You could never tell by looking at him now but Liam McIntyre, who plays the sinewy hero in "Spartacus: Vengeance," suffered from severe asthma when he was a kid.
"There's a tenacity you get as an asthmatic where, occasionally in your life, the most important thing in the world is being able to take a breath again," he says, perched on a casual chair in a pool-side room at a hotel here.
"That puts everything in perspective, ultimately when your next breath is more important that anything you can do, there's an element of that that builds your character and makes you stronger."
When the new episodes of "Spartacus" return to Starz on Friday, McIntyre will be needing all the strength he can muster. He'll be filling the sandals of the late Andy Whitfield, who played the role until he was felled by non-Hodgkin's lymphoma last September.
"It's bittersweet because you kind of wish it was never there in the first place," says McIntyre, who is Australian. "You wish the guy you watched in Season 1 was still there. But given that's not possible, you have this great responsibility to do this dream job you can't imagine," he says.
McIntyre was a reluctant actor in the first place. "I got tricked into acting. I studied business in Ireland and I was just trying to find things to do to make friends. It was a world away for me. And I had no interest in acting ... This guy told me there was this role ... and I grudgingly agreed to do this thing I didn't want to do at all," he recalls.
"I see my little first opening gambit (in the script). 'OK, maybe I can handle it.' The next thing, my character comes back dressed as someone else ... I went to the director and I said, 'Who plays my character when he comes back?' He says, 'You, obviously.' I said 'Wait, that's not what we signed up for. I'm not an ACTOR. I can't do this.' I've never complained so much about getting a lead," he laughs.
"I hated so much of that, up to the fourth night of performance when onstage sometimes it all clicks, and it's just this experience like no other - where all the players are in the same space and they're all connected in some way, and you get offstage with this buzz. And I remember one of my costars said, 'Did you just get the acting bug?' I said, 'Don't be silly.'
"I remember calling up dad and apologizing and saying, 'Dad, I think I want to be an actor.' It's also so sweet to flash forward nine, 10 years later and to ring up my father and say, 'Your son's done all right.'"
Still, McIntyre waited a long time for things to go right. He graduated with a degree in business and excelled at it. "I ended up in a job I really liked. The job was a cinema chain, I was deciding what movies went on, so by day I was this struggling actor and by night I was telling distributors, 'I don't know if we can fit that in ...'"
Before he was hired he assured his boss that acting would not interfere. I said, 'I love it, but what are the odds? A really big role? It'll never happen.' Three months later these guys call up and said, 'We want to test you for the show ("Spartacus").' I had to go in to my boss and say, 'You know that thing I said would never happen? It just happened.' God bless him he was so good about it. He's still the best boss."
McIntyre's parents divorced when he was 1 and he was reared by his mother and stepfather, who died when Liam was 12. "My stepdad was an incredible man," he sighs.
His passing, taught McIntyre, 29, a valuable lesson. "I learned to be a leader. I got to be the man of the house. I really did. I said, 'Mum, hold on, we can get through this together.' There's a lot of that I get to use (as Spartacus). Spartacus now is pulling disparate members together for this bigger cause - and there's a lot of strange similarities in that experience."
McIntyre had lost 45 pounds for another role when he was called to audition for "Spartacus." "I was up against these two other massive, hulking men and ultimately, like I was trained to do: just do the work. Just be honest to your character and do the right thing. I was told ultimately that's what people kept coming back to."
Then the hard work of shaping McIntyre into a sword-swinging icon began. He toiled at the gym four hours a day, followed a restrictive diet and took instructions from a grueling ex-military trainer.
"The head stunt guy of 'Spartacus' was like, 'See where he breaks' essentially, and they put me through things you can't imagine," he says, laughing.
"And my dad raised me competitive and stubborn, thank goodness. My mum raised me to be sweet and nice and my dad - I was, like, 5 years old and he could throw the tennis ball down 100 miles per hour. 'Dad, I want to win.' He said, 'You'll win when you're ready to win!' Thank goodness."
A unique interview show from comics David Steinberg and Steve Carell hits Showtime on Thursday. "Inside Comedy" probes the quirky minds of comedians like Tim Conway, Larry David, Jonathan Winters, Jerry Seinfeld, etc. "There's a way in which comedians talk to each other, like jazz musicians talk," says Steinberg.
"They know things about each other that outsiders don't know. So we wanted to be able to see if we could tap into that in some way; wanted to know their influences, who specifically did they see that made a difference, and all of that. Especially if you're talking to standup comedians, it's always negative. It's about toilets and the terrible times and the nuttiness and craziness and the dark soul of the comedian. This turned out not to be that at all. Turned out to be what everyone really likes - maybe loves - about what they do."
Three strong-willed guys created HBO's "Luck," which premieres Sunday. It's an underground tale of the horse racing world. The pilot was directed by Michael Mann ("Miami Vice"), written by David Milch ("Deadwood") and stars Dustin Hoffman ("Tootsie.") All three boast executive producer credentials, too.
Hoffman says he tests a director to see how flexible he'll be. "I say, 'I have an idea,' and if there's this cloud that comes over the director's face and all the blood drains from his face, I know he's not a collaborator," says Hoffman.
"I met Anthony Hopkins many, many years ago, and we were talking about, you know, what do you do when you're not getting along with the director. And he says, 'Never raise your voice. Never have a fight. On a soundstage make sure, or wherever you're shooting, make sure you're shooting on the ground floor. When it gets to that point, you say, "Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom." You've checked the bathroom out before. It has a window.
"'You go in the bathroom. You lock the door. You climb out the window. You go home. You come back the next day. There's no argument anymore.'"