Ah, the redemptive power of television. In the finale of season 1 of Starz’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand, gladiator owner Batiatus dies a bloody death. But in the 6-episode prequel, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, now playing on Starz, Batiatus is back, younger and just as ruthless. And that means viewers get another chance to enjoy the performance of veteran Scottish actor John Hannah. We asked Hannah (pictured below as Batiatus) about the prequel and what it’s like to work on a cable miniseries.
CFAX: I thought the prequel [Spartacus: Gods of the Arena] was even better than your first series [Spartacus: Blood and Sand]. And [show runner] Steven DeKnight has said he learned a lot from the first series. How do you feel about the prequel as an actor?
Hannah: I think he’s right. They did 13 episodes, they’re going to learn some stuff. They’re going to learn what works, what doesn’t. They have another good-looking, handsome leading gladiator guy in Dustin [Clare]. That’s great.
CFAX: And the writing is so subtle.
Hannah: Yes. As soon as I read it, I thought, yeah, this is… great. What I also thought was that one of the huge elements was the new arena, or what was the old arena. You know, the wooden hustings. You could get 300 extras in there. It had a rawness and immediacy, which I thought was brilliant.
CFAX: Of course the subtlety ended with Jaime Murray’s character (Gaia), who’s about as subtle as a slap in the face—
Hannah: Yeah, with a wet fish (laughter).
CFAX: I watched episode one at Christmas time and I’m seeing all these people screaming for blood. Kill him! Kill him! Or you [as Batiatus] screaming: Kill him when the important officials get here!
Hannah: [laughter] Yes! Yes! Kill him when I can get something out of this! Completely.
CFAX: It makes you think: are we better off today?
Hannah: Well you know I keep talking about Batiatus as this ambitious businessman, who gets involved in politics—and you know, becomes ambitious in politics. And he’s not that different from many people who are either in the government or facilitating things for the government. You look at the situation in Iraq. You look at the situation abroad where people are dying and guys in suits are making money. It’s not that different.
CFAX: Some of the things you did while you were speaking, the walk and talks, were interesting. At one point [in episode 1], you are speaking to someone as you use a public bathroom.
Hannah: Yes. The way [show runner] Steven [DeKnight] and [exec prod] Rob [Tapert] said, every department brought something in. They’re not necessarily trying to up the ante, to be better than themselves. They’re thinking about how to do things better.
You know when you do a walk-and-talk, and you have a steadicam and all that, it adds some energy to [dialogues]. We had this set and I believe there was a production edict to get out in the streets some more, so that set expanded a little bit. It was the director, I think, who had the idea that the toilet would be there. So we stopped at it. And then we said, ‘Why don’t we just use it?’ And then they had this toilet brush, but that was actually for cleaning yourself.
CFAX: Yes, I saw that.
Hannah: So I saw that and I said, ‘Someone in the art department has researched this [and] made this, it would be a tragedy if we don’t actually use it.’ So I sat down and did the toilet [laughter].
CFAX: So it was your idea?
Hannah: Well, it was the director’s idea to put us in the toilet. Somebody in the art department had come up with the detail of the toilet brush. And that’s what it was actually for, to clean yourself. So I thought, well, it’s a shame that doesn’t get utilized. Let’s use it.
CFAX: What about walking through the streets and there are lines of—
Hannah: Naked slave girls. That can be distracting at times.
CFAX: But your character just glanced at them and kept on walking. Is that what happened in those days?
Hannah: Well, I imagine slaves weren’t overly dressed when they were being led up to market, especially the women, because you can only imagine how they were used and abused. And like any good salesman, they had to show off their wares, I suppose.
CFAX: Working in cable. Does that factor into the way you think and work? I know it’s much faster.
Hannah: Yes, it’s a faster pace, it’s hard work, it’s constant. It does feel like a treadmill at times, it’s very tiring. But one of the differences I found with this [miniseries] rather than a TV show, which may have a through line, but is also episodic, is that you do get to build and layer your character. And not fallaciously. You get to build and layer that character in terms of what the writers have given you, but you [also] do build that up [even more]; I think, you become a more rounded person.
I think sometimes with episodic TV, you just become a bit of a cipher for whatever’s happening. So you kind of have the same personality traits on a weekly basis, which is sort of dull. Especially in this first season, where you have 13 episodes to build that character. And it becomes the product of all of that work rather than something that right now I know what my character is.
CFAX: What about moving from season one and then going back to do a prequel?
Hannah: It was sort of interesting going back. Sort of having that philosophical debate with yourself: are you bad because of what you do or do you do what you do because you’re bad, you know? And then it’s, well… I’m an actor, and I do what I do because it’s in the script. [laughter]