They say war is hell, and nowhere is that truer than in the Spartacus saga. It was in the show’s first season, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, that our hero, a Thracian gladiator named Spartacus (Andy Whitfield), gave up his gladiatorial career to lead an uprising against the Roman Republic.
When production of season two was delayed while Andy Whitfield was treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the show’s creative team came up with Gods of the Arena, a six-episode prequel to Blood and Sand that focuses on the story of Batiatus (John Hannah) and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) and the rise of the House of Batiatus prior to Spartacus’ arrival.
In Spartacus: Vengeance, Liam McIntyre took on the Spartacus role after the death of Andy Whitfield. Vengeance is set weeks following Blood and Sand and after Spartacus and his fellow gladiators murder their master, Batiatus. The freed gladiators and slaves must now go up against Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker) and his troops.
After three years, the series is coming to an end with Spartacus: War of the Damned, which premieres Saturday, January 25th @ 9:00 p.m. EST/PST on the STARZ cable network. In it, Spartacus and his rebel army, which now numbers in the thousands, face the might of Rome and battle Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells) and Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance).
Recently, Spartacus creator/executive producer Steven S. DeKnight along with Liam McIntyre, Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Naevia) and Todd Lasance spoke with myself as well as other journalists about War of the Damned and the successful Spartacus TV franchise. The following is an edited version of that Q & A. Enjoy!
Steven I’m wondering if you could talk about Caesar’s entry into this show, I know he makes his debut in the second episode, but how big of a threat is he going to be for our “heroes?”
Steven S. DeKnight: Oh, he’s a huge threat. Early on we had a discussion in the writer’s room looking at the villain side. We had Crassus (Simon Merrells) who is fantastic, but we felt like we needed to bring another element into it, so we hatched this idea, “What about a young Caesar before he really came to power?”
We knew historically that the Caesar of this time period was very much the order and a fighter. He was fighting in foreign wars and had this fantastic Julian name, but he was also broke. Those elements really matched well with Crassus. We were also very interested in seeing the early days of Crassus and Caesar before they joined together with Pompey and overthrew the Republic. We thought that would be a great story to tell, especially because you usually don’t see that side of the story in movies and television shows about Caesar. It’s typically after they’ve overthrown the Republic, or right around the time they overthrow the Republic.
We brought in our historical advisors and asked, “How much would we destroy history by having Caesar as part of this war against Spartacus?” We were all very surprised when they told us that we wouldn’t be destroying history at all. In fact, this was the one small part of history where very little is known about Caesar. There’s a lot written about him, except this one little area.
There are historians that thought Caesar was probably part of this campaign against Spartacus and more than likely he served under Crassus. That gave us just enough to hang our hat on so to speak, but at the same time, everything in the show with Caesar is fictional. We do frame it, though, with actual events from his past and make very sly references to what’s coming in the future for Caesar.
Then, of course, we had to find our Caesar, and, man, was that a hard role to cast. I had a very specific thing in my head for Caesar. He had to have a presence and look like he would be a threat to the other gladiators. Most importantly, though, he had to have this shrewd intelligence in his eyes, almost like a shark that was constantly thinking and looking for his next move. We looked at so many auditions, but just couldn’t find the right combination. Then I saw Todd’s audition, and I immediately called (executive producer) Rob Tapert and said, “I’ve got the guy. This is absolutely the one. We’ve got to book him as quickly as possible because we’re not going to find another actor that embodies what we need from Caesar.”
And Todd did such a fantastic job. From the moment you first see him on the screen, it’s a different interpretation of Caesar from those that I think the audience has ever seen, and one that I feel is very right for this time period. I’ve read a lot of things online – Todd, I don’t know if you’ve read anything as well – and there’s been a small outcry of “You guys suck. Your casting is terrible. This guy looks nothing like Caesar; Caesar was old and bald.”
Todd Lasance: A couple of my friends have mentioned that.
SD: The thing is, people just go back to what we’ve seen so much of. Ciaran Hinds was fantastic as Caesar in Rome, but that’s Caesar later in his life, like 30 years later. In this time period, Caesar historically is right around 29, and, you know, it just brings such a fantastic element to the show. I’m very excited for people to see this Caesar and his being such a threat to the rebels. And just the way that Crassus and Caesar interact is just a joy to behold.
Todd, could you talk about taking on the role, and did you rely mostly on the script and your conversations with Steven? Or did you kind of delve into the history and the research in that respect?
TL: I kind of worked on two elements with that. First of all, before I had a chance to speak with the producers, I had about six weeks to do as much research as possible on my own. So I got together as many books as I could and did just that in order to get an understanding of that particular time period. Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of historical information on Caesar’s early years, as opposed to when he came to power and was emperor of Rome. Obviously that’s when a lot of that information was documented.
So I did as much research as I could, and then once I got to New Zealand, I sat down and spoke with the producers to get an understanding of what they wanted to see from Caesar. Their character description also gave me a little bit of a better idea of that.
With regards to the audition, I went into it with no real notes or much of anything else. I just put my own spin on Caesar. So I guess you could say that there were three different elements that I brought together for the role.
This question is for Cynthia – your character of Naevia went through such a huge change last season and I’m assuming she’s going to be doing a lot of butt kicking in War of the Damned. So what was that like in terms of learning to fight and all of that?
Cynthia Addai-Robinson: Well, I went through a really interesting process both on a personal level and through working on this character. Essentially at the end of Spartacus: Vengeance, you saw the sort of beginnings of what Naevia is going to be this season in War of the Damned. I think back to when I was hired and met with Steven. I remember him giving me just a vague idea that I would be eventually fighting and kicking ass. However, I don’t think I could have really imagined what I ultimately ended up doing, which was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.
I don’t have a background in stunt work, fighting or anything like that. So for me it was very much, “OK, I’m just going to jump into this. Take a leap of faith and assume that the producers and writers won’t give me anything that I can’t handle.” I definitely was pushed to the limits, but in a good way, and I very much cared about making sure I could use all that training and the fighting to tell that story and move my character forward.
So that was sort of what kept me motivated and kept me going. There were many times and many days where I just thought, “Oh gosh, I don’t know if I can do this. I’m really out of my depth here.” But I’m really happy with it and we have such an incredible support network with our stunt department. Everyone works tirelessly to get the fights together, and I have to say some of those sequences this season are absolutely amazing.
You know, we work on the show, but I think I can speak for the group of us when I say that we’re also fans. So when we watch it, we’re just as into it as the audience. So we’re all really excited to see what the end result is going to look like.
SD: I think the audience is going to be absolutely blown away by Naevia this season. Whenever we were watching dailies in the writer’s room and Cynthia would come on screen, we’d spend the next ten minutes talking about how cool you were.
CAD: Thanks guys.
SD: I can tell you that Naevia’s hair, the make-up, the costuming – just phenomenal. What a transformation.
CAD: What was so nice is that I felt like I really got to own it (the character) this season. I know for the audience, when I showed up as Naevia 2.0 it was probably a bit (trying) in many respects, but now I feel like this season that, hopefully, the audience has moved past that. Either they accept it or they don’t, but at this point I know for me I just sort of own Naevia this season and I’m really excited for the audience to see where the writers and producers have taken this character.
Steven, I’m curious about the decision to end the show and when that was made in terms of work on this upcoming season. Had it begun already?
SD: Thankfully, we knew at the end of Spartacus: Vengeance. We were writing the last couple of episodes and knew there was a 99% chance that the next season would be our last. So that gave us plenty of time to plan the end of Vengeance and springboard into War of the Damned.
So we were able to figure out where we were going to go, which is a rare thing in television. The only question was how many episodes we were going to do, and we went through a lot of different variations on that. I mean, everything from let’s do eight episodes so we can spend more money on each episode, to how about 16 episodes and we’ll air it in two parts. Ultimately, we thought that 10 episodes would give audiences the most bang for their buck.
Was the decision to end the show yours? Was it the networks? It’s just that it’s unusual to see a show as popular and that does as well in the ratings as Spartacus end relatively soon.
SD: You know, it was a combination, it really was. A lot of factors went into it. My original plan was five to seven seasons, then we got to the war years and the more research I did, the more all of the things that happened in the war were incredibly interesting. They were also incredibly expensive and somewhat repetitive.
Spartacus and his band of rebels didn’t exactly have a dramatic three-act structure to what they were doing. They were all over the place. They fought amongst themselves, they split apart, came back together, split apart again, they went north, they went south, they went east, they went west, they went back north, they went back south, etc. When you read it, you really get the sense that there was no exact plan. They were just out and about.
And then it was one wave after another of Romans going after them and Romans getting defeated. So I really struggled with how to lay everything out in an entertaining fashion for two or three more seasons without completely jettisoning history. I didn’t want to turn my back on history and just make it fictional.
So it was a group decision, and a bold one I think for STARZ. Everything they’ve done with this show has been a bold choice. I kept saying, look, we’d rather end this show on a high note and at its most popular rather than drag it out for a couple more seasons and for the audience to get bored and start to fall away. I totally agreed with that, so I think it was a great opportunity to end it and really end it strong.
You mentioned history, and I wonder given the real history of Spartacus, should viewers be preparing themselves for a downer ending?
SD: Well, you know, I have a long history of ripping hearts out. So, yeah, it’s a gut wrenching finale, but I’m so proud of it. It’s incredibly difficult to end a series, but I think everyone did such a fantastic job on this one. It is a beautiful, powerful, emotional ending, and one where we wanted to stick as close to history as possible. So the challenge was, how do we have that ending but still make it a victory? The last episode is called Victory and it’s a bit of an ironic title because it really explores how the rebels gained victory in defeat and, frankly, with the Romans how they suffered defeat and victory.
No one comes out of this clean at the end. In true Spartacus fashion, it’s all very grey at the end. But there is a powerful, I think, uplifting message at the end. I’ve said this before, but I wrote the finale, I watched all of the dailies, I saw cuts, but still at the end of the day when I watched it I cried. It was so moving. I can only imagine how the audience is going to feel.
Liam, in War of the Damned, how has your character changed as far as his attitude towards things in sort of the grey area?
LM: He’s a lot more no nonsense this year. It’s been fun. I like that the writing team have kind of clearly (delineated) Spartacus each season. He’s a reluctant slave who’s essentially on this mission to regain his life. In season two, it’s clearly defined that he’s lost his old life and has to the start a new one. So he takes on this unique new responsibility, which is that he has a real opportunity to make a difference in so many lives.
Now it’s almost a year later in the midst of this war, this full scale rebellion that was made so famous. Spartacus is not the same questioning guy that he was in the past when it comes to what he should be doing and how he should be doing it. He’s a no-nonsense, kick-ass, take names kind of guy now.
So, yes, Spartacus has really hardened up and he’s had to because he sort of realizes that it’s going to be his strength of will that leads these people to freedom or else. And if he’s going to have any chance against the impossible might of Rome, he’s going to have to steer the ship. So he’s in a very firm place now.
Is there a point where Spartacus is going to say, “This is too far? These people are innocent, we need to stop.”
LM: The thing I like about Spartacus is that he isn’t necessarily a cut and dry heroic character. He’s aware of the world around him and the fact that it’s not a pretty one. So he has to take stock of what he wants, what it’s for, and what is he prepared to sacrifice to get it.
There will be many times that the Romans and his own rebels make him look at what he’s created and question whether or not it’s OK as far as what he is doing as well as what the people around him are doing. To tell you exactly how he decides that would be ruining the story, but it is part of what makes this character so fascinating.
Spartacus is not always the good guy, and I like to think that some of the things that make him the hero are the difficult decisions that aren’t always good guy decisions, you know? So when he does fight and fight the good fight, it’s sort of more important. So the character will be tested more than he ever has been when it comes to what is he doing, and why is he doing it.
Todd, besides his age, what makes this Julius Caesar different than the others that we’ve seen on television or movies?
TL: The idea of him having a bit of a rogue element springs to mind as being different from other portrayals of Caesar. He sort of appears to not conform and stick directly to what would be the traditional Roman way. He kind of flies his own flag to a degree, but obviously there is still that respect element with Crassus.
I think his ability on the battlefield is also something that hasn’t really been touched on in previous Caesars, particularly given the fact that most of the time Caesar is betrayed in his later years. But I think it will be interesting for the audience to see the fact that he was extremely formidable with the sword. He needed to be a direct threat to Spartacus and the rebels themselves and have that sort of physical presence in the sense that he was an opponent that was worthy of fighting and could potentially take down the rebels. So they introduce a few one-on-ones between the higher ranking rebels as well, to kind of show off, I guess you could say, his fighting ability.
So it becomes quite apparent very early on that he’s a definite physical threat as well. Not just a sharp wit, but also extremely threatening on the battlefield. So I think both those elements will be something that hasn’t really been seen before in a Caesar in the past.
There’s been much said about Crassus and Julius Caesar, but I was also intrigued by some of the other new characters. Could you talk a bit about Kore (Jenna Lind) and Tiberius (Christian Antidormi) and what their roles are as well as any questions that are brought up by their presence?
SD: Yes, Kore is Crassus’ trusted and beloved house slave, and I really think that her general compass is heart. She plays a very, very large role in who Crassus is, and I really wanted to find a way to humanize Crassus. He’s not a monster or a two-dimensional villain. He has feelings and desires, and he has a heart.
Tiberius is Crassus' youngest son. He’s going to war for the first time with his father, and that’s the other dynamic I felt was really important to show – this father/son relationship and that balance between needing to guide your son in the right path as well as in the Roman way, and also the struggle about wanting to be tough but also wanting to show love. That constant struggle for Crassus is something that plays out through the entire season. So the Kore and Tiberius characters were, I think, vital in really fleshing out the character of Crassus.
Steven I wanted to ask you about Agron (Daniel Feuerriegel) and Nasir (Pana Hema Taylor). I love how you portray the gay element of the show and that it’s very much a part of the world we see. What have you heard from audience members about this relationship and what might we expect to see with it this season?
SD: The support for Agron and Nasir has been overwhelmingly positive, and better than I could have imagined. We’ve had gay characters on the show before, but this was the first time we could develop such a relationship from the very beginning, and very slowly. We actually see them fall in love, which was something that both Rob Tapert and I really wanted to do. I think that last season with Vengeance, Dan and Pana both did such a fantastic job; that awkward realizing that you like somebody and those (urgent) glances were just so beautifully done.
The reaction overall to our same sex relationships has been both positive and negative, just like any cross section of society. There are a lot of people who do not have a problem with it, that think the characters are wonderful and the storyline is beautiful. Then there are viewers out there who just freak out whenever you even mention such a thing.
Honestly, it’s the same with the male nudity. There are a lot of guys whose head goes on fire if there is a naked guy onscreen. I personally don’t understand how either one of those is threatening if you’re a secure heterosexual male. But, you know, with some people we haven’t reached that point yet where everything is acceptable and where it just doesn’t bother you.
With Agron and Nasir this season, we continue exploring their relationship. You can’t always have a smooth relationship because there’s not much drama in that. So we throw a couple of curve balls at them. There are a lot of relationships going on, and I think theirs is particularly powerful and gut wrenching as well as beautiful and really kind of a cornerstone of this season.
Todd, In light of what Steven talked about earlier as far as not much being known about young Caesar in history, I was just wondering how it feels to be making history?
TL: To be perfectly honest with you I still remember so vividly the moment I found out I got the role. I was sitting with my parents at lunch and I got the phone call from my agent telling me that I was going to be playing Caesar. I nearly burst into tears because I was so excited. There were hugs all around and five minutes later I jumped in my car and, I swear to God, I was two minutes from calling up and pulling out of the role because the fear hit me of what I was just about to undertake.
It was extremely daunting, I will admit. I think personally I place a lot of pressure on my performances as it is. I’m very critical of myself, and I think the challenge with taking on someone like Caesar or anyone of historical nature is that people have these preconceived notions, ideas, or images in their mind of what they’d expect of Caesar. For me as an actor, my fear came from a place of not necessarily when I have dialogue or when there are particular moments in a scene, but more when I’m not doing anything that I needed to. I felt this weight of needing to carry Caesar.
I had this idea in my head that when you look at Caesar, you needed to see someone who would potentially become one of the greatest rulers in history. I think that played on my mind a lot and I wanted to do him justice, whatever that justice would be, especially with not having a lot of information to sort of work on.
So I had to go on a lot of instinct and I did a lot of work at home that I brought to the character. But my first day I was absolutely terrified, and it was obviously all shot in chronological order as far as episodes go. So the first thing that you do see onscreen is my actual first scene shooting.
So I think it was more that I just wanted to, again, do him justice and I was very aware of the fact that quite famous actors had played the part and done incredible portrayals. I wanted to live up to what people would expect to see with Caesar. I think it was also the expectation that when they see Caesar, they’re going to expect to see some sort of X- factor. So I’m just hoping that that comes across.
SD: We’re all very glad you didn’t make that phone call.
TL: I swear to God I sat in the car and I was terrified. The first moment was pure excitement and I couldn’t believe it. But then I think it hit me as far as what I was just about to undertake.
LM: That’s cool, though, that you get to define young Caesar. That’s pretty amazing.
TL: But even you saying that is why I was so scared.
LM: It (the character) is yours now, and he’s awesome.
Steven, what have you enjoyed most about your Spartacus experience, and what, also are you maybe going to take away from it on a personal as well as professional level?
SD: One of the things I have enjoyed most about Spartacus is the joy of watching it and just being amazed at how it all comes together. I mean, this is the kind of show that I just love. I think having the opportunity to play with language like this as a writer has just been phenomenal and, unless we do a Caesar spin-off, I doubt will ever happen again.
The faith that STARZ and Rob Tapert placed in me to use this slightly oddly constructed language in our storytelling was enormous, and there was a lot of worrying early on, too. There was a great deal of discussion about if the audience would understand anything being said. As a writer, though, there’s no greater joy than to have the freedom to play with language like that, and to see your words come to life onscreen by such fantastic actors was just an absolute joy.
On a professional level, I think, for me, this show has done what it has done for some of the actors as well. It took me from writing on shows as a co-executive producer to being an executive producer/creator. That’s a very difficult step for a writer to make. It really requires a leap of faith from someone to give you that opportunity. So it has absolutely changed my career. It has put me at a different level and into the exclusive show runner category, which there aren’t a lot of in Hollywood.
On a personal level – I’ve never created a show or guided a show from the very beginning to the very end. To go through that process and all the ups and downs, the triumphs and the tragedies from where we first began has been incredible. Initially, we were universally hated and reviews were terrible, but to then get to the end of the season where it all turned 180 and we were getting praised was fantastic.
Of course, there are the deep lasting emotions about Andy Whitfield (the late actor who played Spartacus in season one’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand), and having helped discover him and bring his talent to the world. To then find out that Andy was sick, and then be told he was better, only to have him relapse and pass away, was so heartbreaking. It’s still difficult to talk about it.
After that, there was the rollercoaster ride of keeping the show going against all odds, bringing it back after the prequel, and seeing the ratings just keep rising. On a personal level, it’s hard to describe. It’s stunning; it’s a deep, deep gratitude for having had this opportunity.
Liam, what did it feel like stepping back into Spartacus’ boots for War of the Damned, and did you discover any new acting challenges with the role this season? How have you perhaps seen yourself grow as an actor playing this character?
LM: Well, it’s been a journey of a lifetime. Steven spoke about Andy, and for me, to then come out of such unbelievable tragedy and agony – it’s tough to talk about. After doing Spartacus: Vengeance, I guess I had that year behind me to feel like, “OK, I can be Spartacus. This can be my role a little bit with War of the Damned.” I was so overjoyed that the fans continued to love the show after Andy’s amazing job and me just trying to make sure I can honor that. So this year I was like, “Well, what else can I bring to this character?” and it was great.
The writers gave me a whole new character. He’s obviously the same Spartacus, but, I mean, in my normal life growing up I was never the Alpha male. I remember getting into (Spartacus) boot camp for the very first time and it was “weird” to see people like Manu Bennett (Crixus) and just these monstrously powerful men and amazing characters. I’d sort of stand there, especially in the beginning when I was very underweight and trying to train my ass off. I’d think, “Hell, I’m not going to be able to lead these people,” because there is an element of life that imitates art. When you have that many strong men together, even though they’re acting, they’re also kind of not acting at a certain level.
So that first year was an interesting process in seeing what made me a leader. This was my first experience with being the lead of the show and things like that, so it was quite strange. And this year it required Spartacus to be absolutely the dominant male as it were. He had to be absolutely sure of himself, and be able to say in a heartbeat, “This is what we’re doing and there’ll be no discussion.”
To embody that, especially for a person like me who was never that kind of strong, tough, unwavering guy in real life, was a fascinating challenge. That’s part of why you get into acting, though. Just to be people that you want to be. Spartacus is an amazing character and a phenomenal human being.
War of the Damned was a fantastic opportunity to build on what I learnt every day of the previous year with Vengeance. I’ve seen a rough cut of the final episode, and to see the first episode I did of this show versus the last episode, well, I’m just so grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I’ve grown so much this year, and learned so many new things. I had the opportunity to work with another astounding selection of actors as well as build relationships with those I worked with last year. They have amazing talent on this show and I’ve learnt so much from my fellow actors.
Early on in Vengeance, I was like, “Wow, you get to this stage in your career and it feels like your cheating.” I’m used to working on short films or student films with little or no crew, and then suddenly you’ve got hundreds of people just trying to make your performance look wonderful. It’s opportunities like that that are just incredible in an actor’s growth, and that’s why I think so many of those in the cast have had their lives completely changed by what is truly a phenomenal and one of a kind show like this.
Steven, are there going to be any epic battles in War of the Damned that you can talk about? And for the actors, do you have a favorite episode?
SD: Sure, there are many epic battles. We start off at the tail end of one that we see in the trailer, which is a great reveal of Spartacus coming up over a hill charging on a horse. We really wanted to use that image to show that this season is different; the scope is just spectacular.
There’s a running battle that happens mid-season that I think is pretty damn cool, too, and, of course, we build to an epic conclusion. I think it’s the biggest battle we’ve ever attempted, which is truly spectacular, and I’m still scratching my head how we actually pulled that one off.
So yes, the battles are fantastic, but just like the early days of this show with the gladiator fights, the more important thing for us was, what’s the emotion behind the battle? Who wants what? Who needs what? What are the stakes for the characters? That was a tricky part this season because the battles are so gigantic, but I think we managed to nail that one.
CAR: As far as a favorite episode, I’ll go first, I guess. I’ve only seen the first couple of them, but when we’re performing it versus what the end result is, it can be a night and day difference. You have to remember that oftentimes we’re working in front of a green curtain and we have an amazing post production team. They’re kind of the unsung heroes of the show, especially this season, and I think advancements in technology are cinematic as far as some of the backdrops and environments that we’re using in War of the Damned.
So I think the audience is going to particularly be into that, and I think my favorite episode, which I haven’t seen yet, is episode eight, which is more towards the end of the season.
It was a monster episode to shoot, and obviously I can’t go into any details but, again, as a fan and audience member it’s one of the ones I actually can’t wait to see. I’ve heard sort of little whispers about it, but I think that with each episode we can’t afford to waste a frame, a word or a scene. Each episode is so dense, you know? There isn’t any one episode that’s kind of a lull in the season. Each one ends and your jaw is on the floor and you’re like, “Oh my God. What’s next? What’s next?” So they’re all pretty powerful.
LM: For me, I just can’t wait to see episode nine and how that comes together. It’s just before the epic finale. It’s sweet, emotionally hard and covers history in certain parts that I’ve been really looking forward to since the start of the story. Obviously, I won’t go through it and ruin it for people, but, yeah, I was looking forward to some of that since I got the role. So there’s some stuff coming down the line that I think I’m excited to see, and I hope the audience is as well.
TL: It’s always difficult picking a favorite episode because they have so many different elements. I mean, there’s a lot for me to do personally in seven, but Cynthia is right, there’s some jaw dropping moments which leaves it hanging. And then the next episode just floors you again and you think, “No, it can’t get any better than that.” However, it just continues to escalate. So episodes seven, eight and nine – it’s anywhere in there that the audience is just going to be begging for the next episode.
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