EDITOR'S NOTE: This feature originally appeared as Joe Manganiello's cover story in the April 2016 issue of Men's Fitness.
FIRST GLANCE, Joe Manganiello and Pee-wee Herman make for strange comrades. On second and third glance, too. But it’s this extreme Abbott and Costello–like pairing that sets up the belly laughs in the Judd Apatow–produced film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, airing on Netflix in late March, in which the two star. And the casting works offscreen, too: The screen buddies have been actual friends since meeting at an Emmy party in 2011. Manganiello was thrilled to meet one of his childhood heroes, and Pee-wee—or Paul Reubens, as the comedian is known in real life—has been smitten ever since. “What I love about Joe so much is that he’s this amazing-looking guy, 6'5", and he’s on the cover of Men’s Fitness,” Reubens says. “But when you peel all that away, he’s like a dorky nerd.”
A dorky nerd with the body of Adonis, who’s risen to fame in the past few years by truly embodying the muscularity of Alcide the werewolf on HBO’s True Blood and Big Dick Richie of the Magic Mike male-stripper franchise. He also grabbed a bit of unclaimed spotlight when he married another perfect physical specimen, Modern Family star Sofia Vergara, this past November. Here, as he kicks back and opens up about fried chicken and burst biceps, we ask Manganiello about everything from his newest projects in the pipeline to his ongoing physical transformation to what his plans may be for starting his own modern family.
You’re the co-star of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. You’re not just doing a cameo, which I think a lot of people might guess—the movie is actually about you. “Joe” is one of the two main characters. Paul [Reubens] told me he’s a big fan of yours and your work, which is evident in the movie. Have you always been a fan of Pee-wee’s?
When the casting was announced, Paul got upset because people who were talking about it online were treating it like it was a stuntcast cameo. But I’m playing me. I love Pee-wee. I mean, I saw Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in the theater as a kid, and that was mind-blowing. I watched every episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and [his second full-length feature] Big Top Pee-wee—I saw it all. When I read the script, I laughed hysterically. I remember Sofia was in another room, and she kept asking me, “Are you OK?” I think kids who don’t really know Pee-wee are going to love it, so it’s going to introduce him to an entirely new generation. There’s a nostalgia side to it, but it also stands on its own
I think kids who don’t really know Pee-wee are going to love it, so it’s going to introduce him to an entirely new generation. There’s a nostalgia side to it, but it also stands on its own.
Was this role a big change for you? You’ve been known more for parts where your physique is a main focus.
I’m an actor first, so I do what’s required for each role. So if the character’s a werewolf and described in a novel as being built a certain way physically, then you do your best to match that. And of course if you’re playing a male stripper, then the character should look a certain way. If he doesn’t, it’s going to look weird.
When you’re playing a complex physical role, you know: A) You want to be in shape, and B) you don’t want to be self-conscious at any moment. The characters I’ve played over the past few years have required gym work. There’s no gym work required for the Pee-wee movie.
Well, Paul told me he did help you get in shape on set—he said you used him as a dumbbell and would curl him. That seems like kind of a light workout for you.
[Laughs] It depends on what Paul’s had for lunch!
You’ve talked before about how you think that sometimes the appearance of being a jacked, ripped guy—people can’t get past that. But also that it can be an advantage because you have this sort of secret weapon, like, “Oh, well, you’re selling me short.”
I don’t live my life governed by what anybody thinks about me. I think if you do that, you’re making a huge mistake. And you’re going to be really disappointed. I love great scripts; I love great writing. And when I read a great script that makes me laugh or makes me feel something, and I identify with the character or see myself playing the character—there’s something to it—I gravitate to those roles. If somebody wants to look at the last, I don’t know, two or three years of my career and make some sort of assumption about me, I don’t mind that. I’ve been acting for 22 or 23 years now, so three or four or five years in that grand scheme of things is a very small percentage of what I’ve done as an actor
I’ve done my best to portray the roles I’ve had the opportunity to play up until now. People who watched True Blood would ask me if I grew up on a farm [Laughs], which I thought was great because the answer is no. And when I did the Magic Mike movies, everyone treated me like I was a male stripper, talked to me like I was a male stripper, which couldn’t be further from my upbringing—my childhood, adolescence, and educational background, you know. Like I’m just not that guy.
So when people say something like that, it’s like, “Great, OK, then it’s working.” I just go after good material and people can think whatever the fuck they want.
You’ve flirted with the superhero genre. You played Flash Thompson in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man (2002). Your name was mentioned a lot when they were casting Man of Steel (2013). Will there finally be a superhero franchise with Joe Manganiello as the lead?
I don’t know, man. I mean, what superheroes aren’t cast yet? I missed that whole boom because I was on True Blood. All of the primary superheroes were being cast when I was contracted on a series. So I wasn’t even allowed to screentest, you know? They got mad when I set up meetings with directors about those projects. They’re all cast now—at least all the ones I loved as a kid. There might be an obscure character left for me somewhere out there.
A couple of years ago you released Evolution, a fitness book that told your story of going from a skinny teen to a guy of werewolf proportions. Is your workout regimen always evolving?
Year to year, I always make specific goals that I want to achieve. I’ll get together with my trainer [Ron Mathews] and talk about what I want to do for the next year. True Blood, Magic Mike, those were very specific as far as the training regimen. I really had to train like a bodybuilder would for a competition.
Now I’m getting close to 40, but I still have some really good years that I can push. So I think it’s really about becoming the best athlete I can be. A lot of my workouts switched to Olympic lifting, CrossFit training, things called EMOMs [short for “Every Minute, On the Minute”] for cardio, where you have to put in a certain amount of work and then you get to rest till the end of the minute. But of course, as you go on with the workout the rest periods shrink because you’re getting more tired, so it forces you to fight for that; but it’s mostly about becoming practically stronger. It’s lots of snatches, cleans, deadlifts—real functional athletic movements.
I don’t emphasize aesthetics anymore. When you’re in Magic Mike XXL playing a male stripper, it is about what you look like. But now I can stop paying attention to that and put an emphasis on becoming a better athlete, which is really where I’m at.
Are there any specific athletic goals you’re working toward?
This past year I’ve broken almost every personal record I had on every list, so that was really fun. It would be fun to maybe compete in, like, a team CrossFit game. In the fall, I’d love nothing more than to have some kind of role that requires me to be as jacked as possible—just gigantic—and be able to train that way and really pack it on. But we’ll see.
When you go through those sorts of extreme physical transformations with your acting, are you always taking the character home with you?
Yeah. When I was doing Sabotage [the 2014 action movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger], I’d go to the gym, and I was 6'5", 250, with tattoos all over me—you know, you walk into a store and people are like,“Who the fuck is this guy?!” So I’m still me, but the way people react to me is different. And it’s kind of fun. It’s fun to walk around and look in the mirror and not recognize yourself.
You tore your biceps while you were shooting a lap-dance scene for Magic Mike XXL a couple of years back. How did you come back from that injury? What specific tactics did you use?
Well, I had to lay off of it for months. And when I did come back and start training, I had to start really, really light. It’s a matter of healing— I had to baby it and take it easy for a while. And it’s not a quick injury to come back from—you’re really starting from scratch. I was injured early on and had to continue shooting—you know, the show must go on. There was no question. So I had to continue performing on it.
But if you’re in a situation in which you don’t need to perform right away, I’d say take some time off. But I also see people who make mistakes about when it’s time to get back to work and rehabilitate, and they don’t. And then they wind up in trouble. I’d urge people to take it easy, but be on top of it when it comes time to really get down to business and rehabilitate.
You have a reputation for being a regular jeans-and-T-shirt guy. But you cut a pretty striking figure in a suit. Has your approach toward style changed the older you’ve gotten?
I don’t think it’s changed at all. There are a few designers I like, and I buy everything they have and that’s it. I’m not really a shopper or the kind of guy who takes a long time to get ready. It takes me, like, 30 seconds and we’re ready to go.
I love John Varvatos—he made my tux for my wedding. I love John and his clothes. Once a month I’ll go into John’s store and see what he’s got that’s new and that’s it—I’m good. I think in terms of suits—Zegna, that’s another company that over the past couple of years I’ve developed a relationship with. They’ve made me some amazing suits. But a suit’s all about how it’s tailored. When you get a little bit older you start bringing your clothes to the tailor more often.
You’re huge. I’d think most of your suits would have to be tailor-made.
Not really. I mean, I buy stuff right off the rack. Same with Zegna. Most places I just buy right off the rack. It’s just my shoulders—I need to find a jacket that fits my shoulders and then have it tailored, you know? I mean, my waist is pretty normal size. I can fit into normal stuff.
How careful are you about what you eat?
It’s interesting. This past year I met with a very highly recommended nutritionist who used to work for NASA and now works with a lot of pro sports teams and pro athletes. His name is Chris Talley. What I realized through him is that people giving other people diet advice doesn’t really work. People make blanket statements about diet—“Red meat’s bad, aspartame will give you cancer, fat is bad”—but you know it’s not true for everyone. One size does not fit all when it comes to diet.
Talley debunked so many things I’d thought and really shed light on some scary things about the food we’re eating—especially the food that I was eating when I was training. I found out that I was allergic to eggs, milk, and casein, which comprised a huge percentage of my diet. My allergies eventually went away.
But I also found out that red meat was great for me and that eating a packet of Equal would raise my aspartic acid level, which is the equivalent of drinking wine and eating cheese. Nobody on the planet is going to suggest that you do that. But it’s good for me— maybe not somebody else.
Is your diet so regimented that you have a cheat day?
I only need cheat days when I’m training for something. When I’m not, I just eat whatever the hell I want.
When you’re eating whatever the hell you want, what’s your favorite thing to eat?
I love waffles, man. I’m a sucker for waffles. Waffles and fried chicken. As a present, my friend Art Smith, the [celebrity] chef who’s worked for Oprah, told me that he was going to come and make me his fried chicken the night of my wedding. So at the after-party, he and his fleet of chefs came out with trays of fried chicken for everybody, then he made it again for the brunch the next morning. Which was just—I mean, I was in heaven. When he brought it out, it was gone. I mean, he brought, like, 400 pieces of chicken, and they were gone in about two seconds. It’s the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life.
Oh, yes, your barely publicized wedding! Congratulations, by the way. How has married life been treating you?
Thank you very much. It’s the best. It’s great.
You mentioned that this year you’re heading toward a big birthday—40. What do the next few years look like in terms of your personal life? Time to start a family with Sofia?
I’m not ready to make any kind of announcement like that, man. It was tough enough trying to make my wedding happen out of the public eye. The last thing I’d want to do is curse that part of my life before it even happens