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'Spartacus' Party: Peter Mensah on Doctore's Journey and the Show's Creator on Joss Whedon's Influence

by Maureen Ryan, posted Feb 18th 2011 1:15PM
When Peter Mensah runs into 'Spartacus' fans, they're enthusiastic, but they're also very polite.

Mensah plays Doctore, a fearsome warrior in charge of instructing the House of Batiatus's unruly tribe of gladiators. The actor's presence in the role is so commanding that, in a December encounter, two Canadian fans made sure to call him "Mr. Mensah."

"People are actually very respectful," Mensah said with a laugh in a recent interview in Los Angeles. "Somehow along the way, this disciplinarian character who is actually quite warm became popular."

Mensah said he was pleased his character had a chance to reveal a more tender side in the prequel season 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,' which shows Doctore as a married man five years before the events of 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand.'

"It was nice to be able to play a character who had some warmth, even under those circumstances," Mensah said. "It's something that tends to be rare on our show, so it was nice to have that -- a husband and wife."

For Mensah, the prequel offered a chance to fill in the character's backstory and learn more about the events that molded Doctore, whose pre-disciplinarian name was Oenomaus. At the start of 'Gods of the Arena,' Doctore wasn't quite the commanding man fans met in 'Blood and Sand.' In fact, he hadn't ascended to the rank of Doctore: He was merely a respected gladiator who was married to a slave named Melitta (Marisa Ramirez).

This being the world of 'Spartacus,' life isn't necessarily easy for the couple, though they have it better than most of the slaves in the House of Batiatus.

When he first got the role in 'Blood and Sand,' "I kept trying to figure out, what are the tragedies that made him so foreboding? The journey is to get from the normal, married man to the person you meet at the start of ['Blood and Sand']. That's a great challenge," said Mensah, who was born in Ghana and grew up in England. In 'Gods of the Arena,' "there's more than enough ammunition to fuel the kind of man he becomes by the time we meet him" several years later.

One of the things that has made the character such a fan favorite is Doctore's sense of fairness and justice. As 'Gods of the Arena' has progressed through its six-episode season, Doctore has become a more commanding taskmaster. But whatever position he has held in the House of Batiatus ludus, he's always been perceived as a fair, ethical and intelligent man.

"He's an instructor -- he teaches people how to be brutal, and there is an undercurrent of death for most of the slaves," Mensah noted. "We understand at any times our lives could end. We all try to find meaning, and for him, it's a code of behavior, a code of ethics. That is what gives meaning to the process."

Part of that process involves a chance at freedom for him and his wife, Mensah said. I asked why slaves would risk their lives to bring honor to the houses of their owners, who could be capricious and cruel. Mensah said it was because gladiators could, if they were lucky enough to stay alive, eventually buy their way out of slave status.

"It was a way of earning money and a way of earning your freedom, quite possibly," Mensah said. "Glory in the arena could lead to a personal life."

But as those who've seen 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' know (and this story assumes you've seen that season of the show), Spartacus and Doctore/Oenomaus eventually killed Batiatus and took their freedom by force. What will they do with it when the show returns next year? Mensah wonders about that as well.

"With second season, I'm really looking forward to the idea of taking this character through the journey of being lost," Mensah said. "It's the first time he's really been out of that enclosed environment of the ludus. Now without the Batiatus house or family to look after, what's he going to do?"

Whatever the characters go through, it won't be easy, 'Spartacus' creator Steven DeKnight will make sure of that. As 'Gods of the Arena' enters the home stretch, I thought I'd share the last few excerpts from my January interview with DeKnight, thoughts that didn't make it into a previous 'Spartacus' story that was posted in January.

One thing DeKnight talked about in our January conversation was his debt to Joss Whedon, with whom DeKnight worked on 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' 'Angel' and 'Dollhouse.'

"He once said, 'I give the fans what they need, not what they want,'" DeKnight said. "In season 1 [of 'Spartacus'], there were so many outcries: 'You killed Varro, I'm not watching any more.' 'You killed Sura, I'm not watching any more.' 'You killed Barca, I'm not watching any more.' And it's like, 'No. We can't be concerned with that. 'We need to tell the story we think we need to tell.'"

As he has pointed out in the past, DeKnight noted, "we never set out to please everybody. We set out to tell a very specific story and honestly, I thought the audience that would become fans of the story [would be] much more niche and narrow than it actually became. I thought that because of all the sex and violence, it would end up being an 18-to-34 [-year-old] demographic, and they certainly constitute a good chunk of it, but I was thrilled that so many more women actually like the show."

I certainly don't want to give anything away about Friday's excellent episode of 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,' but I think, if nothing else, it proves another point that DeKnight made when we talked: The sex and violence on the show, as graphic as they can be, are not used for exploitative purposes. There's always an agenda and a purpose behind everything that happens, no matter how extreme. Whatever occurs inside or outside the House of Batiatus, chances are it will shed light on the characters' agendas, personalities or connections.

"I honestly think some viewers will listen to this statement and say, 'I completely disagree,' but I don't want to do anything that's absolutely gratuitous," DeKnight said. "I don't want to have sex just for sex's sake or violence for violence's sake. I want the stakes to be high. I want the emotional stakes to be high. When the show first came out, there were a lot of cries that it was softcore, or pornography, which really made me think that the people who've been saying that haven't been on the Internet in the last 10 years."

"I'm not putting down softcore filmmakers or hardcore filmmakers. Any core," DeKnight said with a chuckle. "But the difference between a softcore movie and 'Spartacus' is, softcore is all geared toward seeing people have sex. This show actually isn't. The sexual act is part of a bigger story. Something vital to the story is going on here."

Here is that previous interview with Steven DeKnight, in which he talked about the upcoming second season of 'Spartacus,' which goes into production soon. For a recent interview with John Hannah, look here. And be sure to come back to here tonight for my take on 'Reckoning,' Friday's episode of 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.'

By the way, there's a bit of news regarding 'Spartacus': Lesley-Ann Brandt will not be returning to the show in the role of Naevia. The role will be recast for the new season of the show.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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February 19 2011 at 6:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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