The Recasting of Starz Studio’s Spartacus

The Starz hit series Spartacus: Blood and Sand is set to return on January 27th, 2012 after a 2 year hiatus due to the medical complications and unfortunate death of its star Andy Whitfield.  The show is retitling itself as Spartacus: Vengeance and will pick up where season one left off, with newcomer Liam McIntyre taking on the titular role.  A lot of fans were split down the middle with this news, so I’ll be taking a closer look at the decision to recast Spartacus and continue the series.

Andy Whitfield as Spartacus

Andy Whitfield as Spartacus

Spartacus: Blood and Sand was a surprise hit for the Starz network, bringing in an overwhelming amount of viewers for a show so graphic and violent in its nature.  The series was bold, gruesome, sexy (borderline porn at times) and no holds barred.  It brought a fresh take to the story of Spartacus, the slave who rallied to lead a rebellion against the Roman Republic.   The drama was engaging, the characters were well written and the writers ability to surprisingly kill off main characters was enough to keep us on the edge of our seats.   The one constant that we had throughout the mayhem and the violence was the character of Spartacus, played brilliantly by the late Andy Whitfield.  He brought such a calming display of nurture and leadership to a role that demanded such physicality.  He had the ability of bring out the emotion he was trying to convey in the viewer that was watching his performance.  He was able to balance the soft-spoken calmness and the hard-hitting aggressiveness that a role like this demanded.  When Andy was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the series was postponed until he could make a full recovery.  When his health took a turn for the worst Starz ordered a prequel series to keep the buzz going after the shocking finale.  Spartacus: Gods of the Arena centered on the earlier days of the House of Batiatus, bringing back a majority of the cast while adding fresh faces.  When it seemed that Andy would be away from the show for too long, Starz brought in Liam McIntyre (another relatively unknown) to replace him in season two.  Unfortunately, Andy Whitfield tragically died of the disease in September of 2011.

Liam McIntyre as Spartacus

The problems facing a new Spartacus in season 2 of the series is that we lose our connection to the character and his past.  In the first season we saw Spartacus live and grow as a character while dealing with painful and life-changing circumstances.  We saw him as a leader of his people, a lover of his wife, and a happy and free man.  It’s later that he’s enslaved for defiance to Roman rule, his wife slaughtered in his arms and he’s forced to become a gladiator or die a slave.  The story of Spartacus relies so much on a heavy transformation that switching the actor midway through would erase the connections that we originally formed with him.  This isn’t a one note character that can be brought to life by various actors with their own fresh take (think James Bond).  This would essentially be like switching out Russell Crowe with another actor in Gladiator right before he has his final battle with Joaquin Phoenix.  All of that built up tension and dynamic character drama between the two would be erased the moment we saw a Maximus that wasn’t Russell Crowe.  Having multiple actors playing the role makes it feel like two different characters and we wouldn’t get the rousing satisfaction of seeing him defy the odds and overcome adversity.  Instead of the audience seeing Spartacus: former slave turned gladiator and leader of the rebellion, we now see Spartacus: leader of the rebellion.  All of the growth and development is lost because we never saw Liam McIntyre go through those hardships.  We never saw him interacting with his wife or struggling to come to terms with his life as a slave.  There was a subplot of season one that focused on the realization of Spartacus that this might now be his destiny.  He forgot his past and embraced his life as a gladiator and Champion of the people.  It was through a stunning series of events that Spartacus was brought back to his roots and vowed to never lose site of who he was as a man.  This turn of events was the catalyst to the escape and rebellion of the slaves at the House of Batiatus. This connection to his past is something that the recasting of Spartacus will never be able to convey, no matter how much we grow to like Liam McIntyre.  The story of season 2 focuses on Spartacus leading his rebellion against Roman rule and the man who ultimately enslaved him and caused him all of this turmoil (Craig Parker as Claudius Glaber).  The problem with this is that again, there is no connection or history between McIntyre and Parker that can bring the audience to feel the same amount of boiling hatred they felt between Whitfield and Parker.   A recasting for a character with growth like this is something that is borderline impossible to overcome, but I believe that they can succeed if they follow a basic structure that is often used with untimely recastings.

the supporting cast of Spartacus: Vegeance looks to take on a bigger role this season

There are a couple of ways that Starz attempted to make this transition as easy as possible and they revolve around the shows supporting characters and the inclusion of new ones.  With all of the surviving characters from season one returning we’ll get split screen-time and development between the entire cast.  They also decided to include some characters from the prequel Gods of the Arena, which will help tie the series together and connect the audience with the shows roots.  I think this is a brilliant idea since it gets the hardcore followers excited by adding another familiar face to the series.  Boosting the supporting cast around Spartacus with great character drama can help take some of the initial focus away from McIntyre.  It’s best that they gradually bring Spartacus along instead of forcing a new cast member down our throats.  The series picks up almost immediately after the ending of season one, which works against the initial plan to pick up the rebellion with an older and wiser Spartacus.  This process relies so heavily on recasting the right actor for the part that the entire series could fail if the wrong man was chosen for the job.  Liam McIntyre was handpicked by Whitfield when casting came down to himself and Dominic Purcell of the Prison Break series, and I believe that they went with the right choice.   Having an unknown actor that looks like Andy Whitfield and was also suggested by him is something that will really make the transitional period easier for the viewers.  This entire process was done with the utmost respect for Andy and his family, and I think that will show in the final product.

This wasn’t an easy decision to make but it was the only decision to make in the eyes of Starz and the show’s producers.  Having a hit series that built up its brand recognition was too much of a driving force to cancel after this unfortunate incident.  At this point my feelings for the show are split.  There is a part of me that wants the story to continue and another part that just wants to let it go.  With a drama that relies so heavily on the story of one man, recasting that man (regardless of the situation) is never a good idea.   The series will never be the same but it has the ability to reel us in again, be it overtime or initially- depending on the viewer’s outlook and optimism.

Spartacus: Vengeance premieres Friday, January 27th at 10pm on Starz