Peter Jackson assembled a cast of thousands for his Hobbit trilogy, so to be the man he singled out as "the breakout performance" says volumes about what Manu Bennett brings to his entirely motion-capture role of orc chieftain Azog. But Bennett's star-quality does not come as a surprise to Spartacus fans, who have been watching him cut a stellar swath through Spartacus since 2011.
And 2013 is poised to be Bennett's biggest year to date, as the final season of Starz's swords-and-sandals saga premieres tonight, he reprises Azog in December's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and he's be joining The CW's white-hot Arrow as the iconic villain Deathstroke. ETonline caught up with Manu Bennett to talk about all three roles, and discovered the passion that drives his perfection.
ETonline: As we come up on the final season of Spartacus, what excites you about where Crixus is now?
Manu Bennett: A lot of people were wondering what Crixus' background was, and if he was more than just a brutish gladiator who wants to be the champion. The love story with Naevia helped a lot because when she started asking those questions, it did give me that opportunity to say, "There are things from the past that drove me to this situation and you're the special woman who has been able to speak to my heart." It was important to not just have him be a brute, I wanted to show the gentle side of him, and of me as an actor.
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ETonline: Is it hard to find masculine roles that also have a powerful emotional element to them?
Bennett: I did a lot of very physical roles before, but Spartacus really was incredible opportunity to play a fully-rounded, masculine character. I was involved in a lot of contact sports when I was younger, but also did ballet. My mother and my brother both died in separate car accidents when I was 15, and I was left with this very emotional vulnerability that I had to deal with. Instead of going off the tracks, I kind of channeled it into sport -- the rugby dealt with my need to express myself physically, and at the time, I had a girlfriend who dragged me into a dance class, and the next thing, I was four years into studying ballet. That helped me deal with the more gentler side of myself.
ETonline: Spartacus is, probably, the most visually advanced show on television. Did that help you when it came to playing Azog in The Hobbit?
Bennett: Spartacus is so cutting edge for television, but [working with] Peter Jackson is like being abducted by aliens and going somewhere you don't even understand the technology. But they kept telling me what I would be able to see during this motion-capture process is already so much more advanced than it was 6 years ago, so I was very fortunate in that regard -- and that's aside from being a part of The Hobbit franchise, and working with Peter Jackson in such a close way. Although it's funny because Peter didn't recognize me at The Hobbit premiere. I have a much different look for Arrow. I tend to change looks quite radically for roles.
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ETonline: Did you know you were signing up to play Slade Wilson, a.k.a Deathstroke, when you auditioned?
Bennett: I didn't! When I read the script in LA, I was a guy named Holloway. So when I flew to Vancouver [where Arrow films], I thought I was playing a guy named Holloway. When I got to the airport, my manager said, [your casting] has been released online, so I opened the link and it said "Manu Bennett has been cast to play Slade Wilson, a.k.a Deathstroke." I rang my manager up saying, "They've made a mistake!" [laughs] When I went into the offices, the [producers] told me they don't like information getting out there, they hold their cards close to the vest, so that was all a lead on for me to end up being Deathstroke.
ETonline: What kind of preparation did you do for the role?
Bennett: It was such a quick casting process, but the Spartacus cast members got invited to Kuwait to meet the military [in November 2012]. We went to one of the American bases and while I was there, I became friends with the Special Forces guys. They showed me a whole bunch of moves and the choke-outs and the different disarming maneuvers. Funnily enough, the special forces guys showed me moves I'm doing on the show! There's a hidden language in life and you just have to keep your eyes peeled for the signs. It's really fascinating.
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ETonline: What are you excited for Arrow fans to see with your incarnation of Deathstroke?
Bennett: Stephen [Amell] and I have really started building something that I know the fans are excited about. But Slade will be a big surprise to people -- the relationship between him and Oliver is not what anyone's expecting. We don't start off the way people expect us to start off. That's actually all I can say about it.
ETonline: Suffice it to say, we can expect a lot of action from this role?
Bennett: During the [Arrow] audition, I needed to get Arrow in a headlock ... and I choked the reader out. He collapsed on the floor. I didn't mean to, I honestly didn't. I just got in the moment. I looked at the casting director and expected to be kicked out of the room, but they loved it. He was looking at me like I did something extraordinary, not criminal. There was something in my realism that has meaning in this industry. I'm not a big subscriber to method acting, but realism is something I always like to put into my roles. I'm a firm believer that there's a fine line between just acting and selling a scene as something the audience truly believes. And I take it very seriously. Maybe too seriously in this case [laughs].
Spartacus: War of the Damned premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Starz, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is currently playing in theaters and Arrow airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.