In our continuing Q&A series exploring Starz’s series “Spartacus,” we sat down with actor Peter Mensah, whose fan-favorite character Oenomaus becomes even more integral in the prequel “Gods of the Arena,” which just premiered in Jan.
CableFAX: As an actor, how to do you cope with a prequel when you’ve already established your character in the future during Season One? Usually you’re moving forward…
Mensah: Yeah, and building on what you’ve done. That was exactly why I was excited to do it because you almost never get the opportunity to show the roots of a character. It has been unusual because you’ve really established him and his way. But this was a unique opportunity to actually explain—how did he get to be that way? Because even in that world, it’s unusual for someone to be so disciplined and devoted and devout. So it was interesting to see—what was the process? I was looking forward to it. We had touched on it a couple of times before that there would be flashbacks to explain his relationship with Batiatus [played by John Hannah], for instance. They do go back a long way, and there are a number of references to them having grown up together. So how did that work? How far back were you going to go back in time? There was a certain amount of “OK, if we go back really far, it could be tricky.”
CableFAX: Were you surprised by the success of the show?
Mensah: Surprised? I think pleased would be the best the way to describe it. Completely blown away by the range of fan. It really is surprising just how broad the appeal has been, especially considering that it’s specialized cable and not as many subscribers as you would have on some other channel… And yet, it has grown, and has grown by word of mouth quite phenomenally. So I think what’s interesting is that even though it’s clearly doing well, it’s only going to grow. And that is actually slightly overwhelming.
CableFAX: The show has a lot of sex and violence. It’s certainly not for everyone.
Mensah: No, but it’s a beautiful graphic novel every week. And the personal stories are what appeals. Everybody mentions the sex and violence, but it blends so seamlessly—and I think that’s what makes it appeal, and probably why we have that wide a range [of fan]…. The range of people is quite huge.
CableFAX: So going five years back, you’ve mentioned he smiles more. Was he less devout or a different person?
Mensah: No matter what I tell you, it’s still better watching it. But the environment hasn’t necessarily changed. You’re a slave. You live in a violent world. Your life can end at any time. So yes, smile—but he’s not necessarily a joker. It’s not like playing a different character. It’s still rooted in the same person and the same environment.
CableFAX: Andy Whitfield, who played Spartacus in Season One, is undergoing cancer treatment. Producers announced at TCA that he’ll need to be replaced for Season Two. Have you kept in touch with Andy?
Mensah: We email to keep abreast of the progress.
CableFAX: How’s he doing?
Mensah: Well, he is going through it. There’s nothing pretty about the process. But what has been amazing is that he has been enormously gracious in the way he communicates with us, and he’s positive in his emails. His sense of humor is still very evident, which is really remarkable considering how destroying the process really is. And he’s very grateful to the fanbase. He made mention of all the goodwill that has come his way.
CableFAX: Showrunner Steven DeKnight has said this project was largely inspired by the movie 300, and the similarities in its graphic-novel look are obvious. Interestingly enough, you appeared in 300 as a messenger who gets kicked down a well. You seem to fare better in Spartacus.
Mensah: [LAUGHS] I’m moving up in the world.
CableFAX: Despite the similar look, one was a big-budget movie and the other is a TV show. How is the cable experience different than the big screen?
Mensah: The great thing is the net result is effectively very movie-like. The process, of course, is still very much television. But this is actually a very expensive TV show. The difference is in the nature of the length of time you have to tell a story. We’ve got to get a get an episode out every so often, whereas with a movie you have one big story. So it is a little bit different—a little bit more wearing in the long run because every day you’re going through it. And every week or so, you have new material to absorb. With a movie, we all know what we’re doing because there’s just one script. But that’s part of what makes it kind of exciting is you’re engaged. You have to be on your toes if you’re going to pull it off. And you’ve got to have a process, especially playing a character that doesn’t really sound like me, doesn’t talk like me. You have a process to rival that each day… But it’s fun. It’s a great vehicle because the stories are so colorful. Everybody has work to do. Every character has a fair bit to absorb and do and produce. That’s kind of fun.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor at CableFAX).