Man of War
After his mother died, a teenage Manu Bennett was sent from his comfortable home in Australia to a boarding school for Maori boys, located in the hard beyond of the New Zealand countryside. “It was like being sent to gladiator school,” he says. “Like prison. The only things people respected were strength, being good at rugby, and being able to hold your own in a fight.”
It was, quite literally, a school of hard knocks. And the school bully in those days was called Norm Hewitt: a great hulk of a child who would grow up to be an All Black rugby player who led his team in the pre-match war dance known as the haka. “He was the absolute iconic bully,” says Bennett. One day Hewitt cornered him in an emptying classroom and gave him a severe beating. “I was on the ground with blood coming out of my nose as he stamped on my head. No exaggeration.”
Bennett tells the story matter-of-factly. But it is impossible not to visualise it as a hyper-realised scene from Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the colossally violent amphitheatrical TV drama, now about to enter its second series (Spartacus: Gods of the Arena), in which Bennett stars as Crixus, a muscle-clad gladiator chosen by the sword to kill for survival.
Bennett’s is not a tale from the movies. It happened. But it is a story with almost cinematic redemption in it. Because the actor, now 41, displayed in his reaction to this brutal fight the value of facing your fears head on. “I realised that the only way I could prove myself was to hit the gym, hard,” he says. So he bulked up and took to playing sport with lunatic gung-ho, rampaging on the rugby field with such terrifying intensity that after a while even his tormentor, Hewitt, had to stand back and admit that here was a teenager with an exceptional, unbreakable character.
By building strength of muscle on top of strength of will, Bennett not only survived. He conquered his fear. He worked very hard, and he emerged bigger and faster, stronger and more successful.
Manu Bennett was following a classic blueprint: the warrior’s progress. He has been following it ever since.
If Bennett has always trained hard, he has never been one of those irritatingly over-competitive sorts. Early in life he reasoned that it was no good simply setting his sights on beating others. Rather, he worked out that the competitive urge is best pitched against yourself.
“I’ve always been really inspired by watching top athletes putting in peak performances,” he says. “If I see someone doing a new sport, I usually like to throw myself into it, and I never look at it and think, ‘that’s something I can’t do’.” He doesn’t back down from a challenge, and he doesn’t let up on his training. “I’ve never thought that I was competing against anyone else. I’ve always seen it as a competition against myself.” Looking at the physique he’s built during his years of hard competition, the results are obvious.
Building a warrior
It’s an attitude that has allowed him to pick up pretty much any sport he has chosen, and succeed to a high level. His CV highlights include being a top-ranked athlete, a state-level rugby player and a talented musician before deciding to change paths and begin a career in acting.
Just because Bennett thinks like a warrior, don’t think he’s Conan the Barbarian – all barbells, broadswords and chump-for-brains. “The best physique I ever had was when I was ballet dancing,” he says, with the easy conviction of a man who has tried pretty much everything and doesn’t feel the need to talk up his machismo. “Yeah, it might sound a bit girly. But I had to lift girls up in the air all the time. That’s 65kg, up and down, up and down, carrying them all the time. Constantly working very elongated muscles. Precision work, where your muscles are all engaged.”
It’s an unlikely image – the warrior in tights, but the lessons Bennett learnt during his time dancing proved relevant.
Before each season of Spartacus… commences filming, the male actors are summoned to a course known – in terms that tell you much about its content – as Gladiator Boot Camp. Under the supervision of stunt co-ordinators and fitness specialists, they train for four hours a day, combining weapon moves and combat skills with circuit training, sprints and team games like tug-of-war. They train until the sweat pours from them, then they throw down as much clean food as they can: A diet of lean meat, steamed vegetables and fish, steaks cooked blue and salad with no dressing.
If the conditions are ascetic, the goals, too, are simple. “We want to get everyone to a state of peak fitness,” says Bennett. “But more importantly we want to get men together in a group: to create a pack mentality, in which everyone is pulled along by the momentum of the horde.”
What, physically, are they trying to create? There is far more to it than simply adding muscular bulk. In fact, the experience is the antithesis of a bodybuilding convention. As with the ballet, so with the boot camp. “It’s all about full-body manoeuvrability,” says Bennett. “None of it is about stacking weights for muscle-building. The more you load onto your body, the more immobile you get.”
Bennett knows this first-hand. Five years ago, preparing for a role in an MMA film that was never made, he packed on 20kg of muscle through the more extreme bodybuilding techniques. He did “everything that a hardcore bodybuilder would do” – his phrase – but found that he was catastrophically unfit.
“When I got back down from 105kg to my normal weight,” he says, “I realised what a load you have to carry to maintain it, and had a lot of mobility issues, that could have brought injuries.” It would have been impossible for him to don sword and sandals and look even vaguely convincing.
He gives a brilliantly vivid example. “Take Arnold Schwarzenegger at his biggest, when he was doing Mr Universe. If he’d gone into a gladiator arena, he’d have been hacked to pieces. He wouldn’t have been able to move! By the same token, someone agile but with no size and power wouldn’t have been able to hurt him.”
The aim for the warrior physique, then, is to find a third way. “Somewhere in the middle there’s an athlete,” says Bennett. “Someone with agility and strength but above all, with a will to win.” And that’s where Bennett pitches himself. Strong, but athletic, with limitless mental reserves. “Anyone can train to be a gladiator,” he says. “What marks you out is having the mindset of a champion.”
Bennett has reached an age when most men feel that time is fighting against their efforts to stay in shape. But he says that he is now in the prime condition of his life. “I’ve reached my peak,” he says. “My body is performing at its best.”
Rather than being his enemy, he says, time has proved a friend. That’s encouraging for anyone tempted to give up their training as the years advance. The longer you train, says Bennett, the better you become. “I’m a 41-year-old playing a 25-year-old,” he says. “I can do that because I have been training hard for 25 years now. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Bennett believes in progress and the long haul. In that sense, in every field of life, you need to play a long game in order to really achieve. “Success is a process from A to Z, not A to D,” he says. “One of the things that’s important is to understand that whatever you’re doing, there’s a time factor involved. You’ve got to compete a few times before you become competitive.”
He’s also had time to work out what his body responds to and what sets it back, a system that has led him ever further away from pounding weights and more towards sports where his whole body is engaged at once. He fights, he surfs and he swims. His current workout has precious little to do with pumping iron. It’s inspired instead by Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) conditioning. One of his lessons of age has been that you will avoid injury and increase your mobility by using your bodyweight as a tool.
But the workout is only a part of the process. Because for Bennett, exercise isn’t just a 45-minute chore in the gym. To reach an elite level of fitness, training has become an almost spiritual process. He has taken up stand-up paddle-boarding – a sport that he eulogises with missionary zeal. It connects not only with his professional need to be in good shape, but with his ancestral urge to ride the waves.
Bennett lives on a beach, and every day that he can, he stand-up paddle-boards 1.2 miles (2km) across the ocean, from the shore near his home to Rangitoto Island, a volcanic protrusion in the Hauraki Gulf, with special significance in Maori history. As he paddles across the open water, mechanical processes are underway. He is burning fat, building muscle, engaging every fibre in his body; his limbs pulling, in fluid motion from his fingers to the pads of his feet, maintaining the rugged physique that years of ceaseless activity have earned him.
But there is something more. Bennett is also, now, much more than the boarding school kid beaten half to death. He has become Manu the Indomitable, a warrior alone on the water: competing with himself, propelling his body with all his strength, relentlessly across the world.