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I was very artistic as a kid. When I was, like, 5 years old, my mother used to walk me up to an old man’s house where he taught chess, and he would give me chess lessons. I was always drawing, painting, and writing, and I was really into weird things. At a surprisingly young age I was reading a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King. I was really into comic books. I was so into comic books that I was shoplifting them because I would read them so fast that paying for them started to not make sense.
So that was one train that was running. The other train was that I was head and shoulders taller than all the other kids and coordinated. I was good at sports. The first year I played football, I was the captain of the team. Then you get into high school. Just like The Breakfast Club, high school tries to put people into a category. You’re supposed to fit into this certain niche, and that’s never the case. You’re always shades of different things. I was so diametrically opposite in these major, major ways. I got along with a group—the weirdo intellectuals—who generally hate jocks. And I also was the captain of a sports team. So I got along with the jocks.
I kind of had a foot in both of those worlds, and I think it gave me perspective on things. But I think that weirdness or those split-personality traits were what made Arnold Schwarzenegger so interesting to me. Because you had this guy who was built the way that heroes are supposed to be built. He came straight out of one of those comic books that I read. But when I read things about his life or saw him interviewed, as funny as he was being, as tongue-in-cheek as he was, you could tell that he was a very intelligent, book-smart person. And I came to find out that he’s a big chess player as well. So I think that those odd characteristics or the lack of wanting to be restricted into one group or another—just being yourself, being an individual—is what formed the basis of my friendship with him when we met on the set of Sabotage [the 2014 movie].
If you’ve seen my book, Evolution, you can see how skinny I was as a kid. I couldn’t do one pullup or one dip into high school, which has nothing to do with my athletic ability. It just had to do with my lack of any form of upper-body strength. I played football, basketball, and volleyball in high school. I had an MCL tear playing varsity football, returning a kickoff in a game. I tore it, and it gave me enough pause that I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to go play basketball in college. I was set to do that, and I was going to study criminal justice. But at the last minute in high school…we had a TV studio and you could take TV classes. And I started writing and directing and producing films and TV shows. And then starring in them.
I wound up trying out for the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. I think they took 17 actors out of 800 who auditioned from around the world, and I was one of them. And they gave me a scholarship to go to the school; I really got in at the last minute. But I think it set the table for the kind of career that I have now. The past few years have been kind of a reward for all of that weirdness or awkwardness. Because I get to be an artist and I get to be an athlete rolled into the same job.
The link between my acting and my fitness is an interesting thing. I think that I was doing great work for years. I’ve been acting for 22 years. I started in classical theater. I started doing Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare. And I was in sitcom after sitcom after sitcom. I did some plays that were nominated for awards. But none of those were a break until the physicality melded with the acting in True Blood. People really took notice. I think I tried to get away with being the smoking, drinking artiste—you know, that romantic idea of the artiste—it just wasn’t me. I’m at my best when I can find a role that offers that type of physicality.
After Spider-Man in 2002, I didn’t have an acting role for four years. I was a drunk who needed to quit drinking. It wasn’t some form of “I don’t want to act” or “I can’t get cast.” I had a serious issue with drinking that needed to be handled.
By the time this article comes out, I’ll be 13 years sober, knock on wood. Did I get help? Yeah. No addict or alcoholic pulls that off without help, I’ll say that—without somebody further down the path who can show them how to do it.
I started working with my trainer, Ron Mathews, right after I booked True Blood. My workouts with him are long and tough. It’s called being in the pain cave. The workout has even evolved from what was in my book. We have these massive sets or we’re doing something on a timer or we get into WODs [Workouts Of the Day], things like that.
There’s a moment when there’s going to be 10 sets. And I’m on Set 5 or even Set 4, and I’m done. My body is starting to quit, I’m having a minor league panic attack in my brain because I can’t visualize doing the next rep, let alone the next set, and I want to quit. And I think, “What am I doing this for? I don’t have a movie coming up that I’m training for specifically. If I walked away or I quit, nobody would know. Who cares?”
And that’s where you’re going to grow. That’s the spot. That’s when you crack the pit, if you will. And that seed is inside. That’s the good stuff. And you just put your head down, and you focus on the next rep. And then the next rep. And then the next rep. And then the next rep. And you keep moving. And you think you’re going to have a heart attack and that you’re going to drop dead. And you just push through and realize you’re OK. And you realize you could complete the workout. And you realize it was the mind trying to stop you from achieving.
And that’s really what my book Evolution was about. It was about putting yourself into a position where training becomes mental, not just physical. It’s about pushing the mind past those perceived limitations. And the only thing I could say to people is you just have to back yourself into that corner and see what you’re made of.
As far as my diet, I actually had my blood tested recently by this guy named Chris Talley. He started a company called Precision Food Works. He took 10 vials of my blood and did more than 200 tests on them for food allergies, blood enzymes, etc. etc. And what I found from it was that my whole life I’ve been allergic to eggs and milk and had no idea. So that’s been a huge shift for me lately. Especially approaching age 40 the way that I am, I want to get any advantage I possibly can.
I don’t think life is about having this sort of monklike existence where you don’t get to enjoy life. I mean, it’s about enjoying life. But I will say that I can’t tell you how many people come up to me as if I’m their priest or something and start confessing all of their dietary sins to me and then grab their midsections in a public place and say, “I just can’t get rid of this!” And I say, “You’ve got a tall glass of vodka sitting in your hand. There’s your answer right there. Do you need me to point that out?”
At this point, I think I’ve got a life beyond my wildest dreams. I don’t know that I could have allowed myself to feasibly imagine or wish for some of the things I’ve gotten. There is no bucket list for most of the things going on in my life.
Do I have the woman of my dreams? [Editor’s Note: If you’ve been living under a rock, Manganiello is engaged to Colombian-American actress Sofia Vergara.] Well of course. Absolutely. She was it for me, still is. Always will be.
Am I worried that paparazzi will crash the wedding? It’s just part of my life now. You have to take these things into consideration. There was a helicopter that was hovering over my backyard in Beverly Hills the other day, which is a no-fly zone. What do you do about that? Try to shoot a shotgun at the helicopter? I don’t know. Every day seems like some new challenge with those people. And at some point they’re going to realize that I’m just a normal boring guy in my personal life, and they’re going to leave me alone. I just want to do good work, and I want to entertain people. At some point, hopefully, that will prove to be uninteresting to them and they’ll leave me to do my work. That’s all I want.
My fitness advice for others? There’s always going to be somebody bigger than you in the gym—and somebody else skinnier than you. You’re always going to be right in the middle—unless you’re me. I was the absolute skinniest. I was the one who couldn’t do one dip or one pullup. And even if you’re that person, there’s still hope for you. So just get in there and get to work.