Joe Manganiello: Beefcake With Acting Chops

The "Magic Mike" star muscles in on meatier roles.

Joe Manganiello realizes that with all of his brawn so frequently exposed on the big and small screens, you’re not paying the closest attention to his brain. And he aims to change that.

With his sexually charged role in director Steven Soderbergh’s foray into the world of male exotic dancers, “Magic Mike,” in which he struts on stage in approximately half of a fireman’s uniform and his turn as the strong, sensitive and frequently shirtless werewolf Alcide Herveaux on “True Blood,” Manganiello has cultivated a legion of admirers who admittedly may be focusing more on his form than his technique.

But the 35-year-old actor, who graduated from the prestigious Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, tells PopcornBiz that he’s confident that with each new role audiences will see beyond his six-pack.

I'm sure the Steven Soderbergh factor made “Magic Mike” an almost immediate yes, but was there any hesitation at all about taking on the part of Big D*** Richie?

The only hesitation was just that voice in my head that said, 'Okay, everybody makes such a big deal out of you being shirtless on "True Blood." Now you're going to be a male stripper.' So there was just a thought about that – but who cares? I'm known for being shirtless in projects helmed by Oscar winners. So what? Fine. I think that if it was a male stripper movie with most anyone else you probably would look at it cross-eyed, but it's Steven. Then you go, 'Okay, it's Steven. It's Channing [Tatum]. It's [Matthew] McConaughey. It's penis pump and it's Fireman. It's Gold Man.'

What did you find fascinating about the stripping world?

I was really surprised by how funny it all is and how much of a sense of humor these guys have about it all. It feels like 1980s pro wrestling: There're these giant, jacked-up guys in these ridiculous outfits. I think I did have preconceived notions about the world. I went, 'Male stripping? What the hell?' But then you think about it and you go, 'Hmm. Drink all day. Do drugs with your buddies. Go out on stage, grind on these screaming, clawing, pawing women who are stuffing all their money down your pants, you go in the back, you count it all and you bring chicks into the back, you take them into the parking lot, into your car, you take them home, you sleep it off. You get up, you lift some weights. You go back and you start drinking again.' I think that it's the fun level.

The other side of it is that I started working in clubs at age 16, which I would not want my kid to be doing. But I think that a lot of my formal education about men and women and gender relations was formulated by the ideas that I got while I was working at those bars and clubs and watching those people night after night. So I think the other fascinating thing about the script is that it documents that pretty well, documents the pitfalls of that. It shows the shiny side of it, the sexy side of it and then it shows the really grimy, depraved side of it as well.

Did you have to psych yourself up for the first time you came out to do dance on stage?

We did not have a ton of time to film all the stuff that we needed to do, so I think the pressure was, the anxiety was surrounding wanting to make sure that you land your routines. You want to make sure that at this point in the beat this comes off, this does this. I have all these props. I have a tear-away suit. I have suspenders. But from there, once you had that structure set up, that skeleton set up, I mean it was just a free-for-all.

Tell us about the transition from being a good-looking, in-shape actor to that same guy who's famous on a show that people love, and what comes with it?

It makes swimming in the ocean difficult because paparazzi, they burrow under the sand or something. They're just at the beach, or wherever you go. So I think that's probably the trickiest part of it, the private life and people being curious about it, nosy. Or saying stuff that has no basis in reality and is completely untrue and then just running wild with that on the Internet.

You got a taste of that recently with the explosion of rumors about you and Demi Moore.

Really! And it's founded in nothing. I mean, there's literally nothing. I met this woman for three minutes and it was everywhere. They called my father at home. And it's like no one thinks, 'Well, wouldn't that maybe cause damage to someone that I was actually dating? If they read that don't you think they would be upset by that?' So there's that, but I mean, the other side of it…I don't know. It's just such funny time for me right now, just being on such a sexualized TV show and such a sexualized movie at the same time.

In this project and on “True Blood” you've shown you have acting chops. How much planning is going into reminding everyone that you're an actor that also happens to have great abs, as you move ahead into other projects?

I spent the first half of my career doing nothing but classical material. We're talking Shakespeare and Ibsen and Chekhov and ancient Greek. So that doesn't go anywhere. I'm not really worried about it. I wasn't in this kind of shape before 'True Blood.' This is the kind of shape that I got into to play the character. It just so happens that there's been this succession of parts in a certain line.

Work ethic is the only thing that I have control over, so the fact that even if I was cast because of my abs – so what? I work my ass off for that stuff. Steven Soderbergh cast me in 'Magic Mike' because of my appearance on 'Chelsea Handler.' He was flipping channels and went, 'That guy is great. That's the sense of humor we need.' Alan Ball cast me [for 'True Blood'] with my shirt on, coming in and reading for his show. What am I supposed to say? I think that I just bring as much as I can to roles and if the part calls for that kind of stuff, then I'm going to do it 110% like Edward Norton did back in 'American History X' and the way that Robert De Niro did in 'Cape Fear.'

This is also a great time to be in great shape to play a superhero or something in that arena. Is there a dream character or project that you'd love to tackle?

Yeah. I want to do it with someone smart. My schedule for 'True Blood' kept me out of playing Superman, and that was the only reason why I couldn't do it. There's one out there for me. I'm just not sure what it is and I just want to make sure that it's a really smart one.

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