After testing the waters of original programming with Head Case, Crash and Party Down, Starz makes its biggest splash yet with an extreme action epic that turns an ancient tale into a bacchanal of guts, glory and a generous helping of flesh.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand (Fridays beginning Jan. 22) — in addition to taking full advantage of the freedom that comes with airing on a premium channel — marries the graphic-novel visuals of 300 to the dramatics of Gladiator, and in the process promises to make a star out of Aussie newcomer Andy Whitfield.
Writer/executive producer Steven S. DeKnight says Whitfield fit the bill both as a new face and as an example of rugged masculinity.
“When Andy came in, he looked like everything I imagined Spartacus should look like,” DeKnight says. “I remember the first day on the set, when he showed up with the hair and the Thracian uniform, it was like, ‘My God, this guy is just perfect.’ His acting is fantastic, and there’s a warmth to him that really comes out, but there’s also a hardness that he can play. … We needed a man to play this part.”
Whitfield says he hasn’t had much time to ponder his sudden rise from TV roles Down Under to the lead in a major Hollywood series. Much like his character, he’s just been trying to survive. He took some time to talk with us about his sudden rise in profile, as well as the mental adjustment that needed to accompany learning how to fight like a gladiator.
Channel Guide: Going in to audition for this, did you know they were looking for an unknown?
Andy Whitfield: I didn’t specifically, but I understand the benefits of finding new people for them. I think a lot of actors are not stigmatized but if they’re successful with another character, that’s attached to them. To have something that’s a historically based show, to be able to have someone that isn’t attached to anything else to dilute that, I understand that. But I didn’t know that’s what they set out to do.
What did you know about the Spartacus character before you came to this project?
AW: When you do the research, so many different versions of history, it seems that he’s one of those characters that we never found. He died somewhere in battle, and we’re assuming it was in a big battle with Crassus, the richest Roman, who bought his own army so that he could become the next Caesar. He’s got that kind of mystery about him. I guess I know as much as everybody else, the things that he did and the things that he fought for, that he actually took on the Romans and liberated the slaves and wouldn’t stand for that worthless life philosophy.
It’s one of those cases where any version you want to tell is as accurate as another. What about the Stanley Kubrick film version?
AW: I’d seen it before, and obviously I watched it before filming this. I’d say this is pretty close to that in the essence of that character. [He’s] real defiant, strong, won’t settle for less and is willing to make a stand for a fantastic cause, which at that time could get you killed. It’s a pretty good basis for what we’re doing, but we’re obviously taking it to a much more raw level.
Some actors say they make a point to stay away from any previous versions of characters or projects. Why did you seek it out?
AW: I never watched anything in terms of to see how to play a part. I was just getting lost in the story, and seeing what the facts were as much as Stanley Kubrick, the editing, and the people working on the history. They’d kind of done a lot of the work. The themes, the facts, the shape of his life and the story of his life are always useful, but I can’t do it the same way as another actor anyway, I can only do it the way it comes up for me.
How important is the wife character, Sura?
AW: You could do it. You could have a story without that, but I think anything you’ve really enjoyed watching over the years generally has a heart to it. There’s something that people can identify with and they see themselves in that relationship. I fought quite hard to keep that as prominent in the series as it has been. It’d be easy to make a violent TV show, but that’s only going to titillate for so long and people are going to want more. You’ve got to invest in these characters and believe they’re real and believe that what they believe is worth getting involved in. So yeah, I couldn’t imagine it without that central theme.
How does that relationship figure into the series once we get to the slave revolution?
AW: I think what Spartacus saw in his wife was the potential of this is what life should be. How happy he is right now, with her, and their future and what they talk about and what they experience together, that’s how it should be. And then to have that taken away and to live as a slave and have all that stuff slip away… Every time he thinks of his wife, he remembers what he doesn’t have, and he remembers what everyone else around him, all those other slaves, don’t have, and will never have. They’ll never see their children run free, all that sort of stuff.
So she’s sort of the thing, the one image that he can quickly click onto and remember why he’s doing it all, and what is worth fighting for. That’s how she relates to the story. It’s kind of like muscle memory, or how some people have smells that take them back to a certain time — it’s very powerful and evocative, remembrances of how you felt in a previous moment. That’s what she is.
What’s your relationship like then with Erin Cummings, who plays Sura?
AW: It’s brilliant. I met Erin when she was brought in to workshop one of the scenes. We pretty much hit it off straight away. I think she got me the job, because she was all over the scene when I got in that room that I was pretty much just swept along in it, and that’s exactly what you want from your other actor.
Every actor has a different process, but she’ll definitely sit there and get into the story and talk about it and talk about the minutiae. So she’s brilliant. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive person to get me through the scene.
All right. Let’s talk about that gladiator training. How bad was it?
AW: It should be called Spartacus: Blood and Physical Therapy. Because it’s quite — I’ve just this week, for example, we’re just starting Episode 13, the finale, and I had three days solid. We film 12 hours a day, and I did three days for all the fight scenes. It’s grueling, man. It’s really grueling.
I guess in a perfect world you would have time to prepare for these things. But with the fast turnaround you have for TV, I got the job and two days later I flew to New Zealand for the boot camp. I had a kind of month of learning to fall and swordfight and stuff, but I think getting your body ready for eight months of that was something I probably underestimated. It’s certainly been tough, but you know what, it would have been tough being Spartacus, so I guess it’s an appropriate level of pain.
How much green screen is involved in shooting?
AW: The arena is a lot of green screen. The three main ones I rotate around would be the arena, the Ludus, which is the gladiator school, and Batiatus’ villa. Obviously the villa is a fully built set, a beautiful set. I love shooting there. The Ludus is pretty much real. … But the arena is pretty much a dirt oval with a green screen around it, and that’s sometimes hard to imagine the roaring crowd and there’s a lot of big battles in there. It does have a little bit of an effect, but so much is going on. Even when you’ve got a set sometimes you’re talking to a tennis ball on a stick because there’s no room for the actor to stand there. It’s all part of the process.
When you see the final product, is it anything like you pictured while you were filming?
AW: It’s amazing. I guess you realize that you’re basically laying down a series of moments that they edit together to make a TV show. For example, I have no idea. I only know the bits that I’ve been in, but there’s obviously 30 characters in this show. It’s like that, you just concentrate on what’s going on right now in this moment, you get that down and they edit it into a TV show.
We’ve established that the fighting scenes are tough, but a lot of actors also say love scenes are no fun to shoot. And you’ve got plenty of these in Spartacus.
AW: They can be difficult. It’s all about the other person and the relationship and the trust and the sensitivity of the crew and all that kind of stuff. It’s our job to sell the moment. Whatever it is, if it’s a fight scene, you invest in that. If it’s a love scene, you invest in that. I have been in quite a few so I guess I’m more comfortable than some of the cast, but they can be difficult.
You’re separated from your wife for much of the show, so are we to assume some of these love scenes will be with other women?
AW: Spartacus gets around a little.
Lucy Lawless [who plays Batiatus’ wife, Lucretia] said her character sometimes calls upon the carnal services of gladiators. Is Spartacus one of them?
AW: Obviously, Spartacus is a slave at the end of the day. He’s a champion gladiator … sometimes he has to perform duties. Gladiators have to perform and that’s part of it. I’m not saying he enjoys it. He does what he’s told.
Since he’s been taken away from his family and misses his former life, are there a lot of flashbacks built into the episodes?
AW: There are flashbacks, yeah. From what we know of this story, there’s a point at which Spartacus changes from being the victim of the Roman society and having his life taken away, his wife taken away, to what happens in history, which is liberating the slaves of the empire and forming an army.
There’s a tone of transition throughout this series, his realization of what he is, and there are flashbacks and various mechanisms to portray that transformation. It was probably always there inside this man. There’s a line in the first scene of the first episode, “You are destined for great and unfortunate things,” his wife says. He always had that in him and this hardship is what’s really launched it in some way.
You mentioned you were filming the finale. Have you been pleased with the story arc of the first season?
AW: The story is phenomenal. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am, and how disappointed I am that I won’t get to watch this as an audience member, because I know what’s coming. The writing, it’s high stakes every week. The characters intertwine and there are so many things at risk that culminate in the finale. It’s magnificent. It’s the best stuff I’ve ever read. It’s basically a 13-hour movie, 13 one-hour movies, which gives you a lot of opportunity to put stuff in that you wouldn’t necessarily have time to put in a movie. I’m really proud of it.
Because of the look of this — the bold color palette and the liberal use of slow-motion — comparisons to 300 instantly come to mind. Is that valid beyond the surface, or is that just an easy reference?
AW: I think the look is 300. We’ve definitely taken it to another level, but it’s going to have that comic-book tone. But obviously technology has advanced. We’ve got this fancy camera which shoots 1,000 frames a second, so we’ve got the ability to freeze motion and do some funky stuff. But I think tonally in terms of drama, it’s more like Gladiator. It’s got some great performances in it, and as far as I’m concerned it’s a drama. People think it’s an action show, but the drama is in the circumstances that are action-y and violent and the times were raw. But essentially it’s a drama.
So what’s it like having gone from small roles to the star of an epic TV show?
AW: It’s easy to forget that it’s going to be something that’s out there as a product. It’s easier now that we’re getting to the end, but midseason you’re kind of deep in the grind of it. It’s grueling, there’s a lot of work, it’s 5am pickups, ADR [voice-dubbing] on weekends. It’s all-encompassing, and then I used to come home every night and go to my wife, “I’m actually the star of a TV show. Isn’t that awesome?” Because I sort of forget, and now as it’s wrapping up, it’ll go out there and do its thing and hopefully I get more work from it. I’m really proud to be there every day and to see the members of the crew that make it happen.
Aside from learning the physical skills, I imagine there’s some competition going on among the actors who play the gladiators.
AW: Let me tell you. I get there, literally the day we start filming, there’s all these giant testosterone-filled dudes just beating their chests and I just hated it. I’m like, “What happened to the horses and the long hair and the running around?” You get 30 or 40 testosterone-filled guys — and these are big guys, they’re chosen for a reason — it energetically changes everything and it took me awhile to stand and go, “I’ve got to be here. I’ve got to stand up as Spartacus and Andy Whitfield in this environment and hold my ground.” That’s just another process of the character for me — do whatever he has to do to survive.
Are you worried about being a sword-and-sandals guy after this?
AW: Yeah, a little bit. But you know what, it’s the same for everyone. Clearly, the secret to having a long career is to not do that every time. I start out as Spartacus, but I’m sure I’ll evolve into many other characters as I go on. I don’t think overall I’m worried about it, but I can see how it could happen. Spartacus is awesome. It’s not bad being known as Spartacus, with everything he achieved in history.
Photo: Starz Entertainment/Kirsty Griffin