Manu Bennett is a firm favourite of many a genre fan, with him standing out for his mesmerising work as Crixus on Spartacus and then following that up by wowing us all with his excellent portrayal of Slade Wilson/Deathstroke in Arrow. Add in credits such as 30 Days of Night, The Condemned and, of course, playing Azog in Peter Jackon’s The Hobbit trilogy, and Bennett has quite the impression CV. And now this hugely talented New Zealander is starring as Frankenstein in Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, a film that looks to follow in the footsteps of 1975’s Death Race 2000. We were lucky enough to grab some time with Manu to discuss this latest project.
STARBURST: First and foremost, how did you end up involved with Death Race 2050? Was it a case of they hunted you down, or did you have to go through an audition approach?
Manu Bennett: Yeah, G.J. Echternkamp, the director, had obviously seen my work and said I was what they wanted for the role. I sort of thought it was going to be the next one of the Jason Statham Stallone being in it was a big surprise. I just went, “Wow! This is an interesting project, and I get to rehash a ‘70s B-movie classic.” There was something about that which was just so desirable. You know, I’ve always thought that meeting people with experience in this industry is the most worthwhile thing you can do, like Peter Jackson for instance, and so working with Roger Corman… he’s iconic! Even though he’s iconic as the King of the B-movies, he’s iconic. He’s 90 years old and he’s just done Comic Con with me, did the panel, and he was so lucid and completely on the ball with answering questions, whereas I was sitting there fumbling and trying to search my mind for answers. So the guy is an incredible force, and I’m glad to work with him and his body of work and celebrate a ‘70s film. It’s an interesting film for me because of the satire that’s involved in it. But for me, I didn’t really stray too much from playing a dark character like Frankenstein is. I gave him the same signature that I give my roles. I didn’t try and copy Carradine. At first I thought I might, play the sort of endorsing of the sexual underlying theme like in the original. In those days you had The Rocky Horror Show, things that were going on that had this sort of psychedelic sexy energy. But it’s kind of a cross between that and potentially more modern takes on the role. What’s going on in the world around me is completely in line with the original Death Race 2000.
Having been privy to seeing a sneak peak of the movie it seems to be absolutely crazy, but how much fun was it for you to be involved with?
Where the character becomes involved in the film, my character anyway, is when you enter that cockpit and you start having the relationship between Frankenstein and his proxy, who’s played by Marci Miller. At that stage you start getting the story. Everything else is kind of just fanfare and the ‘70s look, so you’ve got that completely outrageous introduction with Malcolm McDowell leering over the top of Lima, Peru. I mean, that whole audience is full of ancient things. Peru is like this metropolis put on top of the jungle, then there’s people coming out of that jungle into the city, and it’s probably a more accurate place to shoot this film than anywhere, really. It’s totally crazy! And when the mask comes off Frankenstein, that’s the meat and potatoes of what is the central character’s story and journey. It’s one of these movies that you’ve just got to sit back with some friends, have a couple of beers – maybe watch Roger Corman’s original one – then understand where this film’s coming from. I mean, at the end of the day it’s not what I think most fans are going to expect the film to be because of how the Luke Goss and Jason Statham roles… people come up to me and say, “I’m so glad you’re in Death Race, man. I saw the Jason Statham one!” So people are expecting me to be in this Mad Max kind of role. Even though I don’t think I fall too far from that mark in the performance of the character once you get into the film, it’s bounded by this 1970s visual of these crazy racing machines from a different period.
Marci Miller as Annie Sullivan and Manu Bennett as Frankenstein in Death Race 2050
You mentioned there about Frankenstein and that you have the mask. A lot of the film sees you wearing that mask, so how much of a challenge was that for you in your performance?
Well the idea is that you’re not giving anything up when you’re behind the mask. The whole idea of a mask is, in a story like this especially, or in a story like Arrow, like Deathstroke, or the original Crixus – he was wearing the mask of a gladiator – the idea is the audience is more interested in what happens when that mask is taken of. So the same applies in Death Race. When I watched the trailer myself at Comic Con, I was interested because you don’t really get to see the mask come off and see the performance begin, see the peeling of the layers. So the mask is something to create the lead-up to the actual theme of the story, which is that we all wear masks. There’s a whole mask on society, so it’s what happens when you try to remove it, you try to find your own liberty of expression. That’s kind of the way it unravels with Frankenstein and his proxy, Marci Miller. And I really enjoyed working with Marci because she’s a great girl, she really is, she’s really wonderful. She reminds me a little bit of this sort of all-American apple pie, the girl with a big smile, she’s just somebody who acts naturally. Playing somebody so mechanical as Frankenstein, looking at her and looking at her as an actress, it’s just such a lovely and natural performance. She was a good actress to unwind with because she had a great natural sense of humour. Like at the end of the day, when I laugh next to her, I laugh naturally. I got along with her wonderfully, so it was a good way to discover that part of a character when I’ve never really played that kind of laughy, cheery character. I don’t want to spoil anything, you know, but I think the certain chemistry that happens with actors and actresses, you’ve got to get along with that person to have a natural chemistry to get to a point of levity and for it to be real. So once the pressure valve was slowly released, she did a good job in playing that person who gets Frankenstein to take off his mask.
To many, the fall from grace of Slade Wilson in Arrow is one of the truly great live-action depictions of a supervillain, and then there’s all of the praise you received for the role of Crixus in Spartacus. How rewarding is it to slowly unravel those story arcs, and how does that compare to telling a story in just 90 minutes of a movie?
The thing with television is, I’ve always had a lot longer time to develop those characters and cook those characters. When you do a feature film, you’ve got 90 minutes to get through a whole journey. I think if any fan of my work watches Death Race 2050 and watches the arc of the character, they’ll appreciate it. I’ve seen the whole film, and at first I was thinking to myself that it would be a really wacky job and I was wondering whether I could anchor it. I’m usually happily when it involves Slade Wilson or Crixus, I’m happy with the evolution because I’ve not been used to putting my character unfolding over 90 minutes. But Roger and G.J., they were all complimentary and I can sit back and watch Death Race 2050 and be very pleased with that performance. I think it’s a good character in terms of how I created my own take, and I feel good about it. So I hope people sit back and watch a little wackiness. Fans of my work will see that I put my effort to get that character who’s stuck in the dark and bring him out.
Manu as Crixus in Spartacus and as Slade Wilson in Arrow
There’s a certain perception of yourself as an actor as a lot of the roles you’ve done over the years often tend to have an edge to them, that the character doesn’t take any bullshit. Do you think that’s been a hindrance in some ways at times, in that some people may not appreciate other aspects of what you can bring to the table?
I think anybody is going to have their pros and cons when it comes to who they are, what’s positive, what’s negative. I can only do what I do. At the end of the day, I look at my body of work and I’m happy with it. I don’t see myself as somebody who goes to work and who is in this industry because I like the idea of being a celebrity. I take my art very seriously, and at the end of the day there’s nothing more rewarding than being at Comic Con and have fans look at me and emote in certain ways, especially people who’ve been through something. What brought me into acting and what brought me into the artistic world was the fact that I had a tough childhood. My academics was affected because of that, and I found the arts – the arts were the way that I survived. I was able to express myself. Getting characters who are stuck in dark places, who have to fight their way through and overcome the odds, I’ve had that battle. That’s more of a real battle out there than people just playing Captain America, even though Captain America and all these characters do have little things that do happen along the way. It’s the reality, though, that really connects me to my fans. That’s my signature and I can’t escape that, but I wouldn’t want to. Sometimes I’m the second person on the call sheet, and the first person on the call sheet mightn’t like the idea that I come up in a way that nobody else does because I’m not in bubble wrap. I always bring as much of a challenge as I can in my performances. I’ll just say that’s where I commit myself to roles, and I’d argue that it works .
And finally, where are things with Arrow now for yourself? It seems as if it’s all very much up in the air as to if or when we’ll see you back as Deathstroke – is there anything you can tell us on that front?
Look, I think it’s a wonderful mystery. It’s better just to be tight-lipped about all of that because fan expectation is wonderful, and I don’t want to spoil that for anybody.
Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 is available on Blu-ray and DVD from March 20th. In the meantime, be sure to check out the trailer for this bonkers-yet-brilliant movie in the player below:
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