On this weeks edition of Cult actors we will be taking a look at retired actress Claire Stansfield who is probably best known for her recurring role as Xena’s nemesis, the evil shameness Alti on Xena the Warrior Princess.
Before her retirement Claire had a very successful career as a cult actress and appeared in a number of sci fi and fantasy series.
I think it was a shame that Claire stopped acting. She had an incredible screen presence, stunning good looks and and a very wide range as an actress having played a variety of different roles, both villainous and heroic throughout her short career. I hope to one day see her return even just to voice acting as she had a fabulous voice too.
Alpha/ The Flash
One of Claire’s first roles in the short lived series based upon the character from DC comics. The Flash series though not a massive success when it first aired is now regarded as a classic.
Claire’s episode”Alpha” was definitely one of the better episodes of the series thanks in no small part to her performance. Claire does a good job in making Alpha a likable character. Though Alpha, an android who just wants to be a human, but whose creators want to use her for a more nefarious scheme isn’t a particularly origi`-hc.4’H=#nal idea, but its still nevertheless nice to see Claire play a more soft, vulnerable character unlike the normally tough and or villainous roles she would become known for.
The Jersey Devil/ The X-Files
One of Claire’s most famous roles was as the savage young woman who is mistaken for the legendary Jersey Devil in the 5th ever episode of the X-Files. Apparently Claire was recommended for the role by leading man David Duchovny who was a close personal friend of hers. The Jersey Devil, though she does murder and eat several people is still portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic character, as she only does what she does to protect her children.
Even Mulder manages to have some empathy with her despite the fact that she attacks him as well. Her death at the end is strangely moving in spite of her many crimes and Claire is really able to bring a lot of heart and gravitas into the character making it one of the shows more memorable one shot villains.
Sid/ Twin Peaks
Claire guest starred in two episodes of the iconic cult series as the character Sid. There’s not really much to say about this role in all honesty. Though it was great to see Claire appear on such a popular series the character was still a fairly minor role.
Joanne/ The Outpost/Mind Ripper/ The Hills Have Eyes 3
Claire starred in this low budget horror movie opposite Lance Henrikson. The Outpost also known as Mindripper and The Hills Have Eyes 3 (though it has no connection with the other entries in the series apart from being produced by Wes Craven) was a movie I didn’t really bother with for a long while due to its negative reputation.
Had it not been for this article, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to track it down but I am glad I did as it is actually rather enjoyable. Its not high class entertainment, but as a cheap monster movie which is all it was ever supposed to be it works really well.
The films plot see’s a group of scientists including Claire’s character Joanne attempt to create a new serum that can transform people into super soldiers, however predictably it goes wrong and their test subject whom they nickname “Thor” escapes and goes on the rampage. Thor kills all of the scientists except for Joanne and Stockton who along with his family must try and escape from the facility.
There are a lot of very creatively gruesome deaths throughout the film and exciting action sequences. Though the ending seems almost comical the way “Thor” keeps getting defeated only to suddenly re emerge again without any explanation. First they lock him in the base, then he appears on the top of their truck even though there is no way he could have escaped from the base. Then they blow him up but then a few minutes later he is on the plane, even though we saw the plane take off and fly through the air very clearly with no one on it!
Claire herself is the one who finally finishes Thor off by shooting him in the head causing the mutant to fall several hundred feet to the ground below, though the ending implies that he has survived yet again.
Like I said the movie overall is not high class entertainment but as a silly gore fest its great and contemporary reviews have tended to be a bit more positive. I think people tend to go into the film with this mindset more often nowadays.
Regardless of the quality of the film overall Claire gives a brilliant performance. Joanne is an Ellen Ripley style hard as nails heroine. Its a shame Claire wasn’t given a chance to play this type of character more often, as I think if given the chance to appear in a mainstream movie as this type of character, she could have had a long career as a leading lady. Claire and Lance Henrikson another cult favourite both elevate this movie to being better than it actually is.
Alti/ Xena the Warrior Princess
Claire’s most famous role. Claire played this character in just 6 episodes of Xena, but she nevertheless went on to become one of the show’s most memorable characters. Alti really took over from Hudson Leick’s Callisto as Xena’s archenemy in the later seasons (with Callisto only making three appearances after Alti appeared due Leick’s desire to quit the series).
Alti served as a totally different type of villain to Callisto in a number of ways. To begin with Alti was far more powerful. Callisto had only ever been a match for Xena (though even then Xena always defeated her even when Callisto was a goddess.) Alti however was so powerful she’d usually have Xena and Gabrielle lying on the floor bloodied and crying. Xena never defeats Alti without help throughout the entire series.
Alti also had played a role in shaping Xena into an evil person in the past. With Callisto it was the total opposite she was someone who had been turned into a monster by Xena’s evil actions. Finally Callisto had always been a more sympathetic character. From the very beginning in some ways the audiences sympathies are actually with Callisto more than they are with Xena. Many would argue that she does have every right to avenge herself on the warrior princess.
Whilst some people might argue that this made Alti a less interesting character than Callisto I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a villain who is just pure evil. People often act as though those types of villains are boring compared to the more sympathetic characters, but then again remember that some of the most memorable villains across all mediums are pure monsters. Professor Moriarty, The Joker, Davros, The Yellow Eyed Demon from Supernatural and Lord Voldemort are all complete monsters with very little to no shades of grey whatsoever.
What these villains lack in depth they often more than make up for in both menace and screen presence. A total monster often provides the biggest challenge to the hero, even if they are not their most powerful enemy, as they are the ones who are willing to go the furthest in stopping the hero.
I think its always good to have a mix of different types of villains and that to me was one of Xena’s strengths. It did have a very sympathetic villain in the form of Callisto, a villain who walked a fine line in the form of Ares, a cold, logical, ruthless scheming villain in the form of Julius Ceasar and finally a complete and total monster in the form of Alti. If Alti had been another sympathetic villain then I think it would have just been a boring retread of Callisto, but the fact that she was far more evil helped her to stand out as a different and even greater threat in some ways.
Alti first appears in the “Adventures in the Sin Trade” two parter that opens season 4. Now sadly this episode drags terribly in lots of places. The story line about one of the amazons taking Xena’s power is pointless and has a stupid cop out ending. Also the story comes at the wrong point in the shows history.
After the climactic season 3 finale, fans were no doubt expecting to find out what happened with Hope and Dahak. It wasn’t wise to introduce a new villain and character in the middle of a huge long running story.
Fortunately however Claire makes a very strong debut as Alti and indeed her performance is really the saving grace of the story. Alti knew Xena in her evil warlord days and tempted her with promises of dark power. She was able to convince Xena to slaughter twelve Amazons in cold blood after which Alti took their blood and used it to trap their souls in the nothingness between our world and the Amazons afterlife, so that she could draw psychic energy from them.
She uses this psychic to increase her own supernatural powers which include the ability to make a person experience pain from their past just by looking at them.
Xena only defeats Alti by facing her in the spiritual realm and joining with the spirits of twelve Amazons though even here she is barely able to defeat her.
Alti makes a refreshing change from the usual types of female villains that we see on television who always have to be glamorous. Though Claire Stansfield is a very beautiful woman, the character of Alti is not meant to be appealing in any way.
She wears antlers covered in blood, speaks in a deep growly voice which was modelled on Miranda Richardson’s performance as Queen Mab in Merlin. She is anything but the usual seductive femme fatale that we are used to seeing. Claire gives the character real menace and she and Lucy Lawless play off of each other perfectly, with Lucy actually making Xena seem scared of Alti at times.
The most frightening moment in the whole episode is when we see how Alti cursed Xena’s child so that it never knows the love of either of its parents, a curse which as we know ultimately came true. The final fight between Alti and Xena is also visually stunning too.
Overall “Adventures in the Sin Trade” is a mixed bag. It feels like it should be a classic, as it introduces one of the most iconic villains in the shows history, has plenty of exciting and terrifying moments and Claire Stansfield is amazing, but overall the episode just doesn’t hold together that well.
If it had come at a later point and not been a two parter then I think it would be a classic, but its just too long and plodding to come in the middle of the Dahak story arc.
Fortunately Alt’s next appearance in “Between the Lines” is much better in fact I would rate it among the top 5 Xena episodes.
This story sees Xena and Gabrielle sent into the future to battle a great evil that threatens to trap the earth in eternal darkness. This is not any old method of time travel however. The two are reincarnated in the future as their future lives. Xena and Gabrielle soon discover that the evil they are sent to battle is in fact a reincarnated Alti. In this life Alti is now a powerful warrior as opposed to just some crazy shaman and has more influence to carry out her spells. Using her vast armies Alti slaughters hundreds and thousands of innocent men, women children and infants and traps their souls in a state of perpetual agony. She draws the psychic energy from them the way she did from the Amazon spirits to make herself stronger and gains the ability to draw energy from people’s fear and pain too.
Alti hopes to use this dark power to rule the world, but before she can claim it, Xena and Gabrielle manage to bring her backwards in time. Unfortunately even in the past Alti still still kicks their asses badly.
This is probably the worst beating Xena and Gabrielle endure in the entire series. Alti thrashes the both of them at the same time, breaks Xena’s legs. makes her own shakram cut her neck, beats Gabrielle with her own staff, and makes her feel the pain of her death by crucifiction.
Its such a harrowing moment as we see Xena and Gabrielle more helpless than ever before lying on the ground literally crying with pain whilst Alti laughs at them. Never before or again would any of Xena’s enemies tower over her to such an extent.
Though Xena and Gabrielle are able to destroy Alti, again it is only with help from the same person who sent them into the future who grants them both magical powers with which they use to destroy her. Xena is then told that Alti’s spirit can never die, but that Xena and Gabrielle will always be reincarnated to stop her. In a way this makes Alti Xena’s true archnemesis as whilst Callisto may have been her mortal foe in this life, Alti is her eternal nemesis in all of her lives.
Alti was originally intended to appear in the penultimate episode this season where it would be revealed that her soul had been sent to hell, and she had now made a deal with Satan to put Xena off of the path of redemption, so that Xena’s soul would take her place in hell instead.
Ultimately however it was later decided to feature Hudson Leick in this episode instead. This was definitely the right decision as we had already had three Alti episodes this season whilst Callisto had not appeared since the season 3 finale. Also I feel this episode needed a more sympathetic villain as well. With Callisto there is a sense of injustice of her being in hell whilst Xena who torched her family, ascends to heaven which obviously there would not be with Alti.
Alti would later return in season 5 in the episode “Them Bones Them Bones”.
This is another favourite of mine though I wouldn’t say that its as good as “Between the Lines” its still quite creepy in places. Alti’s ghost begins to attack Xena in her dreams and begins to steal the soul of Xena’s unborn baby, with Alti planning to replace the baby’s soul with her own so she can be reborn. Gabrielle attempts to fight Alti in the spirit realm, but she gets her ass kicked and is almost tortured to death by Alti.
Alti later succeeds in stealing Xena’s baby’s soul and threatens to send it to hell unless Xena helps her be reborn again. With no other options Xena along with the Amazons help brings Alti’s spirit back into her body now rotted away into nothing but a skeleton. Alti re emerges as a living skeleton and taunts Xena for being weak and actually eats her child’s soul.
Fortunately however it turns out that Xena went back on her word too, and merely dragged Alti into another dream world, Xena demonstrates this by ripping all of her skin off and becoming a living skeleton too. Skeleton Xena and Alti battle it out, and Xena once again assisted by the minds of all the Amazons that are joined together is able to defeat Alti and save her child.
Much like the previous two episodes the highlight of this story is once again the final fight between skeleton Alti and skeleton Xena. I think Xena’s confrontations with Alti were always the most fun because they were always the most unusual. In Sin Trade we had the both of them flying through the woods, in “Between the Lines” we had Xena and Gabrielle blasting her with magic rays, and here we have a battle between two Harryhausen style skeletons.
Another highlight from this episode is when Alti thrashes Gabrielle. Alti’s sadistic countdown of seconds Gabrielle has left to live is a great moment of villainy.
Alti would go on to appear in just two more episodes the following year. The first of these “Send in the Clones” is a modern day episode which sees a modern day reincarnation of Alti clone Xena and Gabrielle in an attempt to ruin Xena’s reputation by making the clone go evil.
Its a pretty stupid plan. As if anyone would think it was the real Xena anyway and on top of that Alti could have used her power to rule the world, but she brought back the one person who was destined to always beat her? Maybe her mad plan could have worked but only if she had cloned Xena herself. Why on earth did she bother cloning Gabrielle the one person who always stopped Xena from going evil too?
To be fair though this episode is essentially a parody, but still even at that its quite lame. I’d say this is my least favourite Alti episode. Alti is the only saving grace and Claire really gives it her all, but even here sadly she is let down by the script which makes Alti, Xena’s most vicious opponent into a complete and utter clown. Even the final fight between Alti and Xena whilst once again the best bit is still not anywhere near as good.
Not only does Xena beat Alti far too easily (this marks the only time that Xena beats Alti on her own in the entire series, but since its not canon I don’t count it) but the fight itself is just bog standard. Alti doesn’t use any of her powers against Xena.
Its like watching Xena fight Callisto. Isn’t the whole point of Alti that she has all of these weird magic powers?
Fortunately however Alti’s final episode in the series would prove to be one of the best the series ever produced. This episode see’s Julius Cesar rewrite history so that he never betrayed Xena. As a result he and Xena went on to rule the world and Alti ends up as their high priestess. Using her psychic powers Alti is able to discover the truth behind what Xena has done and pits Xena and Cesar against one another. She lets Xena know of what has happened and then manipulates Cesar, fearful of Xena turning against him into letting her capture Xena.
Xena is tortured by Alti and Cesar and subsequently crucified. With Xena out of the way Alti then seduces Cesar and stabs him to death whilst they make love. I suppose even though it must have been gutting (literally) for Cesar to get betrayed again by someone close to him, look on the bright side. At least this time it was in the middle of sex with Claire Stansfield.
Having deposed both of the rulers of the Roman empire in gruesome ways. Alti appears to have won, but before she can begin her reign of terror, Gabrielle rewrites history and Alti is destroyed for good. This episode marks the only time Alti gets to meet another of Xena’s major enemies, Julius Cesar played by Karl Urban.
I think it was a shame we never got to see Alti meet Ares particularly as Claire Stansfield and the late Kevin Smith where such close friends. Alti and Callisto of course would have been the ultimate showdown of Xena’s major enemies. Still her interactions with Cesar are great as she plays on his vanity and paranoia.
Right from the start its obvious that Cesar is out of his depth in dealing with her yet his arrogance leads him to believe she is afraid of him. One thing I didn’t like about this episode however was the way Alti seduces Cesar.
This was apparently at the behest of Claire Stansfield herself. Claire had gotten tired of Alti being made to look unattractive in previous episodes with her character even being described as a “pathetic bag of bones” and an “old hag”. So for her final appearance Claire wanted the character to be sexy.
I think this was a mistake as like I said before I rather liked that about Alti that she was one of the few villains unlike say Servalan from Blake’s 7 or Darla from Angel who didn’t have to be a seductive, alluring femme fatale. Even Callisto had seduced Ares earlier in the series. Also I don’t see any reason for Alti to seduce Cesar within the story itself. She was already clearly powerful enough to kill him anyway. Having said that though Alti stabbing him in bed was quite a nice parallel with Cesar’s dream from season 4, where Xena stabbed him in bed.
Whilst its sad we don’t get one big last Xena/Alti fight, the final moments where we see Xena, tortured, beaten and bloodied and dying on the cross whilst Alti laughs at her misfortune are truly chilling and Claire absolutely excels at it.
Alti not surprisingly was Claire’s favourite role. She would become a regular at Xena and sci fi and fantasy conventions around the world and became friends with many cast members including even those she did not appear in episodes with, such as Hudson Leick and Alexandra Tydings. Sadly despite the popularity of the Alti character it would be Claire’s last role before her retirement.
Claire appeared in many tv shows and films throughout her career including a leading role opposite Dolph Lundgren in the movie Sweepers which saw her play the main heroine.
She also appeared in “Sensation” which saw her do a love scene with Eric Roberts. Its quite funny in a way to see Claire Stansfield, Xena’s archenemy Alti, and Eric Roberts who played the Doctor’s archenemy The Master hooking up.
Sadly however after Xena, Claire decided to retire from acting. Apparently she had never enjoyed it very much, having only taken it up to make money. She even said in an interview with the website Woosh that if she could do it all over again she would not become an actor. After leaving acting she set up C and C California a clothing line specialising in 1970’s style T-shirts. She later after selling the company in 2005 became an interior designer and has enjoyed a successful career. Indeed Claire doesn’t seem to be doing too badly at all these days.
Whilst Claire did not enjoy acting she still appreciates her role in Xena and its fans and is still both a regular and a favourite at Xena conventions around the world. I hope that one day Claire comes out of retirement. Obviously there is no need for her too financially, but still I felt she was a very special talent and would have liked to see her play more roles.
Still even if she doesn’t, at the very least she will always be my favourite Xena villain and a much loved cult actress.
Thanks for reading