While much of the talk about the new "Spartacus" season (subtitled "Vengeance") has been about actor Liam McIntyre stepping into the big shoes of the late Andy Whitfield in the title role, there is also much more for fans to buzz about - the return of Lucy Lawless, whose Lucretia seemed to have killed at the end of the "Blood And Sand" season and just what exactly does everyone have to be vengeful about in the new episodes that start airing tonight on Starz. The best person to ask about all of the above as well as which "Spartacus" character he most relates to and what his next big project is would be series creator Steven S. DeKnight, who sat down with our Jim Halterman at the recent Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena.
Jim Halterman: Let's first talk about Liam, who I thought did a great job in the first episode of "Vengeance." He really does seem to make the role his own. Did you have a lot of casting choices for the role or was he really it from the time you met him?
Steven S. DeKnight: No. We scoured the world for him and it was impossible to cast the first time around but even harder the second time around because Andy was so iconic and we loved him so much and he was such a revelation and a discovery. So when Andy had to step back from the role we were faced with the impossible challenge of trying to find somebody to come in and take up the mantle. We narrowed it down to three or four choices and then brought everybody in for a screen test and poor Liam weighed like twenty pounds at that point because he'd lost all this weight for another movie and in the screen test we had them in the costumes... so there was some concern about that. And [also] the other actors were great.
We had some great, great choices, and they have all gone on to fantastic things but there was something that kept us coming back to Liam. And for us, when we were looking for the role originally and for the recast, with Spartacus, we want somebody that can really convey that wounded heart and compassion, which was just so important and Liam just exuded that kind of hurt that we needed. And then we had to try to fatten him up a little.
JH: With the subtitle Vengeance, is it safe to say that pretty much everybody has a score to settle this season?
SD: Everybody's got an ax to grind.
JH: Now that Spartacus is free from being a slave is his biggest fear losing that freedom again? Or is that not his biggest fear?
SD: I don't think that's his biggest fear. You know, Spartacus is such an interesting and difficult character to write for because he suffered such an injury when he lost his wife and it's an injury that quite frankly he will never get over. We have a relationship with him and Mira (Katrina Law) that we started building at the end of season one but the specter of what he's lost will always haunt him. So I think more than losing his freedom again, his biggest concern that the people that he cares about don't suffer the same fate that the ones that he's already loved and lost have suffered, particularly Sura (Erin Cummings) and Varro (Jai Courtney) in that he's very keen on making sure... he's so about keeping everybody safe.
JH: I'm personally so happy that Lucy Lawless is back but did you guys have regrets that you couldn't do the same with John Hannah or was it just impossible?
SD: There was a lot of worry and discussion at the end of season one when I decided to kill everybody. It's unheard of... you can't kill everybody.
JH: But you did it!
SD: Yeah. And we all loved John. I mean, John was just... I always say in interviews when people ask me, 'Well, what character are you closest to?' I am Batiatus, I mean that's my inner monologue. I may not go to the villainous extremes as he is, but you know, I'm just as profane and ranty as he is and he was my alter ego. But in the story, he had to die. For that moment to work, Spartacus had to kill him, and I also always say in Spartacus that if you're killed off, one thing I promise you is you'll go in a grand fashion. I mean, you get a good exit. But there was a lot of concern about [it] because he brought such a complicated depth and humor to the show. But he had to go. And along with that, Lucretia had to go too.
Originally I was adamant that she had to die for this story to work. Rob [Tapert, Executive Producer] called me up towards the end of season one and said, 'Starz really would like Lucy to come back.' And I said, 'Absolutely not. Lucretia has to die. That's what we've been planning for all along.' And much to his credit he goes, 'Okay. I totally agree. That's fine.' Then, I called him up the next morning and said, 'I have an idea. I have an idea I'm very excited about, about how to end and wrap around that story even better.' So we actually shot it both ways, one where she's absolutely, unequivocally dead and another one where she's still twitching. It was down to the wire. We weren't sure which one we were going to use because he was trying to work everything out. But thankfully, she lived and she is a major, major force in 'Vengeance.'
JH: The relationship between Spartacus and Crixus (Manu Bennett) is an interesting one. Even when they disagree, which they do, will they always be working together in the new season?
SD: They have a very impetuous relationship. They're together although they have some dust-ups, where they're not on the same side. That was always the plan because I don't ever want the rebel forces really to get along. There are moments where they're all together, but historically, they came together, they broke apart, they came together. There was a lot of infighting and I definitely want to explore that because everybody had their own needs and agenda. And the Crixus/Spartacus relationship had always been very, very complicated. I mean, Crixus hated him for so long and then kind of respected him and now it's this odd relationship that they really are like brothers. And we'll play that to the full extent of the emotion.
JH: I love what I've seen so far but when you bring someone back from the dead, do you ever worry about it becoming soapy? It's kind of a fine line there, right?
SD: I think soap gets a bad wrap. I think soap really got the bad wrap maybe because of soap operas, which there's still a lot of good stuff in there. When most people think of soap they think of suddenly there's and evil twin and that kind of thing but really, ultimately, the soap is just good human drama. I mean, that's what we really want on the show is good human drama. And we have no problem embracing the soapier elements of this show. I'm very influenced by Robert E. Howard and Shakespeare and a lot of Shakespeare's stuff is very soapy when you actually look at it. So we have no problem embracing those soapy elements, which I think are very important for the show.
JH: I have to say one of my favorite scenes in the first episode is the raid on the whorehouse.
SD: Ah, yes. Yes.
JH: And I almost felt guilty pleasure in watching the attack in the first episode on the whorehouse. I mean, first you're just watching all the sex happening but then when all the murders start I was just like, 'This is why we love the show.'
SD: Yeah. Exactly. It's funny, when we were breaking that episode, on the board for weeks it said, 'Brothel Attack,' and we just loved that idea.
JH: Do you feel like you always have to kind of top yourself in a lot of the big scenes like that?
SD: You know, we actually never worry about that. For us it's not about topping ourselves. For us it's just about exploring interesting things to do and emotional things. For instance, the brothel attack, it all has an emotional through-line that's very important to the story and the characters. So what we try to do is never just to have any kind of violence or sex for the main characters that doesn't have to do with the emotions of the story.
JH: Watching the show you would think, 'Well, this is the most uncensored a show could get.' But is there stuff that you guys know you can't get away with either because of Starz or just because you just don't want to go there?
SD: There are things that we throw out every now and then, it's like, 'No, I don't want to go there.' And it's interesting in that brothel attack, there's a couple of things in there, in the original cut, that I saw and I was like, 'Ah, I want to cut this stuff out because I think it's too much.' That stuff will be on the DVD so you guys can see it. In my commentary I think I actually say, 'This is the part I didn't like because I thought it was too much.' So there are moments that we do shoot something where we are like, 'Yeah, I don't think we should actually do that.'
JH: For everything that 'Spartacus' is and knowing that it's coming out of you, what would people be surprised to know about you? That maybe like is the total opposite of what we think from watching the show?
SD: I'm a hopeless romantic. I love romance stories. Give me a 'Manon Of The Spring' and 'Jean de Florette' any day. I love that stuff. Really, despite all the sex and violence, that's how I approach 'Spartacus.' If you really look at it, all the characters... it's about love. It's about love, lost love, it's about regrets, that's really what drives the story. All the other stuff - the sex, the violence - [are] all trappings of the world. But really, at its core, it's about a man who lost his wife and is struggling to deal with it.
JH: Who are you most surprised of the audience that watches the show that you wouldn't expect?
SD: I was shocked that we're really big among middle-aged women.
JH: I wouldn't think that.
SD: Yes. Huge. And I think they respond to the sexuality and the romance of the show, which was a great revelation. You know, we're often asked, 'Well, did you tailor this for the male 19- 35 audience?' And Rob and I always said, 'We didn't tailor it for anybody. We tailored it for... here's a story we want to tell, so hopefully somebody will watch it.' Because we got a lot of questions also, 'did we try to make it broadly appealing?' And God, you look at the show, well hell no, we didn't. We had a singular vision... the vision was a little rocky at the start so we refined it, but we wanted to tell this kind of visceral, emotional, grand, romantic, violent story.
JH: Are you the kind of person that when you're done with this you have to go do something completely different or do you kind of want to stay in this vein or... ?
SD: For the last two and a half, three years, it's been 'Spartacus' 24/7. With my new overall deal with the incredibly generous Starz, I am finally actually writing the next big project, which I can't tell you anything about except it's not a historical period piece and it's gigantic. It is huge. And I'm very excited about it and hopefully come summer we'll be able to announce it.
JH: I'm thinking another love story.
SD: There's love in it. I can't do a story without love in it.
Spartacus: Vengeance airs Fridays at 10:00/9:00c on Starz.