Manu Bennett plays to his strength

FROM his days as a soapie star to the big screen, Manu Bennett has come a long way since growing up in Newcastle.

The formed Merewether High student is kicking butt on the hit TV series, Arrow (screened in Australia on NBN), after scoring a regular role in the second season as unstoppable assassin Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke).

According to comic buffs, there are few characters in the DC comic world as dangerous as the mercenary known as Wilson who, in comic book tales, has gone up against everyone from Batman to the Justice League.

"Prior to this I had no idea about Arrow or the DC comic world," Bennett tells Weekender from Vancouver where he has a day off set filming Arrow.

"It happened very fast and suddenly I find myself in Vancouver playing one of the big heroes of the DC comic world."

He initially auditioned for the part of another character named Holloway but later found out (via the internet) he had landed the role of Wilson.

"I was at the airport reaching the customs desk to clear my work papers and my agent rang and said 'Manu, an article has come out online saying you've landed the role of Slade Wilson. Do you know what that is?"' Bennett says.

"I brought it up online and I said 'This is wrong, my character's name is Holloway. I don't know what this Deathstroke is'.

"I said Deathstroke reasonably loud on my phone and the guy behind the customs desk said 'Are you playing Deathstroke?' and I said 'That's what it says here' and he said 'Oh man, Deathstroke is, like, one of the most powerful super villains of the DC comic world'.

"So the role literally got explained to me by the customs guy at Vancouver airport! It was very strange."

The series follows billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (aka Green Arrow) who, after five years of being stranded on a hostile island, returns home to fight crime and corruption as a secret vigilante.

With a hit role playing gladiator Crixus in the TV series Spartacus under his belt, Bennett's physicality and acting chops made him perfect for taking on the show's key character.

He says an unforgettable audition, during which Bennett mistakenly caused the person reading opposite him to pass out, is what won him the role of Wilson.

He flew into Los Angeles for the audition from the Middle East where he was on a trip visiting US troops alongside stars of Spartacus.

During the visit he asked special forces to show him the moves used out on the field, one of which he later used in his audition.

"One of the guys said 'Well, for instance, if we're in a compound and we have to be quiet using stealth then I'll sneak up behind a guy and this is what you do - you grab him around the neck and you get him in a choke hold and you either break his neck or choke him out'," Bennett laughs.

Following the trip, Bennett flew to Los Angeles where he was called in to a last-minute audition for Arrow.

The script included a scene where the character had to grab Arrow around the neck, so Bennett decided to use the manoeuvre shown to him on the reader.

"I started doing the scene but 15 seconds into it, this guy passed out," Bennett says with a laugh.

"Obviously it's a pretty effective move because this guy just dropped to the floor out cold. I said to the casting director 'I'm sorry, I didn't realise . . . ' and he said 'No, it was perfect!'

"A couple of minutes later the guy I was reading with came back in and said 'Don't worry about it. You're the first guy that has come in here where I've felt like you're completely in the role'.

"It led to me getting the role but I literally got the role choking out the reader [laughs]."

Bennett's career as a hard-hitting action star stems from a very different place.

Before landing the role on Arrow, New Zealand-born Bennett spent his formative years in Newcastle discovering a passion for sport - and dance.

Bennett was three when his family moved across the Tasman in the early 1970s.

Then known by his Christian name Jonathan (he adopted his Maori middle name after moving back to New Zealand more than a decade ago), Bennett overcame tragic circumstances in his early years which eventually led him to acting.

In 1985, Bennett lost his mother June in a car accident, which he was also involved in, after the family's car was hit by a drunk driver.

The family's loss deepened weeks later when his older brother Stephen, who had suffered severe brain-stem damage in a separate car accident at Nelson Bay three years earlier which put him in a coma, died a month after June's death.

The 16-year-old threw himself into sport and excelled as an athlete, particularly in football, later going on to play first-grade rugby for the Wanderers Football Club.

Around this time he began dating a ballerina who encouraged him to take up dance at the studio of respected Newcastle instructor Marie Walton-Mahon.

Like with sport, Bennett showed skill as a dancer.

He says a decision to choose dance over football ultimately changed the course of his life after he double booked to appear in a production of Swan Lake on the same day as a match playing in the NSW schoolboys rugby union team.

"I'd committed to that dance production prior to having knowledge of when the Australian trials were going to be," Bennett recalls.

"I had to pull out, so I didn't make the [football] tour."

Bennett credits his history with rugby and dance for giving him an edge with the physical acting roles.

"When I get asked about the fighting [scenes], I guess some of the physical element of it having played rugby at a top level - I know how to run head-on into big guys and take that kind of punishment," Bennett says.

"But on another level, movement - especially with camera and on set - is quite an art itself. It's much like the elements of acting, you know, some people just don't know how to move. They don't know how to address the lens dramatically.

"Being a dancer, you learn to express from the inside with movement. Your emotions are all to do with movement.

"Even when it comes down to fight scenes, on Spartacus if I was doing spinning strikes with my sword or jumping through the air into somebody, all of those mechanical skills came from my training in dance back at Marie Walton's."

Arrow is the latest in Bennett's growing resume that began in 1993 with his first acting job on Australian soapie, Paradise Beach.

Guest roles followed on Australian dramas Blue Heelers, Water Rats and All Saints, while in New Zealand he filmed appearances on fantasy series, Xena: Warrior Princess.

It eventually led to the role of Crixus in Spartacus: Blood and Sand in 2010.

Screened in 22 countries to an audience of up to 30 million viewers, the role provided his biggest break.

Bennett will next be seen on the big screen for the second instalment of The Hobbit in his role as villain orc, Azog.

Filming in New Zealand with director Peter Jackson has been a highlight of his career.

"One thing Peter did tell me after the premier was that Azog had been a huge success and they were going to make a lot more of him out of the second one and potentially the third," Bennett says

"It's exciting. He complimented me by saying my performance of Azog was the stand out of the first film.

"That was one of the highlights of my career, having someone as good as that giving me a compliment."

Bennett, who is the father of three daughters Huia, Mokoia and Pania, hopes he can bring something back to the city that shaped the path of his life.

"I really hope in some way I can bring anything I've managed to achieve and the experience I've gained through this career back and share that in Newcastle, whether it be with actors there or whatnot, because all of the opportunities I got stemmed from Newcastle," Bennett says.

"That's where I got training and that's where I lived my life and found my way through many a struggle.

"Those formative years are just so important in creating who you are."

TO THE HEART: Manu Bennett plays super villain Deathstroke in Arrow.

TO THE HEART: Manu Bennett plays super villain Deathstroke in Arrow.

MAN OF TONE: Manu Bennett  as gladiator Crixus in Spartacus: Blood and Sand

MAN OF TONE: Manu Bennett as gladiator Crixus in Spartacus: Blood and Sand

ARROW: Manu Bennett.

ARROW: Manu Bennett.

SHOREMAN: Manu Bennett in Paradise Beach.

SHOREMAN: Manu Bennett in Paradise Beach.

  Manu Bennett.

Manu Bennett.

  Manu Bennett.

Manu Bennett.

 : Manu Bennett.

: Manu Bennett.

 Manu Bennett.

Manu Bennett.