Joe Manganiello has made a career out of being ogled. Audiences have stared at his abs on True Blood since 2010, swooned over his biceps in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and drooled over Big Dick Richie’s shadowy silhouette in Magic Mike.
But the 37-year-old trained actor doesn’t mind. Because to him, it all comes down to an appreciation of his most prized asset: his discipline. “The fitness side of my career is truly an extension of my work ethic,” Manganiello told BuzzFeed inside his publicist’s sun-soaked office in L.A. “There are few things in life you truly have control over and, as an actor, there’s even less in your control. But the one thing I do have in my control is how hard I work. So when someone looks at me, they can see I’m the kind of person who puts in the effort because of how I look… I didn’t start working out for True Blood to get a book deal or have a fitness website and become the ‘in shape’ guy,” all of which he has achieved. “I just wanted to do the most I could with that opportunity — and everything that’s happened has been a result of that.”
Unlike countless other celebrities who have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the skin-baring roles that placed them on the path to stardom, Manganiello happily embraces every flesh-baring frame. “I spent 10 years acting in things that only my mom was watching. Then I did this one fun, crazy, provocative show and I was on the map,” he said of True Blood. “All of a sudden I started getting calls for all the shirtless roles. So it was like, OK, let’s do more of those!”
Manganiello landed the part of Alcide Herveaux, True Blood’s werewolf love interest for Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), in December 2009 for the show’s third season and immediately went to work on getting ready for the constant nudity that the HBO gothic soap had become famous for.
“I had a conversation with Ron Mathews, my trainer, early on where he told me to make a decision: Did I want to be in 100% shape every time I took my shirt off or not? I had to decide because otherwise, there would be photos of me at all various types of body definition,” he recalled. “So I decided to shoot for the moon.”
And HBO wasted no time promoting Manganiello’s physique with a True Blood Season 3 preview image featuring the actor in nothing more than a pair of silver pants. “True Blood is softcore porn with Oscar winners,” Manganiello said. “I mean, you watch softcore porn on Cinemax and think, OK, that could be lit better and they could have better actors. So you turn over to HBO and they do have better lighting and better actors. It’s the same thing; we’re just doing it with quality.”
When he made his debut on True Blood in June 2010, the Pittsburgh, Pa., native instantly became a sex symbol and one of the year’s hottest new stars, a descriptor he laughs about now given how long he’d actually spent honing his craft.
After graduating in 2000 from Carnegie Mellon’s acclaimed theater program, Manganiello cut his teeth on dozens of TV shows: Jake in Progress, CSI, Las Vegas, So Notorious, Scrubs, E.R., CSI: Miami, One Tree Hill, and How I Met Your Mother, to name a few. “For years I wound up having to make my career as a character actor on sitcoms and procedurals to pay the bills — to the point where I didn’t think I would end up on a drama,” he admitted. “Then, I ended up the shirtless werewolf.”
Alcide initially made a big impact in Bon Temps, but subsequent seasons of True Blood sidelined the character with extraneous arcs much to the chagrin of fans, and Manganiello himself. “During the first few seasons, I had great stuff to do,” he said, citing scenes with Paquin and the wolfpack in Season 3, before pausing for a moment to find his words. “But I don’t think that I’ll be pigeonholed by the role because I wasn’t a part of the show enough for that to happen. I think Alcide gave me a career past the show, but I don’t think it will necessarily be what I am remembered for. It was the means, not the end.
“It was all about getting to this point I’m at right now — every actor dreams of getting the right job at the right time on the right show that pops them out, and that happened five years ago for me. So, those five years were spent with my head down, blinders on; total tunnel vision. I was going to squeeze every drop out of True Blood, and I can look back and say, with confidence, that I got everything out of that experience I possibly could. That got me to right now, which is the spot I always dreamed of being in.”
And that is directing and producing La Bare, a raucous new documentary about the world’s most popular male strip club that came about when Manganiello was doing research for Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 drama about a troupe of male exotic dancers that was loosely based on fellow star Channing Tatum’s life. “A friend of mine was a stripper at La Bare Dallas and when I was getting ready for Magic Mike, I bought him lunch and got him talking for two hours,” Manganiello recalled. “After that, I told my brother Nick we should find time to go film this.”
Once the movie wrapped, Manganiello found himself with an unexpected amount of free time during production on the sixth season of True Blood as a harsh reality came to light. “There was some shifting around in the hierarchy on True Blood and one of the casualties was my storyline,” he said. “It became very clear I was the lone werewolf on the vampire show, and no matter how you cut it, it’s not about you. The episodes take three weeks to shoot and I was shooting one scene an episode, which meant I was going into work one day every three weeks. So, I had all this time on my hands to finance, produce, and direct a movie.”
Manganiello’s work ethic once again kicked into hyper-drive and he traveled to Texas in hopes of securing footage that captured a world he believed audiences were desperate to learn more about, following the phenomenal success of Magic Mike, which earned $114 million at the domestic box office. “The movie is about exploring what being a man means in today’s day and age because that definition has changed drastically over the last 40 years,” he said. “I think we’re in this spot now where a lot of men and women don’t know what it means to be a man and La Bare is an exploration of what it means to be a man in a post-feminist world. If you think about it, male stripping is a product of feminism — it didn’t exist 100 years ago or 50 years ago. It started in the late ’70s, so what does that mean and how have we readjusted?
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as male objectification,” Manganiello added with a shrug when asked about his own voyeur-inviting nudity. “I think that word exists only with women because there are societal pressures for them to behave a certain way and to look a certain way. Someone put it to me once: Women are sex objects and men are success objects. That was really interesting to me.”
A completed version of La Bare toured the festival circuit in early 2014, where it quickly secured distribution with Main Street Films (the film will be released in theaters on June 27), another payoff for Manganiello’s determination. “I try to make sure everything I do is on point; whether it’s working out, writing a book, acting, or directing a movie,” he said, counting each of his many hats on his fingers to accentuate his point. “And if you want to see how crazy detail-oriented I can get, you should see me in the editing room or getting this movie ready for distribution or working on the marketing strategy. I had a hand in everything to do with this film. Some people could call that micromanaging, but I care about what I’m putting out there. When people see this movie, I want them to know who I am.”
And his hope is that who he is is an inspiration. “I’m a guy who is all about inspiring people to be the best they can be,” Manganiello said. “I didn’t have things handed to me. I worked really hard and I failed. A lot. I had ‘no’ said to me for years. People told me I was crazy, and that I was making a mistake getting into this business. My mantra is that anything is possible,” — a tenacity that eventually paid off.
“I realized a long time ago that if I could get to a certain level, acting-wise, it would open up all the doors to things I wanted to do directing and producing-wise,” Manganiello continued, his face radiating with enthusiasm. “Which is exactly what has happened. As amazing as the past five years have been, I really feel like right now, at this moment, the best part of my life and my career are ahead of me. And there’s a lot of work to be done.”