Karen Sheperd guest starred in two highly successful episodes of Hercules:The Legendery Journeys opposite Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst as “The Enforcer”, a ruthless killer summoned up by the evil Goddess Hera. This interview was sent to Karen by e-mail in late 2001 and printed in my Swedish (Lucy Lawless) LUCY IN THE SKY magazine in March 2002 (and also in a major Swedish publication called FIGHTER). I thought it could be good fun to add it to this blog today. The image you see here was one of the photographs that Karen sent to me at the time, and that guy is actor Michael Hurst, one of the stars of the show. I wrote this introduction back in the day…
Karen Sheperd is a living legend on the American martial arts scene. She may not be a household name here in Scandinavia but it is not a coincidence that Robert Tapert contacted this lady and asked her to do the role of The Enforcer in a couple of episodes of Hercules. At that point he had thought about using her talent for some time. When “The Enforcer” script came up he knew that he had found the perfect part for Karen. And although this character was to appear in only two episodes, Karen´s way of portraying the ultimate killer sent to earth by the Goddess Hera to kill Hercules was so effective that nobody that saw it is likely to forget.
Karen is an interesting person. She has meant an awful lot to women who wants to compete in martial arts in America and she has done everything. In 2000, she was winner of Golden State Karate Black Belt Hall Of Fame and earlier triumphs include her “Woman Of The Year” victory in Black Belt Hall Of Fame in 1997 and has been #1USA Black Belt Forms Champion (twice). She has done numerous movies, including “Eliminator Woman”, “Mission Of Justice” and “Shinobi”. The classic is “Righting Wrongs” (also released as “Above The Law”) by the famous Hong Kong director Cory Yuen, in which he used her chops to the full. There are fighting scenes in this film that is regarded as some of the best in cinema history by many. Karen has also appeared in many tv shows, both as an actor and as a double for the fighting scenes. She has been there for Eliza Dushku in Buffy and Angel, and she has been seen in Walker Texas Ranger for Nia Peeples.
A lot of this was unknown to me at the time. I knew she had done Red Sonja at the Universal Studios stage show of “The Adventures Of Conan” and her job as The Enforcer was an early favourite. Back in 1999, I think, I stumbled across an article in Femmes Fatales that shed some light on her person. I recall a picture of her sitting on a bike that was way cool. And then we jump ahead in time to early September 2001. What happened then was that I sent her a mail asking her if she would be interested in doing an interview for my LUCY IN THE SKY magazine, and the reply that came was very nice and positive. She even put a package of promotional pictures in the mail to me so that I would have no trouble getting a good job done. I had just sent her the interview itself by e-mail when the tragedy of September 11 hit us all. I then sent her a note and asked her to do it later on. I mean, we all had a hard time back then. By December, we were in touch again and once I got the interview it became obvious that she had “walked the extra mile” with it, as the American saying goes. I sent her a mail thanking her for her effort and then she replied that she wanted to do it as good as possible because in her opinion this was the best interview about her work in Hercules ever. I don´t think I have to tell you how nice such a compliment feels and I think you all know by now that Karen is a very warm and friendly kind of person. Here follows the interview. Please enjoy!
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Can you describe your early years, where you grew up and so on?
– Born in Colorado, raised in Illinois and Oregon by parents who influenced me to appreciate the arts and values in life and globe-trotted ever since.
When you were a kid, what influenced you to pick up karate and such things?
– It sounds trite, but it’s true: Bruce Lee… and a girlfriend who encouraged me to join her martial arts class. Sue Hill was a wild friend of mine who encouraged me to check out the class she was taking in Kenpo Karate. Sue perished in the TWA Flight 800 crash from New York to Paris and I will always remember the night before my first class when she helped me sew my first “gi” (traditional karate uniform). On a happier note, Bruce Lee was hot when I was a kid and I saw all of is movies over and over again. I secretly wanted to the first “female Bruce Lee” and do what he was doing on screen. I say secretly, because at the time, it was an unusual desire for a girl.
When you grew up, did you feel that there were any real role models and action heroines worthy of the name on your television?
– Not in the US. The action heroines I respected were the Chinese actresses doing their own stunts and fights in Chinese martial arts films, like Angela Mao. American television didn’t offer anything as real as that.
You were a force behind getting more females involved and gave them a chance to compete. How did you go about this and how long did it take?
– When I competed in martial arts tournaments, there were less than 10% female competitors (now there are 50%). Many national tournaments didn’t even offer separate divisions for women. Many women spectator-martial artists would approach me at tournaments and tell me how intimidated they were to compete against men. I felt that if more tournaments offered separate divisions for women, that more women would sign up for competition and that if women had a goal (ratings) to work for, that they would feel it more worth their time. I contacted the head of the national ratings system (at the time “Black Belt Magazine”) and told them the situation and that I felt women deserved separate ratings. I felt that if a #1 title existed for women, that competitive women would turn out and go for it. The magazine told me that in order to do that, they would need a signed petition from the top women in the country stating that they desired the same thing AND also that tournament promoters needed to begin offering separate divisions for women. I then contacted the top women competitors who enthusiastically believed in the concept and the petition was begun. I also wrote letters to the top tournament promoters and encouraged them to add separate divisions for women. Many of them obliged, hesitantly however. It was a gamble because the promoters didn’t think they’d get enough women to compete. Needless to say, it all worked out. After the first year’s ratings were announced and published, then women competitors came “out of the woodwork” to compete and attendance at tournaments increased. I’m rather proud of this, and would like to think I had a hand in opening up martial arts recognition for women. My thinking at the time was that if there were national rankings for women’s tennis, gymnastics, skating, skiing, etc – why can’t there be national recognition for women in the martial arts and give women a competitive goal to work towards?
You have a very nice track record in your chosen craft. Looking back on your awards, did any one of them mean more than the others and if so why?
– My very first competition ever brought a first place trophy. It is most special because I went in as an innocent, not expecting to win, just to have fun. I wasn’t nervous at all. Performing and competing in that first tournament was fun because I did not put any pressure on myself to win. After that, I lost my “competitive virginity”, so to speak. After tasting victory, I was out for blood. I am also fond of my United States Open Grand Championship. My win was the first time a woman had ever won “Grand Champion”, beating everyone… men and women. It was featured on the national nightly news report. That was a great feeling, winning one of the biggest tournaments in the world. Also, my induction in the Black Belt Hall of Fame run by Black Belt Magazine was most special because to me it is the most credible. There are lots of Halls of Fame but that one is the first, most well established and holds the most credible inductees.
How did you get into live drama at Universal Studios as “Red Sonja” in the “Conan” stage show? Is it true you performed over 3,200 shows?
– Where does a martial-arts star/wanna-be martial-arts movie star look for work to pay her bills between movie jobs? The answer for me was at Universal Studios. I auditioned to be the sword-swinging redhead opposite Conan. How much fun was that? I was the only woman sharing a dressing room with six guys in my cast. I fought four bad guys armed with weapons and helped slay a dragon four to seven times per day for 20 minutes each show daily. What a workout. I met lots of interesting people from all over the world and celebrities that came through and saw the show. In fact, that’s the first time I met Kevin Sorbo. He was in LA on a publicity tour and his people had arranged to present him on our Conan stage for a Question & Answer session for his fans. I was asked by the studio to help introduce him. What’s really bizarre about that, is unbeknownst to either of us, during this same time his producer (Rob Tapert) happened to be in negotiations with my manager to have me guest star on “Hercules”.
Did you ever get injured?
– Oh sure, cuts deep enough to require stitches a number of times. Some of those guys should never have been hired, as their ability with weapons were minimal. Also there were guys using steroids and that tended to make them unpredictable and unsafe. Also, I tore the ligaments off the bone in one knee and had reconstructive surgery that had me in rehabilitation for 1 year. I saw guys get their faces and heads split open on that stage, so I guess I fared pretty well…considering.
Would you accept a similar job again.
– Not where I do four to seven shows a day, especially with performers who are not top-notch. In a way, I do this sort of thing still, but it is fight scenes for movies and TV and it’s only a one-time deal each project and it is usually with people who are great at what they do and there are more safety precautions in place. I did have fun on “Conan”, definitely – but I’ve been there and done that.
Did the job as Red Sonja have anything to do with you being offered the part as “The Enforcer” in Hercules?
– No. The executive producer of “Hercules”, Rob Tapert, was a big fan of martial arts movies and had seen a few that I starred in. He told me he had always wanted to put me in “Hercules” but that he was just waiting for the right project. Finally, “The Enforcer” came along and he thought I was perfect for it. It was really an honor and very flattering to get a job that way, based upon my previous work on screen. It was a nice validation and I am always thankful to Rob Tapert for showing me such respect.
At the time, were you aware of the show? Were Hercules and Xena popular at the time in the US?
– I was aware of Hercules and had seen it a few times. I don’t think Xena was airing yet at the time of my first episode on Hercules. Kevin Sorbo and Hercules were beginning to have lots of fans and gain in popularity.
What was your impression of New Zealand the first time you got there?
– It was winter in New Zealand when I first filmed there. A lot like the Pacific Northwest in the United States, lots of rain, cold but very green and beautiful. Did I say cold? Yeah… cold. Especially that establishing scene I shot for the first episode where I rise up out of the water. On a miserably, cold, rainy day I had to stand in the ocean – in wintertime – with no clothes until we got the complete shot. We were filming on a military reserve and there were Navy guys in a boat behind me. The film crew kept trying to get guys to leave so they wouldn’t be in the shot. They wouldn’t because here was this nude girl on the beach!
Can you describe what the first trip was like?
– In a word… exciting. I love to travel, meet new people, experience new things. I enjoyed the Kiwis (New Zealanders) and their lovely way of talking, went on glorious horseback rides on the beach, ate like a Queen and had a blast working. The director was really good and the crew and cast were such a pleasure to be around. Everyone made me feel so welcome.
Can you confirm that you had creative input in creating the Enforcer?
– I did have input about the look and development of the character. It began with the costume designer, Ngila Dickson. She is awesome, really talented. She phoned me in LA and asked my opinion about how the costume should look. I requested that the outfit show my arms and my stomach because I felt that besides the Enforcer’s supernatural power, she should look physically strong as well, so muscles were in order. I also wanted my knees covered because I knew I’d be doing my own fights and I wanted to be able to pad them with protection. Ngila came up with this incredibly perfect costume. Once I arrived in New Zealand I went straight to hair/make up tests. When I put the costume on for the first time, it fit like a glove and it made me “feel” like the character. The Enforcer’s mannerisms and gestures started to come naturally to me. Then came the hair and eyes. Once the make-up/hairstylist, Annie Single, and I settled on the cut of the hair, the director came in, took a look and suggested the black contacts. I tried some on with the whole outfit on and we decided that was it. The look was complete. I then conferred with the director and producer about the aspects of the character and they were very open minded regarding my suggestions.
Would you say that the creative freedom down on the NZ set was a surprise?
– Once I got there, I wasn’t surprised because I had already met Rob Tapert in LA and Kevin also. I was surprised and pleased when I met them at how open-minded and positive they were. In Hollywood, it’s rare to meet such very cool people, really. They saying goes that a crew is only as good as the top person, so I knew that Rob’s team had to be a really special group.
The stars usually have stunt doubles for action scenes. Did you have a double at all?
– I had a gymnastics double who performed the more difficult moves like flipping off of platforms and repeat backhandspringing down the banquet table and stuff. She was really great. All of the fights and most everything else is me. I like to do as much as I can myself, but I also believe in giving credit where credit is due.
Describe the feeling of the set. Was there any joking going on, any practical jokes?
– Lots of joking. One great thing about Kevin is that he kept his crew happy and laughing. No big “star” trip on the set, nothing to prove. I don’t remember any practical jokes, but I do remember lots of laughter. We would sit around between shots and Kevin and Michael Hurst would share humurous stories about their experiences on the show, leaving us giggling into the next shot.
You had fight scenes with both Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst. Can you tell me a little about these scenes?
– Both guys were awesome. Neither one had egos that got in the way of creativity. They both realized that having a woman knock the blazes out of them was integral to the storyline and they both really got into it. They both did most of their own stunts and took their own hard-knocks. I was impressed. They were both equally open to my suggestions about choreography, as was the fight/stunt coordinator, Peter Bell. The scene where I really thrashed Iolaus (Michael Hurst) was fun because Michael really got into it. The more raw and thrashed he got, the more he seemed to love it. A real gritty actor. He was very cool. I remember the final fight between Kevin and myself, we both were not feeling well that day. The flu bug was going around set. I guess we used how we felt to make the scene appear more violent, as it well should have looked.
How long did the first episode take to shoot and did you get to see it prior to actually seeing it air on TV?
– I was there two weeks from beginning to end of getting all the shots for the first episode. I did not see it prior to it airing on TV, so I had a little party at my house when the show aired for the first time. The director, T.J. Scott, came to my party along with a few friends. It was cool watching it with a group.
The ratings were very good. What was the best thing that came out of that in your opinion?
– The best thing is to be able to say that my episode, “The Enforcer” had the highest ratings ever for the entire series. Way cool.
How long was it before you knew they wanted you down there again for another episode and did you hesitate to do it at all?
– I think it was almost a year later, for the next season. I was extremely flattered to be asked back. When they sent me the first draft of the script, however, I asked Rob Tapert if he would be open to changes. He was great about that and obliged me with a few long telephone conversations about the story and my character.
For the second episode, you already knew what the character would be like but this time you were on the good side. Did this give you impulses to add something for this episode.
– I wanted to make it apparent to the audience that The Enforcer was going through a transition, as opposed to all of a sudden having her be a good guy for no apparent reason. I wanted the episode to show a sort of discovery and learning period for her so that she truly understands what good is and redeems herself before she dies (again).
The death scene of The Enforcer was very good. Is it true that you or your husband came up with that?
– After reading the second draft of the script, I realized that the death scene was coming up flat. It was written that The Enforcer just died in the battle against Enforcer II. End of Enforcer. I truly loved this character and had such fun playing her that I wanted her to go out in a blaze of glory. I wanted her death to mean something relative to the story and to Hercules. I wanted to show the audience that The Enforcer had completed a journey and had truly learned about good. My husband came up with the idea of tying in the scene where The Enforcer discovers tears (Hercules’ mother crying) with the death scene by finally understanding that “sometimes people cry when they are happy”. My husband, Joe, mostly wrote the scene. I took it to NZ and read it aloud at the script read-through for cast, producers and director. I held my breath at the end and was thrilled when everyone said they liked it. Rob Tapert said, “let’s do it”. What a feather in Joe’s cap. I’m pleased with how it came out. I think it added more meaning to the story throughout. The way Kevin played it made the scene very touching and served to flatter his character as well.
Was there ever talk again about getting The Enforcer back for yet another episode?
– Talk, here and there but nothing came of it. The director wanted to spin me off into my own series, or do a feature film based on the character, but it was just talk at the time. I would have loved to have seen The Enforcer cross over to Xena. I thought Xena was an outstanding show and thought Lucy was doing really great things on it.
What is your opinion on Rob Tapert and Sam Rami? Would you say that it is true that Hercules and Xena changed the American thinking in this field?
– They are extremely creative gentlemen. American TV had never really experienced fantasy, innovative action, and outrageousness combined with clever humor before. I think all the “wanna-be”, copy-cat action shows that started after Hercules and Xena began are a testament to the creativity of these two guys. Imitation is the best form of flattery, it is said.
When in NZ, did you get to meet “the other set”, the Xena crew and stars?
– I met a lot of the crew, because many of the same crew members went back and forth between shows. The only cast member I met was Renee O’Connor, Gabrielle. We met in passing at the production office one day. My father was with me on my second trip to NZ and I remember her being so gracious and sweet. I think she charmed my Dad so much that I had to snap him back to reality and remind him who I was… hey Dad, remember me… Karen, your kid? Not really that bad, but close!
If you had been an ancient queen and your motto engraved on all the coins in the land, what would it say?
– “What is real are those whom you love and who love you unconditionally. Nothing else is as important.” My coins would have to be really big!
Do you have any hobbies aside from the time you spend with your career?
– I collect antiques, mostly memorabilia from the 1950’s and 1960’s, especially original toys and metal lunchboxes. I also love to read, learn languages (currently trying to teach myself French) and travel. Mostly though I watch movies. Movies, movies, movies.
Have you ever been to Sweden and do you have any friends or relatives here?
– I’ve never been. I hope to go one day and I hope that after this interview, I will have lots of new friends from Sweden.
Would you like to say something to your fans here?
– Thank you!
After receiving and writing this interview out I realized that it would be fun to know if Karen knew what had happened to the costume that she used to wear as she portrayed The Enforcer in these episodes of Hercules – could she perhaps even own it herself? So I sent her a mail and asked and she replied “I kept the Enforcer costume… all of it, boots and everything. I´m happy to save it as a remembrance”. So now you know. And it feels somehow just right that she still has it stored away. She was The Enforcer and nobody else could have done the part better.
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Michael Eriksson (c).
(No part of this interview may be quoted without permission)
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