The gladiators who fight on Starz’s hit series SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND (which airs its season finale tonight) are tough, but Doctore, the man who trains them in combat, is tougher still.
In an exclusive iF interview, actor Peter Mensah talks about playing one of the most formidable warriors in ancient Rome, plus his gigs in 300, as the messenger who gets “This is Sparta!” screamed in his face just before he’s kicked to his death, and AVATAR, in which he plays the leader of the Horse Clan.
iF MAGAZINE: Your character Doctore trains his fellow slaves to fight to the death in the arena. Does Doctore suffer conflicted between the inhumanity of the job and personal humanity, or is he a complete badass?
PETER MENSAH: Every action has a reason. The slave culture actually built Rome, so what’s really interesting about that, and playing that, is there are conflicts, but it is a brutal world and so there’s always a sense of trying to do right in amongst a lot of wrong actions. [As an actor, that is] really fun, because there’s a challenge to play humanity while actually living a very tough life. So it’s a great day to go to work when you have all these things to try and bring to everyday acts.
iF: You have a very interesting accent in real life …
MENSAH: I’m actually Canadian, but Ghanian descent. Spent all my growing-up years in England.
iF: In real life, you’ve been studying martial arts for some time. How much of that skill do you bring into this role?
MENSAH: Well, there’s a very interesting challenge in that this is not modern-day fighting. This is, I think the term is, “blood and sandals.” So using sword and shield and instruments that are not modern, and certainly not of the same descent as any of the [modern] martial arts, [the martial arts background] it helps in basic fitness, it helps when I have to do a roll, a fall and all that, but it’s a completely different skill set in terms of doing this. Judo is where I started.
iF: Do all the actors playing gladiators have a gladiator class where you learn how to use the sword and shield all together, or do you just work out individually?
MENSAH: We did start with initial gladiator camp, often referred to as “Glad Camp,” and that was a month of learning a number of weapons and fight forms and general training to get ready. But in the series, every episode has a new kind of combat, so we were actually training at all times just to keep it going.
iF: You've done a lot of wushu, but wushu is generally propless. How is it working with swords and shields?
MENSAH: As I say, the wushu effectively becomes more of a moving meditation. And what’s great about [using swords and shields] – this is now work. This is what I do as a character. And so it actually helps Doctore, the character I play, to have the weapons in hand, and do whatever is required at the time. Nobody escapes without getting into a scrap in this show [laughs].
iF: How do you feel when people recognize you as the messenger who got kicked into the well in 300?
MENSAH: Oh, that’s an easy one. I feel enormously blessed. You know, the funny thing about it is, someone asked the question at Comic-Con. I found the experience really humbling. The fact that people get so much out of what we do, it’s actually a really wonderful thing. So I never get sick of it, because I realize, wow, it’s such a great privilege that people actually enjoy something you did, and they give me I guess such honor as a result, so I feel blessed by it.
iF: So you’re okay with people coming up to you and saying, “This is Sparta!”?
MENSAH: [laughs] There’s so many other things they could say. If that’s the worst, then that’s wonderful.
iF: 300 was set in roughly the same part of the world, in the same before-Christ era and, like SPARTACUS, shot against green screen. Does this feel similar?
MENSAH: Yeah, it’s fun. Interestingly enough, historically, they’re very sort of different in their ways, but it’s certainly challenging to bring life to this character for the length of a series and possibly for a number of years [laughs].
iF: Are you prepared with playing Doctore over multiple seasons on SPARTACUS if it has a long run?
MENSAH: It is a huge commitment and it’s actually really also a blessing at the same time, because it’s nice when producers and a network put their trust in you and say, “I would love to work with you for years.” And that certainly as an actor is a pleasant thing, especially if the story is something as dramatic and possibly as impactful as this might be, because there’s nothing like this on TV.
iF: You were also in AVATAR. What was that like?
MENSAH: It’s really amazing. Obviously, being on the set and working with Jim [Cameron] and [producer] Jon [Landau] really is a remarkable experience.
iF: What do you think is the biggest question people have about Doctore?
MENSAH: I think that the biggest question mark [is] probably, “What’s his story?” And I think that’s going to be answered really interestingly, so it starts in a certain manner, and as the series evolves, Steve [DeKnight] has written a really interesting onion-peel way to get to what his story really is, and by the end of the season, you’ll find it opens a door to a very interesting character.
iF: A lot of people in the Sam Raimi/Robert Tapert television production team have been working together since HERCULES and XENA. What’s it like for you coming in and working with such a tight group?
MENSAH: Actually fantastic. One of the good aspects is, when you get included in a family, Rob Tapert especially has gone out of his way to make me really comfortable, it’s a nice thing to recognize that you’ve been recognized, they trust your work, because they hired me without auditioning, they just put in a call and it was a choice between this and a certain cop show, and this won hands down [laughs].
iF: Working with green screen, how different is the end result from what you see on the set?
MENSAH: It’s very different, but that’s the key to green screen work. The same on 300. I remember the initial renderings and then seeing the process and then a few months later seeing the finished product. You sort of work with the knowledge that there will be a lot more done and it will look flashier by the time it’s done, because you work in a very stark environment, typically. It really calls on you to trust everyone in order to get it done. I’m honestly thrilled with the way it’s turned out. If the performance doesn’t work, ultimately, it will actually unseat the piece, so we’ve all had that as an understanding, that no matter what we do, the performances actually cement the work itself, so I have no concerns about that at all.
iF: Had you worked in New Zealand before?
MENSAH: No. This is actually the first time. It’s wonderful being there, it’s a beautiful place.
iF: You’ve been on Comic-Con panels and you’ve done scenes in the show’s Coliseum. Is there any resemblance between the Comic-Con crowd roar of “Ahhh!’ and the Coliseum roar of, “Ahhh!”?
MENSAH: [laughs] I would say I guess one is as bad as the other.
iF: A lot of people would say a lot of things set at that point in history are really about present-day. Is that part of the theme of the show?
MENSAH: Yeah. I think the understanding really is that there is no issue that’s original and the Roman empire was built on slavery and a privileged class versus an under-class. This is nothing new. So you can always find references to the modern-day situation. Actually, the way the stories are laid out, it’s not just action without reason. It’s the individual stories of some of these people and the way their situations are told, and it explains why conflicts happen.