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How Iwan Rheon Used Roman History Podcasts to Prep for Those About to Die (EXCLUSIVE)

There are a lot of characters in Those About to Die, and Iwan Rheon's Tenax is one of the most fascinating.

By Matthew Jackson

Roland Emmerich's Those About to Die (now streaming on Peacock) is a massive historical epic led by a sweeping ensemble of characters covering many aspects of Roman Life in the first century AD. One of the most compelling things about the upcoming show is its ability to show viewers power in places they might not expect. 

For example, Rome has an Emperor, of course. In this case, the empire is led by Vespasian, played with gravitas and power by Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, and his two sons Titus (Tom Hughes) and Domitian (Jojo Macari) are waiting in the wings to succeed him. But there are other seats of power in Rome, and one of those is held by Tenax (Iwan Rheon), a tenacious, intelligent underworld figure who's doing his best to walk in two worlds. 

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Rheon, best known for his work on Game of Thrones, is no stranger to playing scheming characters with big ambitions, but Tenax doesn't emerge on the scene as a shadowy villain. Instead he's a ruthless but relatable businessman, the operator of one of Rome's most prominent betting taverns, overseeing wagers on the chariot races in the Circus Maximus. It's clear from the beginning that Tenax has essentially reached the top of this particular aspect of Roman society, overseeing a kind of sub-empire of his own, but he wants more. 

Iwan Rhoen Talks Becoming Tenax in Those About to Die

Iwan Rheon as Tenax in Those About To Die

To get into Tenax's head and understand not just where he came from, but why he feels the way he does, Rheon did extensive research on Roman history, including listening to Mike Duncan's massive The History of Rome podcast multiple times.

"I listened to it three times up until the point of our story," Rheon told NBC Insider. "I wanted to understand how he's got to where he is."

For context, the full podcast takes about 72 hours to listen to just once. Three times, if he went all the way through? That would be 216 hours.

He continued, "And I think using those historical milestones, especially Nero's reign into the Year of the Four Emperors [in 69 AD], and then the 10 years of relative peace that precedes our series in 79, I understood how Tenax has clawed his way up from living on the street. And I could sort of map it out, and that made a lot of sense to me. It just helped me personally."

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As head of a major betting tavern, Tenax has a front-row seat not just to the games at the Circus Maximus, but to the power struggles of the four Factions which own the chariot racing teams who compete in the Circus. These Factions, made up the wealthy Roman elite, are granted major privileges and, of course, tremendous wealth and power within their spheres, and Tenax wants some of that wealth and power for himself. He doesn't fit the social status of the Faction leaders, but he's determined to rise up to challenge them anyway, leaving him as a character who's doing his best to walk in two worlds within Rome: the underworld and the upper echelons of the wealthy.

"I think particularly for me, it was that understanding of the factionalism and who owns these factions, and that the rich elite, the patricians who have owned this, have owned it forever," Rheon explained. "It's a very, very small minority of the society, but they run the show, and they're the senatorial class of people.

"And I think for Tenax, it's that frustration that he feels, it's kind of a bit of a dichotomy for him that he really despises these people above him, but he wants to be there because he feels that's the next step for him. He's reached the top of his underground world as a plebeian, and now he feels he's looking up thinking, 'I want to be there. Why are they the ones that are allowed to be there?' And I think that plays a massive part in Tenax's character."

All 10, hour-long episodes of Those About to Die are now streaming on Peacock.