With the second season premiere of the sword & sandals epic Spartacus just around the corner, we had the opportunity to talk with Australian actress Viva Bianca, who plays the manipulative Roman aristocrat Ilithyia on the Starz series.
We discussed the untimely passing of Spartacus star Andy Whitfield, the show's second season, its depictions of sex and violence, and even had a little time to talk about Punky Brewster.
Dork Shelf: First we'd like to express our sincere condolences on the passing of Andy Whitfield. He was insanely talented and a huge part of the show obviously, part of what made it such a big hit. He seemed like a hell of a guy.
Viva Bianca: Thank you. Andy is an exceptional person and quite clearly a highly talented and charismatic actor. It's a great loss personally and also a great loss for the industry.
DS: Agreed. So you character, Ilithyia, is one of my personal favourites on Spartacus. Tell me a little bit about how you joined the show. What drew you to the role initially?
VB: Aw… thank you. Of course, that was a little while back now when we first started making the show it was 2009. I was cast from Australia and it was the biggest production I had ever been on. It was very exciting, but at that stage we didn't even really know what the show was going to be. I'm told that that's often the case with new series, particularly cable series on a network like Starz. So it was really kind of falling into the unknown.
With regards to Ilithyia , I had no idea that she would emerge as the villain that she did emerge as. As you might recall she began as this bratty princess on the show, but the part just kept growing and twisting and unravelling. The great thing about season two is that audiences can expect to see even more complexity in the character, and even some vulnerability.
DS: Watching Ilithyia in the second season so far, I'm reminded of some of the great TV villainesses of the 80s and 90s. That clear villainess who is always making power plays and scheming in the background. Have you drawn any inspiration from some of those classic archetypal characters?
VB: No, I haven't conciously at least. But I watch film,TV, and go to the theatre a lot, so I think subliminally you're bound to draw inspiriation from various past performances. I think I'm always drawn to complex, strong women, but with any kind of character like that I would want to explore vulnerability, fragility, and softness. On the contrary, if I were to be playing a more vulnerable, fragile character, I'd always be looking for the strength or the dark side. So to me, it's about creating the most well-rounded, realized, and complex human being.
DS: Well you're certainly achieving that in season two. What can you tell us about the new season? What can viewers expect?
VB: In season three the stakes have risen across the board. Every single character wants something desperately and every single character is seeking vengeance. It's highly dramatic. For Ilithyia in particular, it's a seriously epic rollercoaster. She's fallen from grace, and she's grappling for her very livelyhood and survival. So she's a woman on the edge.
DS: Okay, we're going to talk about some spoilers here, so reader beware. Ilithyia is pregnant, is it safe to say that Spartacus be the daddy?
VB: That's a cheeky suggestion! We don't know that yet, but that's obviously a big question and a big secret to be revealed in season two, so stay tuned.
DS: You and Lucy Lawless' character are growing much closer this season. The roles have almost flipped, now Ilithyia has become the manipulator. There's a great scene in episode two where Lucretia sacrifices the goat and you've got the knife, and there's that palpable tension. Are we going to see more of this new dynamic?
VB: The relationship dynamic between those two women just becomes more co-dependant and complex. The writers gave us so much material to work with, so we were very fortunate. In addition to that, Lucy and I really took full advantage of one another, we had a great chemistry together and have become great friends off-screen. So it was a real delight playing through the drama in that relationship.
I think what's really fundamental here is that Ilithyia becomes the doma of the house, of assiartus, and Lucretia has lost all of her power in that situation. Both characters find themselves in totally new territory.
DS: You seem like you're constantly surrounded by burly fighting men on the show, do you ever get the desire to get in on that action? Duck into the writer’s room and ask if Ilithyia could maybe take up a sword every once in a while?
VB: Oh no, I love being princess-y and pretty! Sitting on the lovely Persian cloth-covered loungers, sipping on wine and eating cherries. I'm quite happy with the decadence in which my character dwells, thank you very much. But not to spoil anything too major, there is a little bit of crossing of worlds for Ilithyia in the upcoming season. She doesn’t stay entirely clean, but that's all I can say.
DS: Right on, that's something to look forward to! Not related to that, but obviously at the forefront of the show is the nudity. It almost always helps drive the story forward, but what's your take on how it's handled on the show?
VB: First and foremost, whenever the prospect of nudity arises on the show in a particular scene or episode, there will always be a meeting about it with the director or the producers. What’s always discussed is the relevence of that scene to the story. The nudity and the sex scenes have to be driving the story forward in order for them to be appropriate and justified. I think that for all of the actors in the cast, that's kind of the unanimous philosophy.
But doing sex scenes and doing nudity is never easy and never comfortable. It must be dealt with in the most clinical, professional, and respectful manner. And on this show it absolutely is, we're really protected.
DS: The nudity never feels excessive or just there to be there. It's also very balanced. I've seen far more male genitalia in that season alone than I'd seen in my life up to that point.
VB: That's a really good way of looking at it. You could never say that the show is objectifying women for the male gaze, because it certainly goes both ways. And another thing, the female characters on this show are ballsy and empowered and scheming. They're often the ones who are manipulating their husbands to get what they want. Ilithyia is a perfect example of that. She's an incredibly empowered and sophisticated lady in a world where women really didn't have much power.
DS: Behind every strong man is a strong woman. Ilithyia is the powerhouse in that relationship. The Praetor may strut around puffing his chest, but you can tell that Ilithyia is the one scheming and pulling the strings. As did Lucy Lawless' character when the roles were reversed.
VB: That's correct. The fun thing for me in season two is that I have my husband around. Glaber, played by the great Craig Parker, becomes the man of the house. I get to explore a wonderful character dynamic with Craig. The marriage between Ilithyia and Glaber is extraordinarily complex; passionate, but also manipulative and destructive. It goes down a really dark path in season two.
DS: Oenomaus looks like he's going to play a big role in the return of the House of Batiatus. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on there?
VB: Oenomaus is one of my favourite characters, he is so noble and stoic. Of course, played by the great Peter Mensah, one of my dear friends from the cast. He brings such a sophistication to the show that we're all so grateful for. He plays a note that none of us provide. His storyline stands apart from everyone elses, he's a solitary man that doesn’t take easily to the rebellion and Spartacus' cause.
DS: It's certainly nice to see him return to the House of Batiatus. So we have to wrap up here, but we have to ask what is on your Dork Shelf?
VB: This is a really hard question! Well, I must say that I'm gypsy so I don't have a home as such right now. I have a series of collectible dolls from my childhood that I've never thrown away. I've got an array of Barbie dolls and antique dolls, but I've recently started collecting little figurines of characters. For instance, I have a Punky Brewster doll that I've had since the late-80s when I was a little girl. For some reason I think it’s very cool.
DS: Punky was of course the first true independant woman for a generation.
VB: Punky rocked! The different coloured shoes, the pigtails, the freckles, the thing around her knee. She also had the phone that was a hamburger.
DS: Thank you for your time, Viva. It has been wonderful chatting with you.
VB: Really nice to meet you. Ciao!