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Get a first look at Anthony Hopkins’ Roman Empire series ‘Those About to Die’



How do you control the masses as your empire decays?

That’s one of the key questions at the heart of Those About to Die, the new historical series that explores the intersections of sports and politics during the Flavian dynasty of the Roman Empire. The 10-episode series hits Peacock on Thursday, July 18, just days before the 2024 Olympics premiere on the same platform.

Anthony Hopkins in ‘Those About to Die’.

Reiner Bajo/Peacock

Based on Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book of the same name (which also served as an inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), Those About to Die was developed by Saving Private Ryan screenwriter Robert Rodat. As a massive connoisseur of Roman history, the writer/producer was thrilled to adapt the material for television. “I’ve wanted to explore the empire for a long time,” Rodat tells Entertainment Weekly.

The screenwriter welcomed the challenge of balancing historical fact with original dramatization. “We know a fair amount of what happened to the Flavians, so we adhered as closely as we could to the historical record for those characters, not only in terms of what they did, but also what we’re told about their state of mind and personality, of which there’s a large amount of information,” he explains. “A huge amount of materials survived from this period. Letters that were dispersed, talking about their personalities as well as the historians who wrote then, and especially a generation later using original sources that are now lost to us. But the bulk of the characters were below the historical radar screen, so they’re largely composites. We try to be true to the period in terms of their emotions and life and what they would do and could do — but we had dramatic license with them.”

Iwan Rheon on ‘Those About to Die’.

Reiner Bajo/ Peacock

The show follows a wide array of characters desperately trying to claw themselves toward positions of power in first-century Rome’s entertainment underbelly. There’s Tenax (Game of ThronesIwan Rheon), a cunning games master who attempts to start a new chariot-racing faction alongside hotshot racer Scorpus (Dimitri Leonidas). They’re aided by the Spanish Corsi brothers (Pepe Barroso, Eneko Sagardoy, Goncalo Almeida), who bring refreshing outside perspective and remarkable Andalusian horses that revolutionize the faction’s racing capabilities.

These ambitious charioteers frequently cross paths with a Numidian family headed by Cala (Sara Martins), a resourceful mother who tirelessly fights to protect her daughters Aura (Kyshan Wilson) and Jula (Alicia Edogamhe), who are sold into slavery, as well as her son Kwame (Moe Hashim), who is forced into gladiatorial combat with his formidable Norse ally Viggo (Johannes Johannesson).

Sara Martins as Cala on ‘Those About to Die’.

Reiner Bajo/ Peacock

Rodat identified Cala as a likely candidate for a fan-favorite character. “Her mission and her core, her compass is so built around her family,” he explains. “It’s a little bit like Liam Neeson in the Taken movies — he does really harsh things, but because he’s doing it to save his daughter, you forgive him. And I’m not saying Cala does anything on that level of egregiousness, but her ruthlessness and her intensity and her strength and the tools she uses are all for a clear, identifiable, admirable purpose.”

Tenax and Scorpus also come into conflict with the wealthy ruling-class patricians who own Rome’s older chariot factions, including Antonia (Gabriella Pession) and her husband Marsus (Rupert Pentry-Jones).

Gabriella Pession as Antonia and Rupert Pentry-Jones as Marsus on ‘Those About to Die’.

Reiner Bajo/ Peacock

The biggest historical figures in the series are the Flavians themselves, military leader Titus (Tom Hughes) and cunning politician Domitian (Jojo Macari), who compete to succeed their father Flavius Vespasian (Anthony Hopkins).

Hopkins tells EW that he has a degree of admiration for his character. “He’s a powerful emperor,” he says. “After everything that was corrupt about Rome — Vespasian came along and put as much right as he could to save the empire. And with bread and circuses, he entertained the people. I mean, Rome was in a terrible mess, and the Flavians came along at the right time and fortified a strong empire.”

Tom Hughes as Titus on ‘Those About to Die’.

Reiner Bajo/ Peacock

Filmmaker Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot, 2012), who helmed five of the show’s 10 episodes, tells EW that Hopkins was, unsurprisingly, a tremendous asset on set. “He brings a certain gravitas to all his parts,” Emmerich says. “It’s Anthony Hopkins, and there’s a reason why he has two Oscars. And he was super nice and he had fun doing it. So it was a real dream come true for me personally because I’m a big fan of his. When he said yes, I couldn’t believe it.”

Pepe Barroso, Gonçalo Almeida, Eneko Sagardoy on ‘Those About to Die’.

Reiner Bajo/ Peacock

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Emmerich and Rodat both say that finding the right level of violence was key to ensuring that audiences stay on board with the series. “I have the feeling when you look at all TV shows, there will always be a cleaned up version, but the version which I signed onto is exactly the version I wanted,” Emmerich says. “And yes, it has to be about blood. A lot of people die in this thing, because a huge amount of people died during these sports events, and that’s just a fact.”

“This is not a gory show,” Rodat explains. “Is there violence? Sure, that’s of the period, but it’s done for dramatic effect. But if we showed what really was going on in the Coliseum, it would be horrible. We can’t do that. We can indicate violence without actually showing it too explicitly. And more importantly, we can show the emotional effects of it and the dramatic effects and the character effects of it. I think we’re trying to hit a spot by being realistic to the period, but not over the top, so we can find an audience that connects to the characters and the drama as well as this thrilling stuff.”

Moe Hashim as Kwame on ‘Those About to Die’.

Reiner Bajo/ Peacock

The series’ creators also went to great lengths to communicate the vast scale of Rome’s sporting infrastructure, utilizing the virtual stage to immerse its actors in a world that feels enormous. “The Roman state was spending a massive percentage of its resources on games,” Rodat says. “There were periods in the first century where they would have 200 days of games a year, and it was amazing, and the whole city would converge. I mean, Circus Maximus sat 250,000 people. 35,000 people lived and worked in the underbelly.”

Hopkins says he found the scale of the show’s production awe-inspiring. “The work and the research of the art directors and the costume directors… I don’t know how they begin to do it, how the producers pull it together,” he explains. “I’m always left impressed and quite astonished really, because I find it very, very moving. Because you think, ‘Gosh, there are people whose faces I never see, but they spent hours and hours and days and days building, crafting, designing. I wonder of where it all comes from, the collective consciousness that makes that possible.’ It’s quite astonishing.”

Dimitri Leonidas as Scorpus in ‘Those About to Die’.

Reiner Bajo/ Peacock

The similarities between the decline of Rome and contemporary American society are not lost on the filmmakers. “Every time you go in and pitch a historical piece, you trot out the old thing: ‘It’s set in a historical period, but it’s really about today, right?’” Rodat says. “So everybody rolls their eyes at that, but come on, this one really does apply! I mean, you have a nominally democratic society, which is on the verge of autocracy, perhaps. You have crushing pressures for immigration. You have a very complex set of gender issues. You have a polarization of wealth, which is absolutely amazing. You have a whole society that is becoming trivialized by entertainment and degraded by goofy, trivial pursuits at the expense of basic virtues and providing for the material needs of the society.”

Jojo Macari as Domitian on ‘Those About to Die’.

Matteo Graia/PEACOCK

Emmerich sees parallels between the populus’ bloodlust in both time periods. “When you look at the NFL or at any other sports organization, FIFA, it’s very, very similar, but nobody gets killed,” he says. “There is an accident that happens every three or four or five years and that’s it. But most of the time these kind of crashes, or when somebody crashes and dies, they get endlessly shown. There’s no broadcast who doesn’t want to show it four or five times. That’s still in us.”

Hopkins nicely sums up why stories about the Roman Empire still resonate today. “Rome is rather like our present situation, total chaos, but chaos has always been part of the human race,” he says. “The politicians and the leaders — they’re only human after all, and they say they have the answers, but they don’t. Politicians are as vulnerable as the rest of us. How can anyone keep their promises when receiving masses of discontent throughout the world as it is now? We’ve always been chaos because that’s the nature of human beings.”

All 10 episodes of Those About to Die premiere Thursday, July 18, on Peacock.

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