With its addictive combination of nudity, sex, action and plots even thicker than the blood spurting in its gladiatorial battles, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" was a big hit for Starz when it premiered in 2010. But when Andy Whitfield, who played the title role, was stricken with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the prequel miniseries "Gods of the Arena" was made in the interim in the hope that he'd recover. Tragically, Whitfield succumbed to the disease last September, and the role was recast with Liam McIntyre. "Spartacus Vengeance" premieres Jan. 27, with Spartacus spearheading a slave rebellion — and Roman troops under Gaius Claudius Glaber — the man responsible for Spartacus' wife's death — on a mission to crush it.


"It's not an easy journey, both interacting with the other members of the group and for him personally, a man that never really wanted this mantle," said creator/writer Steven S. DeKnight during promotion for the series that included a Hollywood premiere, noting that the reluctant hero transitions "from a more singular individual to, by the end, a leader of men, and that journey is very difficult."


Getting the role was just as tough. McIntyre had lost 45 pounds for another project and had to bulk up with a trainer and grueling heavy weight workouts to achieve a gladiator-worthy body, but the experience was worth it. "It was and still is one of the most exciting things I can even imagine, let alone have the privilege of doing," he said, though Whitfield's death hit him hard. "You can't imagine how sad that day was," he said of the moment news came to the set. "Andy's left the most amazing legacy you could possibly hope for and it's the reason I have a job now. It's such an honor to have such a big responsibility. I just try to work really, really hard at giving it as much life as I can in the way I find possible and hopefully the Spartacus character has the same spirit as Andy brought to it so wonderfully."


This season, the titular theme of vengeance "drives everybody and brings them together but it also tears them apart," said DeKnight. "When you have such a dark emotion as vengeance, your relationships with other people become twisted." That couldn't be truer than in the case of Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) who somehow survived the massacre at the House of Batiatus and seems to have gone mad — or is she crazy like a fox? Her relationship with frenemy Ilithyia (Viva Blanca) "will continue to be enriched, lots of ups and downs there, lots of skullduggery in the parlor. Buckets of torment are coming my way, and I enter into a relationship with a man that I never paid attention to before. In the end all of Lucretia's dreams come true," promised Lawless, who is an ambassador for New Zealand Greenpeace and is building a massive garden at her Auckland home.


Her co-stars weighed in on their own environmental efforts at the premiere. McIntyre pointed out his native Australia's "impressive emission standards and carbon trading and systems with rainwater" that he's always followed. Manu Bennett (Crixus) said he has recycling bins and uses eco-friendly cleaning products at home, but buys disposable diapers for his new baby, his third daughter. In "Vengeance," Crixus' goal is to find his slavegirl love Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, pictured right), and there's ongoing tension between him and Spartacus. "There are a lot of twists and turns" ahead, he promised.


"It's a very popular storyline because everyone wants to feel like us," Addai-Robinson reflected about the Crixus-Naevia love story. New to the role previously played by Lesley-Ann Brandt, she felt welcomed and supported on set, which helped immensely during nude scenes. "It can be nerve-wracking, but Manu and I have a really great working relationship and we know the audience is really into it," says the L.A.-based actress, who recycles and drives a Prius, but finds that "it's hard to find it out here in the sea of Priuses."


Craig Parker (Glaber), who lives in Paris, doesn't have a car but instead rents bicycles via the Vélibes system to get around the city. Married to the spoiled and willful Ilithyia, Glaber "is not going to put up with the manipulations his wife has gotten away with. He's going to take charge. He's going to stand up to her and he's going to get some action and it may not be with his wife," he hinted. He relishes "playing the antagonist rather than the hero.


You get to do nastier things. You get to be evil. If you're the hero you have to remain noble and morally worthy and that's not so interesting. It's always much more fun to mine the twisted, dirty, festering humanity of a character," he said, though acknowledged that Spartacus, while heroic, is "no boy scout. He's got darkness and that makes for a really interesting show to watch."


Peter Mensah (left), who works closely with Global Green, plays the widowed former gladiator master Oenomaus. "He's lost at the beginning of the season so his theme is reclamation just as much as vengeance. He basically loses everything, finds himself, and has to find a cause." Katrina Law (Mira, below right) is the house slave on the run with Spartacus. "You get to see her fighting for what it means to be free and what she can do with that new-found freedom, and what she does for love, and if she and Spartacus last," said Law, who showed McIntyre the ropes in the intimate scenes. "I felt like the old pro, 'Just take your clothes off, hon, it's going to be fine.' It's all in a day's work," laughed the actress, who describes herself as "very conservative with water. We got a dual flush toilet and don't drink bottled water. We got a filter for the house."


Bonnie Sveen — who grew up on a sustainable farm in Australia, is a vegetarian, and doesn't own a car — plays Chandara, a sex slave who's "very ruthless and in it for herself." She has no problem with baring it all for the role. "I'm a painter so I'm used to the naked anatomy. It's definitely a challenge, but it's an opportunity to discover a new braveness within yourself," she believes.


Already picked up for a third season, "Spartacus" is a hit, DeKnight feels, "because the way we develop the characters and the intrigue and the surprises coupled with the action and the sensuality of the show is really like nothing you've seen on television. Everybody loves a good underdog story and this is one of the great underdog stories in history. Then you throw in the drama and appeal of the time and the sensuality and the action. I think it all comes together in this bizarre, wonderful brew." His can't-miss moment? "The return of Gannicus" (Dustin Clare) in episode five. "It's a phenomenally gigantic episode with a stunning conclusion."


Bennett, Lawless and McIntyre at premiere.


Photos: Starz Entertainment and Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Starz


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'Spartacus' returns with a 'Vengeance,' and a new star
'Spartacus' is back with a 'Vengeance' on Starz; cast reveals green lifestyles at Hollywood premiere.