Welcome to a captivating conversation with Manu Bennett by Chic Icon magazine, a cinematic adventurer who has traversed the realms of acting, directing, and storytelling across the globe. From challenging the traditional Western archetype to directing films amidst the stunning landscapes of Iceland and Greece, Manu shares insights into his remarkable journey and his new experience of living in Dubai, UAE. Join us as we delve into the heart of his experiences, discussing the groundbreaking role of Crixus in Spartacus, navigating Hollywood as an Australian New Zealander, and his commitment to shaping a more inclusive narrative in the world of film. This is a journey of resilience, diverse exploration, and the unending pursuit of stories that transcend borders.
Chic Icon: Manu, your globetrotting experiences are quite intriguing. Can you share more about how your extensive travels have influenced your perspective on film and diversity?
Manu Bennett: Exploration is at the heart of it. As I delved into the film industry, especially being a person of color, I found myself often playing the number two roles that challenged the traditional Western hero archetype. These roles can be distinguished historically as people of color, cultural character’s who make mistakes that ultimately validate the Western hero. In a traditional “Western” no Indian is going be portrayed as smarter or stronger than John Wayne. That type of characterization ends up validating a whole culture.
I feel I have given heart to these bad boy roles & this often shifts the character in ways producers weren’t expecting. My extensive journeys across the world have been both for work and personal growth observing, on an international scale, the hero’s story, which I now believe must transcend borders & belongs to everyone.
Chic Icon: Beyond acting, you’ve ventured into directing and screenwriting. Tell us about your experiences shooting films in Iceland and Greece.
Manu Bennett: Last year, I produced & directed a short film in Iceland. In Greece, I engaged in a historical Greek-Turkish project, playing a character who struggles to live in the middle ground of their conflict. I convinced the director that rather than aligning strictly with one side & playing a conscientious observer, I could create empathy within the film for both sides. The best war films reveal the equality of soldiers & futility of war itself especially for the common people. I love to see the diversity within the film & aim to bring diversity not just in front of the camera but also behind it, contributing to storytelling in different cultural contexts.
Chic Icon: Let’s shift gears to your iconic role as Crixus in Spartacus. What were the unique challenges of being part of the groundbreaking series?
Manu Bennett: Spartacus was revolutionary as the first historical drama made for television. Initially, I was told by the casting director that I was too old for the role, but the network appreciated my audition & decided otherwise.
The series tackled the story of slaves & their role as gladiators. To fit the role of my character Crixus I drew upon my prior athletic, rugby & dance background and for his emotions injected my personal struggles, having lost my mother and brother in a car accident. I fought hard & tried to bring depth to the Crixus character by seeding his emotions with pain & anger related to loss. My personal experience heavily influenced my choices & my character of Crixus, of course.
Chic Icon: Method acting played a role in your journey. How did your training at the Lee Strasburg School shape your approach to roles like Crixus?
Manu Bennett: I was very fortunate to be offered a scholarship by Anna Strasberg to attend the Strasberg school. Some critics scythe method as being self-indulgent and recent styles like Meisner, focus on bridging work with the other actor. As an actor you exercise & find through discovery what works best for you. The method is the deep acknowledgment of one’s own feelings. Working on the physicality and psychology of acting is obviously physically and mentally demanding and self-criticism prevents most actors from progressing.
Chic Icon: Breaking into Hollywood as an Australian New Zealander must have been challenging. Share some insights into your journey and how Spartacus changed the game for you.
Manu Bennett: It was a struggle. It’s still a struggle. Evolution is a struggle. Before Spartacus, I was working on a construction site & my co-workers called me “Hollywood” Spartacus presented the opportunity to be seen on an international stage. At first, no-one had any idea if this show being filmed out of a warehouse in New Zealand would even get an audience. The series eventually succeeded & allowed me my first breakthrough as a foreign actor in Hollywood.
Chic Icon: Manu, your story is one of resilience and diverse experiences. What’s next for you in the world of film and exploration?
Manu Bennett: I am currently living in Dubai, continuing to explore opportunities to tell stories from different corners of the world. Dubai is such a progressive city & my goal is to contribute to a more inclusive and varied narrative within the tv, film & even gaming industry. The source material for Arabic & Middle Eastern stories goes back millennia yet remain obscured, like untapped oil.
Chic Icon: What are the challenges preparing for a role, especially physically?
Manu Bennett: I’ve always been into physical fitness. I competed at a national level in track & field and also played rugby. At 14 my girlfriend dragged me into a ballet school & that at times was even more physically demanding than rugby. These constant activities during my youth laid a solid foundation.
Chic Icon: Can you share more about the behind-the-scenes struggles?
Manu Bennett: During production, no TV show or film looks anything like it does on screen. Spartacus was a lot of fun to make but faced challenges, including the death of actor Andy Whitfield. I still vividly remember his young son running around on set so proud of his father. Heartbreaking. Filming Arrow meant travelling to Canada splitting me from home, family & friends. There are many sacrifices made to accomplish the work. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s part of the professional discipline or artistic pathology.
Chic Icon: The emotional investment in characters is evident. Is it difficult to act, emotionally?
Manu Bennett: It’s often difficult to live emotionally. Emotional engagement is necessary in life & entertainment via TV, film & gaming and is a crucial part of the societal construct that provides a resource for people to engage emotionally. After a trip to Epidavros in Greece & learning of the first amphitheater built by Esclepios, I now see my industry as a medical entity that provides emotional support. An actor should believe in his worth on this level of medicine. It changed my whole reasoning for being an actor.
Chic Icon: You’ve received messages from fans connecting with your characters. How does that feel?
Manu Bennett: It feels like the medicine worked! No greater feedback than hearing someone cry or transform themselves physically or emotionally. It’s so special knowing you’ve touched someone’s life.
Chic Icon: Any upcoming projects in the near future?
Manu Bennett: I just completed a new & exciting series for CBS, maybe not what people will expect but the details of that are still under wraps. Meanwhile, I’m here in Dubai, learning from locals & appreciating a city within a country that is leading the way forward with strength & vision.
Chic Icon: How is Dubai inspiring you creatively?
Manu Bennett: Dubai has elements of New York & Miami combined. It’s been flourishing as an international travel hub but also now as a backdrop for TV & film production. There is huge potential for this country, through Abu Dhabi & Dubai to claim its stake as a leader in the global entertainment industry. That’s why I’m here. My aim is to help contribute to the growth of UAE & Dubai’s Entertainment Industry as a part of the D33 goal.
Photo by Shamsitdin Nasiriddinov
Read more INTERVIEWS here