Ray Stevenson’s Best Role Is In A Completely Forgotten Show
Ray Stevenson's finest role came in the forgotten HBO series Rome.
Acclaimed character actor Ray Stevenson has passed away at the sadly young age of 58, leaving behind an impressive body of work including multiple roles in both the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, Dexter, Vikings, and many more. Many of these films and shows utilized the Irish actor’s intimidating physical presence and talent for glowering to portray him as a heavy, but his single finest role was a more nuanced, complex character in a show that seems to have been completely forgotten. For two seasons, Ray Stevenson portrayed the rowdy, irrepressible Titus Pullo in the HBO series Rome, and both he and the show deserve more than they got.
Rome starred Ray Stevenson as Titus Pullo and Kevin McKidd (later of Grey’s Anatomy) as Lucius Vorenus, two real-life historical figures mentioned in Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico. While little is known of the two other than a mention of their feats of combat as centurions in Caesar’s conquest of Europe, Rome the show took these footnotes to history and turned them into actual living and breathing characters, and in doing so, showed a different aspect of a crucial period of Roman history than audiences were used to.
Of course, this is HBO that we’re talking about, not TV, and so Rome is filled with the typical level of nudity, sex, and graphic violence that audiences drawn in by the contemporaneous The Sopranos and Deadwood were used to. But while the T&A and gore of the series can be viewed as gratuitous, it was also completely in line with the show’s main mission: to portray the ancient society of Rome as the grimy, lived-in reality it was, not the shiny marble columns and starched togas that Hollywood had shown it as.
As such, Ray Stevenson’s Titus Pullo is the horny, hedonistic heart of the series. Rome co-creators John Milius (best known for writing and directing Conan the Barbarian), William J. MacDonald, and Bruno Heller envisioned Pullo and Vorenus as two soldiers with vastly different values and personalities (one strait-laced and strict, the other carefree and wild) who eventually become true brothers-in-arms over the course of many adventures, but it’s Pullo that has the true journey. The show has Ray Stevenson to thank for it.
Over the course of Rome, we see Ray Stevenson portray Titus Pullo as a character of contradictions: he is a brave soldier and an indiscriminate murderer. He is loyal to a fault, but willing to sell his loyalty for gold that he spends just as quickly on booze, women, and gambling. If Pullo was just the murderous rapscallion of ancient Rome, it would be one thing, but Stevenson made us believe this was a real character, a person with immense appetites and even deeper emotions.
Through Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd, Rome told a shadow story to what we know of ancient histories, depicting the events told in lofty books as human, dirty, and raw parts of real life. While Stevenson may have been known for playing characters with stoic, curt personalities, this show allowed him to depict real joie de vivre and moments of depression, his hidden well of deep compassion as well as his senseless impetuousness. Plus, it implied he was the real father of Cleopatra’s child by Julius Caesar, and that’s fun.
Rome was an immediate success for HBO and its fledgling slate of prestige drama series, winning a combined seven Primetime Emmys over the course of a mere two seasons. Although the show was critically well-regarded and had solid viewership, it was canceled by the network largely due to the immense cost of building incredibly detailed sets. The series was applauded for building a historically accurate version of ancient Rome (reportedly one of the most expensive sets in television history) which portrayed the city as an actual functioning city of working-class people, rather than a series of picturesque palaces.
Though Rome was critically acclaimed while it was on air, it has not had the same kind of cultural legacy as The Sopranos or The Wire. There are no think pieces out there about the complex relationship between Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd’s characters like there are about Tony Soprano’s relationship with his therapist, no analyses of the complex (and accurate) political maneuverings of Rome as there are the fictional ones of Westeros in Game of Thrones. And that is absolutely a pity.
Ray Stevenson had a wonderful career in roles as varied as a Norse god in the MCU Thor movies, a Knight of the Round Table, a mobster for Martin Scorsese, a World War II veteran adapting to the 1960s, and Blackbeard himself. But in Titus Pullo, he created a character as human as anything he had ever done, and as fun. Hopefully, someday, Rome will be critically reappraised and get the treatment it merits.