Starz's hit swords-and-sandals drama returns tonight with Spartacus: Vengeance, which follows in the wake of the bloody escape by the gladiators from the House of Batiatus at the end of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. At the head of the growing rebellion is the Thracian slave Spartacus, played Liam McIntyre, who stepped into the title role with the blessing of original star Andy Whitfield. Forced to leave the show after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Whitfield passed away in September.
"Especially being a fan of the show, it’s the last thing you want to hear, that the star of one of your favorite shows has been taken ill," McIntyre recently told a group of reporters. "It’s also a strange situation to then be told to try and, you know, keep that thing alive, that character alive. To know that the person who made it so wonderful was on your side, as it were, especially considering all the harrowing personal experience he had to survive at the time, means more to an actor than you can possibly imagine."
The actor, who was joined on the conference call by returning cast members Lucy Lawless (Lucretia), Peter Mensah (Oenomaus) and Viva Bianca (Ilithyia), said he only wants to treat the role with respect.
"I just want him to keep growing," McIntyre said. "To be honest, I've been given this great honor in carrying on this legacy and I feel, especially getting towards those last episodes, he's just really getting to a very interesting place."
Mensah said McIntyre devoted visible effort to the character in Spartacus: Vengeance. "All of us that were on set recognized the sheer amount of work that Liam had put in," he said. "He didn’t just show up and walk on. He was there for months, months ahead of time working. Really, he devoted an awful lot of effort to this. So I think all of us on set appreciated how much he had put into to be that character and to step in and take over and keep the role going. All of us that had been there originally with Andy certainly appreciate Liam."
McIntyre also praised the writing of the team led by Executive Producer Steven S. DeKnight, and the support of the network.
"I'm very lucky in that the writing team is absolutely sensational, and that Starz is really supportive," he said. "Starz early on said to make the character your own, treat it as your own character. They didn't expect me to copy anything. I did watch all of Andy's amazing work, and so I don't know if any parts were osmosis or influenced me in any way. I can't be sure, but hopefully [it did] because he was sensational. Realistically, I just tried to be true to the character, which essentially stays the same because the writing is the same, and all of that lovely humanity and those difficult choices and all that. That struggle that Spartacus goes through, it's still there this season. So, I didn't get the honor of being able to treat that with respect and truth. Hopefully, you have a character that feels the same as the great character that Andy portrayed."
The actor also teased the direction his character will take in Vengeance. "I think what Steven DeKnight and his team have captured well is that Spartacus was a free man and then became a slave and has now freed himself and his band," he said. "They really raise an issue that I like to think that Spartacus may not have really thought about because I guess the regular person wouldn't think about it. That's better the devil you know sometimes. Are they better off out of that horrible system? I like the idea that they introduce characters that do challenge the idea because now they're on the run for their life, at least before they had a life, albeit a not so glamorous one in some regards."
While McIntyre is the newest cast member, he isn't the only actor coming in virtually fresh. Bianca, who plays the wealthy Ilithyia, wasn't featured in the 2011 prequel Gods of the Arena, and came back to the series after a year-long break. It was a challenge, to be sure, particularly considering that Vengeance takes place only weeks after the events of the Blood and Sand finale.
"For me, a year had passed pretty much between wrapping on Season 1 and starting on Season 1," Bianca said. "Yet at the same time, in the reality of our show, it was only about eight weeks that had passed between the end of Season 1 [and the] beginning of Vengeance. It was really quite challenging to go back into the world and feel that level of acute continuity that was required and to find the character again. It was actually so fun to go back into the character. I was really happy to do it."
Bianca also teased a bit of things to come for Ilithyia, including a fight for her life. "Obviously what we all saw in Season 1 was that Ilithyia developed into a more and more of a complex woman. In turning to Spartacus: Vengeance, Ilithyia has that whole recent history of really a guilty past and a suitcase of treachery lies in deceit. Firstly, she has a lot to fight for and she's had a lot to fight against. As people become aware in Episode 1, Ilithyia lands right back at the place she so much wants to escape. So it ends up playing out as a fight for her life."
Although things may be difficult for Ilithyia, Lawless' character Lucretia has it much worse. The finale of Blood and Sand saw the pregnant woman stabbed in the chest by the gladiator Crixus -- the baby's father -- her husband killed and her world shattered by Spartacus' rebellion at the House of Batiatus.
"My character goes from having everything and being on the make, on the up and up with her husband, to losing everything, her husband, her baby, her lover, her house, her status and in marble," Lawless said. "She's going to have to claw her way back to any kind of safety -- and she's in a pit of vipers so she better watch out."
Lawless said it was especially difficult for her to get into the mindset of her character because of the extreme trauma Lucretia endured at the end of the first season.
"I tell you what, it was really hard, and I completely lost my perspective," she said. "I maybe did too much research, maybe the wrong kind of research, and I really needed my directors to guide me to set parameters. Sometimes I went big, and my personal inclination is always just to do shtick and just turn it into slapstick. Obviously that’s not going to work on this show, so I had to sit on that urge very hard. It's difficult. I haven’t had much experience with madness, but I have met post-traumatic stress disorder before and I believe that’s a justifiable outcome given all she’s been through. You will find out how she survived, by the way. That will be revealed in the fullness of time."
Lucretia was featured in Gods of the Arena, which explored the backstories of many characters from Blood and Sand, something Lawless said was valuable.
"It was a help, actually, because you got the very rare chance to revisit your character and see what formed them, which was such a pleasure," she said. "Oh, my God, I was so lucky. It really helped round out the character -- her softness, her potential for hope, because she could default to that. If Ilithyia would just be kind to her, Lucretia would be kind back, but Ilithyia doesn't know how. Therefore, Lucretia has to stamp on her to kick her, finish her off.
Mensah, whose gladiator trainer Oenomaus was featured in Gods of the Arena, echoed Lawless' appreciation for the prequel, saying his character would continue the development begun in Blood and Sand.
"Well, the prequel -- the backstory actually was useful all around just in terms of having opportunity to flesh out the character and allow the audience to see more of who he is," he said. "So in this season, which takes place quite a number of years later, it was a continuation of the character you met in the first season as opposed to the prequel that the story really picks up. I think actually that my understanding of Oenomaus' journey was that it wasn't so much embarrassment at aiding the rebels as that he was caught at making the right decision at a certain point in time, which led him into a sort of a no-win situation.
"He knew what was going on at the House of Batiatus, which ultimately was wrong, so in the moment he assisted and did what he thought was the right thing. That leaves him in a no man's land, and the journey -- or the question -- then becomes, If you have nowhere to go what do you do with your life? I think that's the biggest question he faces as the season starts: not having an affiliation to anyone in particular, not necessarily believing in the cause if there actually was one. He has to figure out what to do with his life. This season is a journey that he undergoes to understand and find a place in the world."
Mensah explained that each character in Spartacus has a journey, something that is especially apparent with Vengeance.
"I think that's one of the interesting things about this season -- all the journeys that everyone goes through," he said. "Spartacus has so many sorts of battles to fight, but at the same time the humanity in him is what I think you tend to identify with and what Oenomaus sees in him ultimately as being someone to align with. That's the interesting part. Everyone in this story has to find out who their affiliations are to and what they believe and what to stand up for. Liam plays a very strong, very sensitive Spartacus that also sees all the conflict but somehow or other finds himself the leader of men and has to find a way.
"I think this is the journey -- every character in this has to find out who they really are. Steve's writers have actually put in a number of really challenging scenarios in front of everyone, and I think that's what helps the audience sort of go along with it. As usual there is no one clear path, so what you might see in one episode gives you no indication what's going to happen next, which is the brilliant part about doing the show."
Vengeance will also enlighten viewers even more about Oenomaus, known as Doctore for the bulk of Blood and Sand. "I think in this season we really get to explore when all those structures are gone from him he's incredibly vulnerable," he said. "For an actor, it was just great to go to a higher range from being that dominant person to a person who really had to show every single emotion. I loved doing it. It was a fantastic, fantastic season to work."
The season also introduces new characters, such as a young woman played by Ellen Holman, and brings back familiar faces like the gladiator Gannicus, played by Dustin Clare, and the crippled gladiator turned messenger Ashur, portrayed by Nick Tarbay.
"Ashur's the sly one, the one that goes between worlds," Lawless said. "He has to make a choice actually and anything to do with that guy is going to be treacherous."
While many of the characters from Blood and Sand and Gods of the Arena return for Vengeance, there's at least one who won't be seen: Batiatus, played by John Hannah, who was killed by Spartacus during the finale of Season 1.
"I miss John a lot, not just because of who he is but because I miss the aspect of love in Lucretia's life," Lawless said. "Somebody does in fact fall in love with her but the course of that love never did run smooth, and certainly not in this case. I don't want to give away too much but, yes, she does have two -- I don't want to say romantic partners -- she enters into relationships with two people, but Batiatus is never replaceable in her heart."
A mark of Spartacus is the series' violence, something McIntyre, as a new addition, had to train for.
"I got taught exactly how horrible training can be," he said. "In much the way that people say, 'Do you get used to sex scenes?' and the answer's generally, 'No.' 'Do you get used to lifting ridiculous amounts of weights?' Not really. I think the point is that you do it and it really hurts, but it's one of the few things in life where you get to see tangible results. So I guess it's worthwhile."
Much as with violence, Spartacus has never held back in its depictions of sex, which ramp up significantly in the new season.
"I've done things again this season that I've never, ever done before, and never seen on television before," Lawless said. "And it was very heavy-duty. There were days when I would just go home and have a -- just have a quiet little meltdown and just go to sleep. Because it was so demanding emotionally."
"Oh, let me tell you, this does great things for the viewer's sex life," she continued. "Not so much for the participants. It's like aversion therapy."
Bianca added, "Some of the sex scenes or storylines in Spartacus that involves sex are actually not in any way a turn-on. They can be quite brutal. I mean, the show is talking about exploitation of slaves and of women and a lot of the violence is actually talking about some very serious stuff. So it's kind of far from a turn-on -- and can be quite horrific. As an actor to carry that, it can be quite heavy on us."
Despite the challenges inherent in portraying characters in the time of Spartacus, Mensah said combining history with entertainment is part of the allure of the show.
"I think the interesting thing is now there are very absolute histories in this world and so we, on top of that, are providing entertainment," he said. "We're playing with the story, or a version of the story, and I think what makes this really entertaining is that you take such a heroic depiction of a character as we do in Spartacus, and you've got someone like Liam who takes it on. He does such a remarkable job of showing the conflict that may have been in this man, and Liam makes it very very real.
"I think what really works is that because there is license to play with history, obviously with the grace of the audience, we get to actually go out and provide a version of what might have happened. In no way are we claiming this is exactly what happened. You know, we're just telling a story. Hopefully we tell an entertaining one. This is why I love my craft because it's sort of a chance to take a look at a situation and give a version of how we feel it may have happened."
Spartacus: Vengeance premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.