Spartacus: Blood And Sand – OTB Meets John Hannah

It may contain less historical fact than Braveheart, but Spartacus: Blood and Sand is better entertainment than watching a dog chase a politician, so we’re delighted to see it out on DVD next Monday (that’s 16th May for those of you with file o’ faxes..) We caught up with Four Weddings actor John Hannah, who plays lanista Lentulus Batiatus, this week and he explained why Spartacus was something that he just had to do…

Hi John, How are you doing?
Yeah, good thank you.

So with Spartacus: Blood and Sand coming out on DVD imminently, can you tell us a bit about the show for people who haven’t seen it
It’s a high-production value, high quality, glossy, kick-ass motherfucker of a show – with a great script.

Tell us about your character, Batiatus
Batiatus is a very ordinary guy, in a way, other than the fact that he’s a son of a lanista, he is a lanista, it’s a family business, if you like. And he’s very ambitious – or rather he becomes ambitious, I suppose – and through those ambitions and through a wife who takes him on that path you follow their journey, well, I suppose it’s Spartacus’s journey, but from my point of view, to people on the verge of the Roman senate.

What attracted you to the role when you saw the script?
When I first read the script it was so different from any cops shows, or doctor shows or any of that, that I just wanted to be in it right there and then. I haven’t done any period pieces as such, and to having something that was that kind of muscular and gritty, and I was just desperate to be in it right from the start.

When you read through it did you get an idea, at the beginning, of how graphic it was going to be?
Not really, because I only had episode one when it all started and we took the gig, so the battle sequences as they were described were only described, but I didn’t really know that we were in that kind of green screen CGI, 300 world. I didn’t really know that until we started seeing rushes of stuff. When we were filming it there was a sense of how it might look but once they started adding the effects, the visuals on to it, you not only realised that it was a cracking script, but the look of it was like nothing that’s been done in television. It sure wasn’t I Claudius, you know!

Has it been a lot of fun? You get to swear a lot more in this than anything else you’ve done!
It was great to have that kind of freedom to speak like an adult, you know? When you’re dealing with life and death – which you were there, people were dying, people were slaves, being sent to death by me – it was nice to not have to say ‘oh heck’ and things like that. There was a point where myself and the director discussed having to cut back on some of the swearing because we felt that it was being slightly over-used. And because it was being over-used it was therefore being undermined a little bit, you know when you hear it all the time it sort of loses its impact, so we started pruning it a bit – believe it or not!

Have you found the controversy around the show a little odd? Given that it is about gladiators, and that no matter what way you did it, it wasn’t going to end up being tame.
Not odd, you’re always gonna get knee-jerk reactions from the Mary Whitethouse brigade or whoever, that hadn’t seen the show. The bottom line is, we live in a world now that those acceptable boundaries whether it’s in movies, TV, music, literature are constantly being pushed. What we’ve done with this show is simply follow the trend within the graphic novels – followed that style – and through technology been able to put it on screen. It’s not like it’s on at 5 o’clock every day of the week and if children are watching it then they shouldn’t be, and if the parents are letting them then they shouldn’t be. It’s on at night – or in this case it’s a DVD – children shouldn’t be going out and buying it and watching it. That’s down to the parents – you’ve got to have some responsibility. You can’t have some society that tells everybody what they’re allowed to watch, it’s not the ‘50s or the ‘40s. It’s not the Middle Ages.

There’s a lot of green screen used in Spartacus – had you done a lot of that before?
A bit, yeah, with The Mummy and stuff. Ultimately, theatre’s a big pretend – you’re pretending the audience aren’t really there, you’re pretending you’re hitting a mark that hasn’t been pre-lit, you’re kind of pretending that life goes on backstage, but it doesn’t. It’s the same process; you just do it all in one night with theatre so it has from an audience and an actor’s point of view it has a different kind of impact and qualities. But it’s still the same, we’re all just pretending.

What’s it like when you see the finished product afterwards?
I was blown away. When I first started seeing it, some of the trailers, little cut footage and stuff, when I first started seeing that I thought it was a kind of temp effect, and I said to the producer ‘This looks amazing! You should keep it looking like this!’ and he said ‘We are!’ Because I think those kinda rough graphics with the blood painted on like that, has such a powerful effect – it removes you a little bit from an overly moralistic response to the violence and you can enjoy it for what it is. It’s opera, it’s cartoons, it’s Picasso, it’s Guernica, it’s whatever you want it to be, it’s a story.

And there’s the prequel series – Gods Of The Arena – which, given that your character dies in Blood and Sand did it feel like he was getting a new lease of life?
Well I knew I was coming back to do some flashback stories in the second series with some of the gladiators, in terms of their back ground, so I knew I was coming back. When Andy’s illness hit they took those flashbacks and turned them into a little story arc. It was cool to do and great to be able to get back have that fleshed out a bit because the series was great and I liked what the writers have done. So that was really good.

Can you give us a quick overview of how Gods Of The Arena works before the Blood and Sand story?
I suppose it does what it says on the tin, it fills in a bit about some of the gladiators but for those who are waiting for the second series to come out it gives you all the qualities that Blood and Sand had. It gives you more of that.

Have you got anything else lined up?
No, it’s a pretty hard act to follow, the old Spartacus thing. I don’t feel like jumping straight back into doing cops and robbers or whatever. I’m unemployed and waiting to see what happens!

Any plans for anything back here in the UK in the future?
I would love to; I mean I’m dying to do something here in Britain. But there’s less that gets done and I just haven’t been asked! Ultimately, that’s the bottom line, I just haven’t had a job here. There’s a smaller production base here, they don’t do as much and what they want to do, there are a limited number of people they want to do it. I’m not really on that list, to be honest.

We also read that you said you’re not doing any more romantic comedies? Is this true?
No! Something’s got mixed up there! I was basically saying – somebody was asking me about doing ‘bad guy’ parts now with Spartacus and Kidnapp and Ransom and was that a deliberate thing. And I said ‘well you know, I’m getting older, and I’m probably a bit too old for romantic comedies. I’m definitely not against it. I would love to do a comedy, if you look at Four Weddings I never really had any comedy to do there, and I did some in The Mummy – slapstick and stuff – but one thing I haven’t really done is any smart comedies, smart dialogue type comedies. So that would be something I’d love to do, but you know what it’s like, you watch television, there aren’t that many funny comedies on TV!

Very true. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us, John.
No worries, Thanks.