If there are two topics Joe Manganiello knows a little something about, they’re male strippers and the seminal Orlando boy band the Backstreet Boys.
“I think that I speak for them when I say they would be offended by being called a boy band,” the Magic Mike XXL star declared with a smile as we sat for a chat in Los Angeles. “They’re a five-part harmony group.”
Mangianello should know. When Warner Bros. green-lit a sequel to 2012’s hit stripper pic Magic Mike, producers opened the floor to ideas on how to expand the world around star Channing Tatum and give his fellow hunks more to do beyond stripteases and backstage one-liners.
“We actually got to get into the characters,” said Manganiello, who had a very specific suggestion in mind. His lasting contribution to Magic Mike history? Big Dick Richie—an Adonis literally named for his extra-sized endowment—is a closet Backstreet fan.
“I’m kind of obsessed with the idea that no matter how tough you think you are as a man, ‘I Want It That Way’ comes on the radio and you roll that window up and sing at the top of your lungs,” Manganiello laughed. “You’re the sixth member of the group, harmonizing.”
“I know all the words and the dances and I know AJ from the Backstreet Boys,” he added. “I was in his kitchen as he was making dinner, showing him the moves.”
That telling detail emerges in one of Magic Mike XXL’s best scenes as “Magic” Mike comes out of retirement for one last road trip with his Tampa crew, sans Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, and the brooding moodiness peppered throughout the first film.
The genre shift to buddy road comedy—with plenty of oiled up abs, pecs, and more meat on display—allows the male entertainers of Magic Mike to explore their inner passions. Richie has Backstreet; Tito (Adam Rodriguez) is into probiotic fro-yo. Ken (Matt Bomer) unleashes his inner pop singer, and Tarzan (Kevin Nash) reveals the sensitive soul of a painter.
Playing the ensemble for seriocomic laughs, director Gregory Jacobs and producer-writer Reid Carolin tap into the paradoxical duality of their male strippers—professional fantasy-makers who embody erotic masculine perfection by night but want to be taken for more than mere man candy.
You might say the same of its stars. Tatum produced the first film loosely based on his own pre-fame stint as an exotic dancer and leveled up in Hollywood when Magic Mike became a critical and commercial hit. The classically trained Manganiello, now 38, performed Ibsen, Chekov, and Shakespeare at Carnegie Mellon before landing his most famous role as an oft-nude werewolf on True Blood.
He made his first foray into directing after Magic Mike, a documentary about a real-life Texas strip club populated by a motley crew of male strippers with outsized personalities.
“Filming that documentary was probably the best prep work I could do for entering into this world,” he said of his 2014 film La Bare, which holds a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Spending months filming and in the editing room with those guys in Dallas, we were all rolling on the ground at how funny they all were, both self-aware and not self-aware.”
Manganiello screened the doc for Jacobs and Carolin as Magic Mike XXL was coming together. It was also his way of introducing his work to now-fiancée Sofia Vergara.
“She hadn’t watched True Blood, she hadn’t watched Magic Mike—none of it,” he said. “In Latin America, I think there’s a different culture. Her feeling was, ‘Male strippers? I feel bad that these poor guys have to work this job!’ She felt pity for the idea of male stripping.”
“I showed it to her when we first started dating because I was in the middle of my press tour during our courtship, and she was completely unprepared for how funny it was. I think that won her over.”
Coincidentally, it’s Big Dick Richie who gets matrimonial in his other big dance number in Magic Mike XXL as the gang hits an annual stripper convention in the Southern party mecca of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
It’s no hunky fireman act, but in a film that boasts a little something for almost anyone—the Kings of Tampa even hit the floor in a drag club—Manganiello is now destined to become the subject of many a bridal fantasy.
“I think women dream about who they’re going to marry when they grow up,” he argued. “My god, the wedding industry is massive and so is the planning that goes into it. But it’s a setup— it’s the first part. The second part is once you get home, you pick her up and carry her over the threshold into your sex dungeon, and now Fifty Shades of Grey starts.”
Post-Magic Mike XXL, Manganiello will stretch his comedy chops again in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday after filming a “very secret, but magical” role in the 2016 Netflix film.
“Words can’t describe being in a scene with Pee-wee Herman,” he said, lighting up. “And it’s not like some stunt casting cameo. I’m starring in this movie opposite Pee-wee in this big, crazy role. My dad took me to see Big Adventure, which was Tim Burton’s feature film debut. Every Saturday I watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I was a huge fan. Paul is one of the great comic geniuses of all-time.”
Turns out Pee-wee was a big True Blood fan, “but look—he had probably one of the greatest death scenes recorded on film as a vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” said Manganiello, who then promptly re-created Paul Reubens’s death scene in the 1992 cult classic.
Clearly, Manganiello’s unafraid to let his geek flag fly. Which brings us back to Backstreet.
“It’s about being really, truly vulnerable. To me that’s a metaphor for Backstreet Boys love,” he said of his bravest Magic Mike XXL moment, in which he dances to the beat of his boy band-loving heart for a lonely cashier woman. “I think there are a lot of guys out there who identify with that. My brother is a 6-foot-7 college D1 athlete who had a Backstreet Boys poster on his wall! There’s something about just owning it.”
Would Manganiello recommend breaking into impromptu stripteases for strangers in public to any bro searching for his inner male stripper?
“In real life you may get the free Cheetos and water in the end, you may not. Don’t forget your wallet, because somebody’s going to have to clean that shit up,” he advised. “I’m not going to promote vandalism in anyone, but I definitely encourage guys to get a little bit of what we learned on this movie, and take it home to your girl. All those kings out there… learn some new moves for your queens.”