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LAWLESS ENJOYS LIFE AFTER 'XENA'

In "Locusts," a CBS movie thriller premiering at 9 tonight, Lucy Lawless stars as a Department of Agriculture official desperately battling a deadly breed of voracious, bioengineered insects that have escaped from a government lab.

On a recent weekday morning at her California home, however, the former star of "Xena: Warrior Princess" has her mind on a different kind of bug. She's hoarse and coughing from some sort of bronchial crud she picked up on the TV movie set.

"I have been plagued by it, like a swarm of locusts, since we were filming in Louisiana, and I've just really succumbed to it now," Lawless says, her voice at half-strength or less. "Poor old Dylan Neal, who played my husband, was having to kiss me while I was hocking and coughing. It was not pretty."

Even under the weather, however, the New Zealand-born actress is still a striking beauty, and fans are looking forward to this, her largest TV role since the syndicated "Xena" ended its run in 2001 after six successful seasons.

"I play a young gal who has come into the department of agriculture as the undersecretary, which may not sound as sexy to you as it is in reality," Lawless says wryly of her character, Dr. Maddy Rierdon, "and she discovers that one of the scientists, her mentor, has run amok with a program and it all gets out of hand. This dangerous bunch of hybrid locusts escapes from the lab, and the movie is about us hunting them down, with a conspiracy angle to the story as well."

Lawless hasn't actually been in seclusion these past four years. There have been funny little cameos in a couple of films ("Spider-Man," "Eurotrip") as well as guest appearances on shows ranging from "The X-Files" to "Two and a Half Men."

There was also the matter of the short-lived 2003 WB Network drama series "Tarzan," which the actress joined in progress during feverish attempts to salvage the sinking show.

"I think they kept replacing people, trying to make it work," she recalls. "At that point, I was pretty grateful to be wanted by anyone, because I was a zero in the world of Hollywood. (Executive producer) Laura Ziskin kind of talked me into it, but when it didn't work, I was OK with that, and then I decided to decline other offers for a while."

Most of her self-imposed hiatus was focused on rearing the baby she had in 2002, one of two sons with husband Rob Tapert, an executive producer on "Xena." She also has an older daughter from an earlier marriage. And indeed, after her extended and physically demanding run as the barbarian warrior princess, a little time off seemed like a pretty sweet idea.

Now that she's ready to return to work, Lawless acknowledges that some producers may consider her a little exotic by the usual Hollywood standards because she is 5-feet 9 inches tall.

She's mulling several projects that she's not at liberty to discuss right now, but she admits she'd love to do a good sitcom -- and as "Xena" fans know, she has the chops to pull it off, given the right material.

"But not everybody knows that," she says, sighing, "and I have a certain look. Not being petite, there are a lot of guys you can't put me next to.

"To be honest, I would love to be the next Mary Tyler Moore. I am perfectly serious about that. I don't think about my accent, because most people know I can do an American accent with no trouble -- in fact, I do one in 'Locusts' -- but some people just can't get past that.

"It will have to be really fine material for me to commit to another series, though, because that can be several years out of your life. So far, either I haven't seen the right material or 'they' haven't felt I was right for it. Nothing has gelled yet, but I'm OK with that, frankly."

Enough time has passed to allow Lawless not to worry unduly about following her sensational success as Xena, a role that established her as an icon for many fans. Although some of them can get a little carried away in their adoration, particularly on the Internet, the actress says almost all the fans she runs into in person are respectful and friendly.

"My general experience is that the fans are really decent, hardworking folk and extremely generous of spirit, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities I have supported, from hospitals down in New Zealand to literacy campaigns to breast cancer, things like that."

But if Lawless' fans are eager to have her back on TV on a weekly basis, the actress admits that she's enjoying being picky about her next big role.

"Oh, let's face it, basically all I want is everything," she says, "and until I figure out how to get that, in the meantime I am having a very fine life."