In 2009, Merrells had a lead role in the 2009 film, Invisible Eyes. In 2010, he portrayed Ben Talbot, brother of Lawrence Talbot in remake of The Wolfman. In 2013, he portrayed the Roman commander Marcus Licinius Crassus in the Starz series Spartacus: War of the Damned. He had to undergo a strict diet and four-week fitness boot camp in preparation for the role, losing 21lbs. Also that year, he portrayed character Mark Vega in the British horror film Judas Ghost. He also plays The Founder in the 2013 American remake of The Tomorrow People
FTN: I understand that you became interested in acting from a very early age. Did your family encourage and support your interest at such a young age right through to your college years?
SM: Yes, as well as my teachers my parents encouraged this interest in acting, in myself and my younger brother Jason – who is also an actor. We went to evening classes at Sylvia Young’s and then drama school.
FTN: You are perhaps best known for your portray of Marcus Crassus in the mega-hot television show Spartacus. How did you first come by this role?
SM: I auditioned in London for Spartacus. I had never actually seen the series, but knew something of the history and of course had seen Kubrick’s film. I received a phone call from one of the producers; Rick Jacobson in LA after that, pretty unprecedented, encouraging me and saying they wanted to recall me for a 2nd audition, with a few slight notes. In-between I saw some of the previous seasons episodes, gulped when I realised what it would mean, and did the recall on a Sunday morning. When I got the call from my agent asking me if I wanted to go to New Zealand for eight months to play the Roman lead in the last season of Starz’s most successful show, it made me very happy!
FTN: Spartacus really pushed the boundaries of television and was both violent and sexually explicit in equal parts, yet the audiences really enjoyed it. What was it like to film some of these more extreme scenes?
SM: You say it pushed the boundaries, “yet” the audience enjoyed it…I would say it was because it pushed the boundaries that the audience enjoyed it so much. People who haven’t seen the show think it’s one long orgy of sex and violence, but there is no way it would have enjoyed the critical, as well as popular, success it has if wasn’t for the fantastic writing of Steven DeKnight and his team; the finely drawn characters, the intrigue and the politicking of it, the drama. This is why it became a cult, and still has some of the most ardent fans in the world. I’m especially grateful for the journey I was given as Crassus, a man always one step ahead, one chess move in front, knowing something no one else around him knew. I am extremely proud to have been a part of such a loved show.
On Spartacus: “I would say it was because it pushed the boundaries that the audience enjoyed it so much.”
FTN: What are your most memorable moments from making Spartacus as it seemed like a fun show to work on?
SM: As you can imagine, I would be here all day if I told you a fraction of the memorable moments I had on Spartacus. It would be easier to list the very few non-memorable ones… which funnily enough I can’t remember! As far as prep went, I recall Tyrone, stunt man and personal trainer came over to me and Liam, telling me that in under three weeks I’d lost about 9kgs of fat while adding muscle. I think I was delirious at the time… being videoed during morning training doing a small choreographed fight by some of the stunt team as a progress report… that I later found out was sent to Steven and the Starz bosses to see if I could carry this aspect of the role, with MrDeKnight apparently saying, ‘now I see Marcus Crassus’.
From the many wonderful, challenging days on set I will pick out my first day; Act 1 scene 1 for the introduction of my character and his family, his world, fighting with his slave gladiator Hilarus in Crassus’ personal ludus in his villa. Expectation was high, but I’ve rarely felt more prepared or ready to go-like a racecar on the starting grid. The feeling that it was working and going well was extremely exciting. I often think that acting is about being terrified inside while being able to appear absolutely calm. My heart was certainly pumping fast on that first day, and not only because of the fight sequences!
“I often think that acting is about being terrified inside while being able to appear absolutely calm.”
I also remember the morning, after many many sore backsided frustrating riding lessons where it all clicked and I could ride my horse Trinco. All of a sudden I could do it and it made me very happy. Mainly I remember the people, the great people I worked with, many of whom I’m still in touch with.
FTN: Aside from Spartacus, you have also worked on The Tomorrow People as The Leader of Ultra. Did you ever see the original television series and, if so, did you incorporate that in to your performance?
SM: I vaguely remember seeing the original show as a small kid but am unaware of incorporating anything from it into our show. I would have like a silver suit though…
“I was attracted to the production and the role because they said, ‘we want you!’”
FTN: The Tomorrow People still remains one of the greatest science fiction stories ever put to the small screen, is this what attracted to you to the production and indeed the part of The Leader of Ultra?
SM: I was attracted to the production and the role because they said, ‘we want you!’
FTN: Sadly, it seems that The Tomorrow People has not been renewed for a second season. How did you and your fellow cast members feel upon hearing this news?
SM: It was a good team of people, on and off set, and we did our best. Of course there was disappointment but we knew the world we were in and that it was in the balance. I think some episodes really stand out and some are weaker, which is inevitable in a 22 episode season; which I personally think is too many, and not about the project itself but distribution deals later. I will miss a lot of the people I met but on the whole I think ‘Cest la Guerre! What’s next?’
“I think some episodes really stand out and some are weaker, which is inevitable in a 22 episode season”
FTN: Do you think that another studio will pick up the series or, if not, do you think the characters will continue in another form such as novels/comic books?
SM: You are asking the wrong person as I have no idea,but I think it’s very unlikely,though of course the comic book/graphic novel stuff could be interesting… who knows?