An Interview with Manu Bennett

New Zealand: The Shannara Chronicles

Actor Manu Bennett talks about locations, stunts and his favourite travel destinations.

An Interview with Manu Bennett

By Stefan Roesch

Manu Bennett plays the war druid Allanon in the popular fantasy TV show The Shannara Chronicles which was filmed on location in New Zealand. We had a chat with him about filming in his home country.

What attracted you to the role of 'Allanon'?

"I had just come off the TV-series ArrowI ventured to Los Angeles and set myself up in an apartment and as fate would have it, my first audition was for The Shannara Chronicles. I landed it and two weeks later, they flew me home to New Zealand.

It was great because I could embrace the same crew I had worked with on Spartacus, The Hobbit and Xena. It's always been on my wish list as an actor to have as much work as I can in New Zealand. It keeps me home, especially with family."

How did you prepare for filming?

"I read The Sword of Shannara which is the first book of the series. It was pretty obvious that Allanon was a larger than life character who carried a lot of the weight of the drama. For me, having already played Deathstroke (Arrow), the orc Azog (The Hobbit) and the gladiator Crixus (Spartacus), it was sort of an amalgamation of all the roles I had done. My body of work has always been those characters who have insurmountable challenges and physically confront those challenges.

Manu played the evil orc Azogh in the Hobbit trilogy.

Manu played the evil orc Azogh in the Hobbit trilogy.

It was about taking on the role of someone responsible for navigating young people. I guess I embraced my fatherhood so I could put in part of my own life into the storyline. Allanon is really a father figure to these young hatchlings in a world of war and demons and magic. Guiding them, and also having to force them to leap off the branch was part of the nurturing aspect of Allanon. Being a father of three helped to bring that element in through daily practice!"

What about physical preparation?

"The physical side of it was interesting because I didn't want to throw myself into a heavy gym regime. Working on Spartacus left me with a few injuries. With the role of Allanon, I took more of a war-torn veteran approach, because that's what he is. Also, through the two seasons he was aging. It was one of those things where again, having had injuries, I just inhabited the role naturally.

The use of magic was interesting. I've leant from my old dance training to dramatize movement, like pulses of energy or ripping giant stones off walls. I had this physical language that luckily I learnt young when I did dancing. And also the other skills helped: I was a national athlete in Australia and played rugby in New Zealand and made it into the New South Wales rep team in Australia. I was actually meant to try out for the Australian School Boys Rugby Union team, but in the same week of the selection, I had to dance in Swan Lake! I had to tell all my rugby mates 'sorry but I have to go and dance.' I had a real Billy Elliott phase in my life!

You know all of that time I had spent studying movement and dancing still reflects very strongly in what I'm able to do in front of a camera."

In the Shannara Chronicles, the druid Allanon is mentor to Will Ohmsford (middle, played by Austin Butler) and his daughter Mareth (right).

In the Shannara Chronicles, the druid Allanon is mentor to Will Ohmsford (middle, played by Austin Butler) and his daughter Mareth (right).

How did it go with the horse riding scenes? 

"We were given some basic horse training lessons. We were at a corral and we would ride around in circles and that would be it. But of course, that all changes as soon as filming starts. We were out in the sand dunes at Bethells Beach with rolling dunes, dips and rises and I remember the first time when Austin and I had to ride over those dunes. The camera truck was in front of us and I'm on a world class Friesian, a giant Dutch war horse.

So we started following the camera truck and it started to speed up. We started galloping and the next thing the camera truck went over a dune and disappeared. All of a sudden, we were going down a sand dune at a 45 degree angle on these giant horses. We were nowhere near ready for that. I remember seeing our horse wrangler in the distance running and waving his arms going 'Stop! Stop!' But we managed to stay on."

What was your favourite filming location?

"I do think Bethells Beach offers a lot. On one hand, you have the beach with these incredible jagged rocks. It provides you with a lot of natural emotion from the environment. As a backdrop for film and television, it's a very powerful and vast, primordial place. I think the only other place that I've seen that could be likened to it is Iceland, or parts of Canada.

Then you've also got the sand dunes which take you to a whole different environment. You could be in the middle of the desert. And then there are rolling hills with farmland, almost like Hobbiton. Or you can have the thick New Zealand bush which again looks quite primordial. It really suits fantasy genres."

Bethells Beach

Bethells Beach

Do you have a favourite travel destination?

"I have an affinity with Iceland. Mainly because it feels like New Zealand but without any people. Or only with one type of people - the Vikings. I really relate to the Vikings. It feels to me like the Vikings are the Northern Māori. They have a similar pagan culture in a way where everything is dedicated to the land and community. People live as one with nature but challenge it. The same is with the Māori: We sailed with the wind, we crashed through the ocean, we embraced the forests. In so many ways I see a reflection in the viking culture.

I've been to Iceland several times and I feel very at home there. I'm actually writing a film script with an Icelandic writer and I'm really hoping to make that happen in the future."

Is there a particular film location outside of New Zealand that you would love to go to?

"Well, Game of Thrones was shot in Iceland so yes, Iceland."

What has inspired you recently (book, movie, blog, etc.)? 

"I spent a bit of time in Greece, lately. I feel that Greece is under great threat. I have a deep, deep concern, and also a love for Greece because I travelled everywhere. That country is in such a pivotal position. It's a very critical time for them.

They are being humiliated on purpose by being blamed for being irresponsible. That's a way to destroy their economy. It's how you injure an animal - with the wolves hanging around waiting to take a bite.

I've spent some time at a place called Marathon which is the site of one of the greatest victories in Greek history. They won the battle against the Persian army and a guy ran all the way from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory. I found this a fascinating story, so I'm writing about a young boy in contemporary Greece who ends up running the Marathon, and in doing so, he inspires the country."

Do you have some tips for international travellers on which places to visit in New Zealand?

"Don't tell tourists where paradise is. I don't know if there's any secrets left on this planet. But there's still quite a few in New Zealand."

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An Interview with Manu Bennett

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