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Spartacus: Blood & Sand – Lucy Lawless & John Hannah on sex & violence

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Spartacus 1.02 - John Hannah and Lucy Lawless
Spartacus, 1.02; "Sacramentum Gladiatorum" - Batiatus (John Hannah) and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) © Starz

In the new Starz’ series Spartacus: Blood and Sand Lucy Lawless portrays the deceptive Lucretia and John Hannah plays her power-hungry husband Batiatus, the owners of a gladiator school. Financially falling on hard times, Batiatus buys a new slave named Spartacus hoping he will turn into a star gladiator, but Lucetia fears that he can not be tamed and will bring misfortune to both of them.

With Xena: Warrior Princess in Lucy Lawless’ resume and The Mummy in John Hannah’s, both actors are used to the extensive green screen that is used for the TV series. I spoke with them at the TV Critics Association about their new venture into ancient Rome.

Does this, in any way feel thematically like a homecoming, or does it feel completely different to what you were doing on Xena?

Spartacus 103 - John Hannah
Episode 1.03 Blood and Sand – John Hannah (Batiatus) © Starz

Lucy Lawless: Tonally completely different, the fighting, the technology, everything has changed so much. I don’t recognize the fights at all, the way they do them is foreign to me.

This show is appealing very strongly to two very extreme sensibilities with the sex and violence.

Lucy Lawless: Do you think? I think maybe that’s really fundamental to human life. Maybe we’re just in denial about that, but I think it’s visceral.

You and John have a scene where you are using slaves as foreplay, for lack of a better description. How do you shoot a scene like that? Do you giggle through it?

Lucy Lawless: John doesn’t do anything with a straight face. The minute the camera is stopped, he’s laughing. You laughed through 13 episodes, didn’t you? He’s a very serious actor.

John Hannah: All that stuff is really difficult, but it’s as choreographed and as physically composed as the fight scenes. From an individual human level, it’s kind of embarrassing and a bit strange, but to create a world which is so visceral, so real, so basic and so different from our society, our civilization, and then to get coy abut that kind of thing [seems silly]. It would just be a tragedy for the whole production to not embrace that.

Lucy Lawless: It’s also really weird getting used to having the ‘slaves’ around because they’re in your personal space, and as modern people, we like to have a nice wide personal space. You don’t want these slaves hanging around.

Eventually you get used to it, and you realize that, for the Romans, they were like an extension of their right hand. They’re an extension of your will, and that’s why you can kill them and go out and replace them. They meant nothing. They dehumanized people.

Spartacus 103- John Hannah and Peter Mensah
Episode 1.03 Blood and Sand – Batiatus (John Hannah) and Doctore (Peter Mensah) © Starz

John Hannah: The slaves were simply commodities. They were stock. We became quite good friends with our ‘stock’ actually. (they both laugh) I freaked out on the [foreplay] scene going, ‘Oh my God, what are the slaves thinking about us right now?’ If we were in Nigeria or Cameroon, where they were from, I would be stoned for this, I’m assuming.

You both have fans from other projects you’ve done. You’re doing such an adult project now; did the thought of your fans enter into this decision at all?

Lucy Lawless: No.

John Hannah: Never. I think as an artist that you constantly want to diversify and stretch yourself and find new challenges, and from the moment I read this script, I’d never read anything like it, not only in the world that it creates, but in the way that the characters talk to each other and they express themselves, and the constraints of the world that existed then.

The fact that there were no car chases, no policemen, no doctors and no lawyers was just manna from heaven for me.

It was a no brainer when that call came because you just don’t get this kind of material very often as an actor, and I think you have a responsibility more to yourself to see what you can be capable of than to necessarily wonder about what your fans might think.

Lucy Lawless: It’s their prerogative to think whatever they want. Everybody has to live their life.

I remember you spoke at the TCAs last summer and you seemed nervous about the sex scenes, we’re seeing a very different personality today. How has doing this changed you personally?

Spartacus 1.02 - John Hannah and Lucy Lawless
Episode 1.02; Sacramentum Gladiatorum – Batiatus (John Hannah) and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) © Starz

Lucy Lawless: The first two times I did it, I was terribly nervous, and I didn’t even realize I was, in advance of it. But I walked off the set and into my car, pulling off the wig as I went, got out of my car and into bed. I didn’t say good night to anybody.

I crashed out for about 12 hours, and I realized I had been so stressed about it. But I couldn’t hope to have a better partner than John in fulfilling that scene.  It certainly tells you that all bets are off. You’re not in the modern world anymore in that now infamous scene.  And it taught us a lot about slaves.

John Hannah: You can only blush for so long.

Lucy Lawless: The second time I was also stressed out, but we figured out how we had to proceed. There had to be a protocol about doing all these scenes where you marked it out well in advance, you had all your boundaries. Everything is very safe, and there was never skin-on-skin contact. No matter what you think you are seeing, you ain’t!