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PASADENA, Calif.-- Starz's "Spartacus: Vengeance" returns on Jan. 27 with a major change: A new actor steps into Sparty's sandals following the sickness and death of original star Andy Whitfield.

Liam McIntyre, who resembles a younger and less beefy Whitfield, capably takes over the role.He recalls the day in September when "Spartacus" was in production and the cast and crew learned of Whitfield's passing.

"That's probably the saddest thing I've ever had to be part of," McIntyre said. "From the start I think I was able to tackle the role because I knew he'd get better. I made that decision for myself. He'd made the choice to get better and that was fantastic. I've never seen a sadder person than the producer who had to come down and pass that news down to what's like a family. You can't imagine how sad that day was. Part of the triumph of the team was coming together after a little bit of downtime to say, 'We owe Andy the respect to do this job the best we can. Let's come together and do the best damn show we can.' We pulled ourselves together and did excellent work until the end of the season. What else can you do, right?"

McIntyre didn't get the role immediately. He had to bulk up and prove to Starz executives he could achieve a Spartacus look. When he did, they eventually gave him the part.

As season two begins, Spartacus finds himself in a new role.

"He gets a sense of having to embark on that journey that is the journey of Spartacus which is the slave rebellion that's starting now," McIntyre said.

And it's not a comfortable fit.

"One of the things I love exploring is how he precipitates the beginning of this rebellion," said executive producer Steven S. DeKnight. "Things are not going well interacting with members of the group. For him, personally, as a man who never wanted this mantle, this season we move Spartacus from a more singular individual to a leader of men, and that journey is very difficult."

And it becomes a fairly awesome journey, judging by a scene Starz executives showed from episode five when a major rebellion initiative comes to fruition in a shocking, destructive way. (My review of the first two episodes runs in TV Week on Jan. 22.) But there are also personal stories.

"Somebody falls in love with Lucretia," Lucy Lawless says of her scheming character. "In the end all of Lucretia's dreams come true."

Not sure I buy that.

"She's a softer, gentler Lucretia," Lawless said. "For about two seconds. ... There's a lot of skullduggery in the parlor."

That I will buy.

"The writers were really rude to me," Lawless continued. "Usually they're just cruel. This year they were rude. It's cruel and unusual punishment. But as an artist I just loved it. They put me through the ringer this season and for that I'm grateful."

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