Liam McIntyre in "Spartacus: Vengeance." (Matt Klitscher, Starz )
It's 10 a.m. in Sydney, Australia, and Liam McIntyre has just posed one of the most serious questions facing actors like him who often have to bare their beefcake physique clad in nothing but a shred of a loin cloth.
"What happened to six-minute abs?" the Aussie inquired by phone. "No, really, I want to know."
This from a man who finds himself in three-hour gym sessions four times a week to convincingly portray the brawny, lead role in the Starz series "Spartacus: Vengeance." His devotion to muscling up is not just vanity: It suggests his desire to prove himself worthy. After all, he has big sandals to fill.
The 29-year-old is assuming the role of the Roman gladiator who leads a slave rebellion in the cable series originally played by Andy Whitfield, who died last year from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Whitfield took a break from the series after its first season after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Initially, writers had conjured up a six-episode prequel, "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena," to give Whitfield time to undergo treatment and recover before returning to the role. But Whitfield's cancer returned and he formally bowed out of the role and urged everyone to continue without him.
"Being Spartacus is challenging enough, but living up to what Andy did … it's tough," McIntyre acknowledged.
"The love for Andy that fans have is phenomenal and uplifting," said series creator and executive producer Steven DeKnight. "Obviously, everyone wishes he was still here and a part of it. There is a faction that says we should have canceled the series … and I completely understand. It's the worst situation to find yourself in."
The action-packed period drama was a big hit for Starz, with its ultra-gory violence and graphic sex scenes. An arduous search ensued in 2010 to find a successor to Whitfield who could carry a new season.
"We turned over every hunky rock," DeKnight said. After months of hunting, the "Spartacus" producers discovered McIntyre on an audition tape. The fledgling actor had mostly appeared in short films and guest starred in some Australian TV shows. His only major American credit was a small role in the HBO miniseries "The Pacific."
Casting McIntyre as the buff Spartacus required more than a little faith in the power of weightlifting.
"He looked terrible," DeKnight said. "He got incredibly thin for another role. He was all knobby knees, skinny arms and sunken chest. When I first saw his original audition, I thought he was really great, but I immediately dismissed him because physically he wasn't right for what we needed. We needed a big, muscular guy that you could believe could swing a sword without falling over."
McIntyre headed to New Zealand to undergo two-plus months of boot camp to get into gladiator shape. "Have you seen Andy's chest? That's a lot to live up to," McIntyre said, reflecting on the period.
And while matching Whitfield's pectoral frame might be achievable, McIntyre said matching the late actor's portrayal of Spartacus is not something he's trying to attempt.
"We already know what Andy could do," he said. "If I was to do that — even to the best of my ability — I would have come up short. I can't be Andy. All I can do is try to get at what Spartacus is about on an emotional level."
Recounting his first day on set, McIntyre recalled psyching himself up about the whole process. "I just kept telling myself, 'I know I'm new at this, and I know it's a lot bigger than anything I've ever done, but I expect that, so I'll be fine. I'll be fine.'"
Then he got out of his trailer.
"I was walking to set and the voice coach came up and was like, 'I watched some of your tapes and you should watch this sound and do it a bit more this way.' I was like, 'What? Why are you telling me this now?' Here I am about to start the biggest role of my life. I had like 15 people telling me what to do. It was a bit overwhelming."
But with Starz already greenlighting a third season before the sophomore season launch, McIntyre said his confidence has been boosted. And he hasn't gotten seriously injured amid all those action scenes, which adds to his poise — "I've taken an occasional shield to the face, but who hasn't?"
The thing he's fretting most about is how the audience will react when he roars those three big words: "I am Spartacus."
"It's like saying, 'I'm Bond. James Bond.' It's so weird, and I just hope I did it justice and didn't come off like an idiot. I wanted a dozen takes, but they wouldn't let me."