It's little wonder that Starz' freshman melodrama, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," has become a breakout hit for the cable network.
Over the course of the sword-and-sandal epic's 12 episodes aired so far, Steven S. DeKnight and his team of writers have offered up twisted sexual liaisons, political intrigue and, most notably of all, blood-drenched action. They've created true destination TV, an addictive hour that appeals to both the intellect and, well, our more base needs.
According to star Peter Mensah, the season finale airing at 9 p.m. Friday brings together all the best elements of the series.
"When I first read it, it seemed like, 'How on Earth are you going to pull this off in our allotted time?'" the actor me recently. "You need so many components to pull off such a grand piece. I really enjoyed it."
Mensah has been a standout in the series, bringing both authority and gentleness to his role of former gladiator Doctore, who now trains the gladiators--including Spartacus (Andy Whitfield)--owned by Batiatus (John Hannah) and his wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless).
To say anything about what happens in finale, titled "Kill Them All" after the now famous declaration from Spartacus, would ruin the episode's cleverly-crafted and shocking twists. I'll just say that I found myself applauding and giggling happily throughout.
Mensah said he's pleased with the reaction to the series, but what happens in it is shocking only because it's truthful. Everyone in that time was scheming to better themselves, or simply struggling to survive.
"It was a very bloody, very, very trying time. You could lose your best friend, your father, your son in the next minute in that time," he said. "I think the shock that the audience sort of goes through brings them closer to what the time is really like."
Mensah had more to say about the finale, a part of our chat I'll post after Friday's finale. In the meantime, the spoiler-free conversation is below, in which the actor gives an update on Whitfield, who is battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He also spoke more about Season 1, playing Doctore and how he's now expected to crack the taskmaster's now infamous whip in public.
The show has had a weekly surprise. How did you react when you read the scripts each week? Were you as shocked as audiences now are?
Absolutely. I think that the cast is typically as surprised as the audience is now being, but then I think that we started without really knowing what was coming up. I think probably the shock was in the first few episodes trying to navigate character and how we actually were going to figure out how to be these people. As it progressed and we sort of settled into the characters I think you can probably see the end results are sort of a little more clearly defined and then the task was really, "OK they've asked us to do what this week?" The great thing about the particular group of actors is that we were really, really good at getting together and helping each other navigate the steps toward pulling off every requirement. So it was a very definite collaborative piece. It was always surprising, but then we grew to expect surprises.
And are you still using that whip at all in your own way?
[Laughs.] Believe it or not, I was naïve enough not to anticipate the popularity of that whip. I got so into just figuring out how to do it without hurting myself I didn't even think it looked cool. So it has been kind of impressive how popular it has been. I actually just returned from doing a trip up the California coast and at a gas station in Carmel I was asked about the whip, believe it or not.
Did they want you to get it out of the car?
They assumed I would have it on me. [Laughs.] I am very fortunate actually. The stunt guys, who are so brilliant in training us, actually presented me with a whip that they handmade. I actually came back with a beautifully crafted whip, but it sort of causes a few surprises, you know, the sound of a cracking whip in West Hollywood. Let's just put it this way: I use it sparingly.
You had to keep in practice though right?
Yeah, fortunately because you know we've been so well received it's sort of it's become something that I guess will now be a part of my life for awhile.
It could be worse though, right?
Yeah, well somebody could be using it on me, yeah.
Doctore has sort of changed his attitude this season. How have you felt about the progression of the character?
What is happening is that the character Doctore is actually being revealed as hopefully as being a far more caring guy than you might think and this is how I guess we'd always wanted to layer him and I'm sure and I'm very pleased actually that people are sort of trying to find out a little bit more, are curious about his background. I think there is a lot more story to tell there, so I'm personally really, really pleased that he is being that well received and really, really thrilled that Steve and his writers have actually cared to develop him slowly.
So you're happy to have found "Spartacus"?
I love the show and to work on something like this is so much more thrilling than a procedural. There are great procedurals out there, but fun entertainment, a good hourlong just sort of dropping into another world. I don't think anyone quite does it like we do.
How did you feel about Doctore when you first got involved and what you think about him now?
It's very hard at the beginning when you haven't quite figured out how to navigate a character so that he is believable, especially given that we were not familiar with living in that time period. So at the beginning it was a little bit more difficult because, obviously, I was researching the time and we were getting used to the environment and the way we shoot and used to the writing, but as we grew more comfortable with it. It became less of a task to achieve the character and became more interesting to try and play him.
John Hannah (left, as Batiatus) and Peter Mensah (as Doctore) have been especially fun to watch this season.
So I feel very comfortable playing Doctore. I'm very proud of the way Steve has developed him and I've sort of found ways to access and ways to make him more interesting. One of the greatest things too is playing with John Hannah because John has so many brilliant, brilliant nuances to playing character. I feel as though I've learned how to play Doctore all the more as the season progressed, as they develop the character for me and as I worked with actors that could really pull off playing great characters.
Is it strange to be standing there in pools of blood?
[Laughs.] Honestly it is surprising. As much as I've always been a graphic novel fan, when you're actually in it it's amazing how effective it is. The set decorators and the set designers and the costumes and makeup people is absolutely brilliant out there. When you walk out onto a set that is covered in blood as much as you know its makeup and made up it really does affect you. It takes a few minutes to sort of check in and realize, "Wow." We were completely shocked. I can only imagine how the audience reacts.
Speaking of the CGI, were you surprised when you saw the finished product this season?
I was definitely impressed with the quality and how great the work really was and that's to say you know I can't say enough how thrilled I am that these guys are this good. They really produce a fantastic piece of work and you know it's really, really phenomenal that Starz have the trust and faith to just let these guys go to work and come out with a great product.
I've been very fortunate because I've actually done quite a bit of motion caption green screen work. Trusting the people you work with is a huge part of the process because you're naturally working without a lot of the material that will be in the final cut ... There is a natural sort of let go, let them do their work and just totally throw yourself into what you have to do so they have something great to work with. As I say these guys have turned out a phenomenal product, so I'm totally thrilled with the outcome.
Has this been your most taxing role physically?
I would say that TV work is taxing for the simple reason that you have to consistently divulge yourself with your normal day-to-day and be willing to go in and give to this character and to the story. That in itself is taxing over time. We were doing this away from home, so I didn't have the opportunity to come home to my friends and family and sort of regroup and then go back to work. It was simply, "Go out there and be this for eight months." It was taxing in a number of ways.
I actually enjoyed the physical because I love exercise. I love the process and you're constantly doing something new in this particular process. It's taxing, but in a funny way it was comforting to have that sort of a challenge and it almost helped me stay focused on the character a lot more. This is sort of other-worldly and so living in a slightly other worldly way helped.
I imagine it's sort of like putting the costume on; it helps you get into character.
Yeah, it really is. The fact that you have to go through your paces and grinds and you take hits and then you go to work with a few pains and the reality is that is part of the character. You go to work hurt.
Plus you have a fabulous new party trick with the whip, right?
[Laughs.] I don't know what kind of parties you like to go to, Curt, but sure.
A lot of people have made parallels between the story in "Spartacus" and modern day America. Did you see that when you agreed to do it?
It's actually a really interesting point ... There is sort of two levels of answers. One is that I signed on because I really loved the idea and the sheer fantasy. As I say, I'm a graphic novel fan and loved the concept of actually producing a graphic novel every week. And I loved the story Spartacus.
Now the parallels to modern day America: I think the great thing about any story is that it has heroes. It has the parameters of the story and this particular story is set in the time where class system was very evident and there was no such thing as political correctness, just social correctness. So yes, it mirrors any particular period in time when the society is stratified and it also mirrors a time when people didn't hide the fact that they considered slaves as sort of as cattle. It has the elements of social climbing and all the components of people trying to move as far away from the bottom of the barrel as possible.
It also mirrors the heroic tale of the underdog and so yes, it definitely in some ways does mirror the modern day, but without question it's entertainment firs. I think to some extent making it fantastic, with the graphic nature of the blood and the violence and the sexuality, is a part of making it entertainment. If underneath that we can have a conversation about sort of real life that is great, but we're not trying to point people in any particular direction.
What is your favorite scene overall from Season 1, or a favorite Doctore scene?
Oh my goodness. It is hard to say simply because I really liked the last episode. Having said that, the overall experience was pretty phenomenal. You just don't get a chance as an actor to do this sort of thing, to go dive into another world and simply come out with something that is so well received, so it's hard to say which one. I liked the last, but I really loved the whole experience.
Did you enjoy filming in New Zealand?
It was fantastic. I had never been before and there were definite times you feel as though you've moved to the end of the Earth. It's as fantastic as it sounds because it's visually so stunning and the people are just amazing in their sort of Old World values and courtesy. At the same time it's remarkably about as far away from home as you can imagine going, so for a number of reasons it was a fantastic experience, but definitely a good one.
You were born in Ghana. Do you still keep in touch with relatives there? How long did you live there before you moved on?
I'm sort of more of a dual because I'm actually probably more English in my upbringing than Ghanaian. I was two or three years old [when I left]. My parents live in Ghana and my sisters live in England still. Although I see them every year, we Skype every week, sometimes more often. The great thing is everybody sticks the camera on and they get to actually be in every room that I've been in, so it's actually been really wonderful keeping in touch. I sort of exist on a variety of continents considering that growing up in England and spending a good deal of time in Canada I have friends on a number of continents.
And now New Zealand.
And now New Zealand has been added to the family, yes.
What have you been doing in your off time?
The off time, as little of it as there has been, has actually been me traveling because as I say having friends and family elsewhere I really needed the time to for my personal life. This is a wonderful show and a big sort of life commitment, so I've been away an awful long time, so literally last night returned and now we're sort of going to prepare and see sort of where the next steps are. There are a couple of things here, but I need to talk to Starz and see what they're happy to have me do.
How did you get into acting in the first place?
I've always loved it. I did you know as a lot of actors do. You start as a child in school dramas. I ended up moving a little away from theater because I went into engineering, but I kept working with a local troop in England and did a lot of stage work, enough to qualify and just sort of lucked out in getting some roles. In the end I got so much work that it became, "Look I'm doing this and it's working, so why not?" So it's sort of a combination of I've always done it and luckily the industry seemed to receive me well. As a result it's ended up being more than just a passion. It's just my lifestyle.
Andy Whitfield is being treating for non-Hodkin's lymphoma.
Can you comment on Andy and how he is doing in his battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma?
The first and foremost thing about any of this is real life supersedes anything. He is such a wonderful, gentle guy and all of us were so completely shocked and me especially, seeing as we get along so well.
I don't think he saw it coming, but the great thing is I couldn't imagine him getting better care than he is getting now. This is what he said himself, and he has also received [the news] so well. Talking to him you wouldn't know that he was ill, that he was going through so much, because he is in such good spirits and just so positive about coming out of this well.
Initially I think I was sort of living the fear of what he was going through, but he has been so positive I feel completely encouraged that he'll be back and he'll do really, really well out of it. His wife and two kids, Vashti and the kids, have been so fantastic around it.
It was a shock at first. At the end of the day, [the show] will be fine. The audience will be fine and it will be even more wonderful to know that Andy is OK.