Discussing survival is no small topic for actor Manu Bennett. As one of the breakout stars from the hit Spartacus series, the Maori-born Bennett found much in common with his gladiator alter ego, Crixus. His story is also one of the Warrior, determined to perfect his physical self in a focused bid to overcome life’s challenges. Find out more in a truly personal chat with Bennett as he discusses the parallels of his real life to be found in his work as the battle scarred champion of Blood and Sand,and Gods of the Arena and the new Vengeance. And, as a bonus, watch the series premiere of Vengeance on show's website before its Starz premiere tonight.
It is fitting that an actor playing a gladiator would be someone who would fearlessly offer his purest self in an interview setting. But, that was the case with New Zealand-born star Manu Bennett. As one of the brawny champions of the smash hit Spartacus series, Bennett has no problem with the heavy lifting required for his role as Crixus, an embattled champion seeking freedom. Yet, reasons exist as to why he has chosen to bulk up, and not just to offer the eye candy that has become the show’s trademark.
“I lost my mother and my brother when I was 15 in two separate car accidents,” Bennett revealed. “I was doing well at school. I was a good sportsperson, but at that point, I gave up on all of those things that were there to be done. I couldn't deal with them.”
It is disarming just how matter of fact Bennett offered up this very personal detail about his youth. And, he did not retreat from explaining how he ventured into the arts by willing himself into becoming a veritable renaissance youth.
“I dealt with my condition by acting it out,” Bennett continued, “by going onto the dance floor, by playing piano. I got into a lot of the artistic expressions to try to deal with that angst. I'm sure that to some degree, the heart and the passion and the sorrow and the anger that's in Crixus is still part of me as that person.”
It is precisely that emotional complexity exhibited by Bennett as Crixus that quickly turned him into a fan favorite. Intensity can be found in his eyes, one that compliments his finely chiseled features and sturdy frame. Each question lobbed did little to diminish his desire to offer up more than a canned answer. As the reporters began to query about some of the more hot button aspects of Blood and Sand, its prequel, Gods of the Arena and the recently premiered Venegance, Bennett remained refreshingly non-plussed.
“I don't feel like we're shooting pornography or anything like that,” Bennett said. “The drama of our show is, I think, extremely relevant today. I think our show has got a very moral perspective, in a way, for its immoral tales. And I think it's written well. I think it holds the drama well.”
Here’s one instance where it was the press that needed a little extra armor to challenge a true gladiator of the press arena. Bennett’s determination resulted in one of the most engaging roundtables on this particular day dedicated to all things Spartacus.
QUESTION: What's harder: the physical or the emotional work for this role?
BENNETT: I think it's relative. It's like life. To keep the acting really good, it's good to be really fit. The fitness builds the foundation for me as an actor to have clarity. Fitness has always been the base of where I start off as a performer.
QUESTION: Are you allowed flexibility with your regime to get leaner or do you have stay with a certain regimen?
BENNETT: When we started season one, Crixus was the champion. I started playing him as the hardass. It would have been the peak of his physicality. I wanted him to be a tank. I wanted him to be kind of two-dimensionally threatening with no emotional opening. When I joined the show, I might've been probably in the best shape and fitness out of everybody there. I'd worked very hard. I'd actually done a couple of films beforehand that had more to do with action, so I'd had probably a two-year run of being in the gym, running, and swimming and doing physical activity. I was in the peak of my life, physically, when I got this job.
QUESTION: How did this new physique impact the rest of your role, particularly in the fight sequences?
BENNETT: I stopped going to the gym. I was trying to play it as a complete underdog, someone who didn't have any of Crixus’ qualities. Those qualities had to be found. I would think he was an animal, but he was coming down for vengeance. So, something I really wanted to explore was having a Crixus who wasn't what you saw in the first season and understands the human transition of, "Okay, this guy was a Gaul. He got brought to Rome as a slave. He got persecuted, beaten, starved, and made to fight with a sword for his own life against other nationalities he'd probably fought before, so they didn't like him so they would kill you anyway." You know? There's no camaraderie. The only way to get camaraderie is to stand above all others and have people follow you. And in order to do that, in those sorts of circumstances, you had to do it ruthlessly. You couldn't do it like the peacemaker.
QUESTION: Given your grace and prowess in the action scenes of the Spartacus series, what inspired you to work on your physical self?
BENNETT: To tell you the truth, my movement skills come from a dance background. I was a breakdancer as a kid. I was on one of the top break dancing teams in Australia. I wrote a book on break dancing when I was 15. Movement was something that I took on. I got to an age where I was doing ballet and dance, and then rugby came along. I started playing Rugby Union. I was doing athletics at the time as well and I was a national hurdler. I had speed. Then it all sort of went into the rugby. I was a kid trying to deal with grief. It sort of threw me out of normality and it threw me into the arts stronger. You know, accentuated up into my artistic adult future. But it was tough. It was hard. People experience that in war. It's probably what drives people into fighting. You know? I'm glad I can just fight in this fictitious sense. I'm a softer human being, personally, than to want to be in that situation. But I do understand the emotional conflicts that could lead to that sort of emotional level.
QUESTION: This is such a button pushing show. Why do you think audiences have found such a strong connection with Spartacus?
BENNETT: The world is slowly evolving into a place where the things that we have seen as being taboo are starting to open up a bit more. You've got gay marriage. You've got all levels of the human condition, where our sexuality, and our need to show who we truly are, is being explored. You need to go into these realms that we're in to really explore what the true nature of human behavior has been in the past. We're sort of conditioned to what it is right now. And we're made to live what it is right now. But we've all got the feeling, "Is this what we really want right now? Is this example in history truly the example we want?" I know a lot of people will talk about, "Where is our family? Where is our village? Where is that thing that we now remember only as a historic way of living? Where is that closeness, you know?" Spartacus is a great indicator of a time where people found themselves subject to oppression and slavery beneath a very powerful force that wasn't at its best. The Romans had amazing times. When Augustus came along, they had a Golden period. It was wonderful. The things that they contributed to the world and gave to the future were almost unparalleled at any given time. But, you know, around the times of Caligula, around the time of our period, there was some pretty carnal activity going on, and it wasn't long before they started persecuting the Christians and feeding the lions, so started all sorts of entertainment. Today, you turn on the television and you watch the UFC. I go to work and all of these stunt guys come in, going, "Oh, did you see, oh, what’s his name? Did you see all the blood coming out of his face?" Everyone's in the crowd going, "Raaah!" And we're all sitting at home, going, "Wow, wow!” You know what I mean? There's not much difference. These guys are that close to being killed in that ring. And they're yelling, screaming in the audience.
QUESTION: Is there a difference in male and female nudity in a nude scene on TV?
BENNETT: I think our show is on the forefront of social change. Censorship issues and moral issues are being raised. But, doesn't it show by its own impact and its own popularity in the public that, somehow, the show is opening up an awareness of some sort? I think that the most important thing about our show is that it's about suppression. It's also about power. People are trying to make their likenesses to "Why do I feel emotional about this?" You know? “Do I feel like Crixus in my relationship? Do I feel like Spartacus?”
Spartacus: Vengeance returns to Starz, Friday, January 27. Click on this link to view episode one, "Fugivitus," before its premiere tonight.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Gods of the Arena are now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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