Plenty of actors have stepped into roles previously inhabited by others. But Liam McIntyre found himself in the unenviable task of taking over the lead role in Starz’s ”Spartacus” series after former leader Andy Whitfield suffered a recurrence of the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that initially sidelined him from the series. Creator Steven DeKnight concocted the prequel series “Gods of the Arena” in order to give Whitfield time to recover, but it soon became apparent that his health issues would prevent him from ever returning to the show. Whitfield ultimately gave his blessing for the show to continue, succumbing to the illness last fall while production on the upcoming season “Vengeance” (which premieres Friday at 10 p.m.) was underway.
Stepping into Whitfield’s shoes would be a daunting task for anyone. But for McIntyre, an actor not known outside of his native Australia, it was both the biggest break of his career but also his most challenging opportunity to date. Many fans, while understanding the nature of the changes behind-the-scenes, nevertheless couldn’t imagine anyone but Whitfield inhabiting the role. But DeKnight saw something special in McIntyre, even if his new Spartacus was rail-thin during the audition due to a role he was playing at the time. “I’m never gonna get the role,” he told me, describing his mindset during the audition. “So, let’s go try some of this ‘acting’ I’ve been learning, and see what happens.”
McIntyre sat down with HitFix at this winter’s Television Critics Association press tour to discuss his approach to the role, what he learned from watching Whitfield’s performance, and what it was like to be thrust into the role of a leader both on- and off-camera.
In terms of preparing for the audition, what was your previous knowledge about the show? Had you watched it? Were you a fan?
I absolutely was. My best friend told me it was the most exciting show he’d ever seen, and I was like, “Yeah, yeah, all right. TV’s exciting, I get it.” And then he sat me down and said, “Watch this damn show. You always say you’re going to watch it. Watch it!” And I remember saying before, Steven DeKnight was talking to Robert Tapert, the producer, they had their hesitations about how it went in the first couple of episodes, just from their level. But I remember sitting down and watching the first scene with Andy, and watching that turmoil he was going through, chained up under the arena, and going, “I’m in. Whatever you do now, I am into this show.” I just loved that first scene and that first image so much, and Andy portrayed it so well, that I was on top of that show from the get go.
And I’d always loved Roman history as a kid, and I used to play a lot of video games. So I’d play Civilization and learn all about different kinds of armies, units, peoples, places, and time. And I loved watching that show Rome on HBO, and all that sort of period stuff. So yeah, [Spartacus] was such a cool show that I loved being part of the world. And then to actually be asked to audition for that, in ANY context, was just the coolest thing that ever happened.
Being a fan of the show yourself, when it came time to audition, what type of elements did you see in Andy’s performance that you wanted to focus on while auditioning for the role?
Actually, that’s one of those things that may have helped me get through some of the audition process early on. In Andy, I saw such an amazing Spartacus because he wasn’t just a hero. He wasn’t just this larger than life action hero. He was a man. He was just a straight-up human being who had just had the most horrible situation thrust upon him. He started where basically, all his dreams had just come true. And then they were all stripped away in the worst possible way. And so, the thing I loved about Spartacus was that he was a human being. He had such an excellent soul that wasn’t pure, and it wasn’t perfect. He did what he had to make do make right the things that had gone wrong. And I loved that about him.
And so, early on, I came from a place where I had just lost 45 pounds, and I never looked right, and I thought, “I’m never gonna get the role. So, let’s go try some of this ‘acting’ I’ve been learning, and see what happens.” And I was going to be super excited by the fact that someone was going to come back to me and say, “Thanks for coming in. It was a good audition. I really enjoyed it.” I would have been like, “Alright, I’ve won. I’ve done a great job. That’s all I needed.” And never in a million years did I think this would happen. To actually get it was complete fantasy.
I never tried to take on what Andy did, probably at any stage, specifically. But I hope from watching the show that some of that osmosis process would work. Like, his accent. I said, “I can’t copy your voice, because that would seem kind of fake. But I like that you’ve got this Australian/English blend thing.” The Romans are classically English, in their very proper way. He’s a Thracian, so he’s got kind of a muddied version of that, and I liked the way he approached his character vocally. Again, I didn’t try to copy it, but it was something that sat there.
Was it freeing knowing that the show was going to be something altogether different season now that they are out of the ludus? Did you feel you could bring something new to the table because Spartacus himself was in a new situation?
Yeah, that was actually really freeing. Starz made a great point of this at the start, saying, “Know that we’re aware that he’s going into a different part of his journey. He’s grown a lot as a character, and he’s changed a lot as a character. Make him your character.” And it was good to know that he is now starting a new chapter in his life. He’s so driven by that personal battle for his wife, and those things that have happened in that first season, and now in this second season it’s the War of Spartacus that everybody heard about in the history books. He’s got out, and now he’s got to understand that he’s got to lead an army. Which he didn’t necessarily want to do. Thinking of an objective beyond himself is a difficult challenge for Spartacus this season.
In terms of leading an army, Spartacus is a type of natural leader on screen. Did you feel like you needed to step into a leadership role yourself off screen right away?
Yeah, you know, that was probably one of the biggest things I thought about early on. Because I met Manu Bennett, Crixus…he’s a massive man. He’s an exciting guy. And he’s so amazingly passionate. And he stepped into my trailer they set up for me during my first test, and he was like [imitating Bennett’s voice], “G’day, Liam. We’re going to talk about this,” as only Manu can. And he told me stories about Andy, how they approached the scene together, and what it meant for him…so many different things. And I remember that was such a wonderful experience.
But flash forward a couple of months. I’ve got the job. And I thought, “How am I going to be the boss of these established actors? How am I going to be able to lead these people for real?” And I remember working so hard up to that boot camp, because I wanted to be able to, in some capacity, be in charge. The boot camp, for example…not to boss people around, that would be silly, but something like, “I can do this. I will always run at the front of the pack.” All those little things that, no matter how hard it may have been, to try and take a leadership position where I always saying, “Let’s come together.” I wanted to make everyone stayed on track as best I could. It’s not easy, at all. But that’s the character. That’s Spartacus’ job in the show. He has to be the leader of these people.
That’s also part of the journey of the character, because he is, at the outset, trying to figure out how to get all these factions together.
Absolutely. And funnily enough, in hindsight, I see how wonderfully odd and serendipitous it all was. Because here I was, Liam the actor, trying to be a leader of men in the show, following the journey of Spartacus, trying to figure out what it all means, and whether or not he wants to [follow this path], or even can, or if it’s within his power. And that’s his whole journey through Season 2.
On top of that, you’re working primarily on green screen. How does that affect you getting into the mindset that we see on screen?
I love green screen. I actually really enjoy it. In some ways, it’s really challenging. But do you mean getting yourself into the mindset of the character in general?
In terms of understanding where you are in that world in general. There are vast landscapes and scenes in contrast to the interiors of Season 1.
Right. In some ways, I thought, “Alright, we’re shooting in New Zealand. There are lots of forests. We’ll be shooting in forests in Season 2. Why wouldn’t you shoot in the forest? And then they said, “Here’s the forest. Indoors.” But…but there’s a forest right there! Why don’t we go there? In some respects, it seems like a challenge on the surface. But it’s really freeing, because then you go, “Whatever I need this forest to look like to be that forest…if it’s a dark, forboding forest, and you get put in a dark, forboding forest, then that’s it. That’s your world. But if you get put in a green screen dark, forboding forest, and you’ve got the imagination for it, you think, “What is the most emotionally impactful way to view this world?”
And so, you get the freedom to imagine what that thing looks like in a way that really affects you as a person. I mean, they always show the art beforehand, and give you the world that they are trying to create. And they say, “When we’re all done, it’s gonna look like that,” as a reference point. That’s great. That’s good to know. That’s the place I want to go for. That’s the place I want to be in when I’m in this scene. Then get to enjoy the show twice, because you get to do the job on the day, and have a ball doing that. And then one day later, they go, “Here’s what it REALLY looks like,” and you think, “Holy crap, that looks amazing!”
Now, you got the role, but you didn’t even meet Spartacus creator Steven DeKnight until Comic-Con last year.
Oh, that guy. [He points to DeKnight, sitting close by.]
Yeah, that guy. What was that interim like between “I have this job” and “I finally met my boss”?
Well, Steven and I spoke on Skype a couple of times. He was telling me things. [To Steven] Stop telling me how bad I am!
Steven DeKnight: Yes, yes. He looked very handsome on the computer.
Liam: You too, sir, you too! He looks much better than his photos.
Steven DeKnight: I’m like your Mini Me.
Liam: No, no, I just feel like I’m Big You.
How does his vision translate from the writer’s room across the globe down to you on set?
Amazing. I mean, how lucky am I to be working with one of the greatest writers in the world? He’s so good at communicating something. And then we’ve got amazing directors that can elaborate on that vision. So, as actors, we get a special gift. Because really, I can’t stress this enough, it feels like a family. When you’re working on Spartacus, you feel like a family. Rob Tapert is such a driving force behind that. He makes sure that everyone feels comfortable. Rob was one of the first people that ever spoke to me. I remember going, “Who’s Rob Tapert?” And my friend said, “You mean the guy from “Evil Dead’?” “So, you know who he is. Yeah, he can call me whenever.” And he was one of the first people to ever have a conversation with me. The producer, straight off. And that’s the attitude of Starz and “Spartacus”, and that’s one of the reasons that when I did the test way back, and then had to go home…I was like, “But it feels like such a family. I feel like I would work for these guys just in general. Forget the amazing opportunity. I just want to work with these people.” It was really quite sad, because who knows what could have happened?
Does being so far away from the Hollywood scene actually increase that brotherhood off screen as well as on?
Perhaps it does. You know, for an Australian, it’s quite lovely. Because we’re not used to the scrutiny and the lifestyle that seems to come with Hollywood. Not in all cases, but as sometimes publicized. And so to be in a nice, quiet place like New Zealand, which is for me so close to home…it lets you bond better with your costars, your crew, with your producers, all of that. You’re part of a family that perhaps here wouldn’t happen in the same way because you’ve got so much more on. You’ve got so much more to do. Whereas you’re just in a bit of isolation in New Zealand, you and the show. And it’s really nice, especially in my situation coming to an immense job under unique circumstances and just wanting to do the best job I can. It let me focus so well, which was handy.
In terms of what people can expect when they see the show return, what central aspects of what you put into the character do you hope translate this season on screen?
His humanity. Again, the thing I respond to most is Spartacus’ sense of purpose and justice, that empathy has where he has to make tough decisions. And that becomes more and more so this season, because he starts embracing the idea that he really is the protector of these lost people. Handy fact: “Liam” means “determined protector” in Irish! So that little piece is something I really want to convey, that desire to help people and care for people. It’s not something that he starts with, but it’s something he tries to earn. I want to make sure that humanity, that soul, is communicated well.
The title “Vengeance,” sounds cool. But it also carried with it the potential for him to lose his soul, not unlike he temporarily did halfway through Season 1.
Exactly. And that’s the battle. One of the things I wanted to do early on was approach Spartacus as a character from a place weirdly enough of selfishness, somewhat. Not because he’s doing a bad thing. But because he’s doing the stuff that he needs to do as a person. He’s like, “I’m going to go out and do this because I’m hurt.” And it’s all perfectly justified and it’s all for a really good cause. But I thought, given what he has to learn in this season, if he’s focused on the things he needs to do for himself and his wife and his story, it gives him somewhere to go when he thinks, “Wait, if I do this for me, what does this mean about them? What does it mean about these people that, for better or for worse, I’ve put into this world with nothing else but freedom?” That should on the surface be wonderful, because everyone’s got some wonderful vengeance to exact on this show, from Oenomaus to Gannicus to Spartacus to Crixus…everyone’s got something they’re fighting for. But that happens in the great writing, and that happens in the great story. So the great challenge for me was to keep him a human being by going the other way a bit and thinking, OK, he’s going to go for his vengeance, but the difficulty lies in realizing he can’t just do that. And that there’s more to that story than just getting his own vengeance. So he tries to create a unity of vengeance, as it were, against Rome, as a team, as a family.
At the start of the season, a lot of you are split up. And there are so many disparate elements in play. Is this season about getting you all along the same parallel path? Are we going to see Spartacus and Gannicus fighting alongside each other? Drawing swords against each other?
Things, especially this season, aren’t easy. The one thing I love that they address in this season is that everyone would assume not being a slave is the way to go. Is that the case? And so many times that is tested, because they are up against army in the world in history at that time. But they are just a couple of slaves. And the brotherhood start to ask, “What are we doing? What are we really doing?” And it’s not like they are looking at Spartacus and thinking, “He’s the boss. Let’s follow him.” He’s got to fight to keep these people alive, for so many reasons. From inside fighting to outside pressures put on them, this season is really strained between the important gladiators and the important characters on the rebellion side. They don’t get along. They have to work really hard to unify their vision.
It seems like Crixus is your conscience early on. Or at least a foil to call you out. Because you’re in charge, but he could take his men and leave.
But is he in charge? Especially at the start, is Spartacus in charge? That’s kind of the challenge. At the start, he’s sort of in charge by default. But Crixus doesn’t think Spartacus is in charge. He talks to him. But he’s got the power. Crixus has all the real muscle. He has most of the gladiators. If Crixus leaves, Spartacus probably will die. As a group, they learn that lesson again and again: as a group, they can survive; apart, they cannot. And that’s good to say, but people don’t always listen to what makes sense.
So it’s not about leading a group, but being part of a group. A lot of the decisions he makes early on stem from the loss of his wife, but those aren’t always the smartest decisions, tactically.
That’s the thing about this leadership thing with Spartacus. When I said “selfishness” before, it wasn’t about being an arrogant jerk. It was about saying, “Just because I need this doesn’t mean I can take it.” He’s got huge pain, still, but now he’s got a responsibility to these people which he has to learn is HIS responsibility. And of all the people involved, Spartacus is the most qualified, whether he likes it or not, to lead these people. He has to be able to embrace that. And so, especially early on, so much of that challenge is just getting those people to work together. Because when they don’t work together, it doesn’t go well.
But yeah, Crixus is this perfect foil. He challenges everything Spartacus wants to do for himself, because he’s a bit one-eyed early on. He’s committed to one thing. And Crixus has to say, “Settle down!” Which is funny, coming from a guy like Crixus. He’s the blustery one so often in Season 1. The big talking guy. The showman. And now he’s got to be the sensible guy. It’s fascinating how Steven and his writing team twist these characters this season.