One of TV’s most popular franchises goes into battle for a final epic season when Spartacus: War of the Damned returns to Starz on January 25th. Taking place following the defeat of Roman commander Gaius Claudius Glaber, Spartacus and his men have amassed major victories against the Romans after the Battle of Vesuvius, and Rome is beginning to tremble at the threat this warrior now represents.
During this recent interview to promote the premiere of the final season, actors Liam McIntyre (who plays Spartacus) and Todd Lasance (who plays Julius Caesar), along with show creator Steven S. DeKnight, talked about what went into the decision to end the show, how Spartacus has changed this season, preparing for the inevitable historical ending, just how big of a threat Caesar will be, the possibility of a Caesar spin-off, what they hope to achieve with the final season, the epic battles, what the last day of shooting was like, and how the experience affect their lives. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: Steven, when was the decision to end the show made, and how did that affect things with this last season?
STEVEN S. DeKNIGHT: Thankfully, we knew at the end of Spartacus: Vengeance, when we were still writing the show. We were writing the last couple of episodes, and we knew there was a 99% chance that the next season would be our last season, so it gave us plenty of lead time to plan the end of Vengeance and springboard into War of the Damned. We had plenty of time to figure out where we were going to go. The only question was how many episodes we were going to do, and we went through a lot of different variations. We considered everything from eight episodes, so that we could spend more money on each episode, to 16 episodes, airing in two parts. But ultimately, we thought that 10 episodes would give you the most bang for your buck. I thought, “Let’s cut out all the boring parts and just do 10 fantastic episodes.” And hopefully, we have.
Was the decision to end the show yours?
DeKNIGHT: It was a combination. It really was. There were a lot of factors going into it. My original plan was five to seven seasons. Then, we got to the war years and the more I researched, the more all of the things that happened in the war were incredibly interesting, incredibly expensive and somewhat repetitive. Spartacus and his band of rebels didn’t exactly have a dramatic three act structure to what they were doing. They were all over the place. They fought among themselves, they split apart, they came back together, they split apart, they went North, they went South, they went East, they went West, they went back North, they went back South. You really get the sense that there was no plan. They were just out and about. And then, it was one wave after another of Romans going after them and Romans getting defeated. So, I really struggled with how to lay this out in an entertaining fashion, for two or three more seasons, without completely jettisoning history. And I didn’t want to completely turn my back on history and just make it fictional, so it was a group decision, and a bold one for Starz. Everything they’ve done with this show has been a bold choice. I kept saying, “We would rather end this show on a high note, at its most popular, than drag it out for a couple more seasons and have the audience start to fall away and people start to get bored.” I thought it was a great opportunity to end it, and really end it strong.
Liam, how has Spartacus changed, in this season?
LIAM McINTYRE: He’s a lot more no nonsense, this year. It’s been fun. Spartacus is a reluctant slave who has the mission of regaining his life. It was clearly defined, in the second season, that he’d lost his old life and had the start of this new one, as he took on this unique new responsibility that was given to him. Now, it’s about a year later almost, in the midst of this full-scale rebellion that was made so famous, and he’s not the questioning guy that he has been in the past. He’s a no nonsense, kick-ass and take names kind of guy now, and that’s been a lot of fun to play. It’s a great season for Spartacus because he gets to look at the rebels in a different way. Up until now, he’s just been trying to get his own personal vengeance and free these people that look to him for leadership. Now that he’s seeing that freedom, there are a lot of questions raised about who the good guy is, in this series. What Caesar and Crassus do is really get the audience to question who they are rooting for. That’s one of the things I love about this show. The bad guys aren’t really bad guys. They just happen to be fighting the hero, so you’ve got to put them in that pile. But, Spartacus has really hardened up and he realizes that it’s going to be his strength of will that leads these people to freedom. If he’s going to have any chance against the impossible might of Rome, he’s going to have to steer the ship. So, he’s in a very firm place now.
Is there a point where Spartacus is going to say, “This is too far. These people are innocent. We need to stop.”?
McINTYRE: That’s an interesting question. The thing I like about Spartacus is that he isn’t necessarily a cut and dried hero character. He’s aware of the world around him and the fact that it’s not a pretty Disney world. It’s not something with a Spielberg ending. He has to take stock of what he does want, what’s it for, and what he’s prepared to sacrifice to get it. There will be many times that the Romans and his own rebels make him look at what he’s created, and question whether or not it’s okay to do what he, and the people around him, are doing. To tell you exactly how he decides that would be ruining the story, but it is part of what makes this character so fascinating. He’s not always the good guy. Some of the things that make him the hero I like to think he is, are those difficult decisions that aren’t always good guy decisions. So, when he does fight the good fight, it’s more important. He will be tested, more than he ever has been, on what is he doing and why he is doing it.
Should viewers be ready for a downer ending?
DeKNIGHT: Well, I have a long history of ripping hearts out, so it is a gut wrenching finale. But, I’m so proud of the series finale. It’s so hard to end a series, but I think everyone did such a fantastic job on this. It is a beautiful, powerful, emotional ending. Everybody knows how it ends. It would be like doing a movie about the Titanic and the Titanic doesn’t sink. We wanted to keep it as close to history as possible. So, the challenge was, “How do we have that ending, but still make it a victory?” The last episode is called “Victory,” and it’s a bit of an ironic title because it really explores how the rebels gained victory in defeat, and how the Romans suffered defeat in victory. No one comes out of this clean, at the end. In true Spartacus fashion, it’s all very grey. But, there is a powerful, uplifting message. I wrote the finale, watched all of the dailies and saw cuts, but still, at the end of the day, when I watched it, I cried. It was so powerful. So, I can only imagine what the audience is going to feel.
Steven, just how big of a threat is Caesar going to be for the show’s heroes?
DeKNIGHT: Oh, he’s a huge threat. Early on, we had a discussion in the writers’ room, looking at the villain side. We had Crassus, which is fantastic. But, we felt like we needed another element to bring into it and we hatched this idea of, “Well, what about a young Caesar, before he really came to power?” We knew, historically, that the Caesar of this time period was a fighter. He was fighting in foreign wars, but he was also broke, and those elements really matched well with Crassus. We were also very interested in seeing the early days of Crassus and Caesar, before they joined together with Pompeii and overthrew the Republic. We thought that would be a really great story to tell, and you don’t usually see that side of the story in movies and television shows about Caesar. It’s usually after they’ve overthrown the Republic, or right around the time they overthrow the Republic. So then, we said, “How much would we destroy history by having Caesar as part of this war against Spartacus?” We were all very surprised when they told us that we wouldn’t be destroying history, at all. In fact, this was the one small part of history where very little was known about Caesar. With everything else, there’s a lot written about him. And there are historians that thought it was probable that Caesar was part of this campaign against Spartacus and more than likely served under Crassus. So, that gave us just enough to hang our hat on. That said, everything in the show with Caesar is fictional, although we do frame it with actual events from his past and we make very sly references to what’s coming in the future for Caesar.
And then, of course, we had to find a Caesar, which was a very hard role to cast. I had a very specific thing in my head for Caesar. He had to have a presence and look like he would be a threat to the other gladiators. And most importantly, he had to have this shrewd intelligence in his eyes, like a shark that was constantly thinking and looking for his next move. If he was hot, it was a bonus. We saw so many auditions and just could not find the right combination. And then, I saw Todd [Lasance] audition and I immediately called Rob [Tapert] up and said, “I’ve got the guy. This is absolutely the guy. We need to lock him up as quickly as possible because we’re not going to find another actor that embodies what we need from Caesar.” And Todd did such a fantastic job. From the moment you first see him on screen, it is a different interpretation of Caesar that I think the audience has ever seen, and is very right for this time period. There’s been a small outcry of, “You guys suck. Your casting is terrible. This guy looks nothing like Caesar. Caesar is old and bald.” Ciaran Hinds in Rome was so fantastic as Caesar, but that’s Caesar later in his life, 30 years later. In this time period, Caesar is right around 29, and it just brings such a fantastic element to the show. I’m very excited for people to see this Caesar, and the way Crassus and Caesar interact is just a joy to behold.
Todd, in taking on the role of Caesar, did you rely mostly on the script and your conversations with Steven DeKnight, or did you delve into the history and do further research?
TODD LASANCE: Before I had a chance to speak to the producers, I had about six weeks to do as much research as I could. So, I got as many books together as I could and did a lot of research online and tried to get an understanding for that particular time period. Unfortunately, historically there is not a lot of information in his earlier years. When he came to power and was emperor, that’s obviously when a lot of it was documented. And then, once I landed in New Zealand, I sat down and spoke with the producers to get an understanding of what they wanted to see from Caesar. The character description gave me a little bit of an understanding. With regards to the audition, I went into it with no real notes or anything to take into the room. I just had to put my own spin on him a little.
Besides his age, what makes this Julius Caesar different than the others that have been in past in past movies of TV shows?
LASANCE: Interesting question. The idea of him having a bit of a rogue element springs to mind, as being different from the other Caesars that have been portrayed. He appears to not conform and stick directly to the traditional Roman way. He flies his own flag, to a degree, but there is still that respect element with Crassus. I think his ability on the battlefield is something that hasn’t really been touched on, in previous Caesars. Most of the times that Caesar has been portrayed, it’s been in his later years. I think it will be interesting for the audience to see the fact that he was extremely formidable with the sword. He needed to be a direct threat to Spartacus and the rebels themselves, and have that physical presence, in the sense that he needed to be an opponent that was worthy of fighting and could potentially take down the rebels. It becomes quite apparent, very early on, that he’s a definite physical threat.
DeKNIGHT: An element that I really wanted to show was just how dangerous Caesar was, militarily. He historically went on to fight a brutal campaign in Gaul. At this point in our story, he’s coming back from helping fight against the pirates. He knew how to fight. He was a military guy, and he became a military commander. A lot of people just think of Crassus as the rich statesman, but there was a big battle where he did this decisive maneuver that won the day. So, I wanted Crassus and Caesar both to be very, very good fighters, and for the audience to have the idea that, if one of these guys went head-to-head with Spartacus, maybe he wouldn’t win, but he’d give him a run for his money. They are dangerous and, on the right day, at the right time, they could kill any of the main rebel characters.
LASANCE: It was interesting for me to read about the fact that, at such an early age, he was commanding legions. We lose scope of the age. I’m 27, and to think that two or three years prior, Caesar was commanding legions of men, at the front line of the battlefield. I can’t even fathom what that must have been like. There are a couple of accounts of high-ranking soldiers moving to the front of the line with Caesar and wanting to be the first to charge the line, so they could die in his name. He obviously held an extremely large amount of respect with the military. Ultimately, that’s how he gained so much power and became emperor, so it’s an important element.
How did you develop the Crassus-Caesar relationship, beyond commanding officer and commanded officer?
DeKNIGHT: To start with, I took a page out of history. Crassus and Caesar have a very complicated relationship. They appear to be very close, but the letters that they sent back and forth really traded barbs. They had a very love/hate relationship, but Crassus definitely needed Caesar. He did not have the storied name that would propel him to the top of politics, and Caesar was broke. Crassus paid off a bunch of his debts and helped fund him in his political lies, and we really wanted to explore the early days of that. These are two guys where there is a mutual respect and, at the barest essence of their characters, a fondness for each other, but they are often at odds. Even though they’re working towards the same goal, they often don’t agree with each other. It’s a very rocky relationship, and those were my building blocks for this relationship. You will see as we go along that Caesar is very loyal to Crassus, and Crassus does have a great respect for Caesar. In my mind, I think Crassus feels like Caesar is a son to him. It’s almost like the son you wish you had, which causes problems with his real son, Tiberius. I played it, as much as I could, like two brothers, each vying for their father’s approval. It causes a very interesting dynamic and spins into a hell of a great story.
LASANCE: I like the way that there’s this symmetry through so much of this season. Spartacus and Crassus are not entirely separate from each other. They’re both very dominant, in their two groups, and they’re both fighting for what they believe is right. They’re both similar, but very different. There’s great symmetry, in terms of all the stories, this time around, which is very nice.
DeKNIGHT: We were definitely shooting for that two sides of the same coin feel, with the rebels and the Romans.
How does it feel to be making history, by exploring Caesar, in this way?
LASANCE: To be perfectly honest with you, I still remember, so vividly, the moment that I found out I got the role. I was sitting with my parents at lunch and I got the phone call from my agent saying that I was going to be playing Caesar, and I nearly burst into tears because I was so excited. There were hugs all around, and then the fear hit me, of what I was about to undertake. It was extremely daunting, I will admit. Personally, I place a lot of pressure on my performances, as it is. I’m very critical of myself. With taking on someone like Caesar, or anyone of historical value, people have these preconceived notions, ideas or images in their mind, of what they would expect of Caesar. For me as an actor, my fear came from needing to carry Caesar. I had this idea in my head, that when you look at Caesar, you need to see someone that would potentially become one of the greatest rulers in history. That played on my mind a lot, and I wanted to do him justice, whatever that justice would be, especially with not having a lot of information to work on. I had to go on instinct and a lot of work that I did at home and brought to the character. My first day, I was absolutely terrified. It was all shot in chronological order, as far as the episodes go, so the first thing that you see on air was my actual first scene to shoot. I just wanted to do him justice, and I was very aware of the fact that quite famous actors had played the part and done incredible portrayals. I wanted to live up to what people would expect to see.
With this show, there are always machinations going on with the political side of it, which is really intriguing and dangerous, but then there’s also the brute force fighting, too. Because of that, who do you feel is Caesar’s most dangerous foe?
LASANCE: Without a doubt, Spartacus, 100%. That’s actually a really good question. Spartacus is Caesar’s ultimate nemesis because he has the tactical, strategic and political mind, but also the skill on the battlefield, and Caesar is aware of that. Tiberius obviously has a lot of strength and qualities that could be potentially dangerous to Caesar, particularly with the relationship between him and Crassus, but I think it’s made fairly clear, early on, that Caesar feels like he has power over Tiberius and that he isn’t necessarily a threat. Interestingly enough, he’s a threat, unbeknownst to Caesar. Caesar feels like he’s is a formidable opponent, but at the end of the day he’s aware that Spartacus has put together this legion of men. He’s aware that, once he does meet Spartacus, it’s going to be a showdown.
If there were to be a Caesar spin-off, would you be up for it?
LASANCE: It would definitely be something I’d look at taking on, without a doubt. There hasn’t been anything officially spoken to me about it, but it would definitely be something that I would look at, if it was brought to the table.
Steven, what was your vision for this season?
DeKNIGHT: Something that was very important to me and Rob Tapert, going into this season, was not to shy away from the brutality of our heroes. Historically, it was actually much worse. The rebels broke out and basically raped, pillaged and murdered their way across the land. We always wanted to show and explore how the rebels are right in what they’re doing. They’re lashing out at the society that tortured and murdered them. On the other hand, they’re not lashing out at people that are guilty. The innocent get cut down just as much as the ones that perpetrated the crime. It’s a very grey area, morally, with what the rebels do. We explore some pretty dark, brutal things that happened on the rebels side, and that really makes you question whether or not you want to be rooting for the rebels. Episode 3 is particularly brutal, and it gets you an insight into why some of the characters are the way they are. So, we really wanted to explore that for this season. Something we’ve always really, really pushed to do on Spartacus is to make you question our heroes and, at a certain point, make you love our villains.
McINTYRE: Just around that framework, there’s Crassus and his compassion for slavery, and his respect for Spartacus, as a slave. While others in the Roman camp say he was just a slave, he’s pretty good for just a slave. He’s got the sense of compassion for slavery, and the understanding of their plight. And then, you juxtapose that against the newly free rebels, who are not as compassioante.
DeKNIGHT: Crassus is exposed to his own slaves, who are very well-educated. He doesn’t look at Spartacus for what he’s been branded. He looks at Spartacus for what he’s done. He sees that Spartacus is a brilliant tactician and a man of keen intellect, when it comes to battle, and he realizes that Spartacus will not be brought down with brute force. To beat Spartacus, you have to play Spartacus’ game better than he does. Crassus does not dismiss Spartacus. He realizes just how much of a threat he is, and how much of an opponent he is. That kind of respect was really, really important, and it works the other way around, too. Spartacus has a very begrudging respect for Crassus.
What sort of epic battles do you have in store for this season?
DeKNIGHT: There are many epic battles. We start off at the tail end of one. The scope this season is just spectacular. There’s a running battle that happens, mid-season, that I think is pretty damn cool. And, of course, we build to an epic conclusion, which is the biggest battle that we’ve ever attempted. It’s truly spectacular, and I’m still scratching my head over how we actually pulled that one off. But, the battles are fantastic. The important thing for us was, what’s the emotion behind the battle? Who wants what? Who needs what? What are the stakes for the characters?
What was it like to shoot that inevitable death scene, and is Spartacus’ death the bloodiest that viewers are going to see?
DeKNIGHT: Historically, most people think Spartacus was crucified because that’s what happened in the Kurt Douglas movie, but his body was never found, so we have some lee-way. We do stay pretty close to history, but there will be a few surprises, in the end.
How was the last day of shooting?
LASANCE: Liam gave the most incredibly humbled, beautiful speech I’ve ever witnessed, out of any production that I’ve ever worked on. We all came in for his last day and we got to see his final moment, which was a battle scene. It was incredible to be there. Everyone was in tears. There was a lot of emotion. And Liam gave the most beautiful speech, thanking everyone for what the production gave to him. He didn’t mention himself, once. So, as an actor coming into the final season, it was a beautiful moment to see him not only finish, but also give an incredible speech.
McINTYRE: Everybody who was involved with this show can probably agree that it fundamentally changed our lives, in some way. I’m almost a completely different person to who I was, two years ago, almost completely due to Spartacus. Spartacus is just one of those things that happens to very lucky people. Not only was it the most grueling and exhausting experience of my entire life, demanding so much of every actor that was in it, but I also had to say goodbye to a family. That was very hard.
Steven, what have you enjoyed most about your Spartacus experience?
DeKNIGHT: One of the things I have enjoyed most about Spartacus is the joy of watching it and just being amazed at how it all comes together. This is the kind of show that I just love. Having the opportunity to play with language like this, as a writer, has just been phenomenal. Unless we do a Caesar spin-off, I doubt that will ever happen again. The faith that Starz and Rob Tapert placed in me to do this slightly odd, affected, constructed language was just enormous. There was a lot of worrying, early on. There was a lot of discussion about whether the audience was going to understand anything that was being said. But as a writer, there’s just no greater joy that having the freedom to play with language like that. And to see your words come to life on screen, by such fantastic actors, was just an absolute joy.
What have you learned on Spartacus, that you want to apply when you move forward?
DeKNIGHT: I can’t tell you the freedom that Starz has given us. I don’t think anywhere else on television, in the United States, would we have been allowed to follow our path. Every now and then, there was a question about, “This seems a little bit too naked,” or “That might be slightly too violent.” I remember one of the biggest ones was my original idea of stabbing pregnant Lucretia in the stomach, at the end of Season 1. At the time, they said, “You can’t do that! Are you nuts?!” Everybody will hate Crixus, if he does that.” And I said, “Lucretia is evil. They won’t hate him.” And then, I waited and bided my time, for around four or five months. When we got to the end of that first season, the idea popped up of Lucretia actually surviving the slaughter and I saw my chance and said, “What if the only way she could possibly survive is if Crixus stabs her in the stomach?” Otherwise, he’s going to chop her head off. So, I squeaked that one by.
I thought there was going to be a bit of an argument with Lucretia taking the baby over the cliff, at the end of last season, and I was shocked that nobody said a peep about it. Everyone was fine. At that point, everybody thought it was a great operatic ending. They have just been fantastic and very supportive, creatively. For the next project, I’m working on developing a show for Starz, called Incursion, that’s literally light years away from Spartacus. It’s set in the future, and it’s a science fiction military show about this war on another planet. It’s very, very different. I’d like to take some of the same elements that I love about Spartacus – and not specific elements, but the general feel. Rob Tapert and I always approached it in a way that our number one job, among all else, was to entertain the audience. We wanted to make sure it was emotional, twisty, turvy and surprising. We never lost sight of the fact that we wanted the audience to enjoy the show. Too often in this television landscape, especially once you get to premium cable, you can lose sight of the fact that there is an audience. You’re not just making the show for yourself, and it’s not a sin to actually have people enjoy what they’re watching. There is, however, a chance that you’ll win less awards that way. But, I think it’s a fine trade off to have the audience actually enjoy what you’re doing.
What has this show done for you on a personal and professional level?
DeKNIGHT: I can’t even begin to explain what it’s done, on a professional level. For me, it’s done what it’s done for some of the actors. It took me from writing on shows, basically working for other people, and happily working for other people, like Joss Whedon, when I landed this job, to being an executive producer/creator, which is a very difficult step for a writer to make. It really requires a leap of faith from someone to give you that opportunity. It’s absolutely changed my career. It put me at a different level. It put me into the exclusive showrunner category, which there aren’t a lot of in Hollywood. So, on a professional level, it’s just been stunning. On a personal level, I’d never created a show, and I’d never guided a show from the very beginning to the very end. Just to go through that process, with all the ups and downs, the triumphs and the tragedies, from where we started to when we first aired and were universally hated, and then to the end of the season, where it all turned and we were getting praised, was such a rollercoaster ride. And then, there were the deep lasting emotions about Andy [Whitfield], having helped discover him and bring his talent to the world, to finding out that he was sick. And then, we were told that he was better, only to see him relapse and pass away. That was heartbreaking. It’s still difficult to talk about. And then, there was the rollercoaster ride of keeping the show going, against all odds, bringing it back after the prequel and seeing the ratings just keep rising. On a personal level, it’s hard to describe. It’s stunning. I have a deep, deep gratitude for having had this opportunity.
Liam, how have you seen yourself grow, as an actor, by playing this role?
McINTYRE: Well, it’s been a journey of a lifetime. For me, to come out of such unbelievable tragedy and agony, and then getting that year behind me where I could feel like, “Okay, I can be Spartacus. This can be my role, this year,” I was so overjoyed that the fans kept loving the show. This year, I was like, “Well what else can I bring to this guy?,” and it was great. The writers gave me a whole new guy. In my normal life, growing up, I was never the alpha male. That first year was an interesting process, in seeing what made me a leader. This was my first experience with being the lead of the show, so it was quite strange. This year, it required Spartacus to be absolutely the dominant male. He had to be absolutely sure of himself. I’m just not that kind of strong, tough, unwavering guy, in real life, so that was a fascinating challenge. It’s why you get into acting. Spartacus is an amazing character, and a phenomenal human being. The idea that he really exists, still actually boggles my mind. That a guy could lead so many desperate cultures of down-trodden people to any kind of unity like that is incredible. It was a fantastic opportunity to build on what I’d been learning, every day of the previous year. I’m so grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I’ve gotten to grow so much, this year. I’ve learned so many things. I’ve gotten to work with another astounding selection of actors, and build relationships with the ones that I’d worked with last year. They have amazing talent on this show. I’ve gotten to be directed by incredible people. I got to work with truly great scripts, that you just don’t get. People like Rob Tapert are just so inspired in their vision and so clear in their message of getting that vision. I was used to working on short films and student films, with no crew, and then suddenly there were hundreds of people trying to make your performance look wonderful. It’s opportunities like that, that are just incredible in an actor’s growth. That’s why I think so many of the in the cast have had their lives completely changed by what is truly a phenomenal and one-of-a-kind show.
Spartacus: War of the Damned airs on Friday nights on Starz.