Do they make men like Spartacus anymore? The ancient hero is almost too good to be true—a hunky hero heading up a righteous army of rebels, with an overactive conscience to boot. He puts today’s political leaders to shame.
In the second season of the glossy Starz series Spartacus: Vengeance, premiering Friday, this version of Spartacus has busted out of his imprisonment as a gladiator and leads a group of former slaves in a rebellion plot based on a real story in the first century B.C. He’s a classic underdog, but he’s also struggling to balance his thirst for revenge with the loftier goals of his movement.
Sadly, the internal strife onscreen was shadowed by turmoil offscreen. Andy Whitfield, the Welsh actor who originated the role in 2010, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma later that year and was forced to exit the show. Filming stalled, then continued without him with a six-episode prequel that skirted around the titular character. Finally Australian Liam McIntyre was brought in to fill the role for the next season. Whitfield died in September of last year at age 39.
“It’s heartbreaking,” McIntyre says, talking about the circumstances that led to his lucky break. For the 29-year-old, winning the role was a long shot. He had been working on the wrong side of show business, hard-balling movie studios while at a theater-distribution company back home in Australia. Never mind the fact that he was 45 pounds underweight when he auditioned to play the beefy lead.
“I was doing this other film at the same time,” McIntyre explains. “An indie film…Christian Bale from The Machinist kind of thing. I was hideously skinny.” The casting director must have had an active imagination—McIntyre was asked for a callback. Of course, now he’s a muscular menace. But landing the role, he says, “still seems like the least likely thing that ever could have happened.”
While on the road to becoming Spartacus, he struck up a bittersweet friendship with Whitfield. Though they were both in Australia before shooting started, Whitfield’s declining health scuttled several of their planned meet-ups. Instead, they emailed. “He took the time and tried to make me feel welcome—part of the family as it were,” McIntyre says.
Whitfield’s stamp of approval should help settle the show’s devoted core of fans. The series had a record number of viewers in the first season, and some are treading cautiously around the new leading man. “I am going to miss Andy and his gentle face. And I want Liam to succeed, I really do…” one commenter wrote on a fan forum. Another posted: “Firs [sic] one proved himself. The other has a huge task to do the same. Good luck Liam…”
McIntyre is careful to say that he’s not trying to imitate his predecessor. But the late actor did share some of his tips in their email exchange. Among his wisdom: “Big brother stuff,” McIntyre recalls. “It’s dangerous on set. You’ve got to take care of your body. You’ve got a stunt double for a reason.”
Indeed. The show is unnervingly violent. Swords fly in almost every direction, and many Romans meet the wrong end of steel in creatively cruel fashion. Fake blood—a vibrant cranberry red—is so prevalent that a splash of it is often used to blot out the camera lens as a transition between scenes.
McIntyre isn’t fazed by the gore. “I know they stylize and overdramatize some of the fights…but ultimately it comes back to the story,” he says. “The violence comes for a place of purpose that fits the world. Without it, I would feel a little naked.” He smirks at the word—the show has a widely noted propensity for baring all. Spartacus himself went full-frontal in the show’s first season (well, his body double did); co-star Lucy Lawless is often topless; orgies are a common backdrop to any given scene.
Those hesitant Spartacus devotees should be relieved to know that McIntyre is on board in this respect as well. “I’m fine with it from a story point of view—and from the fans’ point of view. It’s one of those things people love to see,” says McIntyre. Plus, he’s clearly feeling the pressure. “What kind of Spartacus would I be [otherwise]?”
Given the demanding day job, it’s a small wonder that McIntyre is spending his time away from ancient Rome doing additional heavy lifting. He’s interested in writing and directing less scandalous fare, and is most excited about a Christmas movie he’s writing with his girlfriend: “Something wholesome like Home Alone.” That’s a world away from Spartacus, but then again, everything is. In fact, a holiday film almost seems like a sturdier fit. Before McIntyre took on the show, he had the slender build of an average bloke, with the approachable good looks of Ewan McGregor. (Now he’s far more brutish.) McIntyre says he’s never been drunk. At his first big Hollywood party, he shied away from the stars and played a Batman videogame that was being previewed at the venue. He had a ball.
In the end, Spartacus’s pumped-up reality may ultimately help McIntyre break away when it’s time to transition—a simple transplant to more modern scenery would make him appear refreshingly real. “If there was a genre I thought I would never get into,” he says, “it would be action. It was like, maybe romantic comedies or something. Apparently the universe makes it own rules.”