We’ve heard how it took Peter Jackson some time to get the character of Azog the Defiler right in The Hobbit films. Now Kiwi actor Manu Bennett, the man who plays Azog, has given an interview to Empire where he talks about how he was still filming a month before the premiere, knowing Conan Stevens, the original Azog, at school, working on his own with motion capture and the role of Azog in the coming films. Here’s a taster of the interview:
How did you wind up in The Hobbit?
…Peter Jackson had already cast someone as Azog, but when he got to the editing room, he wasn’t sure it was working. I’d auditioned for the role previously and so they thought of me. Because I was shooting the last three episodes of Spartacus, they had to fly me down at the weekends. I’d leave set, go straight to the airport and end up in Wellington, changing out of the gladiator outfit and into the green suit.
It sounds like there was a lot of time pressure…
I was in the studio doing things for Azog four weeks before the premiere! In some ways I was the final ingredient to the whole thing. Being called in that late meant I missed out on the whole promotional machine. There were no images or footage of Azog in the trailers, because nothing was available. When I was in New York recently, I saw a Lego set for the scene with the tree and the flaming pine cones, and it had a little toy of Bolg (Azog’s ginger-bearded son, who will appear in The Desolation Of Smaug and There And Back Again), not Azog. That’s because the design that ended up as Bolg was originally meant for Azog. Azog was going to be a seven-foot giant, played with prosthetics, but Peter changed his mind and decided to go with something less bulky, and played with motion-capture. I think his decision surprised everybody at the time.
We haven’t seen Bolg on-screen yet, but it’s hard to imagine a father-son dynamic between Orcs…
(Laughs) I don’t think there’ll be a bottle-feeding scene. I don’t know if they’re going have a game of cricket on the side of the battlefield. But here’s an interesting bit of trivia: the guy playing Bolg, who was originally cast as Azog, was at my high school in Newcastle, Australia. He’s called Conan Stevens, and was really tall and skinny back then. I was there on the day that he was picked on by a guy a year ahead of us in the playground – everyone was watching and Conan suddenly threw these big, long arms out and knocked the guy flat on his ass. And that’s when he changed. He went from being bones to being on the rugby team within a month. Then he became an actor and joined us on Spartacus. I invited him over to my house and he said, “I’ve just landed Azog.” I went, “Fuck, you bastard! I went for that role!” We celebrated at my house, and then for whatever creative purposes Peter decided to use him as Bolg and asked me to go down to do Azog. It’s just a very funny coincidence. And I was there at the defining moment, when he became the Azog of our school.
Was motion-capture fun or exhausting?
It was tough, but also exhilarating. Totally randomly, I’d bumped into Andy Serkis at Comic-Con a year before I got cast in The Hobbit, and he and I chatted for an hour about mo-cap and his new company in London. He said to me then, “The acting potential expands, because you leave your own body. It’s like Tron, getting sucked into a videogame. You no longer exist and all that’s left is the role.” That was spot on. When I started work – and I literally stepped into Andy’s shoes, the ones he’d worn playing Gollum – I never worked with any other actors. I didn’t meet Richard Armitage until the premiere. So I had to create an emotional world for Azog. I remember sitting on a pummel horse, imagining it was a giant wolf. I called up to Peter, who was up in the control booth, barefoot, and asked what kind of relationship I had with my warg. Because I thought it had to be a Lone Ranger and Silver kind of thing, with a connection between the two.
There’s an extended cut of An Unexpected Journey coming out this Christmas. Will it contain any bonus Azog?
No, because when I was brought in they’d already cut the film. For some of the scenes I had to move through frames doing actions that would be placed over the top of Conan’s performance. It got pretty frantic while we were in ADR, finding the voice for the character. The sound guys were chucking in leopard growls and dropping my voice right down to super-deep baritone.
You’re heading back to New Zealand this summer to shoot more scenes. Can you give any hints about what they’ll involve?
Not really, because I’ve not yet seen the scripts. But Peter’s told me that he’s going to build Azog up over the next two films, so I’m getting plenty to do. His motivation is to hunt down little old Thorin Oakenshield, the guy who took his arm off, and chop off a couple of limbs in return. He’s got his sights set on a rematch.
That and attaining some high-quality warg food for Daisy (his warg)?
There’s enough of that riding around on other wargs! But it’s funny you should say that, because I don’t want to give anything away, but Daisy has a role to play. And I swear to you this: Azog is always going to be very attentive to her. That relationship is an ongoing concern in this series.
What a great interview! You can read it in full interview at Empireonline .