The presence of monsters echoes throughout history; historians and anthropologists alike have diagnosed the mythical beasts as a vector of our most bridling fears. They are manufactured in our subconscious and assembled solely for the purpose of defeat, and yet, no matter their atrocity, monsters are secretly championed all the way to their demise. These villains are among us with increasing abundance, so if in fact enlisted for our own catharsis, the indication of their prevalence paints a less than reassuring picture of the current cultural times.
At mention of the social climate that invites an insurgence of supernatural media stars, Joe Manganiello sits discernibly taller in his seat. As a resident werewolf on the popular vampire series, True Blood, his credentials for our discussion to follow are promising, and within just moments of conversing, every bit deserving of the hype. Immediately, he confides how pleasant it is to discuss something other than his ab routine. “It’s really nice when you get to sit down and talk about what goes into the show and books about culture,” he says, “or why [True Blood] is popular and how it fits into the grand scheme of things.”
In just moments of speaking, his dedication and enthusiasm for his profession are admiringly evident, and, upon dissection of his upbringing, it is quickly apparent why this is. Manganiello was raised in Western Pennsylvania by a working-class father, who bestowed a blue-collar work ethic upon his children. Today, this robust conditioning translates to caring for his role with the same force by which his grandfather proudly shoveled coal. Though the most superficial and identifiable fruits of his labors are shown in his physique, in regards to his workouts Manganiello insists that he “approach[es] everything with this same level of intensity” and goes on to cite the comprehensive list of books and films he has added to his gamut in an effort to prepare for this role. His words are validated with a book on hand—gifted by a fan—on the history of English werewolves circa 1865.
Beyond submerging himself in copious amounts of mythological and historical literature on wolves, perhaps even more indicative of Manganiello’s effort to understand and relate to his character is his frequent interaction with Thunder, the real-life wolf with whom he shares a character. “It’s really exhilarating when they hand you the chain and let you take him for a walk, and you realize he’s this massive, crazy, wild animal, and could chew you to pieces,” he notes, adding after a pause, “and he’s my friend.” He goes on to reflect on his childhood and equates his current friendship with the wolf to his adolescent affinity for monsters. As an artistic child with an athletic build growing up in football country, Manganiello felt a connection to monsters in that he understood how it felt to never quite fit in. “I’d always yell at my mom to close the door at night,” he allows, “because I wanted monsters to come out of the closet and from under the bed. I really felt like if they existed, they would at least be my friends.”
Manganiello speaks with a sophisticated and spherical understanding of his character that extends far beyond his personal role and into the overall cultural significance of True Blood. After having argued the case for his expertise and in returning to the social context of the show, I too am at the edge of my seat. “Honestly,” he says, “it might be the fact that we’re in a global economic recession, and people need this kind of fantasy to get far away from where they’re at.” In a recent and shockingly eerie coincidence, he recalls speaking candidly with a friend in England and discussing how vampires represent the upper class and, historically, werewolves become popular in times of recession. “When finances are down,” he recalls discussing, “werewolves embody people’s fears that the masses are going to turn animalistic—a fear that the have-nots will attack the haves.” Two days after having this discussion, as if by premonition, he opened the paper to riots occurring all across London.
The significance of werewolves is just one example—vampires, witches, and the prevalence of supernatural beings are readily employed to externalize human anxiety. As Manganiello points out, this human method of coping is “a classic formula from the dawn of mythology.” He describes how, in order to explain the unexplainable, the Ancient Greek and Egyptian gods were given very human qualities, “creating these mythological creatures who make very human mistakes” in order to understand mortality. This really is no different from True Blood, he explains, “because really the show is not about vampires and werewolves, but instead is about being human, and how these people with massive handicaps try to feel love, give love, have sex, be normal, fit into society, and deal with loss.” Manganiello draws another connection to mythology, this time in reference to his True Blood character Alcide, explaining, “The name Alcide is actually a derivative of the name Hercules, who was cursed in Greek mythology.” It is no secret to the storyline that Alcide feels cursed in being a werewolf, and Manganiello empathizes in remembrance of a lonely adolescence. “There’s got to be some point where he feels like what he is is okay,” he states, “and he feels this is doable.” Manganiello, after all, has certainly achieved this for himself in the present day.
“I really didn’t feel like I fit in until I got True Blood,” he remarks thoughtfully. “I’ve never been more fulfilled in my entire life, from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep at night. I always felt like something was missing, and I don’t anymore.” It is only logical that he would want the same relief to arrive for Alcide, admitting, “I just love the guy, who he is, who he aspires to be.” In the same vein, the public audience has fallen for this gentle giant, perhaps a most literal example of the classic noble villain who has romped through history. Though flawed and plagued with dark sides, these characters bring us face-to-face with our anxieties and help us fathom our own humanity. As if under a spell, we are left to empathize with this disarming brute.