INTERVIEW: Breaking Free – Manu Bennett’s Rudis

Any actor can get in front of a camera and portray a hero or antagonist, but the best stories are those that are able to completely transform characters right before the audience’s eyes. These story lines develop a unique connection during the metamorphosis. Manu Bennett is one of the few actors that have successfully made a living doing just that. Throughout the past decade he has taken on roles such as Crixus in Spartacus and Slade Wilson in Arrow, molding the villainous characters into fan favorites. He takes something terrible and finds a way to create something better. This has been more than just skilled acting for Manu; it is his past.

Manu spent his early childhood years in Australia. He was the youngest child born to an Australian model and New Zealand singer. His childhood was not unlike that of many others. Athletics soon prevailed as a staple in his life. In fact, Manu held the Australian hurdles record and was on the 4x100m national championship team. Also, like many other children, a relentless bully plagued his childhood. This all changed the day Manu’s world turned upside-down.

There was a young man who was very aggressive, antisocial, had one of those mullet haircuts, and wore death metal t-shirts. There was this real anger about him. I had a beautiful mother, good parents, and was a good sportsman. This young man just hated me; I have no idea why. However, I was involved in a car accident with my mother and she was killed [alongside my brother]. I was in put the hospital in a coma, and when I woke up my worst enemy was at my bedside. He had lost his mother when he was very young, and that is the reason why he was angry. It wasn't until he and I had a story that we could share that we realized we were in fact now friends, bonded by this adversity. I think that is one of the great lessons of life. As an actor I have always tried to prevail [this concept] even when they have given me characters that they try to paint black…

This childhood revelation is what Manu went on to use as his inspiration behind his character Crixus, the gladiatorial warrior from the series Spartacus. Like his childhood nemesis, Crixus begins his journey on the show as the epitome of a bully. He is large, cruel, and seems to take joy in the pain of others. But much like the story from Manu’s past, he is developed into an ally and loved protagonist.

I took this character that people wanted to loathe. I really worked hard to make him someone that people loathed, so much so that my producer walked up and said, “Manu, what are you doing? We are getting letters from the fans; they want to kill you off!”
And I said, “Perfect, it is working.”
He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “This is what happened to me in high school.”
I told him the story and he was like, “Okay I'm going to trust you on this one,” and he did. I was able, through the mechanism of time in the series, to evolve Crixus into this Person people learn to understand. I have grown men come up to me and say I cried when Crixus died.

While this single issue may have been resolved for Manu, it was only the beginning of struggles that he would continue to face. The young boy made a new friend and survived a horrific ordeal, but he also found himself facing a plethora of obstacles in the aftermath of the tragedy. The loss of his mother resulted in Manu being sent to a boarding school overseas in New Zealand.

After the funeral I was sent to a boarding school to a place called Te Aute College. It is a Maori boys school, which has a wonderful history dating back to Colonial times that helped create young Maori leaders. The year that I went there I arrived as an outsider because I had been living in Australia. I was of half Maori blood and I was sort of dragged under the hot coals by some of the more challenging senior students of the college. Being a Maori boys school they were big boys, very proud, and you had to earn your right of passage… Going to Te Aute College was like going to Alcatraz. It was a very tough School, so much to the point that there was an examination on the school for the extreme bullying that was going on and it was almost closed down as a result… That particular year that I was going there, there seem to be a lot of young men being affected by external activities. Some of those people were dealing drugs and being very hard bullies. When I attended the school Norm Hewitt, a violent bully at the time by any standard, really gave me one of the beatings of my life. I've been through quite a bit in my life, and that was a very scary situation. I had to prove myself to him and to some of the other seniors at the school by playing rugby well.

Forged by physical training and interactions with classmates, Manu found himself successful in his Rugby endeavors. His play gained recognition and he was on track to be on the national rugby team. If you have seen his physique or some of the types of roles that he plays this may not be an utter surprise. Instead, the path that he chose next may be more unbelievable those that know him by his television roles. Under the influence of a girlfriend, Manu had joined ballet. His involvement in dance had grown to the point that he had a life altering decision to make.

There was a point where I had to choose between ballet or going to try out for the national team. You know the movie Billy Elliot, the young boy who wants to be a dancer? Well, I had quite an extreme version of that because I had to choose between the National Rugby team and ballet. Ultimately, I had to do the ballet. To be honest, I really didn't have a choice. My ballet teacher said they were going to sue me. I don't really know she was expecting to do, but that was enough! It was an interesting moment in my life where I had to choose between this type of physical or artistic expression.

His experience in dance helped out as he transitioned into fighting roles on camera later in his life. He has now participated in hundreds of choreographed fights. His TV personas have viciously cut down opponents at will and shown no mercy. His macho characters have been marveled at by thousands of viewers. Manu enjoys playing the characters, but he doesn’t necessarily find fulfillment in their combat records.

I still think as an actor I like to find performance heights not at the moment where there's victory in the arena or as Slade Wilson slinging my sword, but in those quiet moments where the truth of my character comes out. It is finding the subtext of what my character is doing in each scene. The audience at home has been through this harrowing journey but end up in these moments knowing and feeling what I am thinking. When I'm watching the series or episodes, I wait for those moments.

If you have followed the various seasons of Arrow you have seen exactly what Manu is referring to. Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke, has been a staple in the series. His suave, cunning, and merciless nature is starkly contrasted by his humanizing friendship with Oliver. Audience members around the world have connected with the character and Deathstroke has skyrocketed in popularity as a result. There is currently a rumor circulating that DC is planning on creating a standalone Deathstroke movie. The interest has had an adverse affect on Manu and his role in Arrow. The show has reportedly had difficulty keeping the antagonist in the series due to potential rights issues over the potential movie. The situation has left many to ask, will Manu continue to have a future in the Arrowverse?

The answer of that question lies in the power of pen. It really comes down to the directors of Warner Brothers and the CW seeing where they can maximize the return on their investment. There's something to be said in the fact that they even thought to make Deathstroke a standalone film. I guess we brought him back to popularity in our TV show to where they can cash in on a popular character by bringing him to a feature film. I've been flattered by the support of fans who have come out in large numbers saying that they would like to see me play in the film. At the same time I understand that many people have been behind the mask of Batman, and many people have worn the Superman cape, and there are many people who will dress up as Deathstroke. I really wish that I had the opportunity to make Deathstroke in a TV series that concentrated on him. The great writer Marv Wolfman’s storyline is still being written about the character. I would like to do with what they did with Punisher and Daredevil. I think Deathstroke the series could go to the next level! I have suggested it and my fans have suggested it, but the ability to do that is really just up to the Network's and the producers.

In the meantime, Manu wants to stretch his theatrical talent by being cast in more diverse roles. He is currently looking into roles with more gentle tones. As a matter of fact, Manu will begin filming this week for such a role.

I am heading to Michigan to shoot an indie about a father whose daughter becomes a concert pianist. The story follows the young girl’s life. She is an army brat and the father is obviously very strict on her. Between the two of them, the only way that they express themselves is on the piano. I find that beautiful. I am a piano player myself; so being part of this project is interesting. I feel like I am in the right place to perform this type of a character. It is currently called Broken Keys.

Manu may be busy with his new undertakings, but Dallas residents will be able to catch up with him later this week at Dallas Fan Days 2018. He is definitely no stranger to conventions and sees them as more than a weekend obligation. Manu views the gatherings as opportunities to interact with fans, connect with his culture, and even break down social barriers.

I come from a race of people, the Maori. In the old days the best Maori adventurers were those who would jump on their waka, which was a canoe. They would jump on their waka and say, “I'm going that way.” They would follow the stars to the distant shores and take their stories with them. I feel like I am a modern-day Maori, but instead of a waka I have a plane that takes me from shore to shore. I love sharing my stories and I think that is one of the most important things of this planet. The sooner we can share stories the black and the white, the good and the bad, the ideas of contrast will close down as we enable ourselves to listen to other people. By doing this, we have this opportunity to link… I think that this is one of the great things about comic con. You get people together that are all invested in modern mythology.

You can make your own memories and trade stories with Manu starting Friday at Dallas Fan Days. See Maori culture firsthand and share some of your own! For tickets, schedules, or more information about Dallas Fan Days 2018 click here. The convention is scheduled to take place at the Irving Convention Center from October 19-21.