Interview : Ray Stevenson


Star of TVs “Rome”

What a difference a haircut can make. A few years ago, Ray Stevenson was a jobbing actor in the UK, regularly picking up roles in TV series and telemovies. He’d usually play “friendly, affable chaps”, although there was a stage where he found himself playing a lot of adulterers, he recalls with a laugh. The work was steady and regular.

Then he took a role as a cardinal in a play on London’s West End, and thought this man of God would wear a close-cropped crew cut. During the play’s run, Stevenson was asked to audition for the part of axe-swinging knight Dagonet in “King Arthur”, a medieval blockbuster produced by Jerry Bruckheimer of Pirates of the Caribbean fame.

“I remember the shocked look on the casting director’s face because she wanted to see these hirsute, rough-and-ready knights and I walked in with this crew-cut,” recalls Stevenson. “Her face dropped, but Jerry Bruckheimer and Antoine Fuqua, the director, were next door. She couldn’t exactly send me away, so I was sent in and they took one look at me and said ‘That’s Dagonet’. And I got the part.”

That was just the beginning for Stevenson, though. Because during the making of “King Arthur”, he landed an audition for an ambitious historical drama co-produced by the BBC and US pay-TV network HBO. Centred around the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and viewed through the eyes of two soldiers – one a disciplined officer, the other an unruly enlisted man – “Rome” would be an epic undertaking unlike anything else on television.

Stevenson, still sporting that shaved head that gave him a brutal, battle-ready appearance, won the role of Titus Pullo, the hot-tempered brawler who finds himself enmeshed in some of the most remarkable times in history. “Now I’m whoring and drinking and gambling and fighting!” he laughs. “And happy with my lot.”

It seems only natural that he’s happy with his lot. After all, Rome – premiering on Channel Nine next Wednesday – is a critical and commercial success (a second season is currently in production), and Stevenson gets to live and work in some of the most beautiful surroundings in the world.

Calling from Rome, where the show is filmed on actual Italian locations and massive sets constructed on the soundstages of the legendary movie studio Cinecitta, Stevenson can’t get over his good fortune. “Believe me, I count my blessings every day,” he says. “I’m having the time of my life.”

Part of his job satisfaction stems from having a complex and multi-faceted character to play. More than just a lusty bruiser, Pullo “gets it all – the more you see of him, the more you realise he gets the irony of life. He sees people operating in various shades of grey while he has a very black-and-white view of the world,” says Stevenson.

“He’s quite happy in his own skin, he’s content with where the gods have put him and he’ll make the most of it. It’s only when he tries to orchestrate his own destiny that it all goes haywire. He’s been allowed to grow. The events around him have had an effect on him, and he’s been allowed to grow accordingly.”

It’s the unlikely friendship between Pullo and fellow soldier Lucius Vorenus (played by Kevin McKidd of “Trainspotting” fame) that’s at the heart of Rome, and the selection of these two men as the human face of the drama is in keeping with the show’s dedication to historical accuracy – Pullo and Vorenus are the only two soldiers ever referred to by name in the writings of Julius Caesar.

“We have a wonderful historical adviser, Jonathan Stamp, who’s now a producer on the show,” says Stevenson. “He’s very keen on ensuring and pointing out that what we do is as authentic as we can possibly make it. So you’re viewing history through the eyes of Pullo and Vorenus.”

It’s a job made easier by the grand scale of the production. After all, when you’re filming on a set that’s some five-and-a-half acres, it’s pretty easy to remain in the spirit of things.

“You need a map to get around at first,” laughs Stevenson. “There have been moments when Kevin and I have been on horseback, and at times like that – when all you can see around you are these buildings and monuments and the faces of hundreds of Italian extras – it’s just breathtaking. It was jaw-dropping when we first came out here and saw the bare bones of what would be the set. And now it’s just phenomenal.”

Stevenson says he still finds it a pleasure working on “Rome” every day, “no matter how tired or bruised or battered I get”…and as pleasurable as the job may be, it’s certainly not without its risks.

“I’ve already fallen off my horse twice this year alone,” he says. “I’ve dislocated my shoulder. And I fell into a lighting rig during a fight scene, burning my arm. It’s quite sexy, actually – very Pullo. The burns actually look like sword marks. I’m telling everyone I was attacked by a tiger!”

ROME Begins on Channel 9 next Wednesday

– Guy Davis