SPARTACUS: VENGEANCE, which premieres tonight on Starz at 10 PM, is actually the second season of the SPARTACUS series, even though it’s the third year of the show. Series creator and executive producer Steven S. DeKnight understands how this might cause some head-scratching.
In 2010's SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND, Andy Whitfield starred as the famous historical figure. The season followed him through his early days of being enslaved, being trained as a gladiator and finally leading a revolt at the Ludus (gladiator training camp) that left its owner Batiatus (John Hannah) definitively dead and Batiatus' pregnant wife Lucretia, played by Lucy Lawless, probably mortally wounded but still twitching.
Sadly, while Season Two was being planned, Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Waiting for Whitfield to return to the show after he underwent treatment, the SPARTACUS company decided to do SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA, a prequel season of six episodes, which ran in 2011, showing the earlier days of Lucretia and Batiatus and introducing Dustin Clare as Gannicus, a fighter who later figures into Spartacus' story.
Then Whitfield's remission ended and it became unhappily clear that his health would not allow him to return to the series. Whitfield passed away on September 11, 2011, but gave his blessing to his SPARTACUS colleagues to recast the role and continue making the show. SPARTACUS: VENGEANCE went forward with Liam McIntyre as Spartacus.
DeKnight understands how the fractured timeline can lead to mix-ups. "VENGEANCE is actually Season Two," he explains. "It confuses everybody."
Between them, DeKnight and Lawless have enough genre street cred to give rise to a two-person convention. Lawless in fact will be at a Creation Convention in Burbank this weekend honoring her indelible title character in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS; she also played the Cylon D'Anna in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.
DeKnight has been a writer, producer and director on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL and SMALLVILLE. They tease each other often during a private interview during the Television Critics Association press tour at the Langham Hotel inPasadena.
DeKnight's fellow executive producer and Lawless' husband Robert Tapert is just around the corner, giving interviews of his own
ASSIGNMENT X: If you weren't going into Season Two, would you have liked to extend GODS OF THE ARENA?
STEVE DeKNIGHT: When I first suggested the idea of the prequel, I suggested a two-hour movie to keep the show alive, but it really didn't help anybody, and then Rob suggested four hours, and that didn't quite work with the writing, it wasn't long enough for a convoluted story, and it was too long for a nice short story, and then Starz wanted to do six episodes, and that was just right. I think any longer, GODS OF THE ARENA wouldn't have worked, and any shorter, it wouldn't have worked.
AX: In SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA, you had the bookend sequences that began and ended with the events at the end of Season One, so when does VENGEANCE, Season Two, start in terms of the story?
DeKNIGHT: Somewhere six to eight weeks after the breakout in Season One.
AX: Is that enough time for Lucretia to have recovered from being nearly killed, or is she still recovering?
LUCY LAWLESS: Evidently she is not fully recovered. We find her when she's in quite a state. I loved [acting] it, but I got a little bit lost inside myself [laughs], so it was an uncomfortable two weeks of actual madness.
DeKNIGHT: Rob must have loved that.
LAWLESS: Oh, he didn't notice.
LAWLESS: I just had no reference, so I did way too much research that I don't know was particularly helpful, because I lost my bearings a little. I needed somebody else to take the reins at times – the director being the one to have the taste of how to play this thing. He reined me in.
AX: Now, because Lucretia didn't run off with Spartacus et al –
LAWLESS: I wasn't invited, okay?
AX: Can you tease at all how she's worked back into the story and how much of a challenge was it to work her back into the story?
DeKNIGHT: It worked really organically. Lucretia originally was supposed to die at the end of Season One. We loved the character so much that Starz asked, "Is there any way to bring her back?" And Rob called me up and said, "Starz would really like to bring Lucy back." I said, "So would I – but she has to die! There's no way to bring her back!" Rob said, "Okay." And that night, I had an idea and I called Rob the next morning: "I've got an idea of how to bring Lucy back that I think is really, really juicy." And it was really down to the wire. That's why we filmed it both ways at the end of Season One, one where she's twitching and one where she's clearly dead, because we weren't really sure at that time which way we were going to go. It was actually very natural. She basically never leaves the Ludus. That's where we find her when we come back and I don’t think it's giving a lot away that we re-use Batiatus' Ludus in a different way this season and she's part and parcel with the Ludus.
AX: How is Liam McIntyre different from the late Andy Whitfield in playing Spartacus?
DeKNIGHT: With Liam, we were looking for someone to fill those sandals. We weren't looking for an Andy clone, because quite frankly, nobody could replace Andy. He was such a singular talent. We were looking for somebody that had similar qualities. And what was great about Andy is that he had this quality of compassion that was really important for the character. When we were auditioning people, one of the things we told the casting directors is, "Spartacus may go into a mad rage and kill everybody, but it's not from a place of anger, it's from a place of a wounded heart," and that kind of pain and compassion is what we were looking for, and that's what Liam had in his auditions. And then there was a lot of talk about, should we write Spartacus specifically for Liam, should we change the way we’re writing him? And we decided, no, we'll write Spartacus as Spartacus, and Liam will bring his own [qualities].
LAWLESS: Liam has a leadership quality that I think is really important to Spartacus now that he's out on the road and he's got to bring all these disparate peoples together as an army. Liam is very outgoing in that way, so I think his strengths play really well to the requirements of the role.
AX: Besides recuperating from her injuries, how is Lucretia different than we've seen her before?
LAWLESS: She's a kinder, gentler Lucretia [laughs]. She wants everyone to love her, because they'd better, because something bad's going to happen if she doesn't find a friend, and quick. Fortunately,Olympia's around, and she should be an easy mark. [Lucretia] does find a little friend, somebody she's never paid much attention to before, and he falls in love with her. By the end of the season, all Lucretia's dreams will come true.