Kiwi actor's role of a lifetime

22:16, Apr 25 2011
Manu Bennett
ART IMITATES LIFE: Manu Bennett's portrayal of Crixus is partly based on former All Black Norm Hewitt, an old schoolmate of his.

He is television's fiercest warrior, a rock-hard wall of muscle capable of crushing the mightiest of opponents in hit American series Spartacus.

But before he was Crixus, Champion of Capua, New Zealand actor Manu Bennett was at rock bottom.

He had relocated his family to South Africa to film a movie opposite martial arts legend Jean-Claude Van Damme. It was a great role and one both Bennett and his American management team thought would finally compel him to the next level in Hollywood.

Norm Hewitt
GLADIATOR: Norm Hewitt was 'Champion of Te Aute' when Bennett was at the Maori Boy's school. Meeting the future All Black was life-changing, he says.

He had more than a decade's worth of local experience behind him – credits include Street Legal, Shortland St, Water Rats and Australian film Lantana – and his international career was building momentum.

He had worked with movie tough guys "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Vinnie Jones in The Condemned, WWE's John Cena and Terminator 2's Robert Patrick in The Marine and had even walked his first red carpet for cult horror flick 30 Days of Night.

But he still needed a big calling card and the Van Damme project was to be it.

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"Five days before shooting started the producer rings me and says: 'Manu, we have a problem with Van Damme. He's not going to make the film'," Bennett recalls. "At the time, I was quite devastated.

"I'd just had my first daughter and she was very young and we'd given up our lease and packed all our things away and here I was in South Africa and planning to go off to LA next and then all of that was gone.

"It was something that cost me $20,000 personally. I never got paid a cent."

As a result, Bennett had to spend a year literally hauling stones and carrying bricks around as a builder's labourer in Sydney to make ends meet.

"I'd been torn so far from what I really loved that when the opportunity of Crixus came up, I realised, 'If you want to get out off this building site, you'd better fight really hard at this audition'."

The result is the role of his career.

In the first series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Crixus is the top gladiator at the ludus (gladiator school) owned by Batiatus (The Mummy's John Hannah) and is not shy about making sure everyone knows it. But for all his bravado, he is still a slave and used at the whim of Batiatus' wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless).

To make things worse a new upstart called Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) arrives who threatens to eclipse his reputation as champion.

While Crixus was more likely to crack a skull than crack a smile, he adhered strictly to the code of the gladiator brotherhood, even to save his enemies, and later fell in love with housemaid Naevia.

It was a role that required the right mix of physical strength and emotional subtlety to ensure it didn't look, well, ridiculous.

"Being a gladiator standing in an arena with a sword in your hand with five guys charging at you and you're ready to chop every limb off, you've really got to give yourself up as an actor to really live that moment," Bennett says with a laugh. "And I love that challenge. I love it."

While Crixus speaks in an almost gruff growl, Bennett is articulate and thoughtful, his deep voice even hinting at the smooth accents of the American action stars he idolises.

Shot entirely in Auckland, and made exclusively for US pay TV channel Starz, Spartacus was a coup for the New Zealand screen industry.

It broke all the rules about what you could do on television: full-frontal nudity, explicit sex scenes, graphic (although heavily stylised) violence and more blue language than a censor probably hears in a career.

But it was also extremely entertaining, almost operatic, in its dramatic depictions of love and ruthless revenge, and a follow-up series seemed certain.

Then it was hit with a shocking twist of its own. Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and production was halted while he received treatment for the cancer.

A six-episode prequel series, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, which premieres in New Zealand on Sunday on The Box, was devised, minus its title character, to fill the gap between seasons.

"There was a lot of commentary saying 'Look, without Andy it's not going to be Spartacus', but the ratings for the prequel almost doubled within the first two episodes in America and there's just been a continual growth for the show in terms of the audience so we continue to do something right," Bennett says.

The prequel, which also introduces new gladiator Gannicus (Dustin Clare) , gave the cast a rare chance to step back in time.

In an art-imitating-life moment, Crixus is working on a building site waiting for his big break. "He's hauling stones to build the new gladiatorial arena," Bennett says. "He wants to be noticed by Batiatus, who comes to visit the arena, and that sort of sparks off his opportunity to enter the world of the gladiators."

"It's almost a retelling of Spartacus' story. Crixus arriving at the ludus as a slave and he doesn't have any idea of how to fight.

"I had to think: 'What would Crixus look like if he'd been a slave since he was a teenager?' So I grew the hair out and lost almost 10kg just to look more like a starved slave.

"It was a really great opportunity to set Crixus up in a way that will be a surprise to everybody."

Perhaps also surprising is that Bennett's fighting prowess has its roots in dance.

He studied classical ballet as a teenager in Australia where he grew up and even chose performing in a production of Swan Lake over playing in his rugby final, another sport he excelled at.

"It's probably not your typical kind of alignment of hobbies. But, for me, my artistic side was probably spurred forward because of the emotional needs I had as a young teenager when I lost a mother and a brother in a car accident."

Bennett was only 16 when an unlicensed drunk driver hit the car he and his mother, Jean, were travelling in while living in Newcastle. She died five days later.

In a further cruel blow, Bennett's brother, Stephen, also died as a result of a car accident.

"Our house was left with a piano in it when my mother passed away and she was the only one who played it and I sort of got to the piano and started playing because I wanted to replace that sound," he says.

"Coincidentally, two months ago I was in Los Angeles and I saw Lionel Richie in a restaurant. I walked up to him and I said; 'Do you mind if I interrupt?' And he said: `No'.

"I said: 'Mate, I have to thank you for something. My mother passed away years ago and I had to confront this piano that she played and I didn't know how to play and I wanted to hear her voice and the first song that I learned was Endless Love, and I have to thank you for that. I must have played it solidly for two years'.

"He made me sit down and join him."

Breaking bread with the legendary soul singer was a long way from Te Aute College, the Maori boys school where Bennett was sent after his mother's funeral at the family marae in Hastings.

He calls the school, where he played for the 1st XV, his first gladiatorial experience.

"It was a very physical and brutal part of my development as a teenager," he says.

"The Champion of Capua, or the Champion of Te Aute, at the time was [former All Black] Norm Hewitt. I swear he beat me up a couple of times and really made me work very hard to prove myself.

"I can't exactly say that he and I were ever friends, but meeting him was quite a life-changing experience.

"I based Crixus sort of upon Norm Hewitt when I first started playing him. Crixus was just meant to be this brute and then as he evolved and had the relationship with Naevia he became more human and I think the audience started warming to the character.

"But certainly, at first, he's two-dimensional. People have these shields and ways they have to play to survive in the gladiatorial world. You're not going to go telling everybody you play piano and do ballet!"

Survival is a potent theme on and off the set for Spartacus.

Despite some early success with his treatment, Whitfield was forced to withdraw from the series completely when the cancer returned. Australian actor Liam McIntyre has been recast in the role of the revolutionary leader in the second series, which began filming in Auckland this month.

"It seemed very daunting that we could start working with somebody else in the position of Spartacus," Bennett says. "Andy had such unique qualities and was a needle-in-a-haystack kind of a find and the fans have been really committed to what he created. But Liam has within the first week convinced all of us that he has the honesty and the strength to play a really wonderful Spartacus."

However, with each new script still comes the trepidation that no-one is safe on Spartacus, not even the popular characters.

"There is a very big shock right at the beginning of season two," Bennett says. "We're all sort of like gladiators waiting in the shadows wondering if it will be our last fight."

The Details

What: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

When: Sunday, 9.30pm

Where: The Box

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