It was never hard to pick Ray Stevenson out in a scene. All you had to do was look for the toughest looking guy in the frame, and if Ray’s in the scene, well, he’s that guy. Stevenson, from Northern Ireland, had a lengthy and varied 30-year career. He broke through on film playing Dagonet in Antoine Fuqua’s ill-fated King Arthur film starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley. While the film didn’t resonate with critics or audiences, it did give Stevenson a boost, one he would parlay into a number of tough guy roles over the last two decades of his life on film and TV.
Stevenson should have been a great choice to play Frank Castle in Marvel’s Punisher: War Zone film, and I suppose he was, but once again, the film didn’t serve him well, and was roundly dismissed upon its release in 2008. While that might have been Stevenson’s best shot at being an onscreen leading man, the failure of the Punisher movie did not get in the way of casting directors finding him on a regular basis. Stevenson went on to make strong impressions in The Book of Eli, three Thor movies, two Divergent films, and most recently in the Oscar-nominated sensation from India, RRR. Stevenson also had relatively lengthy stints on TV in Dexter, Black Sails, Vikings, and the criminally underseen TV remake of Das Boot.
But in truth, I’m really here to speak about Stevenson’s greatest role, as the Roman legionnaire Titus Pullo in HBO’s short-lived series created by John Milius, Rome, which ran from 2005-2007. In some ways, the show was a precursor to Game of Thrones, only, you know, minus the dragons and with a true historical bent. Despite critical acclaim, multiple Emmy nominations, plenty of sex and violence, and a rabid cult, HBO only saw fit to give Rome two seasons. However rushed and forced the finale might have felt, there was no denying the chemistry between Stevenson’s Pullo and a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Kevin McKidd (as the ambitious Roman officer Lucius Vorenus. While Stevenson’s Titus was more brutish and straightforward than the conflicted Vorenus, Stevenson found ways to make what might have seemed like a simple “tough guy” role more resonant than I think many others might have.
As Rome moved through its only two seasons, the assumptions we made about Pullo were often upended. His sense of honor and self were actually greater than that of Vorenus. And while he certainly knew how to swing a sword and look good doing it, there were often quieter and more contemplative moments on the show that Stevenson imbued with a genuine soulfulness, and even tenderness and romance. He was also often quite funny on the show. His quick quips aimed towards McKidd always landed precisely, and sometimes he didn’t even need to speak to draw a smile, he could just raise an eyebrow. Of course, Stevenson had to be tough as nails as Pullo during the series as well, and no one could ever argue that he wasn’t built to play the baddest man in the room. Standing at a near towering 6’ 3” and knowing how to use every inch of his height and muscle mass, Stevenson was an incredibly formidable presence on screen as well as a damn fine actor.
To think that a man of his stature and apparent strength wouldn’t even make it to 60 seems like a cruel joke. When I learned of Stevenson’s passing, I had just watched Michael Mann’s LA crime drama masterpiece, HEAT. I gather something new from that film every time I see it, or, at least one line will hit me differently than it had in all the previous (well over 100) times that I’d seen it.
This time the line was spoken by Robert DeNiro to Amy Brenneman. As DeNiro’s master thief’s true identity becomes known to Brenneman, DeNiro utters the words, “Whatever time you get is luck.”
Time is luck.
The man who so brilliantly played the toughest guy in the room, any room, deserved more.
Ray Stevenson died on May 21, 2023. He was 58 years old.