To meet Joe Manganiello is to be caught off guard.
First, of course, there are the things everyone knows about him: he's shaped a bit like an action figure, six-foot-five and cut like an anatomy chart. All the usual comparisons come to mind: Greek gods, statues, marble, etc. This is not a man who needs Photoshop or filters. Seeing him in the flesh, the thought always strikes: "Wow, he really does look that Men's Health Magazine cover in real life."
Then, he starts talking -- and you're caught off guard again.
What gets lost in the strip routines of Magic Mike, the articles about body building, and the occult romance of True Blood is, perhaps, his most impressive characteristic: he's incredibly bright. According to him, everything he has is primarily a result of his brain, not his body.
JM: I was a nerdy, intellectual kid. I loved science fiction; I was big into role playing games, table top role playing games.
NS: Like Dungeons and Dragons?
JM: It started with D&D and I got into the Palladium games. I discovered the black and white Ninja Turtle comics in the mid-80s. That got me into this company called Palladium and they had this whole series of table-top role-playing games. I was game master. (laughs) It was like writing a movie, kind of leading people through a movie. I think that the seeds that would later become directing and producing and acting came from that.
NS: That's not something you hear very often... from D&D nerd to movie star/director.
JM: Well, other than filmmaking, I don't think there's anything else on the planet that's all encompassing in terms of being creative, except for those games. And I was always a film buff, a big reader. But I think at some point, you get cast as a werewolf, on a show where everyone is naked, and you're stupid and lazy if you don't use that opportunity to get into the best shape you've ever been in your life.
NS: When did you make the switch?
JM: I had two trains running as a kid--I was this nerdy intellectual child, who just wanted to stay inside and read and write stories. But I was also head and shoulder taller than all the other kids, which I'm sure you identify with.
NS: I do.
JM: I was good at sports, though. Where I grew up, and with the dad I grew up with, I was really pushed into athletics and somewhat pushed away from that creative side.
NS: That's where our similarities end, I think.
JM: You're not into basketball?
NS: Not even a little.
JM: In my parents' view it was something that could have been my ticket, and actually was going to be my ticket to college, prior to me finding acting. I didn't wind up playing college sports due to my BFA work load. But I was on a path where I was willing to go to college to play basketball. My parents saw the path that is safe--a path that's well traveled. Parents want their children to succeed. When you can go to college and play basketball and get a "real job," and do well in that field, I think that makes sense and I think that's something tangible. When you say, "no, I want to go to drama school and run off to join the circus that is the entertainment industry," I mean, God, I think I would make a face if my kid said that. My volleyball and football coaches thought it was a joke. They were very vocal that I was making a huge mistake with my life. I think that if you're an artist, and you know you are, there's no way you're not going to have a lot of people standing in your way.
NS: I think you just made a lot of struggling actors in LA feel very inspired.
JM: You're always going to have someone that's telling you that you can't do it. The town you grew up in, or some acting teacher, or the head of a studio. Somebody thinks you can't do it. So you're constantly going to be proving somebody wrong, the sooner you get used to that the better off you are.
NS: Pardon me for being blunt but... what are you bad at? Are you bad at anything? I think people see you, and they see the big muscles and stuff... and then you took me to a screening of Seven Samurai at LACMA and I was immediately impressed at your encyclopedic knowledge of classic film. Now you tell me you've played volleyball, football, and basketball. Do you have any weaknesses?
JM: (laughs) Well, look... the Greeks, they valued athletics, but they also valued philosophy. Henry Rollins was a huge influence on me. He was this incredible athletic shape and really valued that and understood that pushing the body is pushing the mind, and therefore building this stronger spirit. He was also an author, he did one man shows, spoken word gigs, and he was a musician. I looked at someone like him, and thought, that's what I want to do, and what I want to be. The people that I really get star struck by are people like David Bowie, Rollins, Tom Waits. Renaissance men. Rollins was probably the biggest influence. People will try to pigeonhole you and try to say that you're this or you're that, and I never felt like a "this" or a "that." Maybe it takes more hours in the day, or I have to work a bit harder, but why leave something undeveloped or only do one thing? Henry Rollins proved that you can do it all. You shouldn't be defined or be restricting. Why do you have to be the body or the mind?
NS: I gather that this is the main theme of your book, "Evolution"?
JM: That's really what the book is about, yeah. At the end of the day, the reason why people don't achieve their goals is not because they have bad form or lift weights wrong. It's because the mind gets in the way and shuts them down and tells them to quit, and they listen. The book is about overcoming obstacles, which is not entirely about the physical body. It's about using the physical body to push your spirit and your mind. I've honestly never met anyone who was in great physical shape who wasn't, on some level, mentally strong as well.
NS: Let's talk Magic Mike. First of all - again, at the risk of throwing you too many compliments - you're so bookish in person, it's interesting to contrast what you're really like with the character you're playing.
JM: I've been acting twenty-two years at this point. The fact that I've landed on "Big Dick Richie" in a male stripper movie is funny, of course, for a few reasons, but I've known Matt Bomer since I was eighteen. We went to drama school together. The fact that we landed on this just makes sense. I've never had this much fun in my life. The opportunity to do comedy and then be able to go into screenings and hear crowds screaming and laughing. All of us in the cast are proud of what we did. We have a pretty good idea of how they're going to react, and to have that confirmed, there's nothing better. I've done a lot of stuff over the years, and I've done a lot of things that nobody saw. It's more fun when people see it.
NS: On fun movies like that, I always love the on-set stuff, the behind-the-scenes stories. Got any you haven't told anyone yet?
JM: Well, I had to finish the movie wounded, that's one thing.
NS: You're kidding.
JM: In my finale routine, my partner for the finale did something unrehearsed on the first take, which was a surprise. The result was that my arm almost ripped in half. There's a huge rip and a pop, had this big Rocky moment backstage, I had to get my arm worked on. I thought it was a dislocated bone in my elbow. I just kept thinking, "if they can fix it maybe I can get out there and finish my dance routine." I went back out and finished my routine for the next four and a half hours. I had to keep lifting people, lifting on that arm. That went on for weeks. Came back to LA a few weeks later, it was a torn bicep, really, really bad. I had to go into surgery immediately. Sofia was there when we were filming that day, and she was having a heart attack. It was kind of a miracle that my bicep stayed down, because if it didn't, we wouldn't finish the movie, and there would be no Magic Mike.
NS: And the streets of LA would have been flooded with women's tears. Any final thoughts or plugs? What else can we expect from you?
JM: I'm in the midst of shooting PeeWee's Big Holiday. This movie will remind the entire world why they loved PeeWee Herman. I'm beside myself to be in scenes with him. It'll be out sometime next year. Maybe next spring.
See Magic Mike XXL in theaters today.
Joe Manganiello's "Evolution" is in bookstores and online, published by Simon and Schuster.