How Joe Manganiello kept his A-list Dungeons & Dragons games going during COVID-19

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Joe Manganiello proved he could shape-shift as the werewolf Alcide on HBO’s “True Blood,” and since the hit series concluded in 2014, he’s starred in films like “Magic Mike XXL” and “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”

He has also managed to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a consultant and designer for some of his favorite fantasy properties, collaborating with Hasbro and Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, he’s been a lifelong fan of D&D – the tabletop role-playing game that originated in the 1970s and is still a phenomenon today, with his own film, TV series, video games, action figures and clothing line. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Manganiello organized a weekly competition in the basement of his Los Angeles home, with friends like Vince Vaughn and Tom Morello. And since then, Manganiello has found a way to continue playing virtually with his crew.

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His interest in all things fantasy led him to his latest project, “The Spine of Night.” The animated adult horror film premiered at SXSW in the spring and is now available to rent on VOD platforms. In the film, Manganiello voices Mongrel, a shirtless killer.

The 44-year-old actor spoke to Variety on “The Spine of Night” and how comic book fandom has evolved since he was a kid in Pittsburgh. He also delved into his memories of playing Flash Thompson in Sam Raimi’s 2002 “Spider-Man” — the movie that started the superhero craze.

Watching “The Spine of Night” reminded me of “He-Man” cartoons from the 80s.

I also grew up with “He-Man”. I understand what you’re saying about the animation style. I think it’s probably because they copied a lot of animation in the “He-Man” days where He-Man would spin and he would run the same way. Rotoscopes might look something like this. To me it’s more Ralph Bakshi ‘Wizards’ or his ‘Lord of the Rings’ that he animated. For this, they shot with a bunch of actors that weren’t us and spent about seven years animating and painting each cell before bringing us in.

What did you like about the movie when you saw the early version?

Psychedelic rotoscoping horror. I mean come on! You had me with psychedelics. It was a super fun process, and it was something I jumped on right away. Those were things that really excited me as a kid and still excite me as an adult.

How did you find your character’s voice?

I do not know. This man had a mustache and a mullet and a hatchet and no shirt. He is the most brutal psychopathic killer imaginable. I think there was a homesickness with him. I didn’t want to make him such a big bruise. He looked more serpentine-like a jackal, not like a lion or a wolf.

And they thought of you because –

I think they knew about my work in the fantasy genre, namely Dungeons & Dragons and even Hasbro – I’ve been a game designer for them. I helped redesign this board game called HeroQuest; it’s basically “Dungeons & Dragons” in a box.

I was initially hired by Dungeons & Dragons as a consultant. That started a friendship with the company, in which I was then allowed to write storylines for adventure modules and create characters that lead to action figures and toys sold in toy stores. I had to redesign a lot of the Dungeon & Dragons characters and stuff because I started a streetwear line – like I wasn’t busy enough I guess. I also played this A-list celebrity Dungeons & Dragons game in my house every Friday night and turned my wine cellar into a dungeon. I think it just became part of my identity.

Did you still host the games during the pandemic?

When the pandemic hit and we all went into quarantine, we played live. That weekend we put it off and even punted it as I figured out how to use this computer program that lets you create your own dungeon maps and enter your players into them. Once we got the hang of the technique, we started playing online. They persuaded me to play two games a week. And then we realized: [COVID] won’t go away soon. I had to cut it down to one night a week. It takes a lot of preparation. It’s like preparing as a director to shoot a TV show every Friday night – live starring your friends. For me, I started to get busy.

How has embracing “Dungeons & Dragons” changed your career path?

This is more about fantasy than anything. Growing up, it was a niche. Comic stores were not overcrowded. It was a small crowd of madmen. And now the roles are reversed. Because of these Marvel movies, because of things like ‘Games of Thrones’, the mainstream has been indoctrinated into fantasy culture.

I think letting people know publicly that I like that sort of thing probably put off a lot of women and men who follow me on Instagram because they wanted shirtless photos. I think those people may have left my Instagram feed. It lets the people who matter know that I understand these qualities. I am one of these people who is a writer, a content creator and I understand them.

You were Flash Thompson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. What do you remember from the set of that movie?

We all knew this was the dawn of something else. They spent more money on that film than was ever spent. They had the best producers, the best special effects artists. Until then it was Tim Burton’s “Batman”, it was “The Crow”, it was “Blade”, it was “X-Men”. Everyone is in black leather. They were all shot at night and very dark and borderline gothic. So when you see Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” it’s bright! It is light! It’s a high school kid. And he was wearing a red and blue suit, not a black leather suit.

What do you think of the new ‘Spider-Man’ movies?

Jon Watts is a former production partner of mine. In Raimi’s universe, Peter Parker is the only one, he doesn’t live in a world of superheroes. What I really loved about the new “Spider-Man” movies, the burden on the character is different. He is a kid living in the age of “Avengers” where Iron Man and Thor and Captain America are. He wasn’t alone. I think that was a really cool take on that.

You said in an interview earlier this year that you turned down a Marvel movie, but you wouldn’t say which one. Do you eventually want to do one?

It’s not that I turned down a Marvel movie. It’s more the fact that my schedule didn’t allow me to make that Marvel movie. This was years ago. I really hope I can do something along the way.

What about a third “Magic Mike” movie? Would you?

I already answered that question and I said no. My character is retired. Listen, I had a blast. The most fun I ever had while filming was part 2, “Magic Mike XXL.” And probably in second place came part 1. I’ve moved on to other things now, but I love them all and wish them the best of luck. And I don’t see why they wouldn’t do part 3.

This interview has been edited and abridged.

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