"It was brown, now it's gray. i don't know what the hell happened. it seems to me, people like it. Nobody's complained."
The actor Joe Manganiello is musing on his beard, the ever-present scruff that contrasts the 35-year-old's youthful vigor. Like Tom Selleck's Magnum, P.I. mustache was to the '80s, Manganiello's salt-and-pepper beard (heavy on the salt) is becoming the lusty facial hair of this era.
It is mid-morning and Manganiello is sipping an Americano at an outdoor table. The cafe is a few blocks from his house in the tony Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. His eyes are shielded by black Persol sunglasses. Strands of thick dark hair hang down in front of the lenses and touch his regal nose. He's wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans. The flashiest part of his outfit are his black and yellow old-school Nike Dunks. Leaning back in a chair, he looks as nondescript as a six-foot-five man can. He is famously fit, but doesn't stand out as a muscle-bound behemoth.
"If I was on 'roids, I would be this monster," he says. "That's not the goal."
Manganiello marked his territory in the public consciousness as the werewolf Alcide on HBO's soft-core Goth horror soap, True Blood. With his brooding romance-novel looks, he became an instant sex symbol when he debuted in 2010 (he has since signed on for five more seasons). The fact that he sheds his clothes to transform into lupine form doesn't hurt matters. Manganiello views this as pragmatism rather than an extension of creator Alan Ball's gay sensibility. "As far as the butt cheek stuff goes," he says, "it just makes sense. It's not gratuitous; it's realistic. If you're a werewolf and you transform, you lose everything and there are your butt cheeks. The show is a deconstruction of supernatural creatures. It's not like other werewolf projects, where you magically reappear with tiny jean shorts on."
With Magic Mike, Manganiello will wear less material than those aforementioned Daisy Dukes. Slated for a June release, the film is based upon costar Channing Tatum's pre-Hollywood career as a Tampa, Fla., erotic dancer (Tatum also co-produced the film). Rounding out the cast are warhorse stallion Matthew McConaughey and It-boy hunks du jour Alex Pettyfer and Matt Bomer.
Manganiello plays Big Dick Richie. He demurs when asked if he stuffed his G-string to fill out the challenging sobriquet. "Um, I'll let everybody see the movie and they can decide," he says sheepishly. He insists that no waxing was involved, however. "I don't have any body hair," he explains. "It stops at my neck. I'm part Sicilian and Armenian."
The strippers in Magic Mike are more the types that shake it Chippendales-style for bachelorettes than gyrating go-go boys at your local gay watering hole. "This is Chan's experience," Manganiello says of the homoerotic, yet hetero-themed, flick.
Manganiello interviewed a former male stripper to research the era. "All the guys he worked with were dead or in rehab," he says, "but it was the time of his life -- this insanely destructive lifestyle, this club life. It was sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll... and getting paid to take your clothes off and have sex."
Manganiello promises Magic Mike will incorporate all of the complexities of the grind. "There are a lot of drugs, the overdosing, the depraved lifestyle," he says. "But on the other side, it's hilarious."
Manganiello's Greek-sculpture physique worked well with the part. "It's incredible what kind of shape he's in," says the director, Steven Soderbergh. "The joke on the set was he was walking CGI. At one point, we have him painted gold, and it's pretty cool." But his body didn't get him the role.
Soderbergh needed someone who could work well in an untraditional comedy. "It's kind of a buddy movie," he explains. "We wanted the feel of Saturday Night Fever, but without the rape scene in the backseat." The director was impressed after seeing Manganiello on the chat show Chelsea Lately. "That's where I really found him compelling," Soderbergh says. "Part of what we required was someone who could improv and bring a lot to the table. He was funny, smart, had a good energy, and was distinctive. I needed to make sure each guy had their own identity, and he didn't disappoint."
Manganiello doesn't mind that this is the second big role that requires him to show a lot of skin. "Somebody's gotta do it," he says. "Am I afraid of being typecast? I could care less."
"I was a pretty gothic, dark kid, obsessed with monsters," Manganiello says of his Pittsburgh childhood. "I loved Halloween and skulls. I was just that kid. My first concert was Pantera, Sepultura, and Biohazard. I loved industrial like Ministry and Revolting Cocks. I was in love with the chick bassist in White Zombie with fluorescent green hair. It's great that, for a living, I'm associated with full moons and wolves!"
In high school, Manganiello didn't fit the cookie-cutter stereotype of a jock, but he played football, basketball, and volleyball. "I never felt like I belonged," he says. "I had the jocks that I was supposed to belong with and party with, and I didn't see eye-to-eye with them. I remember getting in fights with guys on the football team for bullying artistic guys I was friends with. Internally, I was more of a weirdo artist. I identified with the kids smoking on the corner in Slayer T-shirts. That was more of who I was. I would hang out with those kids and listen to Fugazi."
Manganiello stayed close to home and studied drama at Carnegie Mellon. "I was now an artist throwing out those ideas of what I thought I was," he says. His identity expanded still further when he fell into the then-burgeoning rave scene. He bleached his hair and got his tongue pierced. "I was an old-school raver," he says. "This whole other layer came in. I started hearing this music that turned me on and excited the creative part of me. I was getting piercings and listening to drum and bass. That was my coming of age as an artist. I was free of what I thought I had to be. All of a sudden, I could figure out who I was and what I liked."
The libertine rave scene was a futurist subculture dancing to a techno beat, but it was a scene programmed to auto-destruct because of its decadence. Manganiello, who has been sober for almost 10 years, admits falling prey to excess, but he won't go into specifics. "I spent the later part of my twenties cleaning up the first half," he says.
After college, Manganiello won the role of Flash Thompson, Peter Parker's high school nemesis, in Spider-Man -- an ironic bully role that contrasted with his actual school experience. He moved to L.A. for the film, but shooting didn't begin for six months, so he took a job as a bodyguard for Tyrese and as a bouncer at an after-hours club.
True Blood was Manganiello's big break, but after his first season, he was broke. He spent all of his earnings on a personal trainer (the same one who whipped Hugh Jackman into Wolverine shape) to transform him into an athletic dynamo.
"I like working hard," he says. "It's my letter of gratitude to Alan Ball for giving me this opportunity. Vampires are animated corpses. They can get away with not looking like they go to a gym. I'm a wild animal -- that's how I should look."
The next day, Manganiello is browsing at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. He is enjoying a short break from filming True Blood -- the next season begins airing this summer. Besides Magic Mike, he will also appear in the ensemble comedy What to Expect When You're Expecting. He recently filmed a guest spot on White Collar thanks to its star, Matt Bomer, who also appears in Magic Mike -- he and Bomer have been friends since drama school at Carnegie Mellon. Manganiello was out of town for months at a time working.
"I travel too much for pets," he says. "I used to have two dogs, but, um, the owner of the dogs moved out." He is chagrined to have revealed any of his private life, but admits, "I'm single. Yeah, I used to not like being alone, but I dig it, man."
As Joe flips through the AC/DC discs, a teenager in a black heavy metal T-shirt walks up to him and rapidly says, "I'm going to be annoying, but I've got to shake your hand. I am obsessed with the show and I love the werewolves."
"Thanks, brother," Manganiello replies. "There's going to be a whole new pack of werewolves on this season." He happily poses for some photos, towering over the fan. It's easy to picture Manganiello as a teen metalhead/raver asking his favorite monster to pose with him for a souvenir.
Manganiello continues browsing and adds a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club CD to his stack. "I love my job so much," he says. "It utilizes each part of my eclectic personality. There's the kid who loves monsters, and I can be athletic, but I also love history and I can research wolves and Southern dialects. The dialogue is so rich -- it's Tennessee Williams with Chekhovian layers -- and that fulfills my bookwormy playwright side. I'm so fortunate. Plus, I get to have a beard all the time."