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Some consider the STARZ hit Spartacus a glorified skin-and-sin show. Others might dismiss it as a low-budget swords-and-scandal saga. But beneath the show’s veneer is a beating heart that transcends genre and speaks to issues of power, loyalty, corruption, and people’s innermost desires. Lucy Lawless, who plays Lucretia on the show, has been a fantasy icon since her star-making role on the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess. From there, she turned up as a Cylon in the remake of Battlestar: Galactica, and in roles on Flight Of The Conchords, No Ordinary Family, Burn Notice, and Veronica Mars. At this winter’s Television Critics’ Association press tour, she sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss her role as Lucretia in the Spartacus series, her contempt for the Internet, and exactly who’s getting vengeance in Spartacus: Vengeance, which premièred this past Friday on STARZ.
The A.V. Club: The title of the season is Spartacus: Vengeance. But “vengeance” could be applied to almost any other character. Does that word help describe how Lucretia survived the end of the first season, Spartacus: Blood And Sand?
Lucy Lawless: There certainly is a trace of vengeance through what Lucretia does. But I don’t think that’s her driving force, actually.
AVC: What would her driving force be?
LL: Well, at first, it’s what it has always been, which is survival. She needs a friend, quickly. And as soon as she recovers her marbles, she’s going to have to worm her way into someone’s affections, because she has no support. And that was tantamount to death in ancient Rome.
AVC: Were you surprised to find out that Lucretia survived? As you were filming it, what did the producers tell you was going to happen with that character?
LL: Well, it was either/or. I guess I saw it as a bit of a win/win situation, because the show had been so good to me already, and it would lead to some good work somewhere else. But as I was lying there, I was secretly thinking, “Well, I’d be bloody nuts to give this up!” But stranger things have happened.
AVC: You’ve also lost your acting partner on the show, John Hannah. What has that meant for you?
LL: I have missed him greatly. I miss the love element that was in my character. That was a lovely counterpoint to everything that she does. Everything was based in love. Remember how she hosted those sex parties? That was not her idea. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like to have her housekeeper screw Gannicus. She didn’t like the things she was ordered to do, but through love and duty to her beloved husband, she did what she was told to do at the time. So to lose this great anchor, and great support system, was a sad thing for me. I miss the love between those two characters.
AVC: With that love missing, will Lucretia be more untethered this season?
LL: She certainly is untethered. And she could certainly be forgiven for having a psychotic break after seeing her husband brutally murdered in front of her, and all the carnage of those important Romans being killed in her house. Their blood spattered all over the walls. Presumably she’s living there amongst all the dead bodies and their stench as well. We will find her living in the rubble.
AVC: Will we see that interim phase at any point this season?
LL: You will get some insight into how she survived.
AVC: Before you filmed this season, you did the miniseries prequel Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena, which presented you with some interesting background with the character Gaia. How did that relationship help inform Lucretia’s current one with Ilithyia?
LL: Oh, it was so magnificent, because you get to see the precursor to Ilithyia in Lucretia’s relationship with Gaia, played by the excellent Jaime Murray. And when she looked at Ilithyia, she thought… remember that book? “Looks like a honey tree, sounds like a honey tree, but it’s not a honey tree”? It’s like, “You look like a friend…you seem like a friend…” and it turns out that she’s not what you or I would call a friend. It’s a very toxic relationship. But that will continue and go through many twists and turns throughout the season.
AVC: You’ve lost John Hannah, but you’ve regained Viva Bianca as Ilithyia. Did you enjoy being able to play those mini-operas between the two of you again?
LL: Oh, they are so good! Plus, we get Hanna Mangan. And she plays, again, a younger, prettier woman of even more status. It’s like in life: There’s always a younger one coming along. Every minute, there’s another ingénue. So it’s a little about All About Eve, where she starts to mentor this younger woman, and then another one, the youngest one of all. That’s what toxic people do, I suppose. That continues. Plus? Somebody falls in love with Lucretia. There’s a bit of a love interest. Can you imagine how smoothly that’s going to run? It’s going to be lovely.
AVC: Lucretia is in this interesting middle ground where she isn’t a slave, but she doesn’t have agency. So how will she survive—
LL: [Southern accent.] She will rely on the kindness of strangers!
AVC: If Blood And Sand was about her trying to achieve a higher station, is she still concerned with that in Vengeance? Does she want to ascend, or simply take others down to her level?
LL: I don’t think it’s about taking people down. They are just collateral damage.
AVC: So they’re just obstacles?
LL: Or tools.
AVC: Could you give an example? For example, is Ilythia now a tool of Lucretia?
LL: Well, for her survival, she needs a friend. And a cynical interpretation of that is a tool. A prop.
AVC: What do you think Lucretia would view as the greater injustice: the loss of her husband, or the loss of her unborn child?
LL: Her husband.
AVC: Why did you say that so quickly?
LL: Because the child was for the husband. To give him an heir, and to honor him. To carry on his legacy. It was all about him. He was her one true love. They always had, I thought, a true love. In the end, he was goaded to get rid of her, to divorce her, and he wouldn’t. Even at the cost of losing everything.
AVC: Does she do everything this season in his memory?
LL: Yes, I’d say that’s a fair way to say it. For the love of him.
AVC: Most people tend to associate the show with adult themes: the sex, the violence—
LL: Those are the easy things. It’s easier to say that than, “Oh, I just love the intrigue in the parlor!” Or, “I love the complex relationship between Spartacus and his love interest!”
AVC: Do you feel people unfairly focus more on the T&A than the other elements?
LL: It’s just one of those questions you have to get out of the way, isn’t it? I mean, you have completely sorted your feelings out about the T&A and the violence, haven’t you? But you feel you have to ask it for someone else’s benefit. For somebody new to the show. It’s something that gets their attention. But they don’t stay for that. Because otherwise, you could watch it on the Playboy Channel, or whatever.
AVC: You’ve had some of your major characters: Xena, Three on Battlestar: Galactica, and now Lucretia, in which issues of her sexual preference or proclivity have been discussed at length. Do you feel these discussions have overshadowed your actual performances?
LL: No. I don’t care. They’re irrelevant.
AVC: Do you read any of those discussions?
LL: No. I haven’t been on the Internet since the ’90s. Whatever people think is their business, and they can blog, they can be trolls, they can do whatever. That’s their business. That’s their privilege, as they sit alone at 4 o’clock in the morning. That’s their privilege to do whatever they want. I choose not to engage in it. I find it very unhealthy, that environment.
AVC: Speaking of Battlestar, there are moments in which Lucretia’s relationship with the gods changes from what we saw in Blood And Sand. Did you feel a bit of flashback with your role of Three in terms of Lucretia’s connection with the gods?
LL: Oh! I’ve never ever thought of that! [Laughs.] That’s so good! God, I wish I had thought of that. You are so right. That’s weird, huh?
AVC: But are the gods a tool for Lucretia?
LL: Well, no. She was actually always very religious. If you look back, it was seeded very early, when she was trying to have a baby. She was supplicating herself before the gods. She was praying to the goddess Gaia. And you saw her burning incense.
AVC: What new angles or aspects can fans expect from Lucretia in Vengeance?
LL: There is so much. This was the most difficult acting I’ve ever had to engage in, right through the end of this season. I’m so grateful for the opportunity. I don’t know how it’s going to come off, but I know it was hard. Therefore it’s already been rewarding. Well, I know they aren’t going to like it, but I hope they appreciate it. And by the end, you’re going to say, “Oh my God. Now I have to watch it all over again.” Because your eyes will be open to a completely new angle of everything you’ve seen.