Interview Date: 01/07/2011
Run Date: 01/20/2011
John Hannah is one of Scotland’s finest entrants into the game known as You’re That Actor Who Was In That Movie, a position he first earned with the role of Matthew in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” then cemented by playing Jonathan Carnahan over the course of three “Mummy” movies. In the UK, he’s also a television staple, having appeared in such series as “McCallum,” “Rebus,” and “New Street Law. There was a short-lived attempt to reproduce the same success on small screens in the States, courtesy of ABC’s “MDs,” but despite a cast which also featured William Fichtner, Thomas Lennon, and a pre-“Glee” Jane Lynch, the series only lasted 10 episodes.Fortunately, Hannah has recently found a bit more success on American television, having played Batiatus in “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” While those who watched the series know that his character won’t be returning for Season 2, he does have a place in the prequel series, “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,” which is why Hannah was in attendance for the 2011 Winter TCA Press Tour. I was horrified when my interview schedule for Starz’s day of the tour got utterly hosed up due to an HBO roundtable getting switched at the last second, but after begging and pleading, I was still able to secure a chat with the man who wears Batiatus’s toga
Bullz-Eye: It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve been a fan since “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and I’ve followed your career straight on since.
John Hannah: Oh, thanks!
BE: So…you’re guaranteed to survive through the end of “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.” How do you feel about that?
JH: Yeah, that’s good. (Laughs) I knew they couldn’t kill me on this one! You know, it was a bittersweet way to go back, but having said that, obviously, it was very enjoyable. It’s great to go back to something as fresh and original as this.
(Writer’s note: Though obviously a fully realized project at this point, the idea of doing a prequel to “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” is widely acknowledged as having come about mostly due to Andy Whitfield, the actor who played Spartacus, having been diagnosed with cancer. Season 2 of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is now moving forward with Liam McIntyre taking over Whitfield’s role.)
BE: I didn’t actually get the chance to talk to you when the show originally premiered. How did you find your way into “Spartacus” in the first place?
JH: You know, it was straight out of the manual: you go in, you audition, they send it up into the ether somewhere, and some faceless people somewhere look at it, and then you don’t hear anything for weeks on end, and then you get a call saying, “Yeah, you got the job!” That was it.
BE: How familiar were you with the “Spartacus” mythos, as it were?
JH: I kind of remembered the Kubrick film a bit and knew a little bit of the history. The crucifixions and whatnot. That was sort of it, really. “I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!” It was the Kubrick film, really, I suppose.
BE: What did you think when they showed you this new take on the concept?
JH: You know, the whole research thing was kind of irrelevant because… (Hesitates) You know, what we know on Spartacus, I have discovered, is basically from three other people, two of them from over a hundred years after he died. So we know a couple of points in his history, and, you know, you sort of look at some stuff and you read around it. But then you get the scripts and you think, “All right, well, all of that’s kind of irrelevant, I’m just kind of playing this part and trying to create this world,” and you get on with doing that.
BE: What were your feelings on the way the season played out? I mean, obviously, it didn’t end so well for you…
JH: (Laughs) No, I was all for that. I kind of felt morally, given what the character had done, that was completely justified and a proper way that he should go out. It was a brave thing to do, but it’s all moving on and telling that story linearly…well, you know, except for this prequel. (Laughs) But it was just really good to read something that was so different, that wasn’t cops and doctors and stuff, you know? That was great. And I thought the writing…you know, in spite of the obvious bravado of the visuals and the sex and violence, the scripts were just really good every week. Every time we’d get a new script in, you’d see the actors sitting around the set, reading it through and really liking it. So that was a buzz.
BE: Have you found that you’ve had to sell people on the series, where they’re, like, “Man, I love your work, but I don’t know about all that blood”?
JH: Back in the UK, where I live, people have either seen it or they haven’t seen it. You know, you can’t really make someone watch it, and it’s obviously not going to be for everyone. But of the people that have watched it, they very passionately enjoy it and like it, so that’s good. I would’ve liked for it to have been a bigger audience, but hey ho…
BE: Is it odd having the relationship that your character does with Lucy Lawless’s character, given that her husband is one of the producers?
JH: (Laughs) Kind of odd. I think it was Episode 2 in the first season, where we were having that sex scene in the bedroom with the slaves and things. It kind of felt a bit odd. Rob (Talpert) was on set that day, and I remember thinking, “I wonder who feels weirder about this: me or him or Lucy.” But, you know, as an actor, it’s like choreography. You just get on with it. And he’s such a great producer. He creates such a wonderful environment for the directors to do their bit, for the designers to do their bit, and for the actors to contribute to that. So it was a really pleasurable experience.
BE: Was there a sign that said “Leave Your Modesty at the Door, All Ye Who Enter Here”?
JH: Kind of, yeah. (Laughs) Lucy came up with that thing about the “we ain’t in Kansas anymore” sort of attitude toward it. When you realize the world that you’re in, where life and death is a daily occurrence and the 20th century morality that we have doesn’t exist, doesn’t fit, and has no place there, really, you get on with it and try to fulfill the script as well as you can and hopefully bring something to it.
BE: Obviously, you and Andy had a pretty tight relationship, character-wise, and as you said, this was a rather bittersweet reason for returning to your character. What was the mood like when you guys found out about his diagnosis.
JH: (Deeply exhales) Shock. I think everybody was just shocked. Really, really shocked. He had that first session of chemo, and everyone was waiting for him to be given the “all clear,” because everything set up to start work for Season 2, and when we found out that the cancer had returned and that he would have to go back into treatment, I think there was a huge sense of disappointment for him personally about that. Everyone was very down about that. And, again, Andy stepped up to the plate and was very positive about the show and about his contribution to it, and with his blessing everyone moved on and kept working.
BE: Lucy had described to me in the past about how, when he first came to the show, it was a like-a-duck-to-water situation, which is particularly impressive when you consider that he’d never had a role of that magnitude before.
JH: Yeah, he was not very experienced. (Long pause) As an actor, I just can’t help feeling sorry for him. Not so much about the cancer, but just that he got a job that he was really good in, it became a success, he was on the edge of just having it all, and now it’s been put on the back burner. Hopefully. (Knocks wood)
BE: Indeed. (Knocks wood as well) So with “Gods of the Arena,” how far back does it step in time?
JH: Somebody on the panel said it’s about five years. It’s never very specific. It’s somewhere between two and five, maybe. That would be about it. It’s not like they were fifteen years earlier. It’s not like they were youthful innocence. Before starting it, I did spend a lot of time wondering, “What is it that makes a person become that kind of person? Is he like that before? Is it events that caused it?” Ultimately, you can go through all of that, and then you get the script and you’re, like, “Well, here’s what I’ve got to do.” And if you do that as well as you can and try to make that come to life, then you will hopefully have created a character that blends in and has that kind of continuity.
BE: It was mentioned during the panel about how you guys were getting a chance to explore back stories that you may well have already created in your own heads.
JH: Yeah, but, you know, there was nothing that really jarred with any of that. And, similarly, there’s nothing that you sort of look at retrospectively and say, “Oh, I should’ve done that differently in one because of what happens in the other.” There’s enough time where the characters have… (Hesitates)
As happens in life, it’s never always a straight up or a straight down. You get somewhere and you’re on a plateau. It felt like, looking at it, that the character had reached that plateau by the first show of the series, so then you just wait for the next event in your life that propels you forward or downward…or whatever direction you’re taken. (Laughs)
BE: I don’t know how much you can speak to this without offering spoilers, but what was the greatest surprise that you found about his back story?
JH: I suppose there’s a moment in response to Episode 1 when I get this beating, a fairly bad beating from a local gangster, I guess you’d say. I keep saying there’s this fight-or-flight instinct: you can either back down from it and go quietly amidst the noise and haste, or you can say, “Fuck this, I’m going to get him back!” (Laughs) And that is essentially what explains how the character goes each step further and further: because he is someone who confronts it.
BE: When your character met his demise at the end of Season 1, were there jokes on the set about how he might pull through?
JH: (Laughs) By then, no! But earlier on…because, of course, we weren’t given all 13 scripts up front. You get Episode 1, then you get Episode 2, then halfway through Episode 2 you get Episode 3. And I’m kind of thinking, “Well, I know that Spartacus has this little rebellion and runs off. Maybe I become his friend! Maybe I become his buddy or something!”
BE: (Laughs) At which point the show becomes a buddy comedy…?
JH: Yeah, it becomes a buddy road movie. A Roman road movie! (Laughs) But, no, I kind of liked the idea of not pursuing the writers about, “What happens to me? What happens with this plan? Does that come to fruition?” It’s, like, you have plans, and some of them work out and some of them don’t. That’s life.
BE: As I mentioned, I came to your career through a comedy. Do you have a preference for doing comedy versus drama? Do you enjoy mixing it up whenever possible?
JH: I like mixing it up. Look, if you do one thing constantly…I’ve always tried to avoid being in a pigeonhole, which I don’t necessarily know is a good thing or not. If you’re in a pigeonhole, at least you’re easily cast. (Laughs) But certainly here in the States I don’t fit into the classic Englishman type pigeonhole. I’m not the handsome, good-looking leading man kind of thing, probably never was. But it’s nice being an actor and not knowing what’s coming next. I suppose that’s why I got into it in the first place, in a way, rather than working at the same job for the next 40 years.
BE: I’ve got a stock question that I ask everyone: what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
JH: I did a little film…it was a little art film, so it was never meant to get a Cineplex sort of release…but I did a little art film called “Madagascar Skin.” Funnily enough, as you do when you sit in a hotel, I was going through YouTube when I was in New Zealand, and…it was a long, long time ago, but there’s a couple of clips on YouTube, and I watched them, and, fuck, it’s a funny film. It’s an art film, but it’s a comedy art film, and it’s a clever, clever script. I loved the experience of shooting it.
BE: How did it come about? Was it a pet project, or…
JH: No, it was a case where you go for casting and get the job. That was it. By “art film,” I mean that it had no money. (Laughs) It was a young guy who’d done one feature before, and he’d done a couple of shorts that were really quirky and odd, and I just liked his sensibility. And I liked the character. Funnily enough, it was right after “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and it was a gay character. At first the director hadn’t wanted to see me for it because I’d just done “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and he was quite reticent about casting me in it. And my agent at the time was a bit “oh, do you really want to do this?” But it was just such a different part. It’s like saying everyone who’s heterosexual is the same. It was a completely different script! (Laughs) It was a different character, it was beautiful, and I loved doing it.
BE: What was the premise of the film?
JH: It’s this guy who has a birthmark on his face, a port wine stain on his face, and he can’t really live in one world, so he runs away and he ends up living on a beach. One day, he sees these guys run off the beach, he goes over, and he finds a man buried up to his neck. He’s a bit of rough trade, but they end up becoming this beautiful kind of love story. It’s just very, very quirky, but it’s beautifully realized, a lovely script. It was me and Bernard Hill, and…it was a lot of fun.
BE: When you got the part on “MDs,” did you ever say, “So long, folks, I’m off to America, you’ll see me whenever”?
JH: I loved the experience. I was very excited about it and…I’ve always been very lucky with America. Despite not being in an obvious pigeonhole, they gave me “The Mummy” when I’d never really done any real comedy before. People used to say, “Oh, but you were in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral,’” and I was, like, ‘Yeah, but I did the funeral bit. I didn’t have any of the jokes!” (Laughs) So the American casting that I’ve been privy to has always been very good for me. And although I loved a lot of the actors I worked with, I didn’t find the pacing of American terrestrial television too fast. We work very quickly in Britain as well. I got a little bit disappointed, ultimately, with the way the network tried to make the show something that it didn’t start out being.
BE: But American television never does that!
JH: (Laughs) I know! It was news to me! But, yeah, by the time they canceled the show, I wasn’t upset. But as I say, I worked with some great directors, I worked with a lot of really talented actors that I’ve kept in touch with. I stayed on for about a year and read some more scripts, but nothing really did it for me, and then I went over and did another job in England. I’d love to work more from here. I think that, given the recent economic meltdown of the global finances…you know, Britain’s very quiet, and a lot less gets done there, so I love the idea of maintaining my profile here and working more here, but I can never quite see why I would get cast in anything! (Laughs) I can never figure what kind of part I’m going to play. I don’t quite know where I’m going to fit in, but I keep going…and, so far, I’ve been doing okay!
BE: What was the “New Street Law” experience like for you?
JH: Do you know, unfortunately, that it was very much like “MDs”? It was a G.F. Newman-produced script that I’d been attached to for awhile. Gordon’s a very political animal, and the show was meant to be political. It was an earlier show. It was going to a family show, an 8:00 PM show, but it still dealt with… (Hesitates) As a man with young children myself now, there’s just nothing on you want to watch, and by the time there’s something on, you’re too tired, so I was all up for that. But unfortunately we had that same kind of executive meddling that took the show from being what it was supposed to be and turned it into something else...and I think they kind of messed up with that.
BE: When I was watching it, I certainly enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was trying desperately to be the British version of “The Practice.”
JH: You know, there’s focus groups and market research and all that stuff, and it’s, like, “Just let someone make the show they want to make!” Gordon never got to make that show, which was a shame, I thought, because it could’ve been good. There was a lot of good issues around it, and he knows that legal world very well. So it was a disappointment, but… (Shrugs)
BE: Now, I know you have had a production company, but…
JH: I still do, although my producing partner’s running that more in the past couple of years, what with my commitments to “Spartacus.”
BE: Is that something you plan to explore a bit more? Did you enjoy the experience?
JH: D’you know what? I kind of started it because I was in a position to be able to. Or, rather, Murray (Ferguson) and myself started that. And I sort hoped and thought, rather naively, that it might allow me to miss those executives who are constantly trying to make something that they think everybody’s going to like and it ends up nobody likes it. But my experience is that, actually, you just deal with them earlier. (Laughs) So it’s a mixed bag, really. I think a lot of actors have that sense, “If I produce something, then I can produce it the way I want to!” But, of course, that’s naïve. It’s not like that. But Murray’s done some great stuff. Recently, there was a show that he did called “Misfits” that’s been a bit of a hit in Britain. It won a BAFTA last year. It was a very low budget thing, but it was a great show. A lot of great young kids in it. And, in fact, he’s been having some meetings with American networks to reformat it for here.
BE: Excellent! Now, do you have anything else in the pipeline beyond “Spartacus”?JH: I did a thing last year for ITV which was quite good, a three-part thing called “Kidnap and Ransom.” That’s not been out yet, but it was a good experience. Other than that, no. Here I am, unemployed. I’ll probably be back here in a month, looking for a job. (Laughs)