HEAT VISION

Joe Manganiello on 'Archenemy' and the Past, Present and Future of Deathstroke

Joe Manganiello
Rich Fury/VF20/Getty Images
The actor recalls the heartache over learning Ben Affleck's 'The Batman' was no longer happening and reveals he was nearly recast in 2002's 'Spider-Man': "For a month and a half, they went ahead and auditioned everybody else in town all over again."

Ever since he was cast as Deathstroke in Ben Affleck’s now-defunct The Batman, Joe Manganiello’s fans have been waiting for Hollywood to finally unleash the actor in another Deathstroke or superhero project. And now, four years later, Manganiello is starring as Max Fist in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy, which the actor also produced alongside his brother, Nick Manganiello, Elijah Wood and Legion M. While the indie has the trappings of a superhero film, Manganiello didn’t approach the role of Max like he was a superhero nor does he think he even played one. Instead, he played a mentally ill homeless man who suffers from alcoholism and drug addiction, which would explain his delusional talk of being a superpowered being from another dimension.

“A lot of people are going to call this movie a superhero movie or an indie superhero movie, but I didn’t get to play a superhero,” Manganiello tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The movie was about someone who’s mourning the loss of their vitality and has fallen into drugs, drinking and homelessness as a result. I worked very closely with a guy who had been homeless for 20 years and he was very forthcoming with me about what life was like. I also had a meth coach that I brought to set with me and we had long discussions about methamphetamines and using methamphetamines.”

Manganiello is also reflecting on the recent call he received from Zack Snyder about reprising the role of Deathstroke in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In 2016, the Pittsburgh native first donned Deathstroke’s armor for the end-credit scene of Snyder’s original vision for Justice League, which was meant to set up Manganiello as the villain in Affleck’s Batman movie. The role was also supposed to lead to other standalone Deathstroke projects, including a Gareth Evans-helmed solo film, but once Snyder and Affleck departed their respective projects, Manganiello’s Deathstroke fell by the wayside. For Manganiello, it’s all part of the ups and downs of Hollywood, which he got a preview of during the casting of his first film, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

If you hang around this business long enough, then you’re going to witness some of the craziest circumstances you’ve ever seen. Probably the worst phone call I’ve ever received was when The Batman wasn’t happening,” Manganiello recalls. “Then there were about seven other phone calls that followed up that one involving other Deathstroke projects that weren’t happening, so those were tough. I won’t name names, but there was someone who didn’t want me as Flash Thompson [in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man]. So for a month and a half, they went ahead and auditioned everybody else in town all over again. Then, on Christmas Eve, I got a call that I got the role back. Well, no, the way it was phrased to me by my agent at the time was, ‘They didn’t find anybody else. The role is yours.’”

In a recent conversation with THR, Manganiello also discusses Archenemy’s challenging fight choreography, as well as the comic book writers that shaped him. He also recalls his Deathstroke costume fitting and the bizarre experience he had while shooting Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups.

So most people know that you’re a Dungeons & Dragons guy, and while I know little about it, I do know that it’s storytelling and world-building at the end of the day. Thus, when you first read the unreliable narration involving Max Fist’s backstory, did your imagination start to run wild like it does with D&D?

That’s an interesting question. Yeah, to a certain degree. Growing up playing D&D was what taught me about character development. Eddie Van Halen had his own style of guitar playing, and you meet those guitar players that taught themselves or just figured it out when they were young. So there was a bit of that which feels proprietary to me because I grew up playing these tabletop games that urged you to write stories, create characters and think about their ongoing narratives and how they change. So I was doing that before it was work. (Laughs.) And this script definitely brought me back to those comic books I read that were fueling all those stories and characters that I was writing. They were the stories that were written by Pat Mills, Frank Miller, Chris Claremont and certainly Eastman & Laird, in the 1980s and 90s. And Grant Morrison. There were some really fantastic stories and really, they led into a period of anti-heroes like those old Punisher comic books. So, for me, it was a return. The script felt like something ripped from the pages of those books I was reading at that time.

Did you add anything to Max’s questionable backstory?

Well, my job was to ground it. Adam [Egypt Mortimer] came up with the most crazy, insane idea that you can come up with that was also intelligent and had a really grounded sense to it. A lot of people are going to call this movie a superhero movie or an indie superhero movie, but I didn’t get to play a superhero. That’s not what the movie was about for me. The movie was about someone who’s mourning the loss of their vitality and has fallen into drugs, drinking and homelessness as a result. So that’s the reality, and the contributions that I made were all a part of that. I worked very closely with a guy who had been homeless for 20 years and he was very forthcoming with me about what life was like. I also had a meth coach that I brought to set with me and we had long discussions about methamphetamines and using methamphetamines. That really informed a lot of the script, even the scenes where Max is not high, but coming down. So Adam’s job was to come up with the craziest idea he could possibly come up with, and it was my job to try to make it real.

When Max talks about his backstory, the film illustrates his words through trippy animated sequences. If someone offered you and Adam a blank check to film those sequences in live-action, is it likely that the two of you would have declined? Live-action may have convinced the audience that Max’s wild stories were true even though they’re questioned throughout the movie.

That’s a great observation and the answer is you get it, yeah. I’m a fan of special effects when they help tell the story, but I’m somebody who would rather watch Lawrence of Arabia to see the sun rise or set over the sand, the actual sand dunes, and marvel over how they got that shot. To me, that’s more impressive than an artificial sunset or sunrise over the desert that was made in a laboratory. I mean, there’s a bit of that where you can marvel at the technology, but to me, it’s nothing compared to the marvel of nature. With that said, I think the animation helps to add to the confusion, to the potentially hallucinatory nature of this man who’s hopelessly addicted to drugs and anything he can get his hands on.

Like you just said, Max is wallowing in his own misery to say the least. What is it about this pair of young siblings, Hamster (Skylan Brooks) and Indigo (Zolee Griggs), that light a fire under him?

Well, first of all, Hamster believes in him. There’s a bit of that curiosity of youth that helps Max, and I think that Max takes a liking to Hamster as a result. It’s also a hero without a cause. He’s looking for a way out of this purgatory. He needs some kind of purpose to get him up and moving again because he’s fallen into a state where he is almost completely hopeless. So it’s Hamster that gets him out of it, and it’s the trouble that Indigo is in that then spurs him to action.

When you pull off a great piece of fight choreography, does the high compare at all to your best moments as an athlete?

That’s a good question. They’re similar in a way, yes. One audience is allowed to cheer; the other audience isn’t. But, yeah, by being an indie film, we had hours to complete a lot of the action sequences, not days like a bigger-budgeted movie. There’s one fight sequence in which Max smashes this door down and kills a whole bunch of people, and I only had one take before we were going to have to let everybody go for the night. So there’s about 20 things that I need to worry about. I need to smash this door. I need to run in perfect unison. I also need to pick this guy up off of his feet, slam him on the ground, get on top of him, but not hit the camera, which is positioned on the floor like a Citizen Kane floor shot-type angle. And then they’re going to squirt blood up into me while I piston-fist this guy in the face, but not hit him in the face while he’s laying on the ground. And then, I need to get up, turn around and do all this table smashing while people are moving. I also need to finish off two other guys. So there’s a million things going through my mind and it’s a bit like a gymnastics floor routine. You prep for it. You rehearse it. You get ready to go. And then you’re standing behind that door, ready for them to yell action and then boom! So you’ve got to go, and you’ve got one chance before we have to let everybody go for the day. (Laughs.) So, yeah, there are a lot of similarities and I really like that type of pressure.

Yeah, I loved how that fight scene's foreground and background worked in concert with each other.

Yeah, that’s an Orson Welles trick.

You’ve probably had a lot of unexpected phone calls over the years, but I have to imagine that Zack Snyder’s call about The Snyder Cut’s additional photography tops the list.

This time is par for the course. If you hang around this business long enough, then you’re going to witness some of the craziest circumstances you’ve ever seen. I’ve certainly been on the other end of some horrible phone calls, too. Probably the worst phone call I’ve ever received was when The Batman wasn’t happening. Then there were about seven other phone calls that followed up that one involving other Deathstroke projects that weren’t happening, so those were tough. There was a call— jeez. (Manganiello sighs.) I won’t name names, but there was someone who didn’t want me as Flash Thompson [in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man]. So for a month and a half, they went ahead and auditioned everybody else in town all over again. Then, on Christmas Eve, I got a call that I got the role back. Well, no, the way it was phrased to me by my agent at the time was, “They didn’t find anybody else. The role is yours.”

“Gee, thanks.”

(Laughs.) Yeah, it was like, “Aw, thanks. Yeah, okay, great. Sure, I guess.” (Manganiello says sarcastically.) So, you go up, you go down, and I remember all those bad ones. But there are great ones like sitting in my car and getting the call that said, “True Blood. You got True Blood.” Getting the initial call that I got Spider-Man was great, before they took it away and then gave it back. And then, of course, it was my agent who wrote me an email that said, “You’re cast as The Batman’s villain. You got the role. It’s too late to call you or call them.” (Laughs.) It was like 11:30 at night, but they had just hit us up from London and said they needed me in London next week. So those moments are really what you live for in this business. And with Zack, it wasn’t like I was touchdown-dancing. I was just like, “Okay, I’m actually going to step back into this armor again, four years later. How can I improve upon it? How can I maybe set the table for some further adventures?” So there’s some easter eggs involved with my return, and we definitely snuck some things in this time. There’s a reason for the mohawk. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the character and work on the character for these various other incarnations that never happened. So there was a bit of coitus interruptus for four years. (Laughs.) But it was fun to be back, and it was fun to see Zack again. Putting that armor on again was just so awesome.

Michael Keaton is likely coming back as Batman in The Flash. All the Spider-Men are expected to appear together in the next Spider-Man movie from Sony and Marvel. So anything is possible right now, and making choices with the future in mind is certainly a wise move.

Well, we’ll see what happens, but yeah, I had four years to think about what I’d do differently or what I really wanted to do. So there’s as much of that as I could squeeze into this appearance.

Do you have pretty good mobility in Deathstroke’s suit?

That thing is no joke, but yeah, I can move around. There was actually going to be another version of it that we were going to have for all of the fight scenes in The Batman. So there was the one that I tested with for show, but then there was going to be another one that was going to be super mobile once we had a ton of time to work on it.

When you first appeared as Deathstroke in the test footage that Affleck released, was that all you shot that trip?

So that was my second trip over there. The first trip was me fitting the armor initially, but the armor was all silver. It hadn’t been treated blue and orange, and all of that. So it was like a silver suit of armor, and I had to be photographed in front of 256 cameras in a ring. They made mannequins out of me so they could work on it when I went back to the States. So I stayed out there in England for about a week, and then about a month later, I came back. And that’s when I tried out the suit like you saw in the test footage. We were also doing hair tests and planning what we were going to do about my hair. And once we had that all set, we then went to Monaco to shoot the scene for the end of Justice League.

So I collect Knight of Cups stories any chance I get, such as Jason Clarke shooting Christian Bale in the eye with a squirt gun. Would you mind sharing your story from that party scene?

(Laughs.) Oh God, I mean, what a trip. So Terrence Malick was a big True Blood fan, and he got to me through the costume designer [J.R. Hawbaker] on Knight of Cups, who was also on True Blood for my first couple of seasons. So she hit me up and said, “Hey, Terrence is a big fan. He’d love to meet you. He’s here in L.A. filming. Come and meet him.” I said, “Yeah, sure, all right.” (Laughs.) So I drove to meet him and they were filming at this huge house. So I came back behind the monitor and said, “Hey, how you doing?” And he goes, “Great. Why don’t you jump in there?” I go, “What am I doing?” and he goes, “Just be you.” So I go, “Yeah, but what’s the movie about?” and he’s like, “Don’t worry about it.” (Laughs.) I’m like, “Well, what’s the character?” and he’s like, “You.” Then I’m like, “Who’s house is this?” and he’s like, “Don’t worry.” (Laughs.) I’m like, “You’re not going to tell— all right, fine.” So I just went out there, and sure enough, here comes Antonio Banderas. I was talking to a girl at the party and Antonio Banderas goes, “Joe! So glad you could make it.” And I’m like, “Hey buddy! Yeah, good to see you.” And it was like, “What the hell?” My impulse was to throw the whole movie off by saying, “I loved you in Puss in Boots!” but I didn’t. So that was a funny day, man. And then there’s Bale just walking around quietly, not saying anything and looking at everyone. And then, of course, everybody gets in the pool, and then, man, there’s Fabio right over there. So it was a trip. It was really funny and fun to meet Terrence that way. He just wanted to say, “Hi,” and that he likes True Blood. So “go jump in there” is how I wound up in the movie.

Was everyone treating that party like a real party for the most part, aside from when the camera would come around?

(Laughs.) Yeah, pretty much. I mean, “Okay, fine. I’m Joe at a party. Great. ‘Hey Antonio, what’s up?’” And that was it. (Laughs.) Yeah, it was just like an actual day party in L.A.

Did Zack bring up the Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas animated show while doing The Snyder Cut’s additional photography?

By the time I got to [The Snyder Cut] set, we had already recorded everything, so it’s in the can, man. When Zack called me about [The Snyder Cut], he said, “Look, I have two things to talk to you about. One, Army of the Dead, and two, what do you think about putting the Deathstroke armor on again?” So that was actually the same conversation. He said, “Just give me some time. Let me see if it’s going to work out, but just be aware that I might call you to come be Deathstroke again.” But we had already recorded everything, and that project, oh my God. That thing is so fun. Holy cow.

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Archenemy is available on-demand, digital and in select theaters on Dec. 11.

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