With average-guy looks, thinning hair and slight build, John Hannah isn't as buff as the muscle-ripped actors that dominate Starz's Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
Unassuming stature aside — Hannah jokes about wearing platform sandals for scenes with statuesque castmates — he has been the imposing emotional force on the sexually charged, gore-infused Roman Empire epic, which ends its first season Friday (10 ET/PT).
"It was a little intimidating at first," says Hannah, 47, who stars as Batiatus, the manipulative gladiator-school owner whose thirst for wealth, social standing and political power is tied to the fighting prowess of slave Spartacus (Andy Whitfield).
"All the guys were really fit. I exercise a bit, but I'm not that committed. And being the oldest guy on the set, I questioned where my youth went."
Spartacus' plotlines have swung largely on the machinations of Batiatus and his equally devious wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless). On the couple's rise to success, Batiatus has orchestrated the deaths of rivals, slaves, even children, manipulating some opponents and outfoxing others. And he has been in more than a few explicit sex scenes.
"I've killed people in some interesting ways, and it's been quite interesting sexually," says the Scottish-born Hannah, who was an electrician's apprentice until 20, when he attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
He has worked steadily in film and TV since 1987 but is perhaps best known to American audiences for small, lighter roles in Four Weddings and a Funeraland The Mummytrilogy. The complex Batiatus is among Hannah's juiciest roles to date.
"What I love about Batiatus is he's not just a conniving evil guy who's morally reprehensible; he's human. That's what makes it so challenging," Hannah says.
Spartacus, which has been drawing a respectable 1 million viewers a week, has been renewed for a second season. But production has been delayed as Whitfield undergoes treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma in New Zealand.
Whitfield, in a statement, says he relished their screen time. Working with Hannah was "unpredictable, a little dangerous and a lot of fun. He felt compelled to strike me during each scene we shared. I did not know that it was coming, only that it would. I pointed out that we could pretend, and that they could add a sound effect later. He didn't see the point in that."
Lawless says she enjoyed Hannah's softer style of humor: "We blessed the day John walked into the role."
Yet Starz and series execs initially sought "the TV equivalent of Tom Cruise" to portray Batiatus, says Robert Tapert, Lawless' husband and Sparatcus' co-producer. "Oddly enough, this was the hardest character to cast," he says. "We had other actors, including big names. But they either couldn't get around the sex scenes or the volume of dialogue. We kept coming back to John."
Batiatus was envisioned as a physically imposing, bombastic type, but Hannah, who auditioned early in the casting process, provided a vulnerability and likability others lacked, says Starz programming exec Bill Hamm.
Cast against type, Hannah "brings a believability to Batiatus, who even though is villainous, makes you understand why he does his evil deeds and almost makes you like him no matter how dastardly he is," Hamm says. "And there's a real chemistry with Lucretia that's both sexy and loving."
As Spartacus' slave revolt takes shape in the finale, Hannah's future on the series turns uncertain. He recently wrapped filming in South Africa for Kidnap and Ransom, a miniseries for Britain's ITV. He's now hanging out at his London home with his wife, actress Joanna Roth, and their twins, Gabriel and Astrid, 6.
What's next? "We'll see," Hannah says. "Hopefully, Spartacus shows what I can do. Right now, I'm available for parties and bar mitzvahs."