Interview by Nick de Semlyen
Kiwi actor Manu Bennett has appeared in movies including 30 Days Of Night, Lantana and The Marine, but his most high-profile work to date has been in Starz’ Spartacus series, as ludicrously chiselled slave Crixus. The performance caught Peter Jackson’s eye, leading him to cast Bennett as the dwarf-bothering Pale Orc in the Hobbit trilogy. Now, with The Hobbit out on Blu-ray and DVD this week, he talks Azog’s defiling past and reveals the name of his pet warg…
How did you wind up in The Hobbit?
I was coming towards the end of Spartacus and thinking, “How am I gonna beat this? Am I going to end up on a cop or hospital series?” I was really scared, being used to walking on set and having arenas falling down around me or seeing 1,000 soldiers go into battle. But then I got this call from New Zealand. Peter Jackson had already cast someone as Azog, but when he got to the editing room, he wasn’t sure it was working. I’d auditioned for the role previously and so they thought of me. Because I was shooting the last three episodes of Spartacus, they had to fly me down at the weekends. I’d leave set, go straight to the airport and end up in Wellington, changing out of the gladiator outfit and into the green suit.
It sounds like there was a lot of time pressure…
I was in the studio doing things for Azog four weeks before the premiere! In some ways I was the final ingredient to the whole thing. Being called in that late meant I missed out on the whole promotional machine. There were no images or footage of Azog in the trailers, because nothing was available. When I was in New York recently, I saw a Lego set for the scene with the tree and the flaming pine cones, and it had a little toy of Bolg (Azog’s ginger-bearded son, who will appear in The Desolation Of Smaug and There And Back Again), not Azog. That’s because the design that ended up as Bolg was originally meant for Azog. Azog was going to be a seven-foot giant, played with prosthetics, but Peter changed his mind and decided to go with something less bulky, and played with motion-capture. I think his decision surprised everybody at the time.
We haven’t seen Bolg on-screen yet, but it’s hard to imagine a father-son dynamic between Orcs…
(Laughs) I don’t think there’ll be a bottle-feeding scene. I don’t know if they’re going have a game of cricket on the side of the battlefield. But here’s an interesting bit of trivia: the guy playing Bolg, who was originally cast as Azog, was at my high school in Newcastle, Australia. He’s called Conan Stevens, and was really tall and skinny back then. I was there on the day that he was picked on by a guy a year ahead of us in the playground – everyone was watching and Conan suddenly threw these big, long arms out and knocked the guy flat on his ass. And that’s when he changed. He went from being bones to being on the rugby team within a month. Then he became an actor and joined us on Spartacus. I invited him over to my house and he said, “I’ve just landed Azog.” I went, “Fuck, you bastard! I went for that role!” We celebrated at my house, and then for whatever creative purposes Peter decided to use him as Bolg and asked me to go down to do Azog. It’s just a very funny coincidence. And I was there at the defining moment, when he became the Azog of our school.
And now you’re terrorizing Middle-earth together. It sounds like Peter Jackson is a fan of Spartacus…
You know, when I got to Weta on my first day, I was very nervous. I was feeling pre-meeting tension or whatever. And it was like mission control down there, with a countdown as Peter approached the building: “Peter’s in the car park! Peter’s in the building!” Then in walks this very short, unassuming bearded fella with very casual clothing on. It’s like The Wizard Of Oz, when that guy walks out from behind the mirror – that’s just what Peter Jackson is. Completely unassuming. And the first thing he said to me was, ‘Manu, we’re really honoured to have you down here. I’m a big fan of Spartacus and love your work on that. We know you’re going to do a fantastic job here.” We just jumped straight on the horse – or the warg, I should say – and figured out very quickly what I was going to do.
How did you approach the character?
The night I was cast, I went out and bought The Empire Strikes Back and Jaws. My goals were to get a voice as sinister as Darth Vader and the menacing physicality of the shark. It’s so easy to take these big beasts – these ferocious characters – and cook them at ten the whole time. But I wanted to have this circling, steady presence that would suddenly attack randomly. Peter allowed me to make a lot of adjustments. Being a Maori, in the scene where I’m beating up Thorin, I rocked back on my warg, raised my eyes up and did this look that in the Maori world is called ‘pukana’. You show the enemy the whites of your eyes. It just happened instinctively and at the end of the take I said, “Peter, I think I pukana-ed!” I didn’t think he’d use it, but sure enough, when I went down to the premiere with a bunch of Maori friends, there it was.
When we spoke to Philippa Boyens, she said you had many female admirers on the set. She also said that T-shirts were made up reading, “Azog can defile me any time.”
I don’t know how many of those girls would really want to be mounted by Azog! (Laughs) In the green-suit with the motion-capture balls, that would be a different picture altogether.
Did you ever ask what exactly it is that Azog The Defiler defiles?
No! It’s funny because I remember having that discussion with my manager, when I originally went to audition for it. My manager is German and I always have jokes with her about German sexual preferences. (Laughs) She went, “Manu, I think you just have to be some kind of a evil, perverted Hobbit torturer.” That was what she recommended for me.
Was motion-capture fun or exhausting?
It was tough, but also exhilarating. Totally randomly, I’d bumped into Andy Serkis at Comic-Con a year before I got cast in The Hobbit, and he and I chatted for an hour about mo-cap and his new company in London. He said to me then, “The acting potential expands, because you leave your own body. It’s like Tron, getting sucked into a videogame. You no longer exist and all that’s left is the role.” That was spot on. When I started work – and I literally stepped into Andy’s shoes, the ones he’d worn playing Gollum – I never worked with any other actors. I didn’t meet Richard Armitage until the premiere. So I had to create an emotional world for Azog. I remember sitting on a pummel horse, imagining it was a giant wolf. I called up to Peter, who was up in the control booth, barefoot, and asked what kind of relationship I had with my warg. Because I thought it had to be a Lone Ranger and Silver kind of thing, with a connection between the two.
Did that extend to naming the warg?Yes, I actually called her Daisy. (Laughs) We actually came up with a T-shirt that said, “A warg is an orc’s best friend.”
Nice. There’s an extended cut of An Unexpected Journey coming out this Christmas. Will it contain any bonus Azog?
No, because when I was brought in they’d already cut the film. For some of the scenes I had to move through frames doing actions that would be placed over the top of Conan’s performance. It got pretty frantic while we were in ADR, finding the voice for the character. The sound guys were chucking in leopard growls and dropping my voice right down to super-deep baritone.
You’re heading back to New Zealand this summer to shoot more scenes. Can you give any hints about what they’ll involve?
Not really, because I’ve not yet seen the scripts. But Peter’s told me that he’s going to build Azog up over the next two films, so I’m getting plenty to do. His motivation is to hunt down little old Thorin Oakenshield, the guy who took his arm off, and chop off a couple of limbs in return. He’s got his sights set on a rematch.
That and attaining some high-quality warg food for Daisy?
There’s enough of that riding around on other wargs! But it’s funny you should say that, because I don’t want to give anything away, but Daisy has a role to play. And I swear to you this: Azog is always going to be very attentive to her. That relationship is an ongoing concern in this series.