Spartacus: War of the Damned premieres this Friday, marking the start of the final season of the popular Starz historical-fantasy drama series. Creator Steven S. DeKnight and stars Liam McIntyre (Spartacus), Todd Lasance (Caesar) and Cynthia Addai-Robinson were kind enough to speak to the press on a conference call to talk to us about the final season. Check out the lengthy but entertaining and informative conversation ahead.
Among the topics of discussion, Caesar's role in the series, Agron's relationship with Nasir (and why DeKnight accidentally refers to Agron as Nagron), what Spartacus is like this season and who Liam McIntyre thinks is his character's moral compass (his answer might surprise you!). On the subject of spoilers, there are some plot and character topics discussed and there is some vague but hinty talk about how the show will end, so read on with that in mind. It's a pretty lengthy conversation, so we have the second part set to post separately.
Steven I’m wondering if you could talk about Caesar’s entry into this show, I know he comes in the second episode. But how big of a threat is he going to be for our “heroes”?
Steven S. DeKnight: Oh he’s a huge threat. You know, early on we had a discussion in the writer’s 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, “Well what about Caesar? What about a young Caesar?” You know, really before he came to power.
We knew historically that Caesar of this time period was very much the order and he was a fighter. He was fighting in foreign wars, and he had this fantastic Julian name, but he was also broke. And those elements really matched well with Crassus. And we were also very interested in seeing the early days of Crassus and Caesar, before they joined together with Pompey and overthrew the Republic. We thought that would be a really great story to tell. And you usually don’t 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 brought in our (unintelligible) and said, you know, “How much would we destroy history by having Caesar as part of this war against Spartacus?” And we were all very surprised when they told us that we wouldn’t be destroying history at all. And in fact this was the one small part of history that very little was known about Caesar. Everything else, there’s a lot written about him, except this one little area.
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, you know, just enough to hang our (sort of) 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 references, very sly references to what’s coming in the future for Caesar.
And then, of course, we had to find a Caesar. And man, this was a hard, hard role to cast. Because I had a very specific thing in my head for Caesar. He had to have a presence, he had to have – you know, look like he would be a threat to the other gladiators. And most importantly, he had to have this shrewd intelligence in his eyes. Really like a shark that was constantly, you know, thinking and looking for his next move.
Steven S. DeKnight: What was that? Oh yeah, if he was hot it was a bonus.
Todd Lasance: I’m just going to sit here quietly.
Steven S. DeKnight: So then we saw so many auditions and just could not find the right combination. And then I saw Todd audition and I immediately called Rob up and said, “I 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 just 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 I think very right for this time period. And I’ve read a lot of things online, Todd I don’t know if you’ve read any of these, but 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.”
Todd Lasance: A couple of my friends have said that.
Steven S. DeKnight: Yeah, you know, people – just go back to what we’ve seen so much of. And, you know, Ciaran Hinds in Rome was so fantastic as Caesar. But that’s Caesar later in his life, that’s like 30 years later. In this time period Caesar, historically, is right around 29. And, you know, it just brings such a fantastic element to the show. I’m very excited for people to see this Caesar, the Caesar threat with the rebels. And also, just the way Crassus and Caesar interact is just a joy to behold.
And Todd could you talk about just taking on the role and did you rely mostly on the script and your conversations with Steven? Or did you kind of delve into the history and the research in that respect?
Todd Lasance: I kind of worked on two elements with that. First of all before I had a chance to speak to the producers I just had about six weeks to sort of do as much research. So I got as many books together as I could and did a lot of research online and sort of tried to get an understanding for that particular time period. Because, unfortunately, historically there is not a lot of information in his earlier years. Because, obviously, when he came to power and was emperor that’s obviously when a lot of it was documented. So early on I did as much research as I could. And then once I landed in New Zealand, sort of sat down and spoke with the producers to get an understanding of what they wanted to see from Caesar. And obviously the character description as well gave me a little bit of an understanding. So it was kind of both of those elements.
With regards to the audition – going into it with no real notes or anything to take into the room. I just kind of had to put my own spin on him a little. So I guess you could say there was sort of three different elements that I brought together. Because obviously, if the audition worked, then there were elements that I used in those particular scenes that they wanted to see again. So I wanted to keep that, keep that (through line) the character as well. So yeah, it was kind of three elements I guess you could say.
Naevia went through such a huge change last season and I’m assuming she’s going to be doing a lot of butt kicking. So what was that like in terms of learning to fight and all of that?
Cynthia Addai-Robinson: Well, I went through a really interesting sort of process both on a personal level and through working on this character. And essentially at the end of vengeance you saw the sort of beginnings of what Naevia is going to be this season in War of the Damned. And I think back to when I was hired and at the time I was hired I met with Steven. And I remember him giving me just a vague idea that I would be eventually fighting and kicking ass. But I don’t think I could have really imagined what I ultimately ended up doing. Which was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done really. I don’t have a background in stunt work, fighting, anything like that. So for me it was very much, “Okay, I’m just going to jump into this. Take a leap of faith and assume that the producers and the writers won’t give me anything that I can’t handle.” But, I definitely was pushed to the limits in a good way. And I very much cared about making sure that I could use all that training and the fighting to tell that story and to move that character forward.
So that was sort of what kept me motivated and kept me going. Because there were many times and many days where I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I can do this. I’m really out of my depth here.” But I’m really happy with it and we have such an incredible support network with our stunt department. Who works tirelessly to get these fight sequences together, and I have to say some of the sequences this season are just absolutely amazing. And, you know, we work on the show. We put all this work into it. But, you know, I think I can speak for the group of us when I say that we’re also fans. So when we watch it we’re just as into it as the audience. And, you know, so we’re all really excited to see what the end result is going to look like.
Steven S. DeKnight: I think the audience is going to be absolutely blown away by Naevia this season. I mean she is – from the moment she walks on screen – every time we were watching dailies in the writer’s room, every time Cynthia would come on screen, we’d spend the next ten minutes talking about how cool you were.
Cynthia Addai-Robinson: And it was nice to, again, this season I felt like I really got to own it. I know for the audience, when I showed up as Naevia 2.0 it was probably a bit (trying) in many respects. And, you know, now I feel like this season, the audience hopefully they’ve moved past that. Either they accept it or they don’t, but at this point I know for me I can just really sort of own Naevia this season and I’m really excited for the audience to sort of see where the writers and producers have taken this character this year.
What was done on the production, I know it’s massive and all that, but to be more carbon footprint reductive, and save, and reduce waste.
Liam McIntyre: Oh no, that’s fine. I think they do an incredible job. They recycle everything you could imagine, like the costumes. They’ve got a warehouse of costumes that they keep revising rather than, you know, trying to…
Liam McIntyre: …as much as they can. You know, which is perhaps easier than to just take stuff and completely make new things rather than having to adapt things. And I think everyone is very conscious of that, obviously in the offices they’re very conscious of waste paper. And we weren’t allowed to get scripts on a certain size paper because it wastes too many trees and stuff like that. I can’t speak for the exact nuances of their plan as far as the producer’s point of view. (Unintelligible) ecology plan. But from an actor’s point of view, seeing a few things like that I was actually very impressed with the way that they just tried to maintain a balance…
Did you get (your) scripts by electronic transmission, did they send…
Liam McIntyre: Well there’s certain risks associated with sending a script by electronic transmission. As long as you can code them and stuff like that. With something as lucrative as Spartacus, the subject can get a little dangerous. They rather insist that you return scripts so they can break them down and recycle them. And also make sure that they’re also, you know, so you can’t just take a script and just chuck it in the bin or something like that. They do what they can to keep it a functional office, but a very Earth conscious one. As much as reasonable. I was appreciative of their efforts anyway.
Steven, I’m curious about the decision to end the show and when that was made in terms of work on this upcoming season. Had it begun already?
Steven S. DeKnight: No, 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. So we could springboard into War of the Damned. So thankfully - it’s a very rare thing in television – 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. I mean everything from let’s do eight episodes so we can spend more money on each episode, to how about 16 episodes and we’ll air it in two parts. But ultimately we thought that 10 episodes would give you the most bang for your buck. And I personally like The Princess Bride, let’s cut out all the boring parts and just give 10 fantastic episodes. And hopefully we have.
And the decision to end the show, was that yours? Was it the networks? Because it’s unusual to see a show as popular and does as well in the ratings as Spartacus, and before five seasons.
Steven S. DeKnight: Yeah, it was a combination. It really was. There was a lot of factors going into it. Factors, everything from story, just looking – my original plan was five to seven seasons. Then we got to the war years and the more and more I researched, the more and more all of the things that happened in the war were incredibly interesting. Also 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. It was really a – when you read it, you really get the sense that there was no plan. It was just, you know, they were 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 I think for Starz. Everything they’ve done with this show has been a bold choice. But to end – and I kept saying, you know, look 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 starting to get bored. And I totally agreed with that. I thought it was a great opportunity to end it and really end it strong.