In a presentation today at the annual Television Critics Association conference in Pasadena, the producers and stars of the upcoming series Spartacus: Blood and Sand emphasized that it pushes the limits of what’s been seen on television, with graphic violence and plenty of sex and nudity, but that it’s all in the service of a well-told story involving compelling characters.
“Nudity?” said co-star Lucy Lawless after being asked if she gets naked in the the first season. “I’m afraid so. Not entirely, no, and I’m kind of praying that day never comes.”
According to executive producer and co-creator Rob Tapert, “There’s a great deal of nudity, both male and female, and some guys are not as well endowed as others, so we had to create [a prosthetic penis which we called] the ‘Kirk Douglas’ so that certain actors would have [something] they could wear and feel comfortable.”
The prosthetic penis was named in honor the star of the classic 1960 movie, Spartacus, he said with a laugh.
As to which actors did or didn’t wear it, “We can’t give away our trade secrets,” he said.
The Starz network actioner, debuting January 22rd, tells the story of the rebel slave Spartacus who led a revolt against the Roman Empire in 73 BC. The show, which has a reported budget of $2 million an episode, approaches feature film quality, the producers said.
“When Rob and Joshua [Donen] came up with the idea, I was fascinated by it,” said executive producer Sam Raimi. “[The story of Spartacus] is such a great story, and only some of it is recorded, from the point he became a leader of this rebellion. Before that, no one really cared enough about this poor slave to record anything. … It’s the story of a man who was deemed worthless and found great stuff within him. The stuff of great drama.”
Lawless was asked if she was drawn to the project because it’s a period piece, much like her break-out show, Xena: Warrior Princess.
“I never think about the costumes, never about that,” she said. “It’s about the role and the company you’re in. I nearly didn’t take the role, I was so nervous. I was so happy living in LA, and [by returning to New Zealand, where the show is filmed], I felt like I was going back to Idaho or something. But the role is such a knock-out. Brilliant women’s relationships, very deadly, very subtle. Subtle and deadly, that’s what attracts me.”
Later, she added with a laugh, “Were you surprised to hear me use the word ‘subtle’? I’ve been deadly before, but not often subtle.”
Tapert acknowledged that the look and style of the show, much of which is created using green-screen technology and CGI backgrounds, is already being compared to the movie 300, which used the same technology.
“[300 director] Zach Snyder brought that hyper-realistic style to a period piece,” he said. But “Sin City prior to that had been all-digital backgrounds, along with other shows from Blue’s Clues all the way to Sanctuary. What 300 did so well was make a great deal of money.
“It was easy to point to that and say, it worked in that style,” he added. “It allowed us to actually bring this [elaborate, effects-heavy story] to the screen. There was no way to do it without the artifice, so to speak.”
Several of the participants emphasized that the general tone of the show is very different from that of Xena, on which Lawless, Tapert, and Raimi all worked.
“There’s no nudge-nudge, wink-wink,” Lawless said. “Tonally, it’s like nothing else I’ve done. It’s very real.”
“Spartacus was really a chance to be part of something that was entirely different than what Hercules and Xena was,” Tapert said. “It’s serious, it always tries to be genuine, it’s part of a natural [creative] evolution.”
As for the intense action scenes and graphic violence, head writer Steven DeKnight said, “Everyone knows that action is just a component, a tool that allows you to have a resolution happen differently. You still have to have great drama. This is a show that has action, blood, and sex, all the things you don’t see on network television. But all of that is just the initial wave behind which really good drama is waiting.”
“[The characters] don’t run along the same mores as we have,” Lawless added. “We strikes me [about the time in history] was the singular lack of empathy, and humans are just chattel, and it’s all about status, and if you’re of low status, I can kill you tomorrow. High stakes for people of low status and even for those of higher status.”
Twelve of the show’s first thirteen-episode season have already been filmed.
Renee O’Connor, Lawless’ co-star on Xena, will not make a guest appearance, at least in the first season. “Once Lucy’s there, it’s just not appropriate, that makes it a different thing,” Tapert said. But the show does make use of many of the same behind-the-scenes crew from that show.
“The time we were doing Hercules and Xena, that was a very special time,” Tapert admitted. “And we knew at the time that that would never happen again. We had pretty much untold creative freedom, we could do musicals and comedies.”
With Spartacus, he says, they have a different kind of freedom, including a network that is encouraging them to push limits.
“I [once] said to myself, ‘We’ve gone too far,’ and the executives from Starz got the director on the phone and said, ‘You haven’t gone far enough.’ And so the director said, ‘Now I’m gonna show them!’”
As for the crew he worked with before, “They know this is a different ride, entirely different than Hercules and Xena, but will boldly go where no one has gone before. Action is just a component, it just builds the characters, rather than stops to show you an action scene. What I’m happiest about is that it’s a well written show.”
“With an amazing new star,” added Lawless, referring to Andy Whitfield, who plays Spartacus.
Might the show have a musical episode as Xena once did? “I did Viva Laughlin,” DeKnight quipped, referring to a 2007 musical series that was a notorious bomb. “I don’t think they’ll be any musicals.”
Other than the behind-the-scenes joke about the prosthetic penis, does the series include references to the classic 1960 film? “I was blown away by [that movie] when I saw it as a kid, and then when I was older, I realized what it was really all about,” DeKnight said. “You will hear [the classic line] ”I am Spartacus,’ but it’s very different.”
The trailer for Spartacus: Blood and Sand
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