"We're just like every other couple," giggle John Hannah and Lucy Lawless about playing Quintus Batiatus and Lucretia on the television series "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena."
Yeah, like every other couple if you have a house of slaves and gladiators, partake in copious amounts of sex and don't mind dispatching anyone who gets in your way.
Hannah and Lawless are back unexpectedly in the prequel to Starz's hit series "Spartacus: Blood and Sand." At the end of that show, they looked like they were dead - more about that later - after a slave revolt led by Spartacus (Andy Whitfield). Originally, Starz planned a second season, but then Whitfield was diagnosed last March with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Gods of the Arena" was meant to give the Australian actor time to recover and return to his role as the Roman gladiator who led a slave rebellion, but it was announced earlier this month that the actor's cancer had returned and that he was stepping aside to concentrate on getting well.
On Monday, it was announced that another Australian actor, Liam McIntyre, would replace Whitfield for season two.
In the meantime, we have "Gods of the Arena," a six-part prequel beginning tonight, which explores the rise of the House of Batiatus, the gladiatorial school where the real Spartacus trained, and Quintus and Lucretia's twisted ambitions. Well, maybe not so twisted if you looked at it in perspective.
"They never really felt like they were bad," says Hannah about the pair. "They were just trying to deal with what they had to deal with and getting rid of who they had to get rid of to get to that next step on the ladder. It isn't that he started off with this gnawing ambition to get to the top."
"Speak for yourself," Lawless interrupts with a smile, adding that in "Gods of the Arena" we get to see the rot set into the couple's lives.
We also will get to see some new characters, including Dustin Clare as Gannicus, a hard-drinking, hard-partying champion.
"Dustin was cast because of his ability to act like an out-of-control rock star and still have you love him and cheer for him," says Lawless, who is married to the series' executive producer, Rob Tapert.
And Lucretia gets a sexy playmate this year in Gaia, played by Jaime Murray ("Hustle," "Dexter," "Warehouse 13"), a widow on the prowl for a new husband who is a bad influence on the House of Batiatus with her drugs and sexual promiscuity.
"It's all her fault really, I blame Jaime," sniffs Hannah about Lucretia's moral decline.
"Thank God for Jaime," says Lawless about the actress on a more serious note. "Because to do the kinds of things we had to do to tell the story with anybody who I didn't have 100 percent trust and respect in would have been torture. So I got to work with Jaime Murray and John Hannah, and if I had to do sex scenes, these are the people I wanted to do sex scenes with.
Well, this is "Spartacus," so, of course there are sex scenes.
Lawless says everybody had to deal with their own neuroses regarding the sex scenes, but then she gives Hannah a friendly tap and says with a smile, "Well you don't have any neuroses."
"During the first season we had that baptism," says Hannah, who is known for his roles in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Sliding Doors" as Gwyneth Paltrow's love interest and the "Mummy" movies.
"I still found it hard. Maybe harder," says Lawless, who became a sensation as "Xena: Warrior Princess" and later starred in "Battlestar Galactica." "But thankfully I didn't have the fear of my colleagues."
Hannah points out that his sex scenes are all choreographed like a dance number. "It's not like they tell naked actors to go and get on with it."
"Not if you're taped up like a Ken doll," quips Lawless.
Hannah says that if people get beyond the sex and violence, "Spartacus" portrays a "very complex and very intriguing" world.
"It's not coy, is it? It's about life and death," he says of the Roman times. "So there's no point in being coy about that."
The actor concedes, though, that sometimes he thinks the writers sit around and dream up the weirdest things they can and then make them work. "I like the kind of limitlessness to their creativity."
That has allowed Hannah a chance to pull out all the stops as Quintus.
"I'm just ticking off things I've never done in 20 years of work," he smiles. "It's great."
"And he does it with such joy," says Lawless, who adds she often finds herself laughing at his takes. "John is like a pig in mud."
He counters with: "You've got to live up to what your character is like. These people are living life at full tilt - carpe diem, as they might've said."
Hannah occasionally finds that he's recognized by fans as Quintus, once weirdly in a spa where a man insisted on saying the character's favorite expletive, Jupiter's (anatomical part). And though the fans and Starz love the pair, don't expect the actor back in a second season of "Gods of the Arena." The die has been cast.
It was a pretty brutal ending for Quintus, who was slashed across the throat in "Blood and Sand." "I believe that Batiatus does actually have a twin brother who we get to meet later on," says Hannah wryly.
However, there may be life yet for Lucretia and Lawless, who is still known as Xena to many fans. (By the way, the Official Xena Convention: The XVI Celebration runs Jan. 28-30 at the Los Angeles Marriott at LAX, 5855 W. Century Blvd., and many actors from the show will be there, though not Lawless.)
Producer Steve DeKnight was convinced that Lucretia had to die, but later on came up with an idea for season two.
As for her being stabbed viciously by a sword in the stomach in the season one finale ...
"Well, it was just a little poke in the tummy," says Lawless.