The fall and rise of Manu Bennett

BRAWN IDENTITY: Manu Bennett would like to try more gentle roles in the future. 'It's something I know I am capable of.'

BRAWN IDENTITY: Manu Bennett would like to try more gentle roles in the future. 'It's something I know I am capable of.' 

Manu Bennett's acting career hit rock bottom in the middle of 2007. The Kiwi-born, Aussie-raised hunk (his Australian bikini-model mum and Kiwi singer dad moved across the Tasman when he was just a few months old) had smouldered up the small screen in the likes of Street and Legal and looked poised to make the jump to films with roles in action movie Marine and vampire horror Days of Night.

But then came Smashing Machine, which took a wrecking ball to his cinematic dreams.

He was in South Africa training for a lead role in the film when the word came that the production's star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, was no longer interested, killing the whole project in its tracks.

"I'd spent all of my money and energy training for that film," the engaging Bennett, 43, laments on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

"I went back to Australia, had no home, all my things were in storage and the only work I could find was as a labourer on a building site."

He has come a long way since then, starring in global hit TV series , delivering the breakout performance in one of biggest movies of the past year, Hobbit, and now trying his luck in Hollywood.

However, he still credits that six to eight months of "hauling stone" as the wake-up call he needed and the perfect preparation for what could well be his signature role: the Gallic warrior-slave Crixus, who he has played throughout four seasons of television's , the final 10-part season ( of the Damned) of which begins on Sky TV's The Box tomorrow.

"It really did force me out of my comfort zone, and digging out those swimming pools in Sydney mansions gave me that whole upstairs-downstairs feeling, which would prove vital in bringing the character to life."
Before he could don the loincloth, however, he had to overcome another barrier - his age.

"Originally, the main characters were to be all in their 20s and when I went in for the audition in Auckland, there were all these young kids staring into space, going: 'I am Spartacus'."

Fortunately, the producers had a rethink and 30-somethings Bennett and Andy Whitfield were cast in the lead roles, although executive producer Rob Tapert's long memory prompted a worrying late phone call to Bennett.

"In 2000, I was cast as Marc Antony in Xena and, frustrated with the rubber swords, I just said to the stunt guys: 'Let's just hit each other'. The nurse on set kept yelling: 'Stop, stop'. Somehow that story got back to Rob and so now I get this call from him saying: 'We really like your performance, but listen, before I offer you the role, I have to know one thing - that you're not going to hurt Andy Whitfield'.

''I didn't hold that promise,'' Bennett laughs. ''Look, to me Spartacus is about fighting and so a lot of scenes are going to involve close-to-reality expression.

''That's what I love to hone. Crixus is the bad-ass champion gladiator who fights very aggressively, so I try to make that as realistic as possible.

Sometimes, though, he admits  he has gone too far,such as this season, when he broke three ribs in a fight scene.
''I had to pick this guy up, throw him through the air and tackle him [Bennett was a teenage rugby star] - I have a great relationship with the stunt guys and we all like to put it on the line. 

''But when I went through the air with him, his knee stayed bent and when his foot planted, his knee stayed in an A-frame and I landed on it. They asked me if I was OK and at first I thought it was just intercostal muscles, so I kept on doing fight scenes for the rest of the day. The next day, I flew to San Diego for Comic Con and almost stopped breathing on the plane.''

As fans of the show know, Spartacus isn't just about fighting: it's also about copious nudity and buckets of blood.

"Yeah, it's true. We have more types of blood than there are blood groups,'' enthuses Bennett. ''Spartacus is all about the blood and there are lots to play with.''

The one all the actors dread is what he calls ''gluey blood'', because ''it's a nightmare to get out of your hair''.
However, any onset trials and tribulations during the show's run were overshadowed by events off screen, particularly involving the illness and then death of Whitfield. Emotionally, it took its toll on all the cast and crew, but it also resulted in some physical extremes for Bennett. 

''Because Andy had to go into chemotherapy [for non-Hodgkin lymphoma], the producers decided that they would temporarily write him out of the story and set up the new [second] season as a prequel.

''Now, I'd built up all this muscle mass to be Crixus the undefeated Gaul and then I read the new script that said I had just arrived from the mines. I suddenly thought, 'He couldn't have a body because he wouldn't have been eating for the past four years'.

''So I went on a starvation diet, really trimmed down and stopped going to the gym, which was really difficult. Then, I had to go back to being fully sized again for the next series [when Whitfield was replaced as Spartacus by Liam McIntyre].''

When asked why he thinks the show has been such a global phenomenon (he gets Facebook and Twitter messages from people in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa), Bennett compares it to the Oscar-winning movie Crash.

''It's filled with ethnocentric themes and multicultural ideas, but it's got the one common goal of equality. It's amazing that something about 2000 years old still translates so well.''

Bennett says he will miss coming to Auckland each year to shoot the series (''it allowed me to re-source my Maori identity and history''), but he has another job in New Zealand this winter, working on a little film trilogy called The Hobbit.

Like Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings, Bennett received an eleventh-hour call from Sir Peter Jackson. It turned out the person they had originally hired to play Azog the Orc wasn't giving them the performance they wanted.

''They always thought I had the power for the role, but that this Orc needed to be eight feet tall [Bennett is only 5ft 9in]. However, to his credit, Peter at the last minute thought, 'Why don't we do this like we did Gollum? Use motion capture. Use the power of the performer and with CGI make him as big and as ugly and demonic as we want'.''' 

Throwing himself into the role, Bennett started bombarding Jackson and his fellow writers with questions about the emotional capacity of the character.

''I told my manager I was going to base Azog on a combination of Darth Vader and Jaws. I didn't want him to be all about being a bad guy. When you do that, you end up with these two-dimensional results. 

''One thing I've learnt through playing Crixus is you can give your audience a basic formidable bad guy, but it's amazing how they can be tweaked by subtlety of emotional capacity.''

That included asking Jackson if Azog could have a relationship with his ride (athwarg) - something akin to the Lone Ranger and Silver. 

The bemused director eventually agreed and it was little touches like that that led Jackson and others to declare Bennett the breakout star of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

''He was really generous with his praise,'' Bennett acknowledges. ''At the after-party in Wellington he came up to me and said, 'Look Manu, Azog has really worked a treat. He's exactly where we want him, so we're going to make a lot more of him in parts two and three.''That leaves Bennett not only excited by the prospect of what's in store on screen but also off screen.

''I was so gutted to not be part of any of the imagery or promotional machine last time out, especially not getting an Azog Lego character made.''

Currently Bennett is getting adjusted to the no less plastic-filled world of Los Angeles, earning his keep with a recurring role on new DC Comics-inspired TV series Arrow and discovering first hand the feverish fan worship that Spartacus engenders.

''I'm just a stranger here, I don't know many people, but while I might be new in town, I'm not new in town - I get recognised everywhere.

''New York was even more of an overload. Every second person knew I was Crixus and going into Macy's was outlandish. It is amazing how much in the past year it has got into people's heads. The characters have made us public property now.''

So what does the future hold for Bennett? The former modern dance exponent says he would love to try more gentler roles. 

''That's is something I want to tap into at some stage, even just to try to change colours as an actor. 

''It's something I know I am capable of but no-one yet has asked me to do that kind of expression.'' 
Perhaps we can expect a kinder, gentler Azog in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?

Spartacus: War of the Damned, 8.30pm, Sundays, The Box. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in New Zealand on May 1.

UNDEFEATED: Manu Bennet plays bad-ass champion gladiator Crixus in Spartacus.
UNDEFEATED: Manu Bennet plays bad-ass champion gladiator Crixus in Spartacus.

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