The Iris Interview: Arrow’s Manu Bennett on the success of the ‘superhero’ TV series ahead of Supanova!

Manu Bennett

Supanova is set to light fires in the bellies of pop culture fanatics in Sydney this weekend and to be honest, it’s one of the strongest guest line ups they’ve pulled yet. Actors from highly successful series’ including Game of Thrones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, The Walking Dead and more are set to spend their weekend with devoted fans for a program packed full of panels, autographs and photo sessions. Among them is NZ/Australian actor Manu Bennett, currently starring as ‘Slade Wilson/Deathstroke’ in the CW show Arrow. Having starred in other wildly successful franchises including Spartacus, as well as doing voice work as ‘Azog the Defiler’ in the recent Hobbit films, Bennett comes to Sydney this weekend well-versed in convention protocol and as a former NSW resident, having cut his teeth as a young actor here himself.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Bennett enthuses, on his way to Phoenix Comic-Con as we chat. “Australia is where I went to university and studied acting, so it’s refreshing to bring it all back and do my first convention back in Australia where I started my craft off in the first place, on a show called Paradise Beach!”

If you’re old enough to remember Paradise Beach, you’re probably old enough to also remember Bennett’s turns in other Australian dramas nestled in the 90s and early 2000s, including Water Rats and All Saints, though it’s probably a safe bet that the majority of people set to line up to meet Bennett this weekend aren’t going to be holding press shots from those gigs. As ‘Slade Wilson/Deathstroke ‘on Arrow, Bennett has been able to further cement his status as an excellent gun-for-hire  in these big action driven shows where the characters are incredibly well-layered and delivering some physical and emotional punch. Arrow, itself based on the DC Green Arrow comics, is just one of many current superhero/comic dramas dominating television and film.

“I think there is a huge movement with the comic book world now,” Bennett explains. “Movies like Superman were some of the first times that the studios honed in on comic book characters and the Batman became a huge franchise. I think it’s a proven field, that you can literally go out and find which [comic books] have a huge fanbase can all be translated for television. The thing about television and the strength of television is that you can take a story and elongate it the same as how these comic book series’ run, then you also have that creative capacity to retell stories, in away.”

Bennett delves deep into his role on Arrow (of which he was bumped up to series regular for the show’s second season) in explaining this ability for writers behind these projects to play with established characters and expose different elements of their nature through characterisation.

“With Arrow, there is a whole restructuring of these characters. I mean, I can’t pay too much attention to ‘Slade Wilson/Deathstroke’ in the DC Comics world, because he has a slightly different background and storyline to the character I play on the show. ‘Are you a ‘Slade Wilson/Deathstroke’ fan? Did you know anything about the character?’ I really had no idea about the character; as an actor, I don’t try to look too far ahead, because you can misconstrue, reading too much into characters. Trying to look at the ‘Deathstroke’ character in the comic books especially, his structure and ultimately the character that he portrays is built up from certain things that are written in the comic books, like the death of his son in the first Teen Titans edition that George Perez and Mary Wolfman wrote and illustrated. It’s a grey spot to look into because our writers made this relationship between ‘Oliver Queen’ [Stephen Amell] and ‘Slade’ on the island have a feeling of Yoda and Luke Skywalker – it’s like the mentor and the student.”

“Their way of twisting the plot to create a love triangle with ‘Shado’ [Celina Jade]…when they decided to do that, they did it out of the blue.” Bennett continues. “I’m cruising along with a certain character and they rang me up – I actually suggested there should be a love triangle – and said, ‘Manu, we are going to go with that idea and create this storyline. As of the next episode, you are in love with ‘Shado’.’ I was like, ‘Really? When are we going to start building that?’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll just make it the story arc and we will make it work.’ Television isn’t as flushed out as film, because the writers are basically writing on a two week turnover schedule and are consistently changing story arcs to make spikes and interests and even relate it to how the fans are reacting. Television’s like a moving, breathing animal that you have to stay on top of all the time, whereas film is one of those things where it could take several years to get it off the ground and scripts are rewritten and rewritten and perfected.”

Another element of the television industry Bennett is familiar with, is not only being a part of a successful franchise and ensemble cast such as Arrow, but also being part of shows which have a large enough budget to devote to graphics and visual effects. The way Spartacus was filmed is a prime example, taking the foundations laid by 300 and other graphic novels’ film presentations and bringing it to HD television formats.

“The distance between how people view film or how they film television is becoming a very small margin,” Bennett comments. “With all the entertainment systems you can put into your house these days and the quality that you can watch productions on…I mean, Spartacus was a great replica of 300 and there wasn’t much difference between some of the graphic effects that we got on our show, as what was put into a multi-billion dollar budget like 300. A lot of people who go to see a movie a billion times are going to watch this move and go, ‘I’ll wait for it to come out on DVD’ because they can watch it with surround sound and all the qualities of cinema.”

“If you look at True Detective, you have Matthew McConaughey, who won an Academy Award this year and is now appearing in television. The fence is down and the best actors are going backwards and forwards. It’s good to be on a Spartacus or an Arrow, because you’re on the forefront of this movement and you know, a lot of actors want the security of television because you spend three or four years involved in one project, really cooking a character. In the shows that I’m playing, I might play ‘Crixus’ in a film version or I might play ‘Slade Wilson’ in a film version of Arrow and I would’ve gotten like, four lines. It just goes to show that to make a successful television show, you need all the components of it, especially the writers, to be running on their feet constantly. You have to build this universe as it plays out.”

Like his Arrow co-star John Barrowman particularly, who will also be attending Supanova in both Sydney and Perth, Bennett will have two or more large fanbases rocking up to see him. With Spartacus and Arrow both having been granted Australian broadcast space on both free to air and cable TV, Australian viewers haven’t had to rely solely on internet torrents and forums to get their fix. Bennett notes that coming to Australia off the back of both these shows is going to be interesting, given that we’ve been given slightly different versions of Spartacus and Arrow has been a certified smash in the States.

“I think Australia was given like, a PG version of Spartacus,” Bennett says. “It’s interesting, having to relate the series to an Australian audience, because they saw it so edited. The same thing’s happening here in America; it’s going to be interesting, because the Sci-Fi network just bought the series and they are re-releasing it. I think we only had 5% of the American public, available through pay per view, so now we get the other 95%. It’s basically being reborn! They are doing it the same way it was in Australia, it’s going to be censored and PG rated. It’s one of those things where, in Australia, I think people got into it on television, but I think they realised that to see the best of it, they have to get it on DVD. It’s going to be interesting to see how that process plays out over here in the States, because it really will be a new beginning for Spartacus.”

“Coming to Australia, we’re running on the back of Arrow airing there. It’ll be interesting to see what the fan base is like in Australia, because it’s taken off here in America. I do these conventions and it’s 50/50 between Spartacus fans and Arrow fans. Somehow, people realise I’m that guy behind the giant white orc on  The Hobbit. Most people don’t actually know that’s me! People who are really into the Tolkein world who did their research, they know it’s me, but the general fan comes up to the table and there is a picture of me as ‘Azog’ behind me and they go, ‘Ah, you were that guy. I never recognised you.”

Bennett and his Arrow crew have not only Supanova Sydney hijinx to look forward to, but Supanova in Perth on the following weekend too, giving them plenty of opportunities to get a feel for how their series has resonated with the Australian viewership. As with any actor who finds him or herself integrated in a fictional universe of a cult or commercially successful show, Bennett’s place at conventions here and overseas is pretty safely secure. Fans have proven to be intensely dedicated and in this way, there’s always going to be a love and desire for their presence at these events. Bennett comments on the presence of film actors from the bigger budget shows at these conventions these days and how this has been a notable development.

“The fan base of television series’ is much more passionate than the fan base of films,” Bennett comments. “You are in their living room once a week over several years and you almost become more familiar to them than some of their own family members! It’s a relationship that has enabled this second phase of the business, which are the Comic Cons, because these fans want to indulge more and they want to learn more. The Comic Con conventions, which are pretty much being led by TV actors more so instead of film actors, it’s a real revelation. The push of the industry is diversifying from onscreen to online, to face-to-face connection between performers and viewers.”

“It’s really interesting,” he laughs. “Social media has opened up a platform where our communications with fans are on another level. People are posting what they’re eating for breakfast!”

Supanova kicks off in Sydney from June 13-15, before heading to Perth. Hit up for further information.



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