Alumus Joe Manganiello talks acting with Mt. Lebanon students


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Even as Joe Manganiello explained to his rapt audience at Mt. Lebanon High School how he spent time studying the mannerisms of the wolf he portrays on HBO's hit series "True Blood," the actor slowly morphed into an uncostumed version of his werewolf character.

His soft brown eyes turned dark, foreboding. His shoulders rounded, as if he were on the prowl. His brow scrunched, turning his handsome face into a more sinister visage. A snarl escaped his lips.

For a split second, he was Alcide Herveaux, the popular character he plays on cable television and not the Mt. Lebanon graduate who returned to share with students during an alumni program at the high school last Friday.

Across the auditorium, theater students offered "Ooohs" and "Ahhhs."

As quickly as it appeared, it was gone. Mr. Manganiello was once again the Mt. Lebanon native who stumbled into acting his senior year of high school after spending four years dominating the school's football field, basketball and volleyball courts.

"I was a jock, but I didn't really get along with the other jocks," said Mr. Manganiello, 34, adding that despite being smart, he didn't really fit in with that crowd. "I spent a lot of high school feeling like I never belonged."

Then he took a television production class at Mt. Lebanon. Suddenly, the creativity he had explored as a child, but abandoned for the lure of the athletic arena, returned.

"It was the first time that I realized I really loved something," he said. "I loved creating. I'd wake up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to make movies with my friends. And I knew I had to explore this more."

He tackled acting with the same gusto he did athletics.

"So there I was, a senior with all the freshmen, doing breathing exercises and wondering what that had to do with acting," Mr. Manganiello said. "And thankfully, people like Cindy [Schreiner] saw something in me before I did."

He recalled how Ms. Schreiner, who still teaches theater at the high school, urged him to audition for the senior production of "Oklahoma!" He won the role of Jed Fry.

"He wasn't going to audition for the musical because he said he couldn't sing," Ms. Schreiner said as she introduced her former student. "Even then, he brought an intense dedication to playing a role and listened to everything I said; he internalized and processed my suggestions."

As he began to pursue acting, his coaches expressed disappointments at his choices, especially when he went to play rehearsals instead of jumping at the opportunity to play before college scouts.

Donna Rotoloni, who had Mr. Manganiello in her homeroom class, recalled how everyone expected him to pursue athletics.

"It's funny; I never knew he would go into acting; he played football and sports," said Mrs. Rotoloni, who now teaches in the middle school.

When he was not accepted into Carnegie Mellon University's acting program as a freshman, Mr. Manganiello said he spent his first year of college at the University of Pittsburgh, taking every opportunity to audition and hone his craft.

The next year, he was one of 17 students accepted into CMU's highly competitive acting program. It was there that he would become classically trained.

And he learned a hard life lesson.

"The business of acting is really tough," Mr. Manganiello said, adding that each year, CMU cut students from its program -- again teaching the value of dedication, discipline and hard work.

"My dad has always told me, if you are going to do something, do it right," he said, nodding to his parents who were in the audience. "I can't tell you how many people I have met in L.A. who came out there thinking acting would be easy. It's not.

"If you are going to do it, go get classically trained. Do it right," Mr. Manganiello urged.

Thanks in large part to his success in college, he arrived in Los Angeles with an agent and his first role, as Flash Thompson in "Spiderman."

But this success was short lived. He went four years without another acting gig. He fell into a dark period.

"It's no secret, I was always a big drinker," Mr. Manganiello said. "I thought it was something that I needed ... it was stupid. All it does is get in the way."

He said he doesn't touch the stuff anymore.

Mr. Manganiello said he worked as a roadie for a rock band, became a sparring partner for an National Hockey League player, spun tunes as a disc jockey and even did construction.

"Then, acting came back to me," he said.

He got an offer to play a role on "So NoTORIous," a show Tori Spelling was developing, that turned into gigs on "CSI," "ER," "One Tree Hill" and "How I Met Your Mother."

Those opportunities opened the door to audition for his dream job on "True Blood."

During a question-and-answer session with the students, which was punctuated by an invitation to Homecoming, the actor urged his audience to avoid people who discourage them from pursuing their dreams and to channel fear into a positive force.

"Fear is a good thing; you can convert it into creative energy," Mr. Manganiello said. "It can be your friend."


Pam Walck, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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