He's finally got cred. In Season 1 of the Starz hit Spartacus, the titular hero rallied his fellow slaves and led a gut-splattering revolt against his oppressive master. By Season 2, this band of rebels had grown so strong that they brought down an entire coliseum full of Romans, leaving mass casualties and a mountain of rubble. Still, Spartacus was nothing more than a local problem, a mere blip on the government's radar. That changes wildly when the swords-and-skin series returns for its final season, Spartacus: War of the Damned.
"We jump ahead several months, to a point in the story where Spartacus is not just winning against the Roman Republic — he's winning big," says Liam McIntyre, who inherited the lead role originated by the late Andy Whitfield. "Spartacus now has an army of thousands — there are historical accounts that claim it was upward of 120,000 — and they have some of Rome's biggest military leaders on the run. There's no choice but to take him seriously now. It's time to call in the top guns."
That would be Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells), Rome's richest general, and the young upstart Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance). "These two extremely ambitious men have a real love-hate relationship — heavy on the hate," says creator/executive producer Steven S. DeKnight. "But they share a common goal in wanting to destroy Spartacus."
The timing couldn't be better. "The slave uprising is the perfect storm for both Crassus and Caesar because each can gain great political advantage by stopping it," DeKnight says. "Teaming up is the ideal solution. Crassus has money and power but not the military glory he covets. Caesar has no money or power but is a brilliant and revered war tactician."
That doesn't necessarily make them the bad guys. "You'll totally understand where they're coming from—in fact, the fantastic thing about this season is that there are times when you won't know who to root for," McIntyre says with a laugh. "As a fan of this show, I love watching Simon do his thing as Crassus. And Todd just electrifies as Caesar. He's like a young Brad Pitt."
Starz apparently agrees. There's serious buzz about a Spartacus spinoff starring Lasance, but for now the Aussie actor is just playing it cool. "There hasn't been anything confirmed, and I don't really know details," Lasance says. "But following Caesar through his early years would be awesome. People always think of the statue version of Caesar — the old orator in the white robe with the grape leaves in his hair. They don't think about the young one."
They will once they get a load of Lasance in the altogether. Spartacus and his heartthrob generals Crixus (Manu Bennett), Gannicus (Dustin Clare) and Agron (Dan Feuerriegel) still get their share of sexy time this season, but there is a war going on, after all. It's mostly up to Caesar to lend us his ears, among other body parts. "I'd be filming naked bed scenes with a woman — or several women — and leave work at the end of the day thinking, 'What the hell has happened to my life?'" says Lasance. "It's so weird shooting this stuff and not at all erotic when we're actually doing it. But who am I kidding? There are millions of actors who'd gladly take my place."
They'd eagerly line up for Merrells' job, too. "For years, I've been a working actor. Then, suddenly, I have the most enviable role of a lifetime," says the British-born Merrells. "Crassus is extraordinary in every way, from his unbelievable wealth — he owned most of the property in Rome — to his brutal obsession with being admired. In my first episode, he spars with a gladiator. Very un-Roman! And there was no need to rely on one's imagination, because they built the most fantastic sets for my character. I'd just stand there thinking, 'This is my f---ing villa!'"
To prep for his role, Merrells went through a severe, six-week-long boot camp on the New Zealand set. "I showed up as 86 kilos [190 pounds] of untoned, English-actor flesh," he says. "I was pushed to such physical limits that I not only ended up with a completely new body — I had a completely new head."
He'll need it for the series' ultimate smackdown, which — as we know from Roman history — does not end well for our man Sparty. "It's utterly heartbreaking," McIntyre says, though he adds, "It's been funny reading the message boards. Most people know Spartacus doesn't make it, but some fans are like, 'Hey, no spoilers!' It's a 2,000-year-old spoiler! Spartacus isn't Rocky. The sad truth is, this is one underdog who doesn't come out on top."
Or does he? "Spartacus didn't stop slavery in the Roman Republic, but he started a social movement that resonates to this day," McIntyre notes. "Here we are, two millennia later, still telling his story and still being deeply moved by it. I guess, in a way, he did win."
Spartacus: War of the Damned premieres Friday at 9/8c on Starz.
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