A Slave defying Rome
April 2004
The Record

As intense as the physical training for the USA network miniseries "Spartacus" was, the psychological prep work for playing the heroic, doomed title character was even more of a challenge, Goran Visnjic says.

"The really difficult thing was, how to be in the head of the guy who ended up being a slave at 7 years old, who killed his own father in order to shorten his suffering on the cross, who'd ... ended up [working as a slave] in the gold mines, then in a gladiatorial school, and became one of the best gladiators and was still not able to say, 'I'm a slave and I'm going to live with that.' That was really tricky."

Like Stanley Kubrick's Oscar-winning 1960 movie, the USA miniseries is based on Howard Fast's 1952 novel "Spartacus," about the Thracian slave-turned-gladiator who led a devastating rebellion against the well-armed and organized soldiers of the Roman empire.

The epic role, made famous by Kirk Douglas, seems a natural fit for Visnjic, who specializes in heroic, noble, tortured characters.

The Croatian actor first came to the attention of American audiences as a denizen of war-torn Bosnia in the 1997 film "Welcome to Sarajevo."

Two years later, Visnjic joined NBC's "ER" as Dr. Luka Kovac, a Croatian physician who came to Chicago after the violent deaths of his wife and children.

"Everybody is asking me, it must be so easy for you to play Luka Kovac. You're from Croatia, this and that, and I'm like, are you guys crazy?" Visnjic says. "To live with Kovac every day, you can end up in the psychiatric ward, 'cause the guy's so complicated ... "

The smile is an immediate tipoff that he's not quite as serious as the characters he plays.

On this rainy spring day, Visnjic (pronounced VISH-nyich) is at a window table in the lounge of Manhattan's Rihga Royal. Many actors look smaller in stature in person than they do on screen. Not Visnjic. The 6-foot-4 actor, who has black hair and dark green eyes, was deservedly named one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World in 2000.

But Visnjic, who once told an interviewer he didn't know what the word "hunk" meant, downplays his status as an "ER" heartthrob.

"It's a television series. People are not paying to see it, so they're still like, 'That's the guy from TV,' " he says.

When he started on "ER" five years ago, Visnjic maintains, his English was "quite crappy." Now, except for the occasional dropping of an article, it's impressively fluid.

In "Spartacus," he pretty much sounds the same as on "ER," but the other characters sound decidedly British.

He explains that his longtime dialect coach, Julie Adams, was on the set and worked with most of the cast. Because gladiators in that school came from all over - including Northern and Eastern Europe, and Western Africa - they decided that characters from specific regions would try to match one another in dialect.

"The Roman people, they spoke with more proper British accent. And the people from Gaul, which is today's France, spoke with a British accent that was quite different from the Romans," Visnjic says. "You have to have the film in English, so how far can you go? The only thing that wouldn't work would be an American accent, because it would be connected to something that was not even discovered at that time. So we tried to adjust the British accents. That was the idea behind it."

"Spartacus," directed by Robert Dornhelm, was filmed last summer in Bulgaria. The cast also includes Rhona Mitra as Varinia, the Gauloise slave who becomes Spartacus' wife and soul mate; Henry Simmons as Draba, the African-born gladiator who bests Spartacus in a death match, yet spares his life; Ian McNeice as Batiatus, who buys Spartacus for his successful gladiatorial school; Angus Macfadyen as Crassus, the Roman senator who's determined to crush the rebellion; and Sir Alan Bates, in his last role, as Crassus' political foe Agrippa.

Having read the script, Visnjic knew he was in for lots of physical challenges. He already was good at using a sword - fencing has been a hobby since his days at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb - but he hit the gym every day to build up his strength.

Stunt coordinators trained the actor-gladiators with wooden swords, just as real gladiators were trained.

"There was no difference with our preparation, except they didn't use whips on us," Visnjic says.

Although some critics have blasted the miniseries' violence, Visnjic believes it was necessary to the story.

"It's a lot of battles. It's quite graphic in a certain sense, but you need to see that that was actually how a battle for freedom looks like," he says.

This week, Visnjic's movie "Close Your Eyes" also opens. It's a supernatural thriller in which he plays a hypnotherapist who helps Scotland Yard track down a vicious killer.

"Towards the middle of the film, we actually realize that the killer might be an alchemist who lived 500 years ago, and who has transferred his soul into another body every time his body becomes too old," he says. "It's quite scary and complicated."

You were expecting something light and breezy from Visnjic?