Manu Bennett was born in Rotorua, and spent much of his upbringing in Newcastle, Australia, after his Kiwi parents crossed the ocean when he was a baby. Since then Bennett has spent much of his career in Australia, punctuated by periods in his native Aotearoa.
As a teen, Bennett impressed in both rugby and classical ballet. At the University of New South Wales he studied dance, music and drama, then took up an acting scholarship at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Los Angeles. After working behind the scenes on Pasifika documentary series Tagata Tangata, he made his on-screen debut at age 22 via short-lived Australian soap Paradise Beach. This was followed by some small TV roles, including Aussie cop hit Water Rats and New Caledonia-set minseries The Violent Earth.
Bennett's first leading role was in little seen Japanese film Tomoko (1999). Around the turn of the millenium, fresh from playing a Latin salsa teacher in acclaimed Aussie film Lantana, he returned to New Zealand. A stint on Shortland Street saw him playing the handsome but unhinged Jack Hewitt. The character left the show spectacularly, after throwing himself in front of a moving car.
In this period, he switched from acting under the name Jon to Manu (after his late uncle, Anglican bishop Manu Bennett). He guested on Twilight Zone-style show Mataku (in episode 'Going to War'), and cameoed as Roman general Marc Antony on an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Then came an ongoing role on the fourth season of Kiwi show Street Legal. Bennett played tormented cop turned lawyer Matt Urlich, who joins Jay Laga’aia’s law practice, and feuds with the cop (Charles Mesure) who he feels ruined his career.
In 2003 he hosted reality series Going Straight, in which contestants set out to conquer varied challenges. By 2006 he 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. In the same period he appeared in Kiwi-shot horror 30 Days of Night, and action movies The Marine and The Condemned. Shot in Australia, both were showcases for American wrestling stars.
Bad luck has also played its part. After months of gym training, a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie evaporated before his eyes along with the cheque, days after he'd relocated with his family to South Africa to begin filming. He did a year in Australia as a builder’s labourer to get back above water. As Bennett told Dominion Post writer 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 featured on blood-soaked sword and sandal series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Shot in Auckland, the show was developed by Xena producer Rob Tapert. Bennett played the champion fighter at a gladiator school, who is threatened by the arrival of Spartacus (Andy Whitfield). Bennett based his performance partly on All Black Norm Hewitt, a rugby foe from his time at Māori boys school Te Aute College.
When prequel series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena began production, Bennett found drama imitating 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. Bennett grew his hair longer and lost 10 kilograms, to make the younger Crixus "look more like a starved slave". Alongside Spartacus, Bennett starred as Sinbad in TV movie Sinbad and the Minotaur, produced by Kiwis Dale and Grant Bradley.
Bennett was also juggling Spartacus with The Hobbit trilogy; he played the reoccurring role of Azog in all three films. The part had originally been cast with another actor, but when their performance didn't line up with Peter Jackson's vision, Bennett was brought in at the last minute. Motion capture was used to help Bennett bring Azog to life, as the character is a giant, eight-foot tall Orc. But even with the nastiest of creatures, Bennett mines his characters for depth and nuance. "I didn't want him to be all about being a bad guy," he told Stuff in 2013. "When you do that, you end up with these two-dimensional results."
In 2013 he joined the cast of American superhero show Arrow, for another villainous role as Australian mercenary Deathstroke. 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".
Bennett guested on Arrow across multiple seasons. During his time in Los Angeles, he also scored leading roles in low-budget action films Beta Test and Death Race 2050 — the sequel to Roger Corman-produced sci-fi flick Death Race 2000, a cult classic. A return trip to LA saw him sent back downunder, to play war druid Allanon for both seasons of The Shannara Chronicles. The MTV fantasy show filmed around Auckland.
In 2022, Bennett joined the ensemble of Muru, an action film inspired partly by the real events of the 2007 Tūhoe raids. He played the bearded Sergeant Kimiora, one of the Special Tactics Group police officers who descends on an isolated Urewera community. Speaking to The Otago Daily Times, Bennett explained he was initially reluctant to play a character that he was so personally opposed to. But his co-star Cliff Curtis — who once played the unsympathetic Uncle Bully in Once Were Warriors — helped him understand the importance of taking on such roles.
"They say a hero is only as strong as their villain, or a protagonist is only as strong as the antagonist," says Bennett. "You have to bring that energy out, and that’s my job as an actor."
Profile updated on 25 September 2022
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 Croot, 'The fall and rise of Manu Bennett' (Interview) - The Dominion Post (Your Weekend pullout), 6 April 2013
James Graham, ‘Salsa sensation’ (Interview) - Woman’s Day, 2001
Tom McKinlay, 'A reasoned response' (Interview) - The Otago Daily Times, 29 August 2022
Stefan Roesch, 'An interview with Manu Bennett' - FilmQuest website. Loaded 25 February 2019. Accessed 23 September 2022
Erica Thompson, 'Living by the sword' (Interview) - Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 26 April 2011, page 4
'Manu Bennett plays Matt Urlich' Street Legal website. Accessed 23 September 2022