The training schedule may be gruelling but Peter Mensah still counts himself lucky to be back in the ring in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, writes Jacqueline Smith.
Peter Mensah couldn't believe his luck when he arrived in sunny Auckland to play the formidable Doctore in Spartacus.
"I think I got here early April, and for that first week the weather was stunning, it was absolutely marvellous and I thought, I have lucked out on the best job ever. And then I proceeded to freeze wearing next to nothing for months on end as it rained and got steadily colder," he laughs.
Mensah, who is also known for playing enigmatic supporting roles like the Persian Messenger in 300 and the Horse Clan Leader in Avatar, played the tremendously chiselled, Ghanian trainer to the gladiators, known as Doctore, in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. At the end of the series it was revealed that his real name was Oenomaus.
The prequel series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena will explore how he rose from slavery, then through the ranks of gladiators to assume the position of Doctore, and why he is so scarred - on the inside and out.
Off-set, Mensah jokes about playing such an austere character. "I'd rather laugh any day," he says.
"I couldn't imagine living as stern a life as Oenomaus does on the show. I think life needs to be a lot lighter. I understand that the period, and the circumstances of the character in the story make him that way. Things were pretty harsh and that's why the story of Spartacus emerged - it was such a brutal time, and I'm really glad that is not the time we live in."
Working in such a specific, and widely researched period of time, requires fastidious costuming and choreography.
"There's so much that isn't on the page but you will see the wardrobe departments going through and making sure the tapestries are perfect and that the costumes have details that may not even be picked up by the camera. It actually goes a lot beyond what's required," Mensah says.
Those who play gladiators attend intense training sessions before and during filming to ensure they move as fighters would have in the period - before anyone knew anything about martial arts.
The stunt co-ordinator has tailored a fitness programme for the actors and stunt men to build on the unique use of muscle that helps them strike, dive, wield shields, and tumble on the sand correctly.
Though there's nothing in his contract saying he can't put on weight, Mensah schedules daily workouts either before or after a long day's shooting, and maintains his fitness between series.
"I honestly think there really isn't another show on television like it. And I certainly haven't done anything that has required these levels of athleticism as well as deep dramatic acting. The reality of it is that we are required to be in great shape for the entire duration of the show and clearly beyond it because this is our third year.
"It's a real change of lifestyle, you have to adopt a very disciplined work ethic and personal habits, to portray them as we have laid them out to be. I have never done anything quite as demanding."
Though he spends most of his time in a warehouse in Mt Wellington, Mensah remains enamoured by greater New Zealand. He has enjoyed getting to know many Kiwis over the course of filming, including Temuera Morrison who joined the cast to play the Doctore of the prequel. Like Mensah, Morrison has projected a tough facade, but Mensah says the pair hit it off and Morrison took him out to meet members of the local acting fraternity. "I had no idea, having seen Once Were Warriors, that he had such a great sense of humour," he says.
Other new faces include British actress Jaime Murray (Dexter), as Lucy Lawless' character Lucretia's friend, American actress Marisa Ramirez as Peter Mensah's character's wife, local actors Gareth Williams and Antonio Te Maioha in supporting roles, and Australian actor Liam McIntyre, who assumed the role of Spartacus when Andy Whitfield resigned to seek treatment for his recurring non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Whitfield's departure has cast a thick shadow over set this season, Mensah says.
"For me especially, flying into Auckland, coming here was such a natural part of our relationship, but it's a really tough thing coming here without him."
But he says the loss is bittersweet, as McIntyre has taken over the role with complete humility and recognition of the man who paved the way for the character.
Whitfield's picture hangs everywhere on set. It is an inspiration, Mensah says. "He was our leader."
Who: Peter Mensah, plays Oenomaus (the Doctore from Spartacus: Blood and Sand) in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.