was very much involved. Of course, he directed a couple episodes. He has a lot of ambition and he loves what he does. To me, at the time, I enjoyed doing the part and living in Paris. I just didn't have as much invested. Maybe it was what was going on with me personally, I just couldn't take on another challenge. I was treading water at the deep end of the pool anyway. I didn't have that many battles with casting or with story or anything else. I'm a control freak, too, but for some reason I couldn't put anything else on my plate."
In the DVD documentaries, producer Bill Panzer suggests that casting Patricia Gage as Amanda's companion, Lucy, was a mistake, and a young, hipper friend would have worked better. Elizabeth disagrees. "I love Pat Gage. We had such a good time, and we worked out the relationship on the page, and I think we did a fine job with that. No one ever told me that they were trying to do a 'hip' whatever. I don't think they knew. I think they're looking at a lot of these things in retrospect and making these comments about what it should have been, but when you're in the middle of it, you're just doing what you have to do. No one ever talked to me about having a hip sidekick. I auditioned with Pat and a couple other actresses for that part, and they were all around the same age range. I auditioned with someone really young, but she was not a hipster. She was kind of a mousy character. She was a fine actress, and that's another way they were thinking of going. I don't think they explored it enough, actually. "
Despite all the problems, both she and Johansson were prepared to do a second season, had it been given a green light. "You're under contract for five years or something. Unless someone desperately wants out, you're going to just go with the flow. It is a job, after all. Yeah, we would have done it. I wish we could have done one more season. That would have been good. I look back at it and go, 'You know, if I kept going without that guy manipulating me...' and you just can't go back. You can't rework it. You don't know what would have happened."
During the shooting of the finale, the relationship between the co-stars developed into a heated argument. "I remember us fighting but I don't remember what it was about. We shot several endings, I remember that. We just had verbal banter that escalated very quickly, and we usually didn't do that on the set. We were screaming at each other, I think. You know, Adrian and I used to scream at each other all the time. I loved Adrian. We were like brother and sister. We would fight like a brother and sister. I remember he directed me in one of the episodes of Highlander, and we were arguing about something. We're both very hard-headed, and we were screaming at each other across this mansion, and finally I said, 'Well, I don't care but I love you anyway!' And he says, 'Well, I love you too!' It all just evened out, but [between] Paul and I, it just escalated and nothing happened so by the end of shooting the finale it just petered out with us shaking hands and walking away. But I don't really remember what the actual fight was about. I'm sure he could tell you, but I don't know what it was. Something stupid, I'm sure."
Who's more fun, Elizabeth or Amanda? "Oh, Amanda definitely. She's a jewel thief, she's immortal. She'd be much more fun to hang out with. I'd like hanging out with her. I used to be pretty wild when I was younger but I'm sort of settled down and boring now, unfortunately. But I really don't care. I've sown my wild oats and I'm okay now."