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Joe Manganiello_AGBU Magazine
Graphic by Giovanni Bernal

His True Blood

Hollywood actor Joe Manganiello tells the story of his Armenian ancestors and the truth about the 1915 Genocide  


For all the innumerable and diverse storytelling projects that have captured the interest of actor, author, producer, and director Joe Manganiello, one stands out as more than a project but rather a mission. Ever since he heard, as a young child, the harrowing genocide survival story of his maternal great-grandmother Terviz “Rose” Darakjian, Manganiello has sought to honor her legacy by sharing it with the world.

However, as fate would have it, when he finally had the chance to do so on the February 7, 2023 episode of the PBS hit-series Finding Your Roots, the successive bombshell revelations about his family tree would not only profoundly change his own family narrative and self-identity, but also provide a mega platform on which to educate millions of viewers and online followers on the truth about the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

With his passion for history and talent for storytelling, Manganiello described in vivid detail the backdrop and circumstances around Terviz Darakjian’s improbable escape from certain death at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, all under the “guise” of World War I. Little did he realize at the time that in less than 20 minutes, his words would accomplish what the descendants of Armenian genocide survivors have spent the better part of a century seeking to clarify to the masses in the face of the relentless denial and revisionist campaigns of present-day Turkey. Its persistent deflection of blame for the annihilation of 1.5 million Armenian lives, including Terviz’s first husband and eight children, was summarily debunked by both Manganiello and the show’s host—the renowned Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who used terms like systematic murder, slaughter, one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century and genocide—all based on well-documented evidence.

Manganiello recounts how Terviz wound up in a refugee camp with the presence of German military, where she worked for one of the officers. One year later, she gave birth to her ninth child, Sirarpi. According to Manganiello, identifying his maternal great-grandfather had become a quest to uncover the missing pieces of the puzzle that his grandmother and mother had long been denied.

The mystery was unraveled when Finding Your Roots’ genetic researchers revealed that the officer was Karl Wilhelm Beutinger, a brick mason with a wife and three children at home in Joe’s ancestral town of Heilbronn, Germany. Much to Manganiello’s consternation, one of Karl’s sons grew up to become a member of the Nazi SS during World War II. The irony was not lost on Manganiello; on one branch of his family tree, he is the descendant of a survivor of the first genocide of the 20th century. On the other, his not so distant ancestor helped perpetrate the Holocaust.

Looking back to the mid-2000’s, when Manganiello’s role on the HBO seven-season series True Blood catapulted him to leading man status, his fantasy-character Alcide Herveaux, a half-human, half-werewolf shapeshifter, was nothing compared with the reality of the multiple lineages inhabiting his true genetic profile: Armenian; German; Croatian; Sicilian and African; with some Irish and English in the mix.

AGBU Magazine reached out to Manganiello several weeks after the episode first aired to explore the impact of his family genocide story and learn more about what happened to Terviz and her half-Armenian, half-German daughter Sirarpi, his grandmother.

Admittedly, it came as another revelation that this one-eighth Armenian, Emmy-winning Hollywood heartthrob, with 48-plus films and a host of popular magazine covers to his credit, would have grown up on homemade lahmajuns and stuffed grape leaves. Or that this authority on bodybuilding and avid Dungeons & Dragons nerd, who was recently granted Italian citizenship through his paternal grandmother’s Sicilian line, remains a lifelong student of Armenian history.

The interview begins where the Finding Your Roots episode left off.

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Joe Manganiello on Finding Your Roots

Joe Manganiello on Finding Your Roots
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A still from Finding Your Roots episode "Family: Lost and Found." PBS

AGBU: Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your family lineage and Armenian experience. Let’s start with that spellbinding episode of Finding Your Roots. Did you know before the show aired what a huge gift you would be giving the Armenian people and the Armenian Cause by telling your great-grandmother’s genocide survival story on national TV? Or, was it mostly for personal reasons?

JM: It was the latter, but I appreciate you saying that. I was just telling a story that has been passed down through my family, and I had heard rumblings of from the time I was young. And the older I got, the more details I could handle. So, for me, it was really telling the story of my great-grandmother who escaped and survived, and my grandmother who was born in the refugee camp, post-genocide. I wanted people to know what my great-grandmother endured so that my grandmother could be born and could live and then give birth to my mother who gave birth to me so that I could tell the story. That’s all I wanted. And if that means that there are people out there who feel heard or seen or validated because of that, it’s a good thing.

But since the episode aired, I’ve heard a lot of the former. I guess I just didn’t realize how little the Armenian Genocide has been exposed in mainstream channels. Did I know that I would become an advocate against denialism? No, because I know what happened. We all know what happened. There’s no Armenian alive today who isn’t a descendant of a survivor.

So, I guess I didn’t realize how long the Armenian community has been waiting for the Turkish government to issue some kind of official decree of recognition. Or how much impact my words were going to have. It seems like there was validity, or a healing possibly. Because, in my view, healing from this collective and personal trauma has to begin regardless of what someone else says did or didn’t happen.

AGBU: This past April 24th, Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day, you were the keynote speaker for an event called “The Armenian Experience Through the Lens.” You chose to speak about generational trauma. What is your definition of that term and how has it manifested in your own family?

JM: Well, there have been studies about the effects of generational trauma. Namely, there is a lot of empirical data on autoimmune conditions and how they play out in descendants of the Jewish Holocaust, for example. The idea is that the stresses of surviving something as traumatic as the plight of my great-grandmother, are passed down to the younger generations through the mitochondria in DNA or subconsciously, or even consciously.

I’ve seen it happen. It occurred in my family. My grandmother, who was born in the camp, died at age 40 of Lupus, an autoimmune disease. So my great-grandmother had to then say goodbye to the ninth child, which she referred to as her angel.

If we can rise above this conversation about good and evil and really look at the fact that no matter how my grandmother was conceived, it was the reason for my great-grandmother to continue living. To survive on to take care of this baby, born

in a camp, who she had to raise by herself until she remarried another Armenian man living in Worcester, Massachusetts. My grandmother Sirarpi was her reason for living, regardless of who the father was.

When you look at it that way, because I think we can get caught up in the anger and who did what and how that happened, a life was brought into this world, and regardless of the circumstances, which we don’t know, Terviz was given care of this life and she loved my grandmother. Then she had to say goodbye to my grandmother, her ninth child.

Autoimmune conditions play out all through that side of my family tree, as does alcoholism, which is just the symptom of an underlying stressor. So we can talk about the Genocide, we can talk about the loss of those lives, but I hope that the Armenian community can get to a place where it never forgets, but it can forgive so that these residual physical and health conditions could be healed. Like I said, we must not forget what happened, because, of course, in 1938, Hitler cited the Armenian Genocide, when nobody was punished, as a reason why Germany should go forth with the next genocide—the Jewish Holocaust.

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Heilbronn, Germany, the home of Manganiello's great-grandmother. This ancestral bloodline goes back to the 14th century.

Heilbronn, Germany, the home of Manganiello's great-grandmother. This ancestral bloodline goes back to the 14th century.
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Heilbronn, Germany, the home of Manganiello's great-grandmother. This ancestral bloodline goes back to the 14th century. Photo Credit / Heinrich Schuler

AGBU: It’s a complicated issue. Many Armenians maintain that without justice, there can be no true healing, especially when the perpetrator does not repent nor ask for forgiveness nor seek redemption, but instead doubles down on the disinformation and dissembling. It’s still going on today where Armenians are the targets of persecution and ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan, backed by Armenia’s historical enemy Turkey.

JM: Of course, Artsakh, yes. That’s a continuation of this age-old saga, this fighting. Obviously, its roots are ancient, but this is a new situation that needs to be dealt with on its own to put a stop to it.

I really hope that aid and help can be sent to Artsakh soon and the foreign powers muster the will to find a fair resolution and justice for the illegal actions of Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, there are certain realities. All you have to do is look at the works of Peter Balakian, for example, like The Burning Tigris, to know that in post World War I, the Allies had all of the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide in custody. But then they released them all. Why? Because we had oil contracts with Turkey, we had an interest in military bases there. Even though the Armenians were the first to officially adopt Christianity as a state religion, that wasn’t enough to have adequate foreign aid sent their way. So, it seems like the Armenians of post-World War l didn’t have enough to offer financially or strategically and were left to fend for themselves. As a result, the release of these criminals led to these revenge plots like public executions in France or threats to poison the water supply in Constantinople. So to answer your question about forgiveness, for me, it’s more about the ability to compartmentalize and put that historical injustice to bed to a certain degree, so that our psyches can heal from the trauma that can make us physically or emotionally ill. Otherwise, the enemy will have won again. Both scientific and spiritual evidence indicate that forgiveness can help break the cycle of transgenerational trauma.

I’m a storyteller by trade. So the fact that I had one of the most incredible stories I could ever possibly hear within my own family tree, it was almost like it was my obligation to figure it out and tell it. I’m the one who is going to be able to tell my great-grandmother’s story so that other people, who are not Armenian, understand what she went through.

AGBU: To better understand this trauma in your family, can we go back to the original story of your great-grandmother? How old were you when you really became conscious of her Genocide story and from whom did you hear it?

JM: Unfortunately, my great-grandmother and grandmother passed away before I had the chance to meet them. My mother passed it down to me and my brother and her sister shared it with my cousins. So my generation heard all the stories. My mother and her sister and their cousins were greatly affected, of course, along with the elders of the family, Terviz, Sirarpi and that generation of aunts and cousins. 

Gosh, I even found a notepad from 20 years ago, when I interviewed and gathered information from every single person that knew my great-grandmother or my grandmother. I recall doing this as fast as I could before those people were no longer with us.

I’m fascinated with history. For me, it seemed it was my obligation to start learning, especially because I grew up in Pittsburgh and there is not a large Armenian population there. So to have moved to Los Angeles 23 years ago and to find out that there’s this incredible representation of Armenians here in Southern California, and that I could go to Glendale and find all these restaurants and bakeries and bookstores. That I could engage with people and talk about it and meet with historians, all to try to figure out this story.

I’m a storyteller by trade. So the fact that I had one of the most incredible stories I could ever possibly hear within my own family tree, it was almost like it was my obligation to figure it out and tell it. I’m the one who is going to be able to tell my great-grandmother’s story so that other people, who are not Armenian, understand what she went through.

AGBU: That generation of Armenian women experienced such horrors as victims, but they were actually superheroes. How they survived to rebuild their lives and expand their family trees is miraculous.

JM: Well, many people say, ‘You have such strong women in your family tree.’ And I say, ‘Yes, I do. But I want you to understand there were no men. The men were murdered.’  The women had to become responsible for carrying on the culture, whether that’s through food, story, language, the Armenian religion, that had to become mobile.

And it is alive and well. All you have to do is go to Glendale. In fact, every time my mother comes into town, I take her over to the Carousel restaurant and we eat and listen to music. I try to read the coffee grinds because my great-grandmother Terviz used to read them. Apparently, she had “Old World Magic,” so everyone said.

AGBU: If you don’t mind, let’s talk a bit more about your grandmother Sirarpi or Sondra, her Anglicized name. How old was she when she and her mother came to the United States?

JM: From what I understand, she was three years old. After she was born in the camp, she and her mother lived in the Constantinople Underground. It might have been three years. This wasn’t on Finding Your Roots, but the show actually found the SOS letter written in Armenian that my great-grandmother Terviz wrote to an Armenian publication in the United States. And it listed the names of her three sisters, which we didn’t know she had. She was begging for help saying that she was not in a good way and if anyone can find one of these three sisters to please connect them. And one of the sisters was contacted and, with her husband, got Terviz and Sirarpi onto a ship to America. Terviz eventually married her second husband Harry Tatarian, my grandmother’s stepfather.

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Manganiello's grandmother Sirarpi (right section, front row, second from left) attended an Armenian school in Worcester, MA. Her best friend, Manganiello's Aunt Mary (third from left) married his Croatian grandfather's brother so she and Sirarpi could never be separated, even if they moved away from one another.

Manganiello's grandmother Sirarpi (right section, front row, second from left) attended an Armenian school in Worcester, MA. Her best friend, Manganiello's Aunt Mary (third from left) married his Croatian grandfather's brother so she and Sirarpi could never be separated, even if they moved away from one another.
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Manganiello's grandmother Sirarpi (right section, front row, second from left) attended an Armenian school in Worcester, MA. Her best friend, Manganiello's Aunt Mary (third from left) married his Croatian grandfather's brother so she and Sirarpi could never be separated, even if they moved away from one another.

AGBU: Can we assume that although Sirarpi was half Armenian, she was raised by two Armenian immigrants who spoke fluent Armenian in the house? Moreover, Worcester had a very large Armenian presence at the time. So was Sirarpi fully exposed to the Armenian community and culture?

JM: Yes. But here’s what I’m going to say. To my understanding, her stepfather was resentful that there was a child in the house that was not his. And from what I have gathered, she faced persecution for being of mixed ethnicity. She was a very tall, skinny, blonde girl. I have pictures of her in Armenian school and everyone else is petite and dark haired. She stood out and was nicknamed Blondie. I found her high school photo with the name Blondie. Also, her parents and the older generation were sometimes not kind to her, because they knew that she was a ‘war baby.’ She didn’t have a father and was not full-blooded Armenian. And when she met my grandfather, who is Croatian, there was a kind of happiness that she was going to go off and be with her own kind. That was the sentiment. Imagine growing up feeling like you don’t belong in any place fully.

AGBU: Sirarpi had a stepsister, did she not?

JM: Yes, Terviz had a 10th child, so my grandmother had a half-sister.

AGBU: So you must have a good number of Armenian relatives. Many non-Armenians find it strange that Armenians are very close to their cousins, almost as if they are the part of the nuclear family. Was that the case with your family?

JM: Maybe. But I’m married to a Latin woman and there are a hundred cousins, and they’re all super close like brothers and sisters. So perhaps it is a cultural thing. Does that have to be rooted in tragedy and trauma? I don’t think so. In my case, it was just that my mother and her sister were very close, and my mother was also very close with her cousins, and therefore their children. We were all kind of the same age, and some of them were a little older and they all dragged us around. But I think you are onto something. I think that we’re not talking about an Irish Catholic family where there are 17 children. Generally, with survivors, many who were starting over with their lives, it’s not a gigantic nuclear family. So yes, cousins become more like peripheral brothers and sisters.

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Manganiello and his TV superstar wife Sofia Vergara are one of the most glamorous couples in Hollywood. Photo Credit/ John Shearer/AP.

Manganiello and his TV superstar wife Sofia Vergara are one of the most glamorous couples in Hollywood. Photo Credit/ John Shearer/AP.
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Manganiello and his TV superstar wife Sofia Vergara are one of the most glamorous couples in Hollywood. Photo Credit/ John Shearer/AP.

AGBU: Your wife Sofia Vergara definitely has a very strong Latin identity that she brings to her public persona. Did her strong ethnic identity have any influence on your desire to learn more about your own bloodlines?

JM: Just the opposite. I’m the one. She’s caught the bug from me. I’m the one who’s fascinated with history. And it’s not like anyone else in my family was fascinated by this either. I went out there, I was always searching. I was the one with my publicist fighting to get on one of these genealogy shows. We tried for about 10 years to get on a show. I wanted my mother and her sister to know who their grandfather was. Their mother Sirarpi never knew and was never allowed to know. So I wanted that.

Even with my wife, I’m the one who’s fascinated in what she is and where she comes from. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I became an artist, a writer, and a director, even an actor, in large part. I’m a student of history, of psychology, of philosophy. I wanted to know about my family tree. I’ve never really fully known who I was until now.

AGBU: And does knowing make you feel any different? Did you wake up the next day after all these revelations about your family’s true origins and feel differently about who you are?

JM: Well, it’s still unraveling. Certainly, I was in shell shock the next day and for weeks afterwards, but it’s really been a gradual process over the past couple of years as I’ve continued to do work. The reason why my Finding Your Roots episode just came out in February, not a year ago, was because I hired historians to answer questions I had about their documents. And I found loose ends and sweater strings that I was tugging on, so to speak. I hired people to help me. I made my ancestry.com account public and started diving in.

That reengaged the team at Finding Your Roots and so the geneticists and the historians kept helping me behind the scenes. I made a huge revelation a few weeks ago. There was something buried in my family’s past, and after I opened my ancestry.com account to the public, someone contacted me and had a legal record that I didn’t know existed. A huge chunk of the mystery on my father’s side was uncovered. There are more revelations coming that I’ll make public soon. I’ve just been figuring out the best way to do that. Whatever my family tree is now, it’s going to double because of this.

There are so many people who still don’t know. It’s so important to keep telling our stories. A culture can survive if it’s displaced, as long as the food, the customs, the language, the religion, the beliefs, the traditions stay alive.

AGBU: How has this journey to your ancestral past changed your understanding of personal identity?

JM: I think all too often people want to play judge, jury, and executioner to their own family history. And there’s a tendency to want to be proud of this ancestor over here and denounce this relative over there. I’m not saying that that isn’t justified, but your own emotions, opinions, or feelings about what your ancestors did must be temporary. I believe you have to rise above that and understand that your family tree is going to hold good, bad, and ugly. But that’s not you. Every person has the opportunity to be an individual and decide what they stand for.

I have some very dubious great uncles who participated in World War II on the side of Germany in ways that are unspeakable. Does that mean that that’s who I am? Absolutely not. My roommate in college became a very famous cantor. And he’s one of my best friends. What concerns me is this: how can the trauma that is passed down, whether genetic or mental stressors or both, be treated and how can we move past that?

There is this idea that unspeakable atrocities happened, but if they didn’t happen, then I wouldn’t exist, my brother wouldn’t exist, none of us would exist. And we talk about the Diaspora. That wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t be here. And there wouldn’t be this unbelievable melting pot of diversity in the United States.

I mean, you saw the episode, you know what happened on my father’s side. There are incredible grievances and tragedy, with survivors, victims, and perpetrators on both sides of my family. I am victim and perpetrator from every single angle you look at my family tree.

And the point is that I got good from it and I also have lessons from history in it. As a descendant of these survivors, it’s my job to tell their stories and to not shy away from any of it. I want to tell these stories. I want to have the tough discussions, which can bring us together.

I’ve read so many PhD papers on generational trauma, and I always actively searched for whatever I could find that has to do with anything Armenian.

AGBU: Well, you certainly did accomplish that, even unwittingly. In one sense, our Armenian family histories are what keep our personal and collective Armenian identity alive. But there is the concern that when these stories get lost over time or the culture is not passed down, the Armenian ties will disappear.

JM: No, it’s so important. There are so many people who still don’t know. It’s so important to keep telling our stories. A culture can survive if it’s displaced, as long as the food, the customs, the language, the religion, the beliefs, the traditions stay alive. I understand how important it is to stay connected, or at least to pay respects to those who survived and what they had to go through for us to be here.

AGBU: What aspects of the Armenian culture were you most exposed to?

JM: It was the food. There’s a tendency for people to think, “You must have grown up eating all this Italian food,” but my mother is not Italian, it’s my father that is part-Sicilian on his mother’s side. My mother would make lahmajuns, which is like Armenian pizza, from scratch and put them in the freezer. My brother and I grew up on those. We also grew up on stuffed grape leaves, which my mom would roll up in the kitchen. I grew up on pilaf. There was a Syrian bakery that my mother would go to get pita bread and hummus and spinach pies, meat pies, and cheese pies.

Even now, when my brother and I get together just the two of us or on holidays with our wives and families, we will take the night off and make reservations at the Carousel Armenian restaurant. So our big family meal together is Armenian food. We’re attempting to keep that tradition alive because it means so much to us.

My mother would make lahmajuns, which is like Armenian pizza, from scratch and put them in the freezer. My brother and I grew up on those. We also grew up on stuffed grape leaves, which my mom would roll up in the kitchen. I grew up on pilaf.

AGBU: Did Finding Your Roots and how your story resonated with so many Armenians reignite your interest in your Armenian heritage?

JM: Actually, I didn’t need anything to reinvigorate my interest. I’ve read everything by Peter Balakian, and The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. I’ve read so many PhD papers on generational trauma, and I always actively searched for whatever I could find that has to do with anything Armenian.

Certainly, it makes me happy to know the story is out and people who had no idea that this happened to the Armenians discovered that I had this story in my background. Awareness is important. But make no mistake, regardless of who officially acknowledges what happened back in 1915 or before that, back in 1894, we know and other people know the truth.

AGBU: As both a moviemaker and a lover of history, do you have any interest in roles or films of a historical nature?

JM: If you mean the writing, crafting, or perhaps directing something involving my story, absolutely. What’s interesting is I never would have thought there would be  a part for me in a movie about that story, and I would never try to develop something as a vanity project for me to star in. It’s more about telling my great-grandmother’s and my grandmother’s story. That’s in my heart.

 

Watch a clip from the Finding Your Roots episode “Lost and Found.”

Originally published in the June 2023 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.