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'Spartacus': Lucy Lawless on gore, Roman sex and airbrushing

April 14, 2010 |  8:15 am

Lucretia "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" has been a breakout hit for Starz, giving the premium cable channel newfound cachet. Audiences have been drawn in by the hyperstylized violence reminiscent of "300" and buckets of gore as "Spartacus" tells the story of a rebel slave who is forced into servitude as a gladiator-in-training to the society-climbing Lucretia, played by Lucy Lawless, and her husband, Batiatus, played by John Hannah.

How violent is violent, you wonder? In one scene, a fighter in a death match slices off his opponent's face -- and then dons the skinned visage for bloodthirsty audiences who cheered him on. If viewers came for the gore, they no doubt stayed for the borderline soft-core porn and the jaw-dropping sexual habits of the Roman elite.

Slaves, in Spartacus' time, exist merely to serve their masters -- whether it is in the coliseum fighting to the death, or the bedroom. In one scene, Lucy Lawless is lounging on a bed, conversing matter-of-factly with her husband -- as he has furious sex with a servant. When he is finished, he bids the slave farewell with a slap to the rump. In another scene, Lawless' Domina and her husband are readied for sex with each other: One slave reaches beneath Lawless' gown while another helps her husband in a far more graphic manner.

Spartacus is, by the title of it, about the lives of gladiator slaves. But it is the women who wield the sword as the sword-and-sandal saga turns on their backbiting and backstabbing -- and dark sexual desires. Show Tracker has a double treat this week. Today, we talk to Lawless about her role in advance of Friday night's season finale. Thursday, we'll have a chat with Viva Bianca, who plays Spartacus' nemesis, llithyia.

First off, how is Andy Whitfield? (He was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.)

Very well, he's feeling much better. He was relieved to get a diagnosis and is now on a path to recovery.

What is drawing audiences to this show?

It's a really rewarding show, rich with intrigue. There's blood and sex and and everything that is very base and basic, everything that is very carnal is on full display here. You can't help but be pulled in.

What attracted you to the role of the scheming Lucretia?

My husband [Robert G. Tapert ] happens to be the executive producer and had been working on this for years.... Even though the role scared me a little, I knew it was just a new kind of television and I wanted to be part of that.... I had never played a Lady Macbeth role, and who doesn't want to do that? I like to either see the wickedness in regular humans, or the human side in wicked human beings.

How do you tackle a role like that?

You have to just keep [the performance] really small, and real. The hard part is that you have to resist being over the top with it. That has no tension in it.

The series is called "Spartacus," but the women are running the show. The men only think they are running the show.

Isn't that the way it always is? [Laughing] The women are certainly more vicious and every bit as bloody and more Machiavellian than the men. It's the polite society you have to fear in ancient Rome.

Seriously, do you need all that blood and violence?

There are buckets and buckets of blood! I've got to be honest.... When I saw the pilot, I did go "Oh my God, perhaps those scenes are a little over the top." My husband calls it "pilotitis." I think it reined itself in a bit, though.

Really? Did you see the scene when the men are fighting in the underground battles, and the one guy slices off the other guy's face?

The crew was so excited about that, they thought that was one of the greatest things ever shot. Every single one of these episodes has one of those "Oh my God did you see that?" water cooler moments. Every show has one of those, and maybe three.

Why do you think audiences like that so much?

I think they fully appreciate that.... it's everything that we are not allowed in our society. Its like the flip side of our lives. It's lovely to be a voyeur when there's no real danger ... we love to watch. It's kind of a toxic fantasy to it.

What about historical accuracy, from those fight scenes in the arena to the unusual sexual habits.

I don't think that it's too far from the truth, but obviously that violence is all ramped up and stylized. It's entertainment. But apparently that is accurate.

Does it make you sad that society was so savage back then, and slaves were treated so poorly?

It makes me sad that we are savage like that now in some parts of the world.

There's a scene -- you know what scene I am going to ask about: You and your husband are being "prepared" for sex with each other. In your case, a slave reaches beneath your gown. What were you thinking when you first realized what the scene called for?

I was thinking...."Hello, we're not in Kansas anymore!" I knew this was one of those OMG-water-cooler moments. But the cool thing is that the whole time the husband and wife are talking business. It's as if they are just scratching an itch. Bizarre, repellent and you can't look away!

Everyone knows the actors are not actually having sex during the sex scenes on "Spartacus." But the question needs to be asked: What, exactly, was going on under your gown? Air guitar?

Totally air guitar! Damn, I wish I had thought of that myself. Nothing was going on down there. It's kind of like a stunt fight. Looks like a hit, but there's no contact. Smoke and mirrors, my friend.

You have three children, an adult daughter and two young sons. Are they allowed to watch?

God, no. This is not for kids. This is "put your kids to bed, watch it with your significant other, and let it rip."

Are you aware of the show's following?

I don't [pay attention] to any of that -- I know that leads to self consciousness and misery. That Twitter stuff, God no. I think that's madness.

On screen, your character shares a tension-filled relationship with Ilithia, Viva Bianca. What's it like offscreen?

She's my favorite person.... We are able to really talk about the performance, and acting, and it's not just blah blah, it's really important.

You are 42. How do you stay in such great shape?

I get them to airbrush every image. Really, I don't stress and I have been working out with a trainer. I am in better shape now than I was when I was 20. I gave up added sugar. My God, how that evens out your cravings.

--Rene Lynch
On Twitter @renelynch

RELATED: Spicy 'Spartacus' slays 'em for Starz

Photo: Lucy Lawless as Lucretia. Credit: Starz

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