Cynthia in Mississippi Damned
I don’t care about anything except going home. And you should know that.
Manu Bennett’s official facebook fan page was littered with hate after a reunion photo of Manu and the first Naevia actress was posted:
When the news hit that Lesley Ann Brandt wouldn’t be returning as Naevia in season two of Spartacus, I initially like most people was disappointed. How could Crixus and Naevia reunite now? Will it still be the same? But it turned out that what made Crixus and Naevia appealing as a couple was actually Manu Bennett.
The recasting of Brandt was proof that the actress was not in fact somehow irreplaceable, or in any way crucial to this pairing. The only constant that actually mattered was Crixus. And as long as Manu Bennett was in the role, Crixus and Naevia would still be fine. Because Bennett is such a magnetic actor, the chemistry with the new actress to be cast was either going to be the same or better (and in this case, better).
In an interview from last year, Manu Bennett spoke about intentionally playing Crixus as an unlikable, irredeemable asshole in episode 2, so that when he meets Naevia in episode 3, it would hold a greater impact on the audience, where we all change our minds about him. Rob Tapert, the show’s producer and the one who cast him in the part, even warned him that fans wouldn’t like him if he played it this way, but Manu told Rob to trust him on this; if Crixus had shown any semblance of humanity when we first meet him, it would have had the same result. And Manu turned out to be absolutely right.
It goes to show just how very involved and responsible Manu Bennett was in creating the Crixus/Naevia dynamic.In retrospect, Lesley Ann Brandt’s Naevia was really more of an accessory, and not a necessity, to this pairing. Can you actually remember any of the quotes Naevia ever made in season one? What she did? Most likely not. But you do remember the things Crixus said to Naevia.
Naevia never really felt like a person in the first season. In fact if you put a mannequin in Lesley’s place in Blood and Sand there would have been no difference. When Naevia was sent away to another dominus as punishment, I thought ‘Poor Crixus’ before I even thought of ‘Poor Naevia’ — because Crixus felt real. His emotions, despair and pain felt real.
It is easy to be fooled into thinking that Naevia and Crixus’ in Blood and Sand with Lesley Ann Brandt in the role of Naevia had a ‘better chemistry’ or ‘radiated heat’. It was a much simpler story. There was no angst. There was no impending rebellion. They were not in the middle of a war. Naevia was pampered and protected. Crixus and Naevia got to be happy. Lesley Ann got to look pretty, wearing beautiful slave gowns and Manu was at his peak muscular form physique. They were able to make out feverishly like teenagers and make love. It was an easily digestible love story where the characters got to express their love physically frequently, with their only obstacle being jail bars and a lustful domina.
Crixus and Naevia in Vengeance and War of the Damned had to go through many conflicts and stages of instability much of their time together, with a rescued but now broken Naevia, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. That is generally not as appealing to the average viewer and therefore will be mistaken as ‘not as good chemistry’. But that is certainly not the case. And the times we do get to see Crixus and Naevia in a more pleasant place with Cynthia in the role of Naevia, they were absolutely electric.
In 3.01 “Enemies of Rome”, there’s a scene where Crixus yanks a frustrated Naevia, holding her firmly in his arms, telling her how much her attitude impressed him. That one moment was more intense than any of the full on screen love scenes in Blood and Sand, which despite its nudity and graphic nature, actually came off as pretty dull (and the hand holding kind of cheesy).
Because Manu Bennett has such an extremely strong presence, Lesley Ann would always be overpowered by him whenever they shared the screen. Manu always held my attention in whatever it was that they were supposed doing together. That never happened when he was on screen with Cynthia. They seemed to work like a unit; it no longer looked like “Crixus and his pretty love interest whatsherface” of the first season. Naevia now felt like flesh and blood, someone who had feelings, not Crixus’ love ornament.
The difference between each actress’ performance as Naevia is the sense of sincerity.
In 2.08 “Balance”, Crixus is continuing his fight lessons with Naevia in swordplay. While Naevia is doing well, eventually Crixus is able to block her next attack and lock her in his arms. Impressed, he happily comments on how quickly she was learning. Cynthia as Naevia then retorts “I have advantage, being taught by a God”. I remember watching this scene and being wowed. It remains one of my favorite Crixus and Naevia moments in the series. Lesley Ann has never given any kind of line delivery remotely even close to that. Imagine Lesley Ann as Naevia, with her baby-like, infantile voice telling Crixus he was a God?
In 2.09 “Monsters”, when Cynthia as Naevia says “Your touch guides me home” I could really feel that Naevia meant what she was saying. Lesley says a similar line (“Your touch has been missed”) but it pales in comparison. Manu always looked like he was putting far more effort into showing how much Crixus was intoxicated by his love for Naevia.
There was never much conviction in Lesley’s voice. Lines like “To have you, but not have you, it is a wound beyond healing” come off as flat (especially in contrast to when Crixus then replied “All wounds heal, even the deepest” afterward). When Cynthia was given a similar line that mirrors that scene in 2.05 “Libertus” (“Would that all scars were so easily erased”) I was actually able feel Naevia’s pain and sadness. Which then made Crixus reply "I see no scars" that much more heartfelt. Whereas I didn’t feel any sense of real emotion when Lesley as Naevia expressed how not being able to completely ‘have’ Crixus due to their enslavement made her feel.
Lesley Ann Brandt could never really keep up with Manu Bennett as an actor. When they exchanged lines, Manu was always better; always more earnest. There was sort of an imbalance between them. Whereas Cynthia Addai-Robinson was always capable of remaining at his level and staying there.
So even with the constant abundance of easy stimulating visuals like kissing, sex and nudity between Crixus and Lesley as Naevia in Blood And Sand that many people will interpret as having “more chemistry” (there was very little of that in Vengeance and War of the Damned) notice there’s not one actual moment that can be pinpointed that did not come from Crixus to be credited to Lesley Ann herself.
At Fan Expo earlier this year, Manu mentioned that he would lend Liam McIntyre guidance on how to play Spartacus. For example, when he would do his ‘Angry Crixus’ routine and shout at Spartacus, Liam would make the mistake of shouting back at him. He had to remind him that’s not how Andy would have played it. He would smirk, and think…’Oh Crixus, you smell like a woman’.
We can see an example of this kind of uncertainty in 2.03 “The Greater Good”. When one of the newly freed slaves asks Crixus if he was Spartacus, when he replies ‘I am Crixus. The fool that stands beside me is Spartacus’ you can see Liam doesn’t quite seem to know how to react to that. He goes on to his next line.
For at least the first half of Vengeance, whenever Liam as Spartacus would refer to Blood and Sand characters such as Varro or Illythia, it would take me a second. ‘Wait, how do you know…oh yeah’. Cynthia did not have this problem. I never had a ‘Hey, you’re not Naevia!’ moment that apparently so many other fans had, despite the fact that visually they did not look that much alike (whereas Liam had the upper hand in looking similar to Andy). It took no readjusting from me as a viewer seeing Cynthia as Naevia. I didn’t miss Lesley Ann, in fact I didn’t even noticed she was gone in the first place.
At this same convention, when speaking about the two different women who played Naevia, Manu spoke of his close friendship with Cynthia and the difficulty he had with Lesley, who in a polite way described as self centered, on set. This was the answer to all the observations previously mentioned. Why Manu as Crixus always seemed almost overcompensating in Blood and Sand, versus the more level headed Crixus in Vengeance and War of the Damned. You can feel the bond on screen, and the characters didn’t have to fornicate to show that.
People will claim that Cynthia was “too different” or that Naevia seemed like a different person. But that is not at all the case. When the material allowed it in Vengeance, Cynthia was easily able to channel Blood and Sand Naevia’s soft spoken demeanor, and without outright mimicking her. Whereas Liam never seemed able to shake off his Shakespearean way of delivering his lines (which while was fine, was a strong departure from how Andy as Spartacus spoke).
When Crixus and Naevia reunite in the mines, because of both Cynthia’s and Manu’s efforts, I was sold on them knowing one another, despite the fact that we’ve never seen Manu on screen with this actor before. When she cries out for Crixus after he sacrifices himself for the others to be able to leave behind the gate, I saw Naevia’s devastation of being rescued but having the love of her life taken away from her again just mere moments later (and struck by Ashur, of all people, who started this ordeal in the first place).
In their proper reunion in 2.05 “Libertus”, when Crixus and Naevia see each other from afar and hug, when Cynthia as Naevia delivers “Do I yet dream?” It was perfectly clear to me that this was just Naevia, and not someone’s replacement.
It is not just Naevia’s turn as a warrior that made it impossible for me to envision Lesley in the role for the last seasons (where even the most hardheaded of detractors admit they could not either). Anyone can learn fight choreography. We saw a bit of that in the gladiator boot camp clip montage for Gods of the Arena, where Lesley Ann volunteered to participate in.
What can’t be learned is a fire in the eyes. When Cynthia appeared on screen during her fight scenes, it seemed like Naevia was channeling [unintentionally] her man. In Vengeance you could feel her eagerness to learn, and in War of the Damned, her eagerness to execute what she had learned. Lesley Ann Brandt doesn’t have the gravitas to stand side by side with Manu Bennett on the battlefield. She couldn’t even stand side by side with him in the ludus!
Cynthia Addai-Robinson is Naevia. Not “New Naevia”, not “Naevia 2.0”, not “Fake Naevia” not “Neo Naevia” or whatever it is people may refer to her as simply because she came after. Lesley Ann Brandt playing the character first alone is not enough to be anointed “the best Naevia” or “the only Naevia” or “the true Naevia”. And you can type that until your fingers turn blue. It doesn’t change the fact that the original actress decided to leave. Being (supposedly) more “beautiful”, or “pretty”, or “hot” doesn’t make her the Naevia equivalent of Andy Whitfield as Spartacus. Because unlike Liam McIntyre, Cynthia doesn’t even feel like the replacement actor when she was on screen. Rather, she made Lesley Ann seem like her placeholder. Her seat warmer, her appetizer.
There was no contribution made from her predecessor that made Cynthia look she was “replacing” her — it was Cynthia who played Naevia when she learned to overcome her inner demons. It was Cynthia as Naevia that sought to defend herself. It was Cynthia as Naevia that killed Ashur. It was Cynthia as Naevia who became a full fledged warrior. And lastly, it was Cynthia as Naevia who witnessed and cried real tears when Crixus died in front of her.
She swore vengeance on all men with dark hearts.