Seeking to inspire others, he allowed documentary cameras to capture his final months
After months of clashing swords and seeking vengeance, Andy Whitfield – the chiseled gladiator from TV’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand – ended the first season exhausted with an aching back.
“It’s one of the most extreme things I’ve ever gone through,” he’d recall of the role that made the Welsh-born actor a star. “There was a lot of pain at the end of that. I wasn’t sure what it was. And it wasn’t going away.”
In March 2010 doctors found out why. The then-38-year-old Whitfield had cancer, specifically stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma. After a relatively mild round of chemotherapy, by September he felt healthy enough to return to the New Zealand set for season two.
That’s when a routine checkup for insurance discovered that the cancer had returned. This time nothing would go easily. Without an aggressive and debilitating chemotherapy regimen, the married father of two small children would have three to six months left to live.
It was then that Whitfield and his wife Vashti decided to document his second cancer battle, inviting film crews and training digital cameras on themselves for more than a year, until shortly before he died at age 39 in September 2011.
This intimate story is now being made into a film called Be Here Now from Academy Award-nominated director-producer Lilibet Foster, funded in part by an online Kickstarter campaign. Pledges are being accepted through July 23 toward the $200,000 target minimum to get the movie edited and into film festivals.
The footage provides an unflinching look at the brutal – and at times poignant – experiences of a man fighting cancer.
“When we decided to do this, we felt that if we’re going to go through something like this, let’s see what we can learn and share,” Vashti Whitfield tells PEOPLE. “Otherwise, it’s just another wasted journey.”
In a preview clip from the film, Whitfield himself explains the meaning of the project’s title, which he had tattooed on his arm.
“In my heart, I am convinced that this is all meant to be,” he says. “And I’m open to the journey and to the discovers and to the adventure of all of this. ‘Be here now’ is all about being present and not fearing what you don’t know.”
Whitfield decided to hold nothing back, exposing himself both at his best – as he embraces his children or mugs for the camera – and at his darkest moments.
“We did video diaries. We have a man crying, ‘I’m terrified I’m going to die and I have to leave my children,'” says his wife.
A Family Man
At the time, Whitfield – a former engineer who was literally discovered on the street to become a model and later actor – had been married for nine years. He was living in Australia and New Zealand with their son Jessie Red, then 5, and daughter Indigo, then 3. He had to drop out of the hit Starz show.
One of the early scenes shows Whitfield, his eyes red and watery, his head down, reacting to the news that his cancer had returned: “I think I’m just so numb from too much information, that I just don’t know how I feel right now.”
Discussing his options with his wife, “Andy decided, 100 percent, he wasn’t going to take it on the chin,” Vashti tells PEOPLE. The actor decided to undergo traditional treatments, but also explored ancient Eastern practices in India to bolster his immune system “to get him into the best state of being that he could be.”
Returning to Sydney, Australia, Whitfield then began a rigorous regime of chemotherapy – the film shows the IV dripping into his hand, his wife shaving off his remaining hair.
In one gripping scene, a pale and hairless Whitfield – his body now ravaged by the treatment and a tumor so painful he soon wouldn’t be able to walk – lies on his back as he’s fed through a CT scan. Eyes pressed shut, he groans in agony while his wife speaks to him through a microphone from another room.
“That’s it, breathe out,” she encourages him. “You can do this, Andy. You’re doing an incredible job. That’s it, breathe out. Breathe into the pain.”
The results are mixed, with the couple being told by phone that “the disease is there but it’s less than it was before.”
“It’s going the right way,” Whitfield responds hopefully, and his wife pats his bald head, saying, “Well done.”
“Not a Sad Movie”
The footage ends about two weeks before Whitfield’s death on Sept. 11, 2011, and his passing is told through Vashti recounting how he said goodbye.
“It’s not going to be a sad movie,” says director Foster. “It’s going to be a very beautiful, inspiring and uplifting film, not the least of which is an amazing love story between him and his wife.”
Adds Sam Maydew, a producer of the film: “Andy never wavered, not once, even though the treatment was really hard and some of the experiences were really tough. He was so committed to this and knew that no matter how it turned out, that this was going to be helpful to other people and inspiring to other people. That in turn inspired him.”