If it's true that "all roads lead to Rome," that may explain why so many characters find themselves at a crossroads in the second season premiere of HBO's "Rome" on Sunday, Jan. 14.
Nowhere is that more true than in the home of centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), a once-noble man whose life is quickly unraveling. His wife, Niobe, is dead following a bitter argument with Vorenus. The man he had sworn to protect, Julius Caesar, has been slain by assassins. And, shortly after the new season opens, even more family tragedy befalls Vorenus.
It's a very dark place for any actor to venture into, especially after a long hiatus following season one.
"But that was what I really responded to about the role, the challenge of being able to deconstruct this man, this incredibly honorable and upright Roman citizen who has had everything taken away from him, almost in the same way as Job," McKidd says. "You get both the upside and the downside of a man who has led a pretty clear-cut life to this point but suddenly everything is gone. Playing that is a challenge, certainly, but it wasn't one I was frightened of. I was looking forward to it, showing the underbelly of this centurion."
The actor is mum on how far down Vorenus will spiral but hints that his salvation, if there is one, may lie with his best friend, Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson).
"I don't want to give anything away, but it's like when Pullo's darkest place comes in the gladiator ring and his best friend eventually comes in and helps him," McKidd says. "When you're at your lowest ebb, your closest friend, even if you don't want their help, will give it to you. That's what Pullo is trying to do -- he sees that Vorenus is unhinged."
If things aren't quite so dire in the house of Atia (Polly Walker), niece of the late Caesar, you nonetheless can cut the tension in the air with a bloody dagger. Her ambitious lover, Marc Antony (James Purefoy), is seething once he learns whom Caesar has named as his rightful heir: none other than Atia's fair-haired son, Octavian (Max Pirkis). And Atia, one of nature's great survivors, finds herself with divided loyalties and the challenge of trying to bet on the right horse in what could be a very high-stakes race.
"Her situation is much more complex this time, definitely, and I was able to be much more subtle with her, and she had much more grown-up issues to deal with," says Walker, who snagged a Golden Globe nomination for her work in season one. "She's a more subtly drawn character this time around, and I enjoyed that.
"She is a survivor and she's definitely trying to work out where the power lies, but through it all she is a good Roman mother. As much as she is in love with Marc Antony, the survival of her child is paramount, I think, the survival of her family. Atia realizes that Octavian is special, that he is emperor material. Her love and her loyalties always will come down to her son."
The actress says the larger-than-life Atia is such an all-consuming role that she actually experienced a brief period of panic when she realized she had to tackle this character for another season.
"I was kind of nervous to go back to her, actually, because I thought I had forgotten how to act or something," she says. "I was intimidated. I had about a week of thinking, 'Oh, God, I've lost it, I haven't got a clue.' But it's such a strong role, so it's like riding a bike, really, and Atia became much more multifaceted this time. She was even more interesting to play this time around, but I had my hands full with her, definitely.
"I was absolutely exhausted when this series of episodes were finished, because the sort of character that Atia is, you never were able to take a back seat. You always had to come driving in your Jeep or massive truck through scenes. You could never relax. I've always thought it was terribly precious to hear actors talk about how tired they are from doing a series, but I really did find this exhausting."
The first season of "Rome" opened to soft ratings but built to a solid success for HBO. While the show has been a hit in Latin countries around the world, it was not nearly as well received on co-creator and executive producer Bruno Heller's native turf, the United Kingdom. And he isn't altogether surprised.
"'Rome' was written for an American audience," Heller says. "It wasn't meant to be 'Masterpiece Theatre.' I think that in England the natural expectation of this kind of a show is a much more staid, more formal version of history. We wanted to make this as dynamic and 'grabbing' as possible.
"The British audience is used to very respectful reimaginings of the classics, which is not what this was. The intention of this show was to make something that Romans would enjoy and understand, with a Latin feel to it. The style of the show is meant to be grand soap opera, and that is something that is bound to be more successful in America than on my home turf."
Going into this second season, Heller and his creative team knew that there would be no season three, so he says they tried even harder to provide fans with a sense of closure at the end.
"I don't think anyone will be disappointed," he says. "We've left some things hanging, but that's just life. That's history. But we come to a dramatic and very final conclusion. It's sad, though, not to be able to go on, mainly because we had become such a tight family of crew and cast and had built a fairly wonderful production machine combining English actors, Italian crew and American production, which is not easy to do."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun