The classic fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles generated a lot of buzz this past weekend at New York Comic Con as it finally makes its way to television through MTV in January. I got the opportunity to talk to Manu Bennett about working in his homeland of New Zealand and his preparation for portraying the character Allanon.
What brought you to this role?
“The emotional feeling of the series. People are going to watch it, but are they going to feel like they are on this journey with Wil, Eretria, and Amberle. I hope they are going to feel the same way people feel about Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, and those epic journeys. This is an epic series, but nobody has ever bought this kind of epicness (in terms of how big this project is) to television. It’s staggering that this is a TV show. When you look at the trailer and see the Seattle Space Needle lying on the side of a swamp you realize that it is a big CGI effect, that’s money.
For MTV, they are not known for putting their hands in their pocket, but they are putting their hands in their pocket big time for this which is consequential as well. At the end of the day, something that is this expensive has to have results. They put the right team together, the people who I’m working with, I worked with on Spartacus and The Hobbit.
I’m back in New Zealand with the same crew that I worked with on those projects that pushed the boundaries and made those achievements. Shannara is the next achievement that will come out of New Zealand and the creativity with that. New Zealand practitioners in the industry are bred in this particular field of fantasy. All the way back to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, so they are very well-practiced in it. I think that it was a very smart decision by the producers to film in New Zealand because the practitioners there are absolutely schooled in fantasy.”
Did you read the book in preparation for the role?
“Preparing for the role is just me as an actor going day-to-day. I don’t sit down and study what someone else expects this character to be, I sit down and study what I can bring to the character. The same thing was asked of me with Arrow, and that Arrow storyline went so off the page. It’s better sometimes not to [read the source material], you get a lot of expectations when you read the material, you try to hone something.
For starters, they bought a wig that was down to my knees for the show. We were all sitting around waiting for the longhaired Allanon, clearly atypical of a Druid and they decided not to. They shaved the side of my head and put scars along the side of my scalp to create a different look than anybody would expect.
I heard there’s even comments out there saying, ‘Manu Bennett’s not as tall as Allanon is’. In the books he’s meant to be 7 feet tall. The same applied to Azog when I played him for Peter Jackson. Creating a character to me is about reading those words that are on the script and bringing that to life.”
Do you have a conversation with the director or is it up to your own interpretation?
“I think it’s give and take really. I’ve found that my existence as an actor is a binary relationship between production, producers, directors, and all of the stuff that they’ve got and what I bring to a character. I’m not one of these actors that come to Hollywood to be a billboard actor. It’s about emotion and it’s the reason why I’m involved in storytelling.
When it comes down to a character I just try to invest everything that I have as a soul into that character. Allanon is the first good guy that I’ve ever played (laughs) so it’s nice that after all of this time being X-Rayed by the Hollywood machine I can get a bit of an opportunity to come across with that integrity in a character. This is a first time, unique opportunity for me.”
Can you tell us more about the television version of Allanon?
“Allanon is a guide, he’s like a Ben Kenobi, or a Lord of the Rings Gandalf type of character. He is with these young people who are on this heroic quest because he knows the ropes. He is basically giving them the tools that they will need to overcome evil. In that is this sort of responsibility to play a character that has goodness. The thing is though, Allanon has a lot of gray matter, he’s actually dark as a character, but manipulative as well. The fact that he is manipulative, but the script actually brings him into a place of having to be answerable to himself and to Bremen, his mentor. Allanon has to realize that in trying to guide these young, innocent characters into a world of war and battle where there’s a consequence and their innocence is going to be stripped away, he almost has to deceive them into becoming what he wants them to be. In doing that he also has to face that journey and become a better person himself.
I worked closely with Austin Butler who lost his mother several months before the show. We did a scene where we are manipulating him to break away from his innocence. His character also lost his mother and I lost my mother when I was young as well. Speaking about art mimicking life, Austin was made for this role, but I realize the sensitivity in person even more so than the character. When I’m working with him, I’m very aware of what’s going on with his emotions and that makes the role perfect for him. And perfect for me because we both get it.
There’s something personal for him and for me to play these roles. Austin is my friend and I love the kid. With this role, there’s something magical about it and that’s what the story is about, it’s about magic. It’s about the softness of the character and working with Austin on bringing that out is a gift, because I get his story.
What can the fans appreciate about this story?
“I think television is going to a new level. Television is now a medium where Peter Jackson said years ago that he couldn’t have made Lord of the Rings for film until technology caught up. Technology is now catching up with television and we’re having this opportunity to bring things up to scale for the screen. As people are sitting there looking for inspiration in life, life’s not an easy story for anybody. It’s a little bit easier when stories are coming from that little screen in your living room. I’m in the show so I’m promoting it (laughs), but I’m lucky.
What do you want the audience to take away from the show?
“Well Spartacus was an incredible story, and I had an incredible character. I go to conventions like New York Comic Con and you get to meet the people and realize that what you said through that little square in their living room had some meaning. I hope that this has that same level of connection with the audience. That’s all that’s important. If it does, it does, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It really just comes down to this: Terry Brooks sold 21 million copies of this series; therefore, people obviously love it. But now MTV has taken it and they’re creating it and it comes to that square in your living room. I think ultimately it really comes down to that.”