Visnjic tackles Spartacus with fighting spirit.
April 2004
The Boston Herald
Bart Mills

Goran Visnjic, once a soldier himself, plays one of history's greatest fighters in "Spartacus," a USA Network miniseries premiering tonight at 8 and concluding tomorrow.

The remake of the 1959 Kirk Douglas film tells the story of a champion gladiator who mobilizes other warriors to challenge the Roman Empire. Rhona Mitra of "The Practice" plays the consort role Jean Simmons originated. The late Alan Bates has the principal Roman role.

"Spartacus was a man who tried something so big that it's amazing he even imagined it - to beat the Roman Empire," Visnjic said. "And, refusing to enrich himself, he almost did beat the Romans."

The TV version of Howard Fast's novel has more action than the film did. "It's not really fair to compare the two versions, since they were able to work more slowly," Visnjic said. "But we do have three major battles, two more than they had."

Mitra added, "In its depiction of poor, idealistic slaves and ostentatiously decadent Romans, `Spartacus' doesn't seem like something set in 72 B.C. It seems to resonate with a lot of things that are happening today."

Visnjic, 31, made "Spartacus" in Bulgaria last summer. While there, the "ER" heartthrob was able to stop off in his homeland, neighboring Croatia. It was the small, Adriatic land of Croatia that he served when he wore a uniform a decade ago. During the chaotic last days of Yugoslavia, before it broke up after the fall of communism in Europe, he was drafted into the Yugoslav army, then the Croatian army.

He declined to talk about his service in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. "It's too difficult to explain," he said. "When I've tried, it's been printed wrong. Basically, I'm lucky, and the majority of my friends and family, too.

"We're trying to put everything behind us, and we try not to think of those days. Now Croatia is back in the tourism business, hoping everybody will come and see what a beautiful place it is."

When the Croatian part of the Balkan wars was over, Visnjic became an actor. He was a respected stage performer in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, when he was cast in a 1997 British film about the war, "Welcome to Sarajevo."

Knowing English was a plus for his international career. He learned a lot as a kid from watching American TV shows. "My mother, if I was bad, would threaten me, `Keep it up and on Friday night, no "Battlestar Galactica" for you.' "

In 1998, Visnjic came to the United States to appear in "Practical Magic" with Sandra Bullock.

"I got the smell of life here, and I liked it," he said. "You know, I often play characters with problems, but actually I'm a happy person."

He and his girlfriend, Ivana Vrdoljak, decided to marry and move to America. Soon after, in 1999, he joined the cast of "ER," where he found a quick welcome. "I'll never forget those first few days, when everyone was so supportive," he said.

"In the five years I've lived here, I've found it quite easy to get along. It's been an easy adjustment. We have lots of friends, and Ivana enjoys her sculpture work."

He visits his native Croatia as often as his career allows. "Whenever I'm in the States for Christmas, I'm calling home at 4 a.m.," he said. "If I'm in Croatia, I'm calling Noah Wyle or somebody back here."

Between "ER" seasons, he has been busy working in films. He starred in a Croatian epic, "Long Dark Night," for which there is no U.S. distribution plan at present. It's a World War II tale in which he plays an anti-Nazi partisan who becomes disillusioned with communism after the war.

He also starred in "Close Your Eyes," his first lead role in an English-language feature. In the film, which opens later this spring, he plays a tormented psychologist who helps the British police find a serial killer.

He's now finishing his next-to-last contracted year on "ER."

"I don't know if I'll stay longer," he said. "There's plenty of time for them to write new people in or old people out. I'm not panicking yet."