JOE MANGANIELLO INTERVIEW
By Abbie Bernstein Was Thunder perhaps trying to convey the message, don’t hog all the good lines? Manganiello goes along with the quip. “Exactly.” More seriously, Manganiello reports that certain considerations come into play when the wolves are working. “The first time there were animals on set, I was eating a bowl of turkey, and everybody was, ‘What are you doing? Are you stupid?’ They were bringing the wolves onto the set, so I had to run out the other side of the set with my turkey. The second time was a scene where I shift and I’m about ten feet away from a live wild animal with no chain, no collar on, and I’m completely naked except for my sock [modesty covering for male actors].” After awhile, he adds, one gets used to the situation. “When they bring them out and they take the chain off, you definitely notice it, but then once you’re in the scene, you’re just thinking werewolf thoughts.”Most actors prefer to play complex characters, but relatively few are given the opportunity to play a character that embodies two different species. Actor Joe Manganiello (pronounced MAN-ga with a hard g nel-lo) has given a lot of thought to playing construction worker/werewolf/potential Sookie Stackhouse suitor on the third season of the Emmy-nominated HBO series TRUE BLOOD, created and produced by Alan Ball from the Southern vampire books by Charlaine Harris. “I think it makes things a little bit more complex, and I think with the fact it is a shapeshifter and the fact that they only shift into one animal, there are a lot of those traits that at any point in time are present. I think there’s kind of a sliding rule between human and wolf. At any point in time, they can exhibit qualities of both.”
That said, on the TRUE BLOOD series, Manganiello shares the role of Alcide with a real live wolf who plays the character when he’s in animal form. “His name’s Thunder – he’s a big gold timber wolf,” Manganiello says of his canine counterpart. “They let me meet him and put my hand out and he licked my hand and then he started staring at me with his yellow eyes.”
For those who may be wondering, Manganiello comes off every bit as tall and fit in person as he does onscreen, albeit he seems a lot more easygoing than the understandably tense Alcide. In his trailer next to one of the soundstages where TRUE BLOOD films in West Hollywood and two months later in the recording studio where he’s narrating and playing all roles in the unabridged audio book of Patricia Briggs’ DRAGON BONES, Manganiello sounds upbeat about all aspects of his career.
Manganiello is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although he played college football, love of acting came to Manganiello early, even before he took it on as a career. He has done a lot of stage; film fans know him as Flash Thompson in the SPIDER-MAN features and he has had recurring roles on ER, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and ONE TREE HILL. None of that exactly prepared him for playing a shape-shifter on TRUE BLOOD, but Manganiello says, “You know, honestly, I think I’ve been preparing or psyching myself up for this part since I was five. It’s kind of like when kids are playing in the backyard, and you say, ‘Okay, you’re going to be a doctor and you’re going to be an Army guy.’ There’s no preparation needed. You just know what to do. So for me, it’s just kind of been, ‘Okay, you’re going to be a werewolf.’ I know how to do this. As you know, this show is not necessarily about special effects tricks in the way that the old Lon Chaney, Jr. movie – it was about the transformation. Everybody couldn’t wait to go to the movies and see how he was going to transform. This show is more about character and it’s more about the human experience through supernatural creatures, which I think is what Joseph Campbell meant by [his work on the nature of] mythology and what the Greeks did – they [told stories about] these supernatural creatures that were very human and therefore we can talk about sides of humanity that aren’t necessarily easy to talk about with two human beings in a scene. But on this show, it’s not so much about the transformation, but our eyes do light up like a yellow-orange. Which I believe the Haitians have a myth about wolf-men or beast-men, and their eyes change – they get bright orange. That [is done via] CGI. But I’m definitely going to get a pair of prescription orange lenses for this Halloween, for sure, so I can go out on Halloween as me!” he laughs.
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It turns out Manganiello didn’t have to do too much research into the construction worker side of Alcide’s character. “I’m actually working in my construction boots right now. I used to work construction, so that’s another side of the character that I think I understand. And as far as wolves go, I did a lot of research on wolves and watched a lot of video of their behavior and tried to just pick up here and there where there can be little glimpses of, say, if Alcide gets into attack mode or he gets angry or he gets grumpy, there are little hints of the wolf.”
Manganiello was watching TRUE BLOOD before he ever got cast on it, he relates. “I was a fan of the show and then aside from it, there were fans of the books that were blogging about who should play the character of Alcide when he shows up on the TV show. And amongst the names and the pictures that were mentioned was mine. The fans had named me and put up pictures of me online, so it was brought to my attention, and that’s actually what got me into the books. So I ordered the books and started reading and read about Alcide and he was described physically almost identically to me.”
When Manganiello was cast as Alcide, he adds, “They [the producers] didn’t really tell me what they wanted, which is interesting, which is fun and daunting at the same time, because not only am I being trusted to create this character, but I’m also being trusted to create the mannerisms for a race that hasn’t been introduced yet. So there was a lot of fun and creativity on my part, and a lot of dramatic license to be able to do that. I came in [for] three different auditions and I just tried to stick with what I did in those rooms. I figured, that worked, so keep doing that.”
Alcide speaks with an accent, though it is not like those of most of the other TRUE BLOOD characters. “Alcide is from Mississippi, so there’s a Mississippi dialect that I speak with,” Manganiello explains. “You look at somebody like Anna [Paquin, who plays Sookie Stackhouse], who’s from New Zealand and she speaks to me with an American accent, but then when Steve [Moyer, the English actor who plays vampire Bill Compton on screen and is Paquin’s real-life husband] shows up, she speaks to him with a New Zealand accent, and then they yell ‘Action’ and she moves into Louisiana.”
How has Manganiello found working with his TRUE BLOOD leading lady Paquin? “She’s amazing,” Manganiello enthuses. “We get along great. I mean, she’s everything I had hoped for as far as reading the books, the chemistry [between Sookie and Alcide], I think it works perfectly. My mother has seen THE PIANO [the film for which the then-preteen Paquin won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar] more than any other human being on the planet,” he laughs, “so I kind of came into this knowing that my mother was madly in love with Anna Paquin, so it’s been really great.”
As for working with Moyer, Manganiello says, “Stephen’s so funny. I mean, that’s something that I think a lot of people don’t know or don’t see, , but Stephen is one of the funniest people that I’ve ever met.” This is both off and on-camera, Manganiello adds, citing the dream sequence where Bill and Sam Trammell’s Sam Merlotte almost tryst in a hotel room. “That scene was just hysterical. Everybody on the show has just welcomed me in and really made this a home for me, and I’m having the time of my life”
There are certain behaviors common to all TRUE BLOOD werewolves, Manganiello points out. “A couple of the werewolves started before me, because my character shows up in episode three, so there are a couple that precede me, but when we were in scenes together, we found ourselves growling at each other, or doing wolf-like things to each other. Grant Bowler, who plays Coot [and Alcide] we have kind of an altercation, and before that, we had talked about, we don’t think werewolves would stand up and fight with fists, the way that people would do. When you go to a fight, it would be animalistic, like animals fighting each other, rather than two humans, or a human and a werewolf. So there were interesting kinds of physical and vocal choices that came out when the werewolves got together.”
Does Manganiello play Alcide differently when Alcide is interacting with non-werewolves? “That’s interesting. Obviously, there is different history with different people. Like I said, when I’m around werewolves that I don’t like, we tend to growl at each other quite a bit, but there are different modes I think to Alcide’s personality. There’s the part on that sliding scale where he’s more human, and you’re just talking to this person, and he’s grappling with love and loss the way a person would, but then there are times when he’s been sent to protect Sookie and he would give his life for Sookie, he’d do anything for Sookie. So if somebody gets in his way, or gets in between him and Sookie, there’s another mode that he goes into, which is that fight mode, where you’re going to see more wolf.”
Alcide does quite a lot while in human form, but Manganiello is used to doing action for the camera. “I’ve done a lot of action roles. Obviously, I started with SPIDER-MAN and there was a lot of action in that, that being my first film, and since then, it just seems that, just everywhere I go – I mean, let’s put it this way, if I fought as much as I do in person as I do on screen, I would be in prison for life,” he laughs.
How much action is Manganiello allowed to do before a stunt double takes over? Manganiello says the TRUE BLOOD production team prefers to play it safe when it comes to the cast. “They’re hesitant to allow the actors to do the stunts. But they’ve allowed me to do some stunts, and I’m lucky that I have a dead-on stunt double that I’ve been working with since SPIDER-MAN named Oliver Keller and he came on board so I got to work with him again.”
There are no stunts – at least of the physical variety – involved in performing an audio book, but it’s demanding nonetheless. “This is my first audio book,” Manganiello relates of his experience with Patricia Briggs’ dark fantasy DRAGON BONES. “It’s great. It is hard work, but it’s incredibly fulfilling. I mean, I guess nothing can prepare you for really just how exhausting reading for five hours at a time is. It requires an incredible amount of focus and concentration and forethought – a lot in the way that acting does, in the way that you’ve got to be concentrated on the moment that you’re performing, but also be ready for the next moment coming up. I had a few weeks to prep, to kind of get as familiar as I could with the characters that I was going to be reading and get a good idea for the poetry of the language because, a lot like working on Shakespeare or projects in verse, there are some extremely long sentences and a lot of them have very rich language, so some of the sentences are difficult to perform. Some of them have to be performed in one breath and they’re super-long sentences with a lot of alliteration, so it’s like reading a tongue-twister. It’s one thing to read silently, but it’s another thing when you have to read it out loud and get right, so some of them have taken me maybe five takes, trying to get these monster sentences out.”
How is it playing all the characters in the same scene? “It’s a bit schizophrenic, I guess. But you just throw yourself into it, you just jump into the pool, and it’s a blast. Of course, also I do different voices for the different characters. Sometimes, that can be a little tricky at first going, because sometimes there are scenes where there are so many different voices that it is funny talking back and forth to yourself, but it’s a blast, especially when I have to do the female voices. There are definite subtexts, because you have to make strong character choices that help the listener realize who these characters are, so obviously there are choices with what voices go for who, and definitely there are thoughts that go on in the characters’ heads.”
It helps, Manganiello adds, that DRAGON BONES is written in the first person, so all of the characters are main character Ward’s version of them. “The conversational scenes are a lot of fun, because you get to play the different voices, but I really do like coming back to his thoughts as he’s working out the mystery and the plots and the backstabbing and the goings-on. Those are really fun parts to read.”
Listening to audio books has been part of Manganiello’s life for awhile now, he reports. “I’ve made a lot of car trips and I actually listen to a lot of spoken word when I do cardio. I do forty-five minutes of cardio every morning before I eat, so I just throw it on my iPod and go to the gym. I am a big fan and this [reading audio books] is a field that I’ve always wanted to get into, because I read at a young age, to the point where I was in kindergarten and the teacher would leave the class and would leave me to sit and read for the kids, because I was the only one who could read. I started memorizing the books that my mother read me and so from there, reading has always been a major obsession of mine. I did an interview down at Golden Apple Comics on Melrose and basically talked about my comic book obsession. I’ve always been a huge reader.”
Which comic books particularly capture Manganiello’s imagination? “Well, I’m a big fan of WALKING DEAD right now. I love WALKING DEAD. And I love SUPREME POWER, a Marvel title where they kind of retell the D.C. stories in a more gritty fashion. I grew up reading THE PUNISHER. I was a huge fan of X-MEN – it’s funny to think that I’m working out with Hugh Jackman’s trainer, so there are so many X-MEN tie-ins. I read WOLVERINE growing up, read all the Dark Horse and the Image Comics. I loved TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, the old black-and-white ones, the original ones, where they were cutting heads off and swearing – I loved those. I loved ALIENS, I loved PREDATOR, I loved ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, the Todd McFarlane SPIDER-MAN comics. I could go on and on – USAMI YOJIMBO, THE SAMURAI RABBIT – I wound up meeting Stan Sakai at Comic-Con a couple of years ago and he signed a drawing of the rabbit for me and I have it framed in my house and I love it, it’s one of my prized possessions.”
Speaking of comic books, there is an Internet campaign afoot to get Manganiello at least into consideration for the Man of Steel in the much-discussed next film adaptation of SUPERMAN. Manganiello explains how he came to hear about this. “There were some fans online who were blogging about me playing Superman or being cast in the new Superman reboot that’s being talked about. From there, I was on the red carpet at the premiere of Season Three of TRUE BLOOD and interviewers were asking about it, they were asking about playing a superhero and so I kind of hinted at hearing something about them making a movie about a guy who wears a red cape and flies around. That would be pretty cool. So that’s definitely been buzzing around.”
Does playing a werewolf prepare an actor for playing a superhero? “Well, definitely it does physically,” Manganiello replies. “I worked out hard to get into the best shape of my life [for TRUE BLOOD], and that is something that I would improve upon were I to play Superman. And I also think that there are some similarities. I think Alcide is a character that really, when you think about it, has a secret identity. He’s this mild-mannered construction worker, but [on occasion] he transforms into something else. I also think it’s very similar to Superman in the way that Superman is unique, in that Superman is an alien, an actual creature from another planet, who is impervious to most weapons or danger on this planet, who then has had to study human beings and figure out what ‘normal’ is. He’s actually this super-creature, this supernatural creature, that is pretending to be human, which is a comment on humanity itself, and I think that’s what is at the heart of TRUE BLOOD and its supernatural creatures that are these super-powered beings who then have to figure out how to fit into human society. I think Alcide does a lot of that. Alcide kind of plays down his power and has to figure out what ‘normal’ is and what being human is, and that’s what’s neat about the show, is that the viewers at home get to watch and we get to comment on his human experience, whether that’s love or loss or sex or death, and we can kind of go deeper and explain what being human is through these guys. But also, Alcide is this big, strong, moral, heroic character. And I think he questions why he cares so much, or ‘Why should I care?’ and I think that’s something that’s always interested me about Superman. Why fight for America? Why America? Why Earth, if you’re not even human? Why? And those are fun questions that I got to answer as Alcide that I think are very, very applicable to Superman.”
In Manganiello’s opinion, why does Alcide care so much? “Well, that’s going to be revealed through the show. Obviously, Alcide is roped into guarding Sookie, because his father has run up debt to Eric Northman, but from there, the plot escalates and there are things that he sees going on that he can’t turn his back on. Much in the way of Han Solo, let’s say, he’s this hero who’s kind of roped in for financial reasons and is there primarily to alleviate financial debt, to save his own neck or save his father’s neck, but you wind up really realizing that the guy has a heart and he really is a hero. So that’s something that develops.”
Alcide isn’t Manganiello’s first stint as a supernatural being, he observes. “I played a ghost on an episode of MEDIUM, where I get murdered and I come back to visit my infant son the day that he’s born and I realize that he can see me. Other ghosts have told me that he’ll be able to see me for the first year-and-a-half of his life, so I deliver this monologue to him. It’s a little sadder [than playing a living person]. I had to think about – I had to think about those ghost thoughts and what being supernatural is like, in the same way that I had to prepare for this character and answer all those questions.”
TRUE BLOOD has plotlines so dense and complicated that it seems like it might be difficult to keep track of what’s going on, but Manganiello observes, “Luckily for me, being a fan of the show and then reading the books, it’s been easy keeping together what I need to do to go to work and keeping together these scripts. Now, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in the future that I’ve had to go on Wikipedia and try to look at basically the Cliff Notes version of what happens in the next eight books, figure out where this fits and this fits. ‘Okay, Alcide winds up there and this and that.’ But the writers are really good – in the same way that I think [Peter Jackson and his colleagues] made the LORD OF THE RINGS movies better than the books, I think that’s kind of what’s going on in this show, and that’s no knock against the books. I just think that there are things that [Alan Ball and the creative team] have done, especially with this season, and things that they’ve changed about this season, that make it a richer story. They make the mythology richer, and they certainly make it richer for werewolves. This season is more about werewolf culture, whereas the books were more about all of these different shifters and different types. I think Debbie [Alcide’s ex, in the series a werewolf played by Brit Morgan] in the books was a were-lynx, and she leaves Alcide for a were-owl. They’ve taken the creative license to make it about werewolves and about werewolf culture, which I think is going to make a lot stronger of a story. I’m very happy, very excited with it. I really hope the fans keep responding to Alcide.” It’s clear the producers have – at Comic-Con, Ball announced Manganiello would be a TRUE BLOOD series regular for Season Four.
Although the TRUE BLOOD and DRAGON BONES jobs have overlapped, Manganiello says he never gets confused between the two. Funnily enough, he reveals, “In DRAGON BONES, there’s a lot of talk about wolves and comparison of people to wolves, and I like that. There is a line in the book [where] they talk about a warhorse named True Blood, which is great. I think it’s page one hundred and forty or something. We actually ended Day One of reading on that line. I said, ‘You know what? That’s it, we’ve got to end right here.’ I definitely think the juxtaposition between these two jobs is pretty fantastic. The fact that I’m running around completely naked in broad daylight and now I’m sitting in a booth reading,” he laughs. “It makes me feel a little bit better about myself.”