From athlete to actor, covering the gambit in between, Manu Bennett has a career to be proud of. From his home country of New Zealand to the American shoreline, action, adventure, and middle Earth have been part of his life.
A young Manu was trained by his father to be a national athlete in New Zealand. He competed mostly in running, jumping, and throwing events. “My best event was the hurdles, maybe a metaphor given the many I’ve had to leap throughout life.” The first of those many hurdles came in the two week time period that his mother and brother were killed in two separate car accidents. Bennett’s grades fell do to poor concentration and emotional pain. Rugby became his outlet of choice along with the arts. He excelled on the field, venting his aggression. Later in his career he used these emotions to bring characters to life on the screen.
Art as therapy continued into his teenage years when a girlfriend, who was a ballerina, asked him and his friend to help the troop by being in West Side Story. Which led to other musicals such as Grease and Swan Lake. “In fact,” Bennett said. “I couldn’t attend the trials for the Australian Schoolboys Rugby Union Team because I was committed to a local production of Swan Lake. Trying to explain that to a bunch of rugby lads was futile. It was my Billy Elliot moment, but I loved dancing. Dancing proved to be as physically demanding as Rugby, with the advantage of carrying around ballerinas. Dancing gives a body awareness you don’t necessarily get in other sports.”
After his mother’s death, Bennett was sent to Maori Boarding School in rural New Zealand. The school was rife with bullying and a drastically different attitude then the urban Australian schools he had previously attended. “That school was very much a Spartacus type experience for me, where survival meant pretty much having to fight for your rights.” In hindsight, the school played a huge role in his career, allowing him to be fully invested in characters he played. The example came in handy when it came to his role as Crixus from Spartucas. “I took a lot of that experience with me into my performance on the series and portraying the character of Crixus from bully to a gladiator who was forced to join with others.” expressed Bennett. “It was tough but I figure: If you haven’t lived it, you can’t be that great at acting it.”
Challenging roles with a good support system are what actors dream about to expand their range. The Hobbit, was a learning experience. The opportunity to work with Peter Jackson was one he will not forget. “Working with Peter was a great honor, something I hold as the highest achievement in my career thus far, yet it was the shortest & probably the most underpaid job I’ve done,” Bennett shared. “Stepping into the shoes of Andy Serkis was overwhelming and creating Azog, the leader of the Orcs, posed a whole bunch of new opportunities for me as an actor, developing scenes in post-production when all of the other actors had wrapped. I’m lucky Peter was as patient & understanding a man as he is, because I stretched everything out to get the most out of the little I had to work with, including a pommel horse on skate wheels that I rode which would later evolve into my white warg, a giant wolf creature. When I asked Peter if I could develop a relationship with my warg he took a deep breath & trusted me & for whatever it was worth it was a decisive choice in how I played out Azog, who spent a lot of time riding that white warg. The artistry & technology involved in The Hobbit was on another level & the commeraderie on the set of a Peter Jackson production is spurred on by the General himself – it’s just a feeling in the air. New York actors have Martin Scorcese, New Zealand actors have Sir Peter Jackson.”
From Kuwait to L.A., the audition for Deathstroke, Bennett’s latest character on the television series Arrow, was not something to be taken lightly. In Kuwait, a week before the audition, Bennett was training with Special Forces officers in the art of the take down. When he arrived in L.A. for the read, Bennett gave them a little something special. “The one thing no one in the casting room was counting on was when I got the reader auditioning with me in the choke hold, “Bennett says. “I actually choked him out and he collapsed on the ground momentarily unconscious. It was a very strange moment when the whole world just stops. I asked the casting director if him collapsing was meant to be part of the scene that he was acting out. The director said, ‘No. I think you choked him out.’ I apologized profusely, but he stopped me and said ‘It was perfect.’ So, what I thought might have been my last Hollywood audition turned into an epic journey taking me to Vancouver, Canada for 18 months where I helped turn Slade Wilson into one of DC Comic World’s most popular super villains.” Unfortunately Deathstroke is still in purgatory, so there were no juicy bits to spill about Season three, so we will all have to stay tuned in. Bennett did leave us one teasing bit of information. After he leave the Santa Fe Comic Con at the end of the month, he will be on his way to Seattle for an “interesting project”. You’ll hear more about that in 2015!
An inspirational career to many, Bennett knows how to take on the hurdles of life and come out on top. Hard work and learning to focus his emotional stress into physical activity and acting has taken the sting away, but not his memories. Tune in and watch Bennett on Arrow on the CW (he will get out of purgatory) and look for new projects coming from this versatile actor.