Dalton Ross
January 06, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

There will be mud. It’s a rainy day in Auckland, New Zealand, and inside a large warehouse studio on the outskirts of town where filming is taking place on Spartacus: Vengeance, the conditions are even drearier. That’s because escaped Thracian gladiator Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) is busy in the underground mines — or at least a damp, dark set simulating the underground mines — helping former rival Crixus (Manu Bennett) attempt to rescue his lost love Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). Some 20 half-naked men in loincloths with sludge caked all over their bodies stand waiting for their cue. ”Action!” yells the director, and with that, McIntyre kills a guard with a cleaver, dumps his head in a pool of water, and tosses the weapon back to another member of his gladiator army. It’s almost too easy. Spartacus’ slave girl-turned-lover Mira (Katrina Law) looks at a map and gives directions on which way to proceed as our hero marches on, steely and determined.

As Spartacus‘ new leading man, McIntyre will need all the resolve he can muster. The sexy sword-and-sandal drama is a tale of epic peaks and valleys, with characters constantly coming to grips with their fates — often cruel, sometimes glorious. But for the past two years, the turmoil and tragedy have been just as devastating off screen. When Spartacus: Blood and Sand debuted on Starz in January 2010, it broke ratings records for the network, drawing in 6.5 million viewers counting repeats and on demand. Two months later, star Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In order to give Whitfield time to recover, the network put a second season on hold and instead ordered a six-episode prequel titled Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. But just as Whitfield appeared ready to head back to work for season 2 (titled Spartacus: Vengeance) in September 2010, his final physical with the insurance company revealed something horrible: The cancer was back.

Producers and the network were left with an uncomfortable decision — close up shop on the channel’s most popular and buzzworthy show, or recast the title character. ”It’s very rare to recast the lead in a show,” says Starz president and CEO Chris Albrecht. ”You can bring in a new character, like Ashton Kutcher going in to replace Charlie Sheen, but I certainly can’t remember anyone [recently] recasting the title character. So that was really a big question in our minds.” Ultimately, the decision came down to Whitfield himself. ”I was completely torn,” says exec producer Steven S. DeKnight. ”It’s very difficult to imagine anyone except Andy in that role, but the deciding factor for me was when Andy sent us a message that he very much wanted the show to continue without him — that he loved the role, he loved the story, and he really wanted to see it to its conclusion and would fully support us recasting the role of Spartacus.”

With Whitfield’s blessing, producers set out to find a new unknown for the part. And they couldn’t get any more unknown than the 29-year-old McIntyre, who was working for a theater chain in Melbourne, Australia, as its movie booker at the time of his casting. ”If I weren’t on this show, I’d be deciding whether or not we play another week of Pirates of the Caribbean in all our cinemas,” he notes while scarfing down a quick meal in his trailer between takes. Of course, McIntyre felt the pressure of replacing the name and face of the show — no more so than on Sept. 11, 2011, when the news came down that Whitfield had passed away. ”It was unbelievably horrible,” says McIntyre. ”One of the most distressing things I’ve ever been a part of. Because I’d convinced myself that he’d be fine, that he’d get better, and that was one of the ways that I could get to doing my job properly. It’s like a little part of the soul of everyone at Spartacus just left. It’s almost like I didn’t think I could be sad about it, like I didn’t have the right to, because I didn’t know Andy that well.”

For those who did know and work with Whitfield, the loss was heartbreaking. ”It was one of the darker days of my life,” says DeKnight. ”Even though we knew it was coming, it was very, very difficult for everyone. And it’s still difficult. I still can’t believe he’s gone.” In the end, the cast and crew’s communal sorrow and desire to honor their fallen friend brought everyone closer. ”We really pulled together,” says McIntyre, ”and decided the best way we can do justice to Andy is to do a show we can be proud of.”

To that end, season 2 picks up with the escaped gladiator slaves wreaking havoc in their quest for…well, vengeance. ”Practically everybody in the cast has an ax to grind, literally, this season,” says DeKnight. ”Everybody has a grudge to settle.” Those who think former foes Spartacus and Crixus are now buddies after joining forces in the House of Batiatus massacre at the end of season 1 should think again. ”It was a forced merger,” says Bennett while washing the excess mud off his hands during a break in filming. ”I mean, we’re not friends.” While Spartacus is now shacking up with Mira, Crixus is intent on finding Naevia (another part that had to be recast after the downtime departure of Lesley-Ann Brandt). One thing that won’t change is the sex and violence that have made Spartacus the most graphic show on television. ”I’ve gotta say, can you ever have enough orgies or decapitations?” jokes DeKnight. ”I don’t think so.” While the producer claims such adult content is not included for mere shock value, he does admit to trying to come up with new and exciting ways to eliminate his characters. Unfortunately, ”there’s only so many ways you can cut a guy’s head off.”

Speaking of violent assaults, Lucy Lawless’ Lucretia is miraculously still alive and kicking after receiving a knife in her pregnant belly, and will indeed be rekindling her frenemy relationship with the scheming Ilithyia (Viva Bianca). ”When we find her, she seems to have absolutely lost her marbles,” says Lawless of her character. ”But she’s not only lost her marbles, she’s lost everything else: her husband, her status, any means of life support, really, so she’s going to tap-dance for her life throughout season 2.” Things look equally bleak for former gladiator trainer Oenomaus (Peter Mensah), who is a man without a purpose after choosing to aid his fellow slaves in their escape. ”He’s in no-man’s-land,” says Mensah. ”He’s lost. Where do you go when you have nowhere to go?” Freed former gladiator Gannicus (Dustin Clare) from the prequel, however, will be found, making an appearance at some point in the 10-episode season. DeKnight is mum on how or when, only promising to ”bring him back in a grand, unexpected fashion.”

But all eyes will be firmly on McIntyre, who is suddenly carrying the weight of fans, the show, and the hit-starved Starz on his broad, glistening shoulders. (The network’s subsequent attempts to launch original series have not gone smoothly: Camelot was canceled after just one season, and the high-profile Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer, averaged just 2.8 million viewers cumulatively.) It should be noted that McIntyre has already passed his first big test, delivering the ”I am Spartacus!” line in episode 2. ”Oh, man, that’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done,” he sighs. ”One, because I was still kind of new at it, and also it’s like saying, ‘Bond, James Bond.’ How do you even approach saying that line with any kind of aplomb? I wanted to film it, like, 1,000 times and the director had to go, ‘We got it, seriously. We’re good.’ And nobody yelled, ‘No, I’m Spartacus!’ — so that was good.”

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