Fans know Manu Bennett on TV as Crixus in “Spartacus” and Deathstroke from “Arrow”, as well as Azog the Defiler in “The Hobbit” films.
However, the star known for his combative roles also has the unique distinction of sharing the big screen with two WWE kingpins.
“John Cena punched me in the face, and I punched ‘Stone Cold’ [Steve Austin] in the face,” Bennett said with a laugh during the recent Florida Supercon in Miami.
He was part of the action flick “The Condemned” with Austin under WWE Studios (then WWE Films). The Kiwi played Paco out of Mexico, [Spoiler alert] who is actually killed by an arrow on the island. Bennett recalls when he found out he got the role.
“The funny thing was I was painting a wall in my sister’s house, and my nephews were playing the WWE video game,” he said. “They were actually playing as ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin at the time on the screen. I was watching it. Then I got a phone call saying I was given the part to play alongside ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin in ‘The Condemned’. So I tell my nephews I just got casted to be in a movie with that guy. They come back with, ‘No you didn’t uncle.’ It’s funny.”
From there he went on to work with Cena in the first of “The Marine” series. Bennett was Bennett, a member of Rome’s (Robert Patrick) gang. Even though he took a chokeslam from Cena, he looks back fondly of his WWE Studios involvement.
“I put a lot of hard work in my roles and played them quite physically,” he said. “So I saw it as recognition from WWE for my hard work that I got to be in two films with two of their guys.”
Bennett’s resume sees him more often than not playing on the dark side. However, he wouldn’t call the characters such as Slade Wilson necessarily villainous.
“I think I play someone who is flawed, and that comes from areas of vulnerability and being damaged,” he said. “To me, I think there are more people who identify with damaged lives and vulnerability than the heroes and millionaires that are untouchable. I think my fan base is a reflection of playing these vulnerable characters like Crixus or even Azog. One of the things with Azog I’m most proud of as a choice for an actor was turning the attention of Azog.
“I asked [director] Peter Jackson if I could pet the fur of his pet to show that Azog has this strain of emotional connection from something from his own world, rather than being this sharp-toothed, big white thing. It goes back to those World War II movies where you see a guy with a German helmet and automatically he is evil.
“If you look more at the fabric of it, my manager is German, and people there are fantastic. You take a part of that person’s character and find out where he may have been tortured as a kid. Suppose he had this terrible teacher who was Jewish in his high school, which led him to be anti-Semitic. There are so many areas that build characters. That story is one of those things you get to flesh out as an actor. Hopefully, I keep getting complex characters to flesh out.”
Bennett enjoys doing conventions such as Supercon to interact with the audience and reflect on his body of work. It renews his passion for the business.
“I’m involved in this industry because stories connect,” he said. “Whether it be comic books, which the ‘nerds’ picked up 40 years ago and decided it was a good representation of real, social fabric. You have heroes and villains and what we fight for. All that is translated now in Hollywood, so I think the comics are taken more seriously. I think being part of different franchises and stories like ‘The Hobbit’ by J. R. R. Tokken, ‘Arrow’, which is the DC comic world or even the historic story of ‘Spartacus.’
“That social thread through the fan base comes back to comic cons. That’s where this originated from, the sort of fandom. So being able to connect with them in this way is sort of thanking them for getting comic books and other inspirations into the industry.”
Seeing so many from three successful franchises and series, the question remains. Who has a more rabid fan base?
“Each of them is huge,” Bennett responded. ‘“The Hobbit’ series is among the highest grossing films in the world. ‘Arrow’ has become this huge flagship for CW. Now we have ‘The Flash’. They are proving comic book series can be very well-produced for television. Then of course you have ‘Spartacus’. I mean ‘Spartacus’ is really an underdog, now being bought by SyFy and turned to the general public so everyone can see it. So it’s still in its growth pattern. I mean everyone is watching ‘Spartacus’. That’s one of the shows I’m most proud of it, but each of them has its strength.”
• Follow Manu Bennett on Twitter @ManuBennett.