La Bare Laid Bare

Randy Ricks has been stripping at La Bare in Dallas since 1979, a year after the club switched from female to male dancers. His stage name is Master Blaster (he chose it before the Stevie Wonder song), he’s been featured in Playgirl nine times, and he counts a family of five women—from great-grandmother down—among his loyal fans. With his 78-year-old mother Mary Lou, Randy runs a stripper-gram business (his mother answers the phone). He also trains fellow dancers in his home gym and provides them with diet plans. He describes himself “205 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal.”

But Randy is just one of many characters featured in La Bare, Joe and Nick Manganiello’s documentary about the club. There’s also 31-year-old Caesar, an ex-Ranger who says he’s only slept with five women in his life and who originally wanted to strip under the name Poppa Sausage (it was vetoed). The club co-owner Alex, a grey-haired man with a thick Russian accent who could’ve easily played a KGB member in an ’80s action film. Not to mention Pablo, who scurries about backstage setting up the smoke machine and organizing the performer’s costumes. And Ruben, known onstage as Angelo, the most promising dancer of them all, who was murdered several weeks before filming began. Some of the characters are off-putting—the club’s DJ runs through all the women he’s slept with on Playboy‘s “Top 100″—but more of them are endearing.

As expected, the Manganiello brothers first explored the world of male stripping when Joe was cast in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. The characters in Mike, however, could never rival their real-life La Bare counterparts. “Magic Mike did a lot to expose this subculture and bring it to the mainstream for the first time,” explains Joe. “But then the movie had to service the love story, so it really didn’t get to go into depth as to who these guys are,” he continues. “I realized we had a really unique opportunity. My brother and I were sitting on top of this big wave that no one had ever seen the likes of. If you think about all the documentaries there are on Netflix, and these reality shows, there’s never been one about male dancers that showed you who they were as people.”

La Bare is Joe Manganiello’s first film as a director, and the first project helmed by the production company he runs with his brother. At six feet, five inches tall, Joe is possibly more impressive in person then he is on screen. Though he’s been acting since the early 2000s, it was his role as Alcide, the masculine Southern werewolf on True Blood, that made him famous. True Blood‘s final season premiered last week, but Joe is set for a career outside of Alcide. Among his upcoming projects are the mysterious Terrence Malick film Knight of Cups and the Magic Mike sequel.

EMMA BROWN: How did you find out about La Bare?

JOE MANGANIELLO: I found out from an old friend of mine who worked there. He was a dancer—he was the originator of the fireman routine in the 1990s. When I got the script for Magic Mike, I took him out to lunch and he helped me figure out the script and understand this world that I really didn’t know anything about.

BROWN: Did you ask to do the fireman routine in Magic Mike because of your friend, or was it in the script?

MANGANIELLO: It was actually written into the script. The interesting thing about this documentary, what made me want to make it, was the fact that no matter how much we’ve done in the post-feminist era to make men and women the same, they’re never going to be. We’re always going to be different: biologically, neurologically. What turns on a man is not necessarily what’s going to turn on a woman, and I think the way that those fantasies manifest themselves in the form of a female strip club versus the male strip club is fascinating. The film really becomes this glossy entry-point into this conversation on the way home, or over dinner after the movie, about how we are different. Male stripping, it’s not just, “Get up there and take your clothes off!” The men don’t even get naked. It’s about the story. It’s about this adventure. It’s about these costumes and these routines and these scenarios. You’re a cop who’s pulling a woman over: “Put your hands on the hood and I’m going to frisk you.” Or there’s a fire in the building and this guy in a fireman’s suit is going to come in through the window and the smoke and carry you out. My friend started the fireman routine that’s still used to this day at La Bare and I kind of borrowed some elements of that for Magic Mike.

BROWN: Were you friends with him when he was working at La Bare?

MANGANIELLO: No. I probably met him about 10 years ago, and I knew he had been a male stripper in the past, but I just didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to hear about it. I had no interest until I got the script for Magic Mike and said, “Okay, let me take you out to lunch, and you can help me understand what’s going on here.” I realized that I had fallen into a category, like most guys, that we have this perception of male strippers that is completely untrue because of our egos. I think that there’s this misperception that all the guys are gay, that they’re mistreating women, they’re these kind of douchey, unlikeable people, and it’s not the truth at all. They’re just these really cool, fun guys who have one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever heard of, which is to hang out with your buddies all night and then have women stuff money down your pants, and then you basically get your pick of the litter at the end of the night. I think that—the thought that a job like that exists—is too threatening for any male on the planet, which is why they have to come up with all of these misperceptions, and are very vocal about them. And when you really think about it, why would that make sense at all? Why would a guy want to dance on someone they’re not attracted to—why wouldn’t you just have it all at once? It really was rock-‘n’-roll to me—it was more like the WWE, professional wrestlers, mixed with Mötley Crüe band members or something.

BROWN: Do you think, if female strippers adopted similar costumes and routines as male strippers, there would be a market for that?

MANGANIELLO: No. I don’t think men care. There’s flight attendant, there’s nurse, a schoolteacher, maybe—but no guys care, it’s, “Here’s some money, take your clothes off, and if I offer you enough money, maybe we can go in the back room and do something.” That’s really all guys care about. They’re so visually oriented that it’s not about the story for them. But it is for women, which is interesting. The woman in the movie puts it so perfectly—she says, “You know, men are a microwave, you push a button and they turn on. But women are an oven—they need to warm up, they need this pre-heat.” It’s hard to market this film toward men, but the fact is, these guys know stuff. These guys know things that every guy should know, whether married, single, in a relationship, whatever. That is fascinating to me, too, because women are kind of this great mystery to men.

BROWN: Randy, the stripper with five generations of fans, is amazing. His mother is the best thing ever.

MANGANIELLO: [laughs] You know, Randy’s been going since 1979. And he has groupies coming in to see him for over three decades, and he’s been able to keep this fantasy and this romance going with these women. I wanted to know what he knew! I flat-out asked him, and we just listened, and kind of watched the guys, and you pick things up, and it’s stuff that you want to know.

BROWN: What did you pick up that works in real life?

MANGANIELLO: The secret is to treat a woman like a queen. You want to make her feel pretty, and feel wanted, and feel needed, which is what a lot of women go to that club to find, because they’re not finding it in their life, or they’re not finding it in their relationship. So it was a real call to step my game up in terms of relationships and be that guy. You want to be their dream guy, so go do it. What’s so difficult? It’s like when you see the movie Her, you walk out and you go, “Wow, we’re headed towards that.” We really are. It’s scary. But why is it so difficult for people to be the other person’s fantasy? Why is it so hard for a human being to give that to somebody else? Let’s make reality fun. Let’s spice it up. Hanging out with these guys definitely made me want to be a better man, which is not what I expected at all. [laughs]

BROWN: The Russian club manager is also a great character.

MANGANIELLO: Yeah, he wore his USSR shirt. [laughs] We didn’t ask him to! We didn’t script it, we didn’t wardrobe, we didn’t tamper with it at all. I’m a big fan of documentaries like The King of Kong—these outrageous characters who you wouldn’t believe if you cast them. Exit Through the Gift Shop, these really character-driven, amazing docs. I think this really falls into that category. If you gave me a casting director and a room full of writers and 10 years, I couldn’t have come up with this on my own. There’s no way. It’s just too out there, and it’s too wild.

BROWN: Can we talk about amateur night? 

MANGANIELLO: Oh my God, I know.

BROWN: I felt so bad quite bad for the man who wanted to be a third-generation stripper, but then just wasn’t toned at all.

MANGANIELLO: [laughs] Yeah, he’s like the Rudy of male stripping. All these guys are there of their own volition. They want a job, bad.

BROWN: How long did it take for you to make the film?

MANGANIELLO: We shot it in eight days. We shot three days in December of 2012, and then we went back six months later in July and shot for another five days.

BROWN: Had things changed a lot in that period?

MANGANIELLO: Not that much. The one thing that did change was the people who were witnesses to the murder in the parking lot, we had earned their respect by then, and they were now willing to open up about that night. When we first got there to film in December, it had only happened a few weeks before we got there, so it was very fresh and this guy had gotten off and people were really upset. There’s a real injustice, and we wanted their voices to be heard where they weren’t heard by the police department. There was nothing done. This guy was released, and he was a really bad guy.

BROWN: Do you think the fact that he was a stripper affected the judgment?

MANGANIELLO: Yes, I think the fact that he was a stripper and that they were all out at an after-hours club had to do with it. You get this drug-dealer pimp who kills a stripper, number one, and then also—some of the guys really speculated on this so this isn’t necessarily coming from me—[the fact] that this was a minority-on-minority crime.

BROWN: Have you shown the film to the subjects?

MANGANIELLO: Yes. We just came back from Dallas and we screened it and the families came and the friends. I’ve had the fortune of screening the film for other crowds, and every single time it’s played, it’s people screaming, yelling, laughing at the screen, without fail. So I was confident in the film in that way. Playing it in front of the family of Ruben, who was murdered, I knew it was going to be the most emotional screening that we’ve ever had. I really got choked up because I was sitting next to a couple of his friends and his family was there and a lot of the guys hadn’t seen it yet, and just to hear all that laughter for the first two acts, and then to hear the sobs and the crying, it was hard. But then to know that all those people who were sobbing and crying started laughing immediately after. We try to kind of take people out of it with that stripper-gram [scene], especially with that girl falling on the ground. We knew that at that point, we had an opportunity with that to kind of bring people out of the sad section and make them laugh again, and so I was glad that that worked.

BROWN: Pablo, the man who works behind-the-scenes at the club, is sort of like a sorority house-mother.

MANGANIELLO: Totally. Pablo’s hilarious. So funny, and just such a hard-working guy. I went to the club the next night to host a party and I said, “Pablo, did you see the movie?” And he goes, “No, I had to work.” It’s just totally what you’d expect Pablo to say.