We spoke with Joe Manganiello about his return to Justice League as supervillain Deathstroke, an ex-military mercenary. Deathstroke was meant to have a big role in Ben Affleck’s Batman, which was ultimately abandoned. But Manganiello thankfully got more screen time in Zack Snyder’s wildly successful director’s cut.
“I was happy Zack gave me a call and allowed me to dust off the suit,” Manganiello tells Men’s Journal over Zoom at his Los Angeles home. For those unfamiliar with the DC Universe, Deathstroke is one of the greatest comic book villains of all time. Manganiello’s had a lot of time to consider the complicated supersoldier, while producing projects like Shoplifters of the World.
Catch snippets of our conversation with Manganiello below, or scroll all the way down to listen to the interview recording.
Men’s Journal: When did you first hear about the role of Deathstroke?
Joe Manganiello: Right around the time David Ayers’ Suicide Squad was coming together, there were behind the scenes conversations about whether or not Deathstroke would appear. That information was leaked, and all of this fan art came out. There was a version of me that came out [by BossLogic] as Deathstroke, and that’s when I started tracking the character. I was already offered a part in Suicide Squad, but I didn’t think it was the right fit for me in the DC Universe. Later on, I got a call to meet with Ben Affleck about two secret projects. I remember when we got together he asked me to guess what it was about, and I told him I thought maybe we were there to talk about Azrael, who takes up the mantle for Batman when he can’t fight, but it was for Deathstroke. I was intrigued, and started reading all the comics and studying his backstory.
What did you find intriguing about Deathstroke?
To be honest I didn’t find much on a human level to connect to. Deathstroke has superpowers and lifts submarines over his head. Nothing was really defined, so for me it was about starting over in the same way I imagine Christopher Nolan and Tom Hardy discussed doing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. The character they were working with has steroids pumping into him through these giant tubes while wearing a lucha libre mask. They took what they wanted and ran with it.
How did you riff off the character to make him your own?
I knew if I was going to do this part, I had to ground him in reality somehow. Deathstroke was in the military. I came up with what branch I thought he was in, and why he left. I worked out the details of his mercenary work, and found that most of these guys don’t usually participate in un-American acts unless perhaps they feel betrayed by the country they devoted their lives to. I’m not sure how much of that backstory would have actually made it into the Batman movie, probably not a whole lot. That was more about how Slade [Wilson, Deathstroke’s true identity] blamed Batman for the death of his son. So it was more of a revenge story—about how he wanted to get back at the man who was responsible.
Did you consider how you would change up your training for that Batman movie, or for an origin story?
You want to come in at the best shape for movies like this. The days are going to be very physical. Back when I was doing True Blood, I wanted to be sinewy and animalistic. I imagine Hugh Jackman went through a bit of the same thing when he was doing Wolverine. That was a very unique physique. But with Deathstroke, there’s no premium with the aesthetic. That character is just a killer. If you look at most CIA and Navy SEAL guys, they’re built, but more like athletes. As far as physicality goes, I didn’t want Deathstroke to be superhuman. That wasn’t the plan. Perhaps if we had gone and done something like The Injustice League, and Deathstroke was going to fight Superman, then maybe he’d get shot up with a bunch of serum. But if the story was just him going head-to-head with Batman, then I think it was important to keep him mortal. He should be the other side of the coin for Batman.
Who did you turn to to get the military training and weapons work right?
I’d already done a lot of weapons work over the years. I knew it was important to get the guns that Deathstroke was using right, given his past. For example, in the nightmare sequence of Zack’s Justice League, I’m carrying an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, which is the heavy weapon of the Navy SEALs. I was already very familiar with it; I’ve fired it a lot. (Geoff Reeves, a Navy SEAL buddy, is a really fantastic teacher. He has a company called Shadow Works, where they teach great drills and progressions.) A squad leader would probably carry an M4, not that particular weapon. But I figured in this story, we’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, so give me the heavy shit.
I have friends who are actual Navy SEALs, who you might not expect to be special forces. Because I look like that guy, I’ve gotten to play a lot of military-based projects and gotten close to a lot of guys who are the real deal. A friend in my wedding party was a Navy SEAL. I actually hired him to train me for a movie I did years ago, because the studio wouldn’t hire anyone from the military to be there. Thanks to him, I showed up to set ready to go, with all of my notes and skills in my back pocket.
And how about the katana? Seems pretty intense.
One of Deathstroke’s main weapons is a katana [Japanese sword], and there’s a lot of technicality that comes with it. I started studying in a ninjitsu dojo. I knew a guy who was heavily into martial arts, and asked if he’d ever worked with one. He pointed me in the right direction. It’s all about doing your homework, and being a bit of a detective. With the katana, it’s an extension of your body. You learn how to put your focus into the point you’re striking. It’s not easy. I’ve seen grown men have their swords bounce off the piece of bamboo they’re striking.
Deathstroke doesn’t have use of one eye. Was that a challenge?
There were a few takes where I reached for a champagne glass and grabbed air, because your depth perception is gone. I kind of chuckled to myself when I watched the Snyder Cut, because I knew the take that’s in there is probably the only one I actually grabbed the flute off the table. One of the elements I was excited to get into, and was planning on bringing to his fighting style, was a hybrid of ninjitsu that would counter for the fact he only has one good eye.
A social media movement made Snyder’s Justice League happen. If it came to be, would you be game for doing more Deathstroke?
I’ve never not been ready. It would be a fucking shame, if at least to some degree, some of this wasn’t continued. And there are millions of fans who would agree with that. The studios have their plans. They have their way of going about things. I really think the world was robbed of seeing a Deathstroke origin film by Gareth Evans. That would have occupied an independent space within the DC Universe. It would have been like Joker. I’d be sad if in the end I didn’t get to do the project, because every person I tell the plot to loves it. Are there other superheroes I could play? Yes. But Deathstroke has never really had his due. I wanted this Deathstroke origin to also be somewhat adjacent to the Nolan series, and tie in some of those characters. Do I wish I got to play the character more? Of course. The biggest job of your career is there in your hand.
I know it’s not happening, but the idea of you going head-to-head with Ben’s Batman in a standalone sounds epic.
It would have been. He was coming off Argo, which he produced, directed and starred in. He got robbed at the Oscars. I couldn’t tell you how excited I was to be a part of that man’s project. In some other dimension, Ben got to make that movie.
What are you focusing on making now?
I’ve been producing projects for years, so I’m using that ability to create projects where I can actually act. Recently I’ve gone from a prison baseball movie to a story about a homeless drug addict who’s like a powerless Superman to the breakup of The Smiths in 1987 (Shoplifters Of The World). That’s one of the joys of being an actor: getting to live so many lives.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now available on HBO Max
Shoplifters Of The World is now available on Prime Video
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