Doctor or Gladiator, Visnjic looks good as a flawed hero
April 2004
St. Louis Post
Gail Pennington

Physician. Hypnotist. Gladiator. Goran Visnjic is one versatile guy.

As Dr. Luka Kovac, the resident hunk on NBC's "ER," Visnjic plays a white-coated hero whose flaws (including womanizing and an unfortunate violent streak) sometimes threaten to overshadow his noble side.

Now, for something completely different, he tries on leather and a loincloth to play a hero whose inherent nobility triumphs over his training as a killer.

It's a long way from contemporary Chicago to the Roman Empire, but Visn jic makes the jump for "Spartacus," USA cable's miniseries remake of the classic Kirk Douglas movie about a handful of slaves that challenges - and almost brings down - the Roman Empire. Both are based on the 1950s historical novel by the late Howard Fast.

The movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is considered a classic and was issued in fully restored form in 1991. So why the need for a remake?

Producers cite the "contemporary resonance" of the subject matter, which argues that life without freedom is not worth living.

A cynic, however, could argue that someone saw the need to showcase the strapping Visnjic in skimpy gladiator garb. And, in fact, he wears the outfit better than anyone since Russell Crowe.

But Visnjic - who plays a spooky hypnotist in the psychological thriller "Close Your Eyes," due in theaters this month - views the "Spartacus" role as just another chance to stretch the acting talents he first developed onstage as a child in his native Croatia.

One problem: "Kirk Douglas is my father's favorite actor," he told TV critics when USA introduced the miniseries in January. "So when I told him I'm going to be doing 'Spartacus' and I've made my decision, he was like, 'Better be good.'"

An advantage of the remake was length, he added last week in a conference call that touched not just on "Spartacus" but on what's up for Kovac and "ER."

"We had a little more time telling the story," Visnjic said. "We brought more of the book onscreen, some characters got more screen time and more story to tell."

Actually, the luxury of length is an illusion. Minus commercials, the miniseries runs 180 minutes; the movie as originally issued ran 184 minutes, and the re-issue stretched to 198.

Despite his father's cautions, to portray Spartacus "I just jumped in, and it was fun to do it," he said. But clearly, a lot of thought went into the depiction of a character Visnjic calls "one of the biggest human creatures in the history of the world."

As scripted by Robert Shenkkan ("The Quiet American") and directed by Robert Dornhelm ("Anne Frank"), the miniseries attempts to show Spartacus as someone who is born to greatness but realizes his destiny only after being trained as a killer.

"The idea that he has to kill other human beings in order to survive was just too much to bear for him," Visnjic said. "He is provoked so much that he can't stay there anymore. But until that first breakthrough from gladiator school happens, he's not planning to be the leader of a great slave rebellion."

Like Luka, Spartacus is a flawed hero, Visnjic believes. "He can't bear to be physically responsible (for) thousands of people, logistics of feeding, clothing. But over the course of the film, he becomes a real leader."

Despite studying fencing for two years back in Croatia, Visnjic found the violent fight scenes a challenge, especially after sustaining so many wounds on his right hand that costumers "had to invent armor for me" to save his fingers.

And what would an "ER" doctor be without fingers? Visnjic needed to keep that in mind; his contract for the NBC drama runs one more year, and he has no immediate plans to depart anytime in the near future.

"This season I had my favorite episode of these five years I've been on the show," he said, citing the two-parter with Kovac and Carter (Noah Wyle) in the Congo. "I really can't complain."

He's also happy with Kovac's new love interest, tough nurse Sam Taggart, played by Linda Cardellini. Things have been going well for the duo, but "a new character is going to bring a little bit more turmoil into their relationship toward the end of the season." Writers are "going to put us in a lot more trouble than normally, I'd say."

Beyond that, he has no idea what's in store. "Every summer, our producers are taking big meetings and discussing what's going to happen next season, and I don't know. But, as of now, they're developing Sam and Luka's love story, and I'm very happy with what they're doing."

"ER" is famous for giving its stars the time and flexibility to do other projects, and Visnjic is comfortable with that. "In my country, we don't have a difference between theatrical or television or film actors," he said. "Everything is the same. People do all three things at the same time. It's the same on 'ER.'"

Viewers who tune in to see Visnjic as Spartacus will hear lots of heroic dialogue, as when he inspires the slaves thus: "I will be a man. My life is my brother's. Live to fight the Romans! Smash the gates!"

They'll also see many scenes of slaughter, with throats cut and entire legions massacred. And they'll hear cheesy dialogue of the "Get the chariot ready" ilk.

What they won't hear, however, is the famous "I am Spartacus" scene, in which the other slaves all step forward in an attempt to save their leader.

"We don't have that part of the original movie in our film," Visnjic said. "We had been thinking, maybe take it as an homage, or maybe not to do it because it was so familiar. We decided in the end not to touch it because it was so famous."