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'Spartacus' returns with a vengeance, and a new star

When I first met Andy Whitfield in 2010, the "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" star joked about creator Steven S. DeKnight's penchant for killing off lead characters on what he would help make a hit series for Starz.

"Who knows, maybe I won't survive this season," he said. "And that would be OK, because Spartacus isn't just one man; it's a movement, the rebellion he launched. If he died, any one of his followers could carry on and say, 'I am Spartacus.'"

Liam McIntyre will do just that when "Spartacus: Vengeance," the long-awaited second season, begins at 9 p.m. Jan. 27. The Aussie actor assumed the role of the legendary gladiator after Whitfield, the wildly popular Welsh star of the series' first season, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Whitfield’s illness delayed Season 2—Starz aired a six-episode prequel called "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" in 2011—and he eventually had to bow out of the series after his cancer returned.

Whitfield died in September at the age of 39, but not before he gave McIntyre his blessing.

"To know that the person who made [the role of Spartacus] so wonderful was on your side, as it were, especially considering all the harrowing personal experiences he had to survive at the time. That means more to an actor than you can possibly imagine," McIntyre said last week during a call with reporters.

McIntyre's task is a daunting one. The 29-year-old will be fighting as hard for fan acceptance as his character will be for the rights of the slaves he leads in rebellion against the Roman Republic. The actor understands and even expects the scrutiny of fans, who will no doubt be quite vocal on message boards, Twitter and Facebook after the premiere.

What they'll see is a different Spartacus than Whitfield's, and not only because a new actor is in the role. In the first season, Spartacus was a slave broken by the loss of his freedom and the death of his wife. He was fighting for his own survival in the brutal world of the gladiator arena.

Now, he's a liberated man on the run, but he's responsible for the slaves he's freed and not just himself. He must put aside his personal pain to become a leader.

"The world is a different place for [Spartacus]," McIntyre said. "So I guess I had a unique situation of trying to create a new Spartacus that felt like the same kind of guy that Andy’s Spartacus was. It was a fantastic and very unique process."

McIntyre was shocked that he was cast in the first place. His early audition came after he lost 45 pounds for a previous role. Once hired, he had to get busy to prove he could look like the muscled Spartacus. He hit the gym four hours a day, stuck to a strict diet and worked with a tough ex-military trainer.

"Do you get used to lifting ridiculous amounts of weights? Not really," he said, laughing. "I think the point is that you do it and it really hurts. But it's one of the few things in life where you get to see tangible results."

The fun really began once he got on set, where McIntyre says he was embraced by a supportive cast and crew that felt like family. Not only did he love getting paid to "be a 10-year-old for a year," he said, but it was his great honor to carry on the legacy Whitfield started.

"I just hope that I do the character justice."

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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