Mt. Lebanon's Joe Manganiello acts alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Sabotage'

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Joe Manganiello gets on the phone and gives the Pittsburgh version of hello: "Go Steelers!"

He is, after all, a Mt. Lebanon native who can describe himself in a way everyone can envision. At 6 feet 5 and 250 pounds, he is the same size as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, give or take a few pounds.

It's unlikely Big Ben will ever take off his helmet to reveal cornrows, but that's the hairstyle Mr. Manganiello adopted as a DEA agent in "Sabotage," an action picture also starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard and others. He also sports a beard and fake tattoos snaking up his arms, in an effort to look like the guys his character of Grinder is hunting.

"I grew up in Mt. Lebanon, and on my wall in the room at my mom's house, I had a poster of Arnold and the rest of the Mr. Olympias, those old Art Zeller amazing Muscle Rock pictures," he said recently. "I would rush out with my friends to see every single one of his movies the day they came out."

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He made movies in high school and he and his pals -- Paul, Dave, Steve -- "We all were obsessed with Arnold, all of us. So, as soon as they found out I was in a movie with Arnold, phone calls were pouring in from my high school buddies. It was really cool."

They wanted to know: What's he like? How's Arnold? What's going on?

In "Sabotage," the bodybuilder turned movie star turned California governor leads an elite DEA task force that takes on the world's deadliest cartels. The team executes a high-stakes raid on a cartel safe house, but, not long after, members mysteriously start to be murdered.

Mr. Manganiello knows that some critics or fans will consider "Sabotage" a reinvention for Mr. Schwarzenegger, but he says, "Being a longtime fan, it's a throwback to me.

" 'Conan the Barbarian' was a dark movie, there were some dark things going on in that, and he played a villain in 'Terminator.' He really broke loose because of playing this robotic killer -- in an indie horror movie by a great writer-director.

"So I think it's building a bridge back to the original 'Terminator' in my mind. And I think this movie also drums up the ensemble that was 'Predator.' This group of eclectic bad asses being picked off one by one. So I think fans of both of those movies are really going to love this."

People don't just get picked off, though, they get dispatched in shocking, often grisly, ways.

(Spoiler alert) "My character is a pretty savvy, smart guy. He's the hammer of truth out of that group. He's the one who picks up and sniffs out what's going on, which eventually leads to his demise."

Mr. Manganiello filmed "Sabotage" in October, November and December of 2012 in Atlanta, where the story is also set. "Atlanta is a hotbed, it's a hub for the Eastern seaboard for the Mexican cartels," due to the freeway system.

He trained with lawmen for four months and learned how to handle handguns, shotguns and fully automatic firearms and execute SWAT tactics to sweep buildings by breaching and clearing.

"There's a technical aspect to moving through a door into a new room, sweeping that room. But there's also this kind of metaphysical level where, while I'm out over here sweeping this corner of the room, someone else has my back, blocking a doorway, guarding that doorway, to make sure that someone doesn't come through as I'm handling my responsibilities.

"There's a sixth sense that develops, this bond, this umbilical cord that builds between you and the rest of the pieces of the caterpillar behind you. ... There's this unspoken communication that starts to happen," he suggests.

"I also was waking up in the middle of the night and when I'd wake up, my brain would be revving, moving me through the buildings osmotically while I was sleeping. And I talked to the other cast members and they were going through it, as well. We were warned about it by our instructors."

Mr. Manganiello did ride-alongs with undercover narcotics agents and had stand-up and ground fighting MMA training, which led to the actors sparring with each other on their days off.

The Carnegie Mellon University graduate, who moved from Eugene "Flash" Thompson in 2002's "Spider-Man" to werewolf Alcide Herveaux on "True Blood" and an exotic male dancer in "Magic Mike," started writing a book on the set of "Sabotage."

"Evolution: The Cutting Edge Guide to Breaking Down Mental Walls and Building the Body You've Always Wanted" hit stores in December and features a foreword by Mr. Schwarzenegger.

He writes, in part: "When we worked on our film 'Sabotage' together, I immediately noticed Joe's passion for health and fitness. Well, that isn't true. First, I noticed his huge arms and cannonball delts. ...

"This is someone who truly believes in fitness, not someone who crash-diets because his contract says he has to look great with his shirt off."

Mr. Manganiello first met his boyhood hero at a shotgun range and had a serendipitous reunion shortly thereafter.

"I wound up going out on a date that weekend, and Arnold was at the restaurant that I was at. Took my date, walked up to Arnold and said hi and as I did, Arnold looked up at me and said [here he switches to spot-on Ah-nuld accent], 'Look at you, you're all pumped up. Look at the biceps and the triceps and look at the lats.' "

It was a hilarious assessment of his physique. "I got out of there and immediately just started calling family members and was like, you're not going to believe what just happened to me. Arnold said I was pumped up."

Somehow -- he apparently follows his own advice in the book -- he can still head for Primanti Bros. Restaurant (he's on the wall of fame in the Strip District) when he's in Pittsburgh or Mike & Tony's Gyros on the South Side or Mineo's Pizza House in Mt. Lebanon.

"It's a food fest when I get home, and I always make sure that I get over to Heinz Field onto the field to say 'Hi' to the guys. I know a lot of the Steelers now. [Legendary Pictures chairman and CEO] Thomas Tull has also become a friend of mine, and I'll fly on Thomas' jet, come into a game, hit the field, wave the towel before kickoff and go root the guys on."

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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