A Fresh Take on a Classic Role
April 2004
The Washington Post
Judith S. Gillies

When actor Goran Visnjic told his father he was playing the lead role in "Spartacus," his dad simply said, "Better be good."

That's because he was not only playing "one of the most important humans in the whole world history," the actor said, he also was tackling a role made famous by the legendary Kirk Douglas in a 1960 film that has a history of its own.

The new "Spartacus" is a miniseries about the slave who was trained as a gladiator and led a bloody revolt against his Roman masters more than 2,000 years ago. It premieres in two parts on Sunday and Monday from 8 to 10 p.m. on cable's USA Network.

Executive producer Adam Shapiro said he realized he was opening himself up for criticism by remaking a famous movie, "but it occurred to me that so much of the story hadn't been told. By doing a miniseries we would have more time to develop the characters."

And the 1960 version, "while a great film, hasn't been seen by a whole generation. I think it's a story worth retelling," Shapiro said.

"The struggle is a true story," he said. "Here is a guy born in a world where slaves are part of the environment for hundreds of years in that society, but something sparked him to set the world on fire, the thought that humans deserve more dignity than this."

Visnjic, who plays Dr. Luka Kovac on NBC's "ER," said he thinks of Spartacus as a human being who had to adapt to survive after being thrown into gladiator school -- where slaves were trained to fight for the amusement of Roman citizens. "To keep alive, he had to kill another human being in the arena. But then there is the turning point in the film, the fight scene with Henry Simmons as [gladiator] Draba. And Spartacus decides to change."

The story is often a violent one. "Still, we hold back a lot. They were much more brutal than we are showing," Shapiro said, and the miniseries is not meant for children younger than 14.

The miniseries is a love story as well as an adventure and an epic, Shapiro said. "We were very careful that his wife is telling his story, thereby keeping it alive."

Rhona Mitra plays Varinia, wife of Spartacus and mother of their child. Their story is one of mutual respect, Mitra said, "and a belief in what is fundamentally right and the freedom in belief of who they have the right to be."

Spartacus has huge self-doubt, she said, and Varinia has a strength and calm rationale, love, tenderness and reassurance. "She encouraged his heart and soul to believe in an outcome that was positive, that he might not have had because he had been beaten down."

Mitra approached the role, not as a warrior princess, she said, but as a woman of quiet inner strength.

The movie benefits from "the grace of Alan Bates," she said. Bates portrays Lentulas Agrippa, a Roman senator who opposes an aristocratic regime being pushed by Crassus, another Roman senator, played by Angus Macfadyen.

"What [Bates] brings to the story should resonate with everyone," she said of the knighted actor who died in December. "Spartacus" was his last screen performance.

The miniseries was filmed last year in Bulgaria, only a couple hours drive from the birthplace of the real Spartacus, Shapiro said. "We scouted quite a few locations to get the look of the countryside that is unspoiled" and looked like southern Italy of about 72 B.C.

"We built forts and villages -- a lot of the set was of exteriors. We built the gladiator school where they trained and the villa of the owner of the gladiator school," Shapiro said. "We built ancient Rome on a five-acre setting -- and I can tell you, Rome wasn't built in a day!"

The actors who played the gladiators had to be in good shape physically. "You should have a certain look to portray a gladiator," Visnjic said. Plus they did many of the scenes during the heat of summer while wearing armor and carrying weapons.

Every fight scene was choreographed: Experts worked with the horses involved in battle scenes and the stunt coordinator worked with the actors.

"We didn't want anyone getting hurt but we wanted [action] that would be interesting," Shapiro said.

Visnjic, who was born in Croatia and moved to the United States six years ago, said he had done some fencing and riding, which helped in the role.

Both the 1960 movie and the new mini-series are based on a book written by Howard Fast, who had been blacklisted and worked on "Spartacus" while he spent several months in prison in 1950 for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The 1960 movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick, was nominated for six Oscars and won four, including best color cinematography and costume design.

The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, who also spent time in prison because he had refused to "name names" of alleged Communists at HUAC hearings.

During the '50s, Trumbo -- who also was blacklisted -- had written under pseudonyms. "But Kirk Douglas said no way, give him credit," Shapiro said.

Viewers who have seen the movie will notice that the ending is different in the miniseries, Shapiro said.

"The movie has more of a Hollywood ending. For the miniseries, we went back to the book."