Joe Manganiello on Rampage and being a nerd in a giant’s body

Joe Manganiello is an actor with a lot of movie star potential that remains to be fulfilled. Since coming to prominence as werewolf Alcide in True Blood, his most widely-seen role has been as Big Dick Richie in Magic Mike and its sequel. His cameo as Slade Wilson/Deathstroke (the character he may or may not be playing in the upcoming solo Batman movie) at the end of last year’s Justice League was the only well-received moment in the film.

Although he screams ‘action hero’ at a glance, if you caught his hilarious supporting performance as himself in Netflix’s Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, you know there’s more to Manganiello that his hulking frame and mountain man looks might suggest.

Flicks sat down with Manganiello in Los Angeles recently to discuss his small but impactful role as a scarred-up mercenary hunting a giant wolf in the new Dwayne Johnson monster mash Rampage, and during the conversation, the actor revealed some impressively nerdy credentials.

Flicks: Were you familiar with the Rampage video game when you were offered this role?

Joe Manganiello: I dunked so many quarters into that game as a kid that this was actually justice for me to collect a paycheck that came out of a machine that I put so much money into. And you know, I spend five years on a show with live wolves, so I like to think I was born to play this role.

As a fan of the game, what did you think of the film’s interpretation?

Well, the game just went on and on and on – was there even an ending to the game? Because I never found it. I don’t think there was. And also in the game, there were people, so when you died, you shrunk back into a little naked guy and then kind of scurried across the screen.

But that was what attracted me. Not the naked people. What attracted me to the game was at that time in the ’80s, in every video game, you were the hero, and this was the first game where you got to be the monster and just destroy and there was something cathartic about that.

Did you choose to play as the monkey, the lizard or the wolf?

I was very pro-Godzilla when I was a kid. I had the big giant Godzilla toy where you had the lever on the back and it made the little vinyl flame tongue came out and I had my Rodan which you could stick your fingers into and flap the wings, so I was very pro-Godzilla.

I used to get very angry when King Kong beat up Godzilla in the old King Kong vs Godzilla movie. That made me really upset. So I was always Lizzie.

Was it challenging acting opposite a CGI creature?

It’s interesting because you don’t really get a good shot of the wolf until it jumps out and smashes the helicopter. Prior to that, it was a week of doing everything practical.

It was me with guns, running around and doing my own stunts, and them chasing me with a camera mounted on a motorcycle. Just running and running and diving, fun stuff, trying not to break my jaw. And shooting tonnes of tonnes of rounds without eye protection, sheesh, which could also go really wrong. So most of my stuff was practical.

It’s easier, I think, to imagine the monster when you’re doing something active. When you’re running, you’re shooting, you’re chasing. It just helps to conduct the fear molecules.

Did you get to participate in creating the look for your character? He’s pretty scarred-up.

That was something [director] Brad [Peyton] and I talked about. We talked about what kind of music does this guy listen to, having a big scar on the face, what kind of weapon he carried. I was sending Brad tonnes and tonnes of shots and pictures of the weapons that this guy would handle and what his troop would have and this and that so we were sharing research. But Brad’s fun. Brad likes big giant thoughts so I think actually that was Brad’s idea to scar-up half of his face.

I mean, I play another character who’s missing an eye [Deathstroke], so that didn’t come from me, but I was like, okay fine, let’s get typecast as the guy with half of his face mangled. I’m okay with that.

What was your first reaction when you read the script?

Well, the way I came to the role is kind of a winding road. I wrote a script for a Dungeons & Dragons film when the property was at Warner Bros. and Brad was actually positioning himself, unbeknownst to me, to direct a version of the film, so that’s how we actually connected.

We were talking about Dungeons & Dragons and Brad said “Hey I’ve got this thing, it’s like Predator inside of the movie, you’d be playing Dutch in Predator against this giant wolf. Why don’t you come down to Atlanta and shoot this thing and we can talk about Dungeons & Dragons.” That’s how it was pitched to me – like a miniature Predator inside of Rampage. And I thought that was great, I love Predator. I really shot like, a little short film about a guy who’s having trouble with a wolf in Wyoming.

You wrote a Dungeons & Dragons movie?

I’m a nerd. I was an artist and a nerd first, that’s who I am. I saw Ready Player One recently and I was talking to my wife [Modern Family star Sofia Vergara] on the way home: what they do inside that virtual reality world, those avatars they created for themselves, I was a little kid with thick Coke-bottle glasses. I was a little nerd who basically spent twenty years of his life trying to create this avatar of myself in real life. So for me, if you look at Pacific Rim, where they’re driving the Jaegers, basically I’m like a nerd Jaeger driver.

What happened was I was really good at sports, so it looked like that was gonna be my way to college, because where I grew up, you get a sports scholarship and that gets you into a better school, and then you concentrate on academics. So I was gonna go study criminal justice and go into federal law enforcement, I was trying to figure out what branch I was gonna go into, and I started making my own movies and that artistic kid that I was, that painter, that writer, that character builder, I wound up finding a new application for all of that, and that lead me to try out for Carnegie Mellon and I wound up getting my BFA in Classical Theatre. And the rest is history.

You were very funny in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.

Thanks, man. What a trip. You get a phone call from Paul Reubens: “Do you wanna come and be my best friend?”

The reveal that you were playing yourself was pretty cool.

Well, that was on the spot on the day-of. Because the character was ‘Joe Mancuso’ in the script. I was playing a famous actor named Joe Mancuso. They even cleared the name. They found the guy named Joe Mancuso, they even gave him a part in the movie to appease him. And then on the day, [director] John Lee and Paul were like, “What if you just say you’re you?”. I was like, “So we’re in reality?”

Rampage is in theatres from April 12th – find times & tickets