Actor [Te Arawa, Ngāti Kahungunu]
Manu Bennett, sometimes credited as Jon Bennett, was born in Rotorua, and spent much of his upbringing in Australia, after his Kiwi parents moved there when he was a baby. Since then Bennett has spent much of his career on the far side of the Tasman, punctuated by periods in his native New Zealand.
As a teenager, Bennett impressed in both rugby and classical ballet. At university in Australia he studied dance, music and drama, and later spent time at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Los Angeles. He made his screen debut in short-lived Aussie soap Paradise Beach, and followed it with small roles in a number of Australian series, including a recurring role in cop show Water Rats.
His first leading role was in the little seen Japanese-film Tomoko (1999). Around the turn of the millenium, fresh from playing a Latin salsa teacher in highly-acclaimed feature Lantana, he returned to New Zealand. Since then he has acted under the name Manu Bennett. His stint on Shortland Street saw him playing the handsome but unhinged Jack Hewitt. The character departed from the show after throwing himself in front of a moving car.
Bennett also guested on an episode of the Twilight Zone-style Mataku (in early episode ‘Going to War”), and cameoed as Roman general Marc Antony on an episode of the locally-shot Xena: Warrior Princess. Then came an ongoing role on the fourth season of crime show Street Legal. Bennett played tormented cop turned lawyer Matt Urlich, who joins Jay Laga’aia’s law practice, but gets caught up in a feud with the cop (Charles Mesure) who he feels ruined his career.
By 2006 Bennett was back in Australia, making his directorial debut with The Bridge. The short film revolves around two families from different racial backgrounds, who cross paths on Sydney Harbour Bridge. Since then Bennett has appeared in Kiwi-shot horror film 30 Days of Night and action movies The Condemned and The Marine, both showcases for American wrestling stars. Both movies were shot in Australia.
Bennett has also had his share of bad luck. A lucrative role in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie evaporated before his eyes, literally days after he had relocated with his family to South Africa to begin filming. The movie was never made; Bennett spent a year in Australia working as a builder’s labourer.
As Bennett told the Dominion Post’s Erica Thompson: "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 of this building site, you’d better fight really hard at this audition'."
Crixus was Bennett's role on blood-soaked sword and sandal series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Shot in Auckland and developed by Xena producer Rob Tapert, the show has him playing the champion fighter at a gladiator school, who is threatened by the arrival of Spartacus (Andy Whitfield). Bennett based his peformance partly on All Black Norm Hewitt, a former rugby acquaintance from his time at Māori boys school Te Aute College.
When prequel series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena began production, Bennett found drama imitating recent events in his own life. Playing a younger version of Crixus, Bennett performed scenes on a fictional building site, as his character helped build a gladiatorial arena, while awaiting the chance to prove his worth as a gladiator. Bennett grew his hair longer and lost 10 kilograms, to make the younger Crixus "look more like a starved slave".
Alongside Spartacus, Bennett won the starring role of the hero on tele-movie Sinbad and the Minotaur, produced by Kiwis Dale and Grant Bradley. In 2013 he joined the cast of hit American superhero show Arrow, playing supervillian Slade Wilson. Fellow castmember David Ramsay praised Bennett's work, saying "his ability to conjure up the dark side of his characters is both impressive and kinda scary".
James Croot, 'It's all action on the set of TV's Arrow' (Interview with David Ramsay) - The Dominion-Post (TV Week pullout), 7 May 2013, page 11
James Graham, ‘Salsa sensation’ (Interview) - Woman’s Day, 2001
Erica Thompson,‘Living by the sword’ (Interview) - Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 26 April 2011, page 4
‘Manu Bennett plays Matt Urlich’ (Profile) Street Legal website (broken link).