Rome - this autumn on BBC TWO - press pack phase two
Ray Stevenson plays Titus Pullo
Playing headstrong legionary Titus Pullo proved to be a fantastic experience for Geordie Ray Stevenson.
"I can't wait to go back and do it again!" he grins, citing the role as his favourite to date.
"Without a shadow of a doubt," he confirms. "With any job, you go in and there are great moments with any work that you do – for me, this one is the one that is alive now."
And Pullo is fully, dramatically alive – a brave and loyal warrior with the morality of a pirate, he has huge appetites and wild passions.
"He's a man who will fight all day and all night and then he will go and drink all day and all night and then go and s**g all day and all night and perhaps have a gamble on the side. And that to him would be a good weekend," elaborates Ray, 41.
Though it sounds like an absolute ball to play such a character, it also presented Ray with a challenge.
"On the surface he is like an everyman, he's got the common touch. The difficulty is in not making him a pastiche, not making him a caricature; making him believable," he explains.
"He's a very likeable character but there's a danger of trying to make him too likeable and I didn't want to pander to that."
After all, he is a bit of a thug, although Ray insists he's not just a hard man.
"There's a lot more that comes out; he takes his time to reveal himself," he says.
"But he's not a procrastinator – he'll not stand there and tell you what he thinks. He's a man of action, sees things very much in black and white.
"He also sees that other people deal with the world in shades of grey and he can't see the point. It gets him into all sorts of trouble."
Especially with authority figures, with whom Pullo often forgets his rank-and-file status – for at the end of the day, he’s just a foot-soldier.
"I saw him as a squaddie, basically," says Ray. "He's a soldier through and through; he doesn't fight for any higher political or religious ideals, he fights for the soldiers next to him.
"When the armies are disbanded he's as much out of water as any contemporary soldier would be."
In fact to Ray that's just what Pullo was.
"I very much took a view that I'm not playing a historical character. It's set in history but to him this is his contemporary world," he explains.
Ray went to some trouble to immerse himself in that world.
"“I read a book called The Rubicon by Tom Holland. I brought the book in when we first started and showed it to [director] Michael Apted and he went out and bought 11 copies.
"We had a field trip to Pompeii too – walked along the streets, looked at the graffiti that existed at that time."
He also got a flavour for Ancient Rome by sampling the modern version.
"It was my first time in Rome and to actually walk the streets and sit in places like Campo Di Fiore and Piazza Navona and close your eyes, you hear and smell a mixture of accents and food. A real melting pot, which Rome was then too."
But it was on the huge set at Cinecittà that the world came truly alive for Ray.
"It's the largest standing set in the world," he says in some awe.
"There was one time Kevin [McKidd] and I are riding our horses up the Via Sacra into the Forum of Rome, and we couldn't see the cameras – they were way off, the set is that big.
"We also filmed about an hour or two outside of Rome, for the scenes as Caesar's army was approaching the city.
"We were up near the Via Claudia, which is actually where troops would often stop. There's an archaeological dig of hot springs where they would get cleaned up and dusted off before the grand entrance to Rome.
"It was very moving to actually be on the land where these events did happen."
At times though the attention to detail was rather too much for Ray.
"Wearing the actual uniform, the chain mail and helmets, was tough," he grimaces.
"They weren't fake. Beaten metal helmets, full weighted chain mail eating into your flesh, strappy sandals – when you're standing there in Italy, in the heat, in those helmets it got so hot. Your brain was slowly cooking!"
All in all it was a physically demanding job.
"We spent three days filming a fight in the arena for one episode. We had 11 stunt boys working and we worked so hard to make it believable, and rich and thrilling and bloody and exciting," he recalls.
"After three days all of us were so battered. These boys had done a lot of work beforehand, working out all the choreography.
"Giorgio, who was my stunt double, was able to work me into the fight, knowing how I move, how Pullo moves and reacts, so I was able to just slip in.
"At the end of it I took the whole stunt team for a meal. The look on their faces was like, 'what, an actor is taking the stunt boys for a meal?'
"But we had the best night. I took them to one of my favourite restaurants in the centre of Rome.
"There were about three or four couples, dead quiet, having their romantic dinner, when in troops a dozen surly stunt boys, all washed and primed and ready.
"We had an amazing meal and lots of wine. They were the most gentlemanly, sweetest bunch of people."
Despite the rigours of Rome, Ray resisted the temptation to lie back and rest once filming ended, opting instead to travel extensively.
"There were a lot of places I wanted to see and I've been catching up with people," he says.
"I went to Lima, Machu Pichu, Cartahena in Colombia, Monte Carlo, Ibiza, down to Sicily.
"I went to the Aeolian islands – volcanic islands off the north coast of Sicily which are just stunning. Stromboli is still an active volcano.
"I went swimming in Lipari; one side of the island is a mountain of pumice. I was swimming among pumice stones, picking up obsidian glass from the beach – breathtaking. I also went to north Italy, to the mountains. I had a beetle about."
And he's still got the taste for travel.
"My next stop might be Scotland," he says. "My best friend is up there and he and his partner had a little girl at the beginning of the year, and I've only seen little Holly once.
"I do have particular passion for Scotland – a bit of fishing, bit of walking."
He has Gaelic roots himself, although he was brought up in the North-East of England.
"I was born in the north of Ireland. My father was a pilot in the air force and my mother's Irish. I've got two brothers – one older, one younger.
"The Troubles had begun and my father said, 'I've got three young boys and even if they don't pick a side, a side will be picked for them'.
"So he just lifted us out of there and took us to the North-East, which is where I grew up."
And that's where he caught the acting bug.
"I still remember it very vividly. All three of us were still youngsters and on Saturday mornings we used to get parcelled off to a thing called Saturday Morning Picture Show at the Newcastle Odeon.
"All these kids were dumped there while their parents went shopping. We'd watch all the black and white movies, an A-movie, a B-movie, Champion The Wonder Horse."
To young Ray, it was another world – one he aspired to, but regarded as too alien.
"That's what stopped me getting involved earlier because to me, growing up in the North-East of England, what I'd seen on the screen up there, the actors were from some other land, from somewhere else. And it wasn't possible for me to become an actor.
"So I just basically didn't tell anybody. I kept it all to myself, went through school, but the dream was still there, something had been lit.
"I thought as I grew up that it's my alter ego, keep a lid on it, but I had to keep going to the movies and to the theatre.
"Eventually I had a career as an interior designer, but this feeling wouldn't go away."
Inevitably it grew so strong that it escaped of its own accord...
"I was 25, I got drunk with an Australian actor and it all came out. He said 'well, you've got to find out, go to a bona fide school, evening classes'.
"So I did that for about a year and got myself a place at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for two years. I went to drama school and I was 27!
"So this is still, for me, a very young profession. I've only been doing it for ten or 11 years now."
In that time he's racked up a string of successes including the films King Arthur, Green Eyed Monster and The Theory Of Flight; Murphy's Law, Red Cap, Dalziel And Pascoe and At Home With The Braithwaites on television; and The Duchess Of Malfi and Mouth To Mouth on stage.
Yet Ray's philosophical about his late start.
"If I'd had gone when I was 20 I don't think I was ready and if I'd waited till I was 30 I'd probably never would have gone," he says.
"At a certain time of your life things come to you. It was almost like there was no choice; I had to do it. As soon as you make that first step, you’re on the road.
"When you're on the right path, everything does fall into place."
It was a brave decision to give up everything to follow a dream, but he says the support of his family helped – even though he wasn't sure he'd get it.
"I thought that would be one of the biggest obstacles," he recalls with a grin.
"I went for a walk with my mother on the north-east coast and it came out. I told her, 'I'm jacking my job in and I'm going off to try and be an actor'.
"And my mother said, 'If that's what your heart tells you you've got to do it'. I thought, 'oh right, I'd better do it then'.
Proof that mother really does know best...