"I spent 30 years in the gym trying to become the avatar I played as in Dungeons & Dragons," says actor Joe Manganiello, laughing. Jokes aside, he's not far off: One look at him on-screen, and it's like witnessing a Frank Frazetta painting come to life. He's a truly Conan-esque physical presence, whether it's playing the werewolf Alcide Herveaux in HBO's True Blood, the mercenary Deathstroke at the conclusion of Justice League, or the straight-up hunky stripper in Magic Mike.
Dungeons & Dragons might have kicked off his journey to achieving physical greatness, but the soundtrack that powered him along the way has been heavy metal. The actor recently combined his two childhood obsessions into a new streetwear and merch brand called Death Saves, which features imagery pulled from heavy-metal album covers, blood-soaked comic books and gory Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
The Death Saves line offers a variety of wares, including T-shirts, hoodies, phone cases, posters and even high-end 18-karat gold rings modeled after Dungeons & Dragons character Kargoth the Betrayer. The designs truly evoke the fantastic brutality of D&D lore and look like they could be illustrations tucked away in a first-edition rule book — or the logo for a completely evil metal band.
The brand's newest line is a collaboration with Frazetta Girls (the company founded by the late illustrator's daughter and granddaughter), which brings the revered fantasy artist's work into the fashion world with new shirts featuring iconic paintings like "Serpent" and "Alien Crucifixion."
"Each one of his illustrations, they all tell a story," Manganiello says. "The 'Serpent' is a man being constricted by some sort of creature, with one tentacle coming out of the water. In his hand, peeking out with this knife, you realize he's got one shot. If he doesn't make that shot, he's blacking out. It's electric, and I love all of those images.
"There's just something about the words 'Death Saves' right next to a four-armed alien, dripping blood onto a pile of skulls, in an X-shaped crucifix," he continues, describing the "Alien Crucifixion" design. "I mean, come on, it doesn't get more metal than that."
The Death Saves/Frazetta collection represents much more than an exciting partnership for Manganiello, it also signifies a full-circle moment for the actor. He cites Frazetta's creations as a central component in the visual language and culture of fantasy that's captivated him since he was a child — from the basis of Arnold Schwarzenegger's thrilling Conan the Barbarian character to the art of the Legend of Zelda video game.
The pieces chosen for the line also correspond to highlights in Manganiello's career. His early role in the 2002 Spider-Man film is reflected in the Death Saves "Spider Man" design, and his breakout role in True Blood is referenced in the "Werewolf" T-shirt. Manganiello hopes to continue the Frazetta partnership with a host of new looks, including an updated take on the classic "Death Dealer" series.
"These paintings were powerful — the men were powerful, females were powerful. It's powerful artwork," he offers. "How can you look at it and not be inspired?"
In the following interview, Manganiello chats about his heavy-metal roots, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPGs, playing rare first-edition Dungeons & Dragons maps with the game-creator's son, and how the Death Saves line grew out of his personal desire for "updated, badass fantasy-metal shirts to wear while playing D&D."
I KNOW YOU WERE BIG INTO THEATER AND SPORTS GROWING UP. HOW DID DUNGEONS & DRAGONS AND HEAVY METAL ALSO FIGURE INTO YOUR LIFE AT THAT TIME?
JOE MANGANIELLO For me, and most of the kids I grew up with, those went hand in hand. I know Dungeons & Dragons has gained a somewhat "nerdy" reputation over the years, which I understand, it's a pretty intellectual pursuit. But when I grew up, where I grew up all the kids would play Dungeons & Dragons, and listen to Metallica and Fugazi, and had older brothers with glow in the dark Led Zeppelin posters on their wall and wore metal T-shirts. People drew, and read fantasy novels, and read Lord of the Rings, and hung out at the arcade and the comic store, it all fell under one umbrella. Somewhere along the line, all of that was fractured into different groups, and subgroups and subgenres. I guess now I'm in my 40s and in a nostalgic generation, I think it all went hand in hand for all of us.
FOR SURE. I MEAN, LIKE TO THIS DAY I SEE A FRANK FRAZETTA PAINTING AND IT MAKES ME WANT TO HIT A GYM. IT'S SORT OF THE PERFECT TIME TOO, THERE ISN'T MUCH OF A DIFFERENTIATION BETWEEN "NERD" STUFF AND THE MAINSTREAM ANYMORE.
But also, you gotta understand that I was a kid that … I was very much an artist and very into comics, heavy metal, Stephen King books. But there were people in heavy metal or punk … For example you mentioned I'm an athlete. Henry Rollins was someone who was always into working out, but also an uber-intellectual. You look at Danzig or the Misfits, when I was a kid it was like they stepped out of the pages of a comic book. I think the difference was I spent 30 years in the gym trying to become the avatar I played as in Dungeons & Dragons. [Laughs]
WHEN YOU WERE A KID, DID DUNGEONS & DRAGONS HAVE ANY IMPACT ON YOU IN TERMS OF THEATRICALITY OR ACTING?
I think it was very different when we were kids, you know? I don't think we were really trying to embody the characters or be that character. I think the earlier versions of Dungeons & Dragons it was more numbers driven, it was about the math. Fighting monsters, getting treasure, etc. The reason why so many people embody the characters now is the new version leaves a lot of room for role-play, to play as that character. You're able to develop the character the same way an actor would for a film role, or a long-running TV role. That to me is the reason for the resurgence in popularity, it created a lot of room to come up with the character. Back in the day it was just about the mechanics and how you rolled the dice, it's different now.
WHAT VERSION DO YOU PLAY?
Everybody plays the 5th edition, that's the new one. But I've become really good friends with Gary Gygax's son. And he has run games, he's pulled maps out of trunks that his father never published, and he'll come over to my house and run them for us. I do play first edition here and there when he runs them.
DID YOU DABBLE IN GAMES LIKE PATHFINDER OR RPGS OUTSIDE OF FANTASY?
Well Pathfinder is just D&D 3.75, that came about during my years off. Third edition and fourth edition, I didn't play during those decades. I grew up playing other games though, the Palladium system, in the mid-Eighties there was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role-playing game and I was super into that. [Laughs] So much so that years later I bought a watercolor painting that was the cover of the original rule book, I've got it hanging in my office. It's one of the first times the Ninja Turtles were painted in color.
As a little kid, to tell you the truth, I had a lot of David Lee Roth Van Halen on vinyl. I had like Women and Children First and 1984 on vinyl, and I played the shit out of those. And then evolved into Appetite for Destruction, Dr. Feelgood, those came around junior high, beginning of high school. I had a cassette of Ride the Lightning, I'd play that in my Sony Walkman over and over. My first concert in high school was Pantera, Sepultura and Biohazard. I think Pantera was on the second leg of the Vulgar Display[of Power] tour, and I never missed Pantera when they came through Pittsburgh. I got to see White Zombie, Metallica, I remember getting into Deftones, and then adjacent stuff like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Revolting Cocks and all that weird shit.
YEAH, ALL THAT STUFF IS STILL HEAVY AND DANGEROUS JUST IN A TOTALLY DIFFERENT WAY.
It's just so evil in the best way possible. Like you're doing something you shouldn't be doing or listening to. [Laughs] I just loved that aesthetic, and that's really what unified it. Because in the Eighties, people said Dungeons & Dragons was satanic. It was in the shroud of mystery and evil surrounding it, which we knew wasn't the case, but we loved playing in that sandbox. It was the greatest thing as a kid because you just felt like you were in a secret society. It made it that much cooler to us. Having scared a lot of people off from it, that was okay. I didn't like the way society piled on this nerdy stigma to it, and it became societally acceptable to make fun of it and people who played it. And I didn't like that, because I was one of those people, so when I came back around and started playing as an adult, it was like, growing up it truly wasn't nerdy, it was synonymous with heavy metal. And so for me, I just want to reconnect those synapses between metal culture and fantasy culture.
THE "SATANIC PANIC" STUFF WAS SO CRAZY BACK IN THE DAY: NEWS OUTLETS REPORTING ABOUT KIDS DOING RITUALS, WHEN THEY WERE SIMPLY PLAYING D&D. WHO WOULD'VE THOUGHT A BOARD GAME COULD MAKE PEOPLE SO MAD?
Yeah, no one's going around burning copies of Candyland. [Laughs] We saved a ton of those articles for Death Saves, as reference material.
DO YOU EVER BOND WITH OTHER ACTORS OVER A SHARED LOVE OF HEAVY METAL?
All the time. I'm not friends with a ton of actors, it's just not who I spend most of my time with. But certainly directors, and I hang out with a ton of musicians, video game designers, writers, they all grew up with the culture which is a lot of the reason why I started the project, especially in my inner circle. We wanted some updated, badass fantasy metal shirts to wear while playing D&D. The thing about it is people who don't play D&D love this stuff. It's not the majority of our line either, the majority is fantasy-metal stuff. But yeah man, I think the newer generation I guess hip-hop and R&B gets way more play right now, but my generation all grew up listening to heavy metal, so it's been a lot of fun for us to connect back to that.
ARE YOU A BIG STREETWEAR GUY OUTSIDE OF DEATH SAVES?
I grew up an athlete, so it's interesting that as far as the kicks go, it's fun seeing all the Air JordansthatIwore, or got a paper route to pay for, or begged my dad to get me when I was a kid are now super popular. So it's fun to see that come back. I wouldn't say I'm a crazy streetwearhead, but definitely pay attention. I've got a certain aesthetic … I've become a bit of a sneakerhead! A good friend of me owns Bodega and he got me into shoe collecting over the past couple of years which has been really fun, but also a curse — you get really addicted trying to get the next shoe. He knows my size, so whenever there's a 14 of something he pulls it aside. It's awesome, I've been able to get the Off-White Nikes and stuff that way.