By Stacey Harrison
While death is dished out regularly on Spartacus — often by way of cartoonish violence and slow-motion effects shots — it hit home for the cast and crew in a very real way in September with the passing of original star Andy Whitfield.
Production was nearly complete on Season 2 — dubbed Spartacus: Vengeance — with Liam McIntyre assuming the lead role, a development that had occurred with Whitfield’s blessing, when they got the tragic news. Executive producer Steven S. DeKnight said the Spartacus crew knew how gravely ill their friend was, as he fought his second battle with lymphoma, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with.
“It was definitely one of the hardest moments of my personal life and my career,” he said. “Andy was just such a lovely human being, and embodied everything we wanted for Spartacus and a lot of stuff we didn’t even know we needed for Spartacus. It was quite a blow. We knew it was coming for a while, but still nothing prepares you for the reality of it happening. It was very, very difficult for everyone.”
In addition to overcoming their grief, the writers and producers also faced a hefty creative challenge in having to come up with essentially a brand new kind of show. Both the first season, Blood and Sand, and the prequel, Gods of the Arena, took place primarily in the ludus, or gladiator school, but Vengeance picks up with Spartacus leading his band of escaped gladiators and other refugees across the Roman Empire in the early stages of what will become a full-fledged slave rebellion.
Yet even with the change, Vengeance retains the signature feel and style of Spartacus, and that may very well be the best tribute the show can muster for its fallen star. McIntyre is a more mercurial presence, bedded more in action than in thoughtful deliberation. He’s convincing as Spartacus emerges as the leader, enduring a tense truce with former rival Crixus (Manu Bennett), as they balance their own agendas against the greater good of the group. Spartacus is gunning for Glaber (Craig Parker), the Roman commander who ripped him from his Thracian home, while Crixus searches desperately for his lost love Naevia (now played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson).
McIntyre was quick to heap praise on the cast, who he said made him feel welcome immediately. “I can only imagine what it would have been like to have that situation happen around you,” he said. “But from my very first test, they were really kind and warm and working through a tough situation. They helped me do my best work.”
That work included mastering the show’s unique 300-meets-Shakespeare dialogue, which combines a formal, highbrow structure with very graphic profanity and sexuality.
“To me, it’s how Shakespeare would have felt back [in his time],” said McIntyre, who has experience doing the Bard on stage. “Shakespeare had the swearing and the bawdy talk and the innuendo. I guess our show doesn’t have quite the innuendo as much as direct sexuality, but it’s funny, because it feels [to us] like how Shakespeare would have felt to those people then, which is kind of cool. I like it.”
Returning cast members include Peter Mensah as Oenomaus, the disgraced Doctore trying to find a new purpose in life; Dustin Clare as Gannicus, the champion we met in Gods of the Arena; Nick E. Tarabay as the cunning Ashur; Viva Bianca as Glaber’s ambitious wife Ilithyia; and — in a move that surprised and delighted fans — Lucy Lawless as Lucretia, the wife of Batiatus who appeared to have been fatally wounded by Crixus in the Blood and Sand finale.
“She’s somewhat worse for wear,” Lawless said. “It’s a moment-to-moment struggle for survival, but she’s got a master plan.”
DeKnight has a plan, as well, and that is to tell the whole story of Spartacus, presumably ending in the character’s death. And he’s confident he will get the time he wants to do it — around five seasons, he estimates — thanks to Starz’s continuing support of the show. The network renewed Spartacus for a third season in November.
“It’s very different from network television, let me tell you, where you don’t know if you’re going to finish a season, let alone get another one,” he said. “It’s great on the creative side, because we know we can tell a complete story. We can plan for it. We don’t have to suddenly wrap everything up, which I’ve had to do on some TV shows. You find out you’ve got five episodes left and, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s the last season. You’re canceled.’ This way we have a long lead time so we can plan things more accurately and more creatively.”
Spartacus: Vengeance premieres Jan. 27 on Starz.
Photo: © 2011 Starz Entertainment, LLC. Credit: Michael Muller