You of course starred as Nemetes in the Starz series, Spartacus. How does it feel to be back in the toga?
Well this was my first foray into the toga – I was on the other side of the fence in Spartacus. I was part of the rebellion, in the nappy kind of arrangement over there. It was very nice to get back into that world, though. I’m working with a lot of the same people, actually – the same stunt department, make-up, wardrobe as well. It almost felt like home, to be honest. It was lovely to get back there.
New Zealand has become a kind of nexus for historical and fantasy movies and series, going right back to Xena and Hercules, through Lord of the Rings and now this. Why do you think that is?
There’s a few factors to it. There’s the landscape, and the studio arrangement is pretty good. I think there’s a lot for them on the financial side in terms of what you get for the US dollar over there, and also the crews over there are unbelievable. Everyone works so bloody hard with a huge smile on their face – I couldn’t commend them highly enough.
During winter, Roman Empire was shot largely exterior – we did a little bit in the studio but we did exteriors, which we didn’t do in Spartacus, and working out in the elements in Auckland in the winter – it’s pretty brutal. For the cast and crew to turn up every day and deal with the problems that arise because of the weather – we just get it done. So I think that has a huge attraction to the overseas market as well.
You’re playing Julius Caesar, a towering figure in history and one who has been depicted on screen many times before. How do you approach such a role?
Well, the first thing is to get your head around the idea that you’ve got that responsibility, and then what I do with most characters is bring them back to the person, bring it back to the man, because if you play the idea, you’re gonna miss a lot. I think it can be a very shining lure to think about playing “Caesar”, but you’ve got to play the man. You’ve got to play the person, the moments, and those moments make the man – you can’t make the man without the moments. You need to start from the bottom and work out what’s important to him. Family, I think, is one of those core ideas. Every character I play, I bring it back to the family – how he views his family, whether he would fight for his family or not. And then it grows from there. I think what we all understand is humanity and our nature – that’s where we can link the audience to a historical figure like that.
A lot has been written about Caesar over the years, and there are primary sources by his own hand. Do you go to that sort of thing as part of your preparation, or do you just go by the script?
In a lot of productions you really have to go off your template, which is the script. As an actor we’re quite often brought on board a year maybe after something has been written and researched, and the outline of the story has been crafted. You really have to go off the template that you’ve been provided with, but you also have your own ideas that come into it, and then you can question those and see if you can add a certain element into the production. That takes a lot of preparation. But there’s conversations about certain moments, to see if we can layer in certain elements that maybe are not on the page, and I think that’s part of the nature of making a film or a series or a play – once you get actors in the roles and get it off the page, then you start to see that this is a living breathing thing now, and we have to adapt. Certain things work on the page that don’t work once you’ve got actors and sets involved. It does evolve, and that’s the nature of it.
For a show like this, the production design and costuming is a big factor. How do you use those elements in your performance?
For me, I do like to work closely with both the wardrobe and hair and make-up departments. I think it’s vital, especially in period dramas. Those outfits, they make you stand differently. They make you feel different – you don’t walk around every day wearing suits of armour or wearing swords by our sides. Becoming familiar with those elements is very important, so right off the bat, even if my wardrobe is not made yet, I like to get stand-in stuff – particularly shoes. I think shoes are an important part of my wardrobe and my process, because they make you stand differently, they make you walk differently – you feel the ground beneath you. It has to feel right, so it just feels a part of you. If you get to a point where you’re not thinking about the wardrobe and you’ve moved past that to being comfortable, then you can start to play the man.
Roman Empire is shot in a semi-documentary style, with talking head interviews and voiceover complementing the dramatised scenes. Do you think about that, and does it affect your approach? [laughs] No, I don’t worry about that. I don’t worry about anything I’m not paid to worry about. That’s beyond me, that’s someone else’s job – I’m hired to do my job, so that’s what I do. There’s a lot for me to get my head around anyway!
Roman Empire: Master of Rome is streaming on Netflix now.