Here is the interview:
After an unprecedented box-office run, Channing Tatum sealed his artistic cred with Foxcatcher. But before his new movies with Tarantino and the Coen brothers, it’s time for one more turn around the pole.
Whereas the big losers in the computer hack that rocked Hollywood last fall included Amy Pascal, Scott Rudin, Sony Pictures, and Kim Jong Un, one of the winners, as far as I can tell, was Channing Tatum. Amid the blizzard of e-mails that showed some of movieland’s key figures as two-faced, snarky, and mean — that is, entirely unlike their red-carpet personas — Tatum’s leaked missive showed his back precisely like his front and his inside exactly like his outside — the same bighearted, fun-loving, victory-dancing guileless kid you know from the screen. He’d been writing his producers at Sony after the opening numbers came in for 22 Jump Street, the buddy-cop sequel he starred in with Jonah Hill. Dominating weekend box office, that film broke the earnings record for R-rated comedies held by Seth MacFarlane’s Ted. Tatum’s e-mail, which opened, “F YOU TED!!!! SECOND OF ALLLL TIMMMMME BEEEOTCH!!!! COME ON JUMPSTREETERS WE GOT CATE BLANCHETT WIT DIS BOX OFFICE BITCHES!!!!!!!!,” faded to a near infinity of AHAHAHAs.
Here you had America’s leading man, the biggest male star since Pitt or Clooney, the star brighter than all the others, behaving in private exactly as you’d want him to behave, exactly as you’d behave if you became a titanic box-office draw. (“I’m sure, I’m positive, I’ve written bad e-mail,” he told me. “I just got lucky that’s not the one out there.”) Of course, being jaunty and cool is a lot easier when all the pistons are firing, all the gears clicking. By the end of its run, 22 Jump Street had taken in more than $300 million worldwide, a figure that added another hit to Tatum’s epic string of successes, beginning with his first starring role, in 2006’s Step Up, and continuing with 2012’s The Vow, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike — three $100-million-grossing movies in just six months, an unheard-of run that minted him as a sure thing in a town diminished by binge television and the endless churn of social media, a town overcome by a case of the heebie-jeebies. But it was Magic Mike that really made Tatum’s bones. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it told Tatum’s up-from-the-trenches origin story via codpieces and other ephemera of the nighttime trade — the handsome kid from the midsize city, a natural-born aristocrat dreaming through the American nowhere, modeling and dancing and how would you feel about trying it without pants? “I started dancing at Joy, a nightclub in Tampa,” he told me. “The group was called Male Encounter.” This eventually led to the more legitimate precincts of showbiz: print ads, a Pepsi commercial, the first feature films.
The years that followed Magic Mike have been marked by a string of movies — White House Down, Jupiter Ascending — some better, some worse. The artistic breakthrough came with Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, in which Tatum played the Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, a performance — and really, people, he should have at least been nominated! — that showed Tatum being less star than actor. He vanished into the stark brutality of that role, grew as thick as De Niro playing Jake LaMotta and as vulnerable as Brando playing Terry Malloy. “I’d come to this place where I didn’t want to just keep doing parts because I think the movies will do well,” he told me. “I want to do character work. I still like all the movies I’ve done … but with Foxcatcher I went deeper. I became obsessed with everything about [Mark Schultz], even the way he holds a fork…. I’ve never dabbled in a sport that is more suffocating than freestyle wrestling. You have an opponent staring you in the face, trying to dominate you. It’s fear-driven. You don’t want everything you’ve worked for to go away in a second.”
At 35, Tatum now enters a new phase in his career, shifting from box-office draw who can actually act to actor who can fill the seats, and is positioned to be the first honest-to-God movie star of his generation, to take on the dimensions of the classic leading men, to walk the high-quality, big-money road of Redford and Newman. This transformation should be painless. If all goes according to plan, by spring next year you will have a new Channing Tatum, which will really be the old Channing Tatum touched with the angel pixie dust of elite picture-making.
This new stage — call it the Age of Magic Mike — opens with two movies, already shot, that will be released in the next several months. In The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s latest revenge fantasy, Tatum appears in an ensemble with Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Tim Roth, among others. In Hail, Caesar!, he stars alongside Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, and Josh Brolin in the Coen brothers’ vision of Old Hollywood.
“I learned how to act in auditions, not even in movies, but by reading for Thug Number Two or Thug Number One,” Tatum told me. “You’re trying to learn by reading three lines and hoping that you get the part. I’ve been at it for 10 years…. Now I get to start asking questions, when before I was … ” (A lot of Tatum’s sentences end in ellipses, which drift above his head like thought bubbles.)
But first, in the way of a swan song, or homage to his own past, comes Tatum’s sequel to Magic Mike. The new movie, beautifully named Magic Mike XXL, is about a stripper who, seemingly retired from the stage, returns for one last spree with his old crew. It’s a jazzed-up film that plays like a parable: the story of a dancer coming out of retirement but also the story of an actor losing himself in a last slutty romp. If all men are whores and all performers exotic dancers, here is the greatest of the next generation taking one last turn around the pole before moving on to more sober pursuits. Magic Mike XXL is the blowout at the end of the summer, in which the house is trashed and the hatreds forgiven before the school bell rings and autumn turns the leaves to flame. “They’ve been acting like they’ve been on spring break for 15 years,” Tatum said. “Now the ride’s over. Everybody’s sobering up, having to figure out what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives.”
A DAY AT THE ZOO
In 1958, the city of Los Angeles built a new zoo in Griffith Park. Rather than destroy the old facility, they simply left it, removing the animals but leaving the paths and cages, empty habitats weed-bestrewn. It remains as an urban ruin, open to the public but as creepy as the Lincoln Memorial grown over with ivy at the end of Logan’s Run or New York flooded at the end of A.I. “Those are good ones,” Tatum agreed, “but the standard remains the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. Those bastards blew it up.”
Tatum then spoke of ruins in general, how they torment with intimations of death and time, yet, in some weird way, are less depressing, helpfully reminding even the most successful of us that, in the end, the tall grass will grow over our mansions.
Tatum had met me in the parking lot a few minutes earlier, unsettlingly handsome in a ribbed gray shirt, beige pants, and Converse, not the normal Converse but the kind of artificially distressed model you imagine an assistant cleaning with Windex at night. He wore a baseball cap sideways and greeted me with a hug. His charm is of the regular-guy variety, the big, sweet kid in the back of study hall who could easily hurt you but chooses not to because, though he excels at football and can be ferocious on the field, he’s actually sweet-natured, a force of goodness in the world. Of course, Channing Tatum is not really a regular guy — that’s just a trick, movie magic. If anything, he is a regular guy raised to a kind of platonic perfection, jacked to the highest power, multiplied by himself, then multiplied again, thick-shouldered with clear green eyes and a smooth face with a careful scattering of stubble, an imperfection that highlights the perfection of the whole. Though big, he has a kind of dense, dark-star compactness, a physical gathering-in reminiscent of Brando or Tyson — any performer who makes his name with physical presence.
“This is a new phase. Having a child, getting to work with people I’ve always dreamed of … ”
That first hug turned into a fist bump, which dissolved into a smile and grunt, and, just like that, we began walking through the trees toward the cages of the forsaken zoo, the surrounding hills parched and dusty in this, the 15th month of drought. Since I’d last seen Tatum, his wife, actress Jenna Dewan — they met in 2005, while filming Step Up — had given birth to their first child, a daughter. Everly is now two years old, but Tatum is still fizzed with the experience of birth, which he talked about excitedly as we reached the first pens. “It was crazy,” he said, jumping into what must have been a bear habitat. “You feel helpless. We like to think of ourselves as big, strong men, and we could handle whatever situation. And reality is [that women] are so much stronger than we could ever be. There’s a reason why we weren’t given that job, evolutionary or whatever. My wife, she’s a warrior. She did it as natural as you can. [As a man], you’re basically a cheerleader. ‘Come on, baby, you can do it.’ I would’ve tapped out in the first.
“It’s scary. You made this thing and have to bring it into the world together. You think people are going to be there, but ultimately you just have each other. Knock on wood, everything goes well, now you have a baby. They’re like, ‘O.K., here you go.’ They hand it to you, and you’re like, ‘Uh, wait a minute. Aren’t you guys going to come home with us and make sure we’re not screwing this thing up?’ I think every parent has that moment where they’re like, ‘Oh, maybe this was a bad idea; we don’t know how to do this.’ You can’t put it back in there. It doesn’t go that direction. But Jenna is a super mom. There’s no other way to say it. She is there every single second, every single day. I love being a dad. They’re like little mirrors running around. They show you things about yourself you wouldn’t pay attention to before. Jenna says it all the time: ‘Oh, my God, that is so you right there.’ But I don’t know if I’m good at it.”
He adds, “I now look back on my own parents and have a better appreciation.”
Me: “I think Woody Allen was right when he said 80 percent of success is just showing up.”
Him: “Conversely, I know some guys that would’ve been better off without their fathers around. It’s case-by-case: did you get loved too much or not enough? I now look back on my own parents and have a better appreciation.”
TO THONG OR NOT TO THONG
Tatum wandered past the monkey house, speaking of childhood, his own and his daughter’s. He was born in Alabama. The family moved to Mississippi when he was six, then Florida when he was a teen. His father was a roofer. His mother worked for an airline. Tatum played football, partied, slept at the beach. In the summer, when he was not yet 20, he found his way to the seedy side of what Pinocchio would recognize as Pleasure Island. Whereas he blew in as if from nowhere, with nothing, his daughter will grow up as the scion of stars, trailed by flashbulbs and whispers. “It’s a strange life for her,” said Tatum. “But compared to what? Everyone’s life is strange.”
Yeah, well, one unusual thing Tatum’s daughter will grow up knowing is the sight of her father dancing, in a thong, as captured in both Magic Mikes. We talked about this, a conversation that led to the topic of the new movie, which seems to push the quotient of shocking simulated fucking and other stripper images to the breaking point. “I think this one is probably more what people wanted in the first film,” he told me. “We just couldn’t do it on the first movie. I think we all wanted there to be moments like that in the first film, but the reality of that world is not all giggles and fun. We had to let people understand that we knew the world, that it’s a real one, not savory at times, at least the one I was privy to.”
He told me about a friend from the old days, a stripper, a brother-in-arms, who, though he’s gone straight, every now and then, because nothing matches the thrill, gets in the gear and back on the stage.
I asked Tatum if he’d ever do it again — not in a film, not as a joke, but for real, in front of a mob of women, on a dark night when he could dance one of the classic pieces: the waylaid fireman; the cop who has other ways of settling the ticket; the street rapper who rides the pony. “Well, we’re going to start a [Magic Mike] show in Vegas, and I’ll never say never,” he told me. “I wouldn’t mind going out there and doing it one more time. Or maybe twice. But, you know, every time I’ve put on a thong and am getting ready to walk onstage again, I’m like, ‘Why do I want to do this?’ It’s very uncomfortable to be in a thong in front of a thousand people.”
Me: “I couldn’t wear a thong in front of my own wife.”
Him: “Nor should anyone. That was going to be one of our plot points. To thong or not to thong. But my wife was like, ‘You cannot have a movie without these guys getting in thongs.’”
I asked Tatum if Magic Mike XXL could be taken as a parable — a Good-Bye to All That that echoes his own transition from broad comedies and action flicks to more high-class, prestige-type films. He nodded, saying, “I think this is a completely new phase. Having a child, getting to work with people I’ve always dreamed of … I got to work with Kurt Russell. I mean, holy shit! It was surreal to walk on set of the Tarantino movie and hear his laugh, a laugh I’ve heard for years. I grew up on his movies. And there he is, before I’ve even seen him, laughing and cutting up. And Sam Jackson! These guys, they’re exactly what you would think watching their movies. I think we as fans put [stars] on a pedestal. You’re like, Oh, they must be so cool, and when you meet them, sometimes they might not really be like that — that’s not their fault. But these two guys actually are like that.
“Quentin, the first five minutes you sit with him, you realize that, one, he’ll have forgotten more about movies than I’ll ever learn, and, two, he’s done more work on your character than you could ever do,” Tatum went on. “It’s intimidating, but as soon as you get over that, you have a deep security that he’s not going to let you do anything that isn’t perfectly in line with the dominoes he’s set up.”
I asked where the Tarantino movie was filmed.
“Telluride. Quentin asked one of the guys that took him onto this mountain, ‘What are the chances of us getting an actual blizzard?’ He said 100 percent. Well, they had a record low amount of snow that year. Whoever that guy is, he’s in a box in Quentin’s basement.”
Tatum laughed, then kicked a rock, which bounded off the path and over the side of the hill. It fell ledge to ledge, as only a rock in Hollywood can fall.
What about the Coen brothers’ movie?
“It’s set in the 50s around a studio and a studio fixer, back in the day when there were fixers,” Tatum told me. “They’d go around, and if one of the actors was a drunk and would disappear from set, the fixer would know all the haunts and go drag him out of the bar. He’d come in like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction. Joel and Ethan have big, big, beautiful storyboards, gorgeously drawn, and bring you into that process. Where most directors have them but don’t put them out, Joel and Ethan put them on stands so the entire crew can look. They’ll bring all the people in the scene, even in the background, and say, ‘All right, this is what we’re going to do,’ and they walk you through it. I haven’t seen a lot of directors do that.”
We followed a snaking dirt path through the trees as we talked and soon reached a peak. There was a smoggy overlook: highways, office towers, hills — the same hills you see at the end of Grease and in every B Western from the 1950s. As Chuck Connors shot it out with the Comanches, you never imagined that, on the other side of that rise, Clark Gable was talking shop at the Brown Derby. I asked Tatum if he knew what we were looking at — this is supposed to be his town. He’d been living in Ojai but just purchased a house in Beverly Hills. No idea. I asked if the walk itself struck him as a metaphor. We started down by the cages, in the stink of the low country, but then climbed and climbed, and now, at last, we’re on top, above everything. Tatum looked at me, then at the vista with half-closed eyes, concentrating.
“Almost,” he said. “I don’t know. I actually was thinking about that on the way over here: I was like, I wonder if he’s going to wonder why we’re in an abandoned zoo. This whole walk is surreal. Somebody asked me yesterday, Do you think [your] parents are proud? Of course they’re proud, but it’s all just strange … it’s all just weird.”
There was a tree on top of the hill that grew horizontally over a precipice. It was akin to the bodhi tree you see commanding the hills on a Chinese scroll. Tatum walked it like a balance beam, as fleet as a gymnast, turning when he reached the end and leaning against the trunk, the world at his back. He is known to put on weight between pictures, balloon toward normality, becoming more like the rest of us, but looked so fit and fine on the trunk of that tree, so much like Magic Mike, that, though I had intended to question him on the meaning of obscurity and fame, I suddenly heard myself asking about his exercise routine. “How do you stay in such good shape?”
“You work out as much as you possibly can to burn, but that part is not hard for me,” he said, folding his hands behind his head. “I enjoy it. I have a great trainer and great buddies and we push each other … run, cycle, hit the bags … CrossFit stuff. But you can do that five times a day and if you’re not eating right you’re not going to lose anything. There’s a bunch of schools of thought. I’ve gone Paleo, where they let you eat bacon. I’ve also done the opposite and carbed out in the morning, oatmeal or some sort of a starch. I like grits.”
He stretched and yawned, looked over his shoulder, then, as if suddenly realizing the danger of his perch, hopped off the tree and headed down the path, calling after me, “Come on.” I asked Tatum if he is among the last of the movie idols — among the last of the stars big enough to draw from every demographic, a last big piece of pie in a market cut into ever smaller slices. He shrugged, uncomfortable, tugged his shirt. A jogger went by and did not recognize him, then did, but said nothing.
“This is something we were just talking about,” he said after a moment. “The Brad Pitts, the Leos, the Downeys: Why aren’t there new versions of those guys? I think people just know too much about actors, about everything. Behind the scenes. It’s almost like the world is so with you all the time, people on the phones and blah blah blah, that to go into a movie theater for three hours and lose that time is harder and harder. People watch TV at home and they’re still on their phone, wired. They’re even wired to the actors. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. You feel connected. So that [actor] doesn’t feel as mythic anymore. I used to go see movies to watch people because I didn’t know anything about them. The only time I got access was in a movie. I wanted to go see the movie because I hadn’t seen my guy in a while.”
Who was your guy? Who’s in your pantheon of actors?
“Oh, God, there’s so many, and all for different reasons. I love Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in The Hustler. Jackie Gleason could do it all. People only know ‘To the moon, Alice.’ What kind of actor can do that and turn around and be such a dangerous man? I love so many actors for so many reasons, so I don’t know if I have a pantheon, but Paul Newman is my … You just felt it when you watched Cool Hand Luke, that indomitable spirit.”
Having taken a different path down, we reached a series of elaborate enclosures. Dank catacombs, the backstage world of orangutans. The cages had been closed off with wire fence, but Tatum found a hole and squeezed inside. He beckoned me, and soon we were wending through the narrow tunnels of a rank, graffiti-filled, urine-soaked, beer-can-bestrewn, hypodermic-needle-belittered hobo paradise. Tatum made sounds of deep contentment. Taking out his phone, he snapped pictures of the more elaborate tags and designs, which resembled the iconography of some lost religion. “I wish I had my Leica,” he said.
He spoke of his love for images and art as he snapped away, which led him to the subject of directing. “We’ve written and produced, financed, obviously acted. I think now we want to start our slow learning process with being able to call something ours and co-direct it,” he said, speaking for himself and his collaborator and producing partner, Reid Carolin. “We have a bunch of things in the queue. We’ve taken our time, though; we don’t want to direct something just because somebody will give us money. Money, believe it or not, is easy to get.”
Tatum is, in fact, attached or rumored to be attached to many future productions, including a remake of Ghostbusters, but the prospect that most excites him is a biopic of that greatest of all motorcycle daredevils, Evel Knievel.
Him: “At what point did Knievel realize that people weren’t showing up to see him make it?”
Me: “Oh, you mean they were coming to see him crash?”
Him: “Yeah! Imagine that realization.
“He skirted death a bunch of times,” Tatum went on. “Oh, it was brilliant. More than anything, he’s someone that made something out of nothing. He’s from Butte, Montana. Have you ever been to Butte, Montana? I’ve driven through it … ”
He paused for a moment. “I’d like to rattle the cage — maybe that’s why I brought you to an abandoned zoo,” Tatum said, climbing back toward the path. “I would, in the end, like to know that I’ve made at least one movie that will stand the test of time, that will be up there with the work of the people I grew up watching.” A woman, seeing us step out of the enclosure, first screamed, then, recognizing Tatum, looked both bewildered and thrilled.
LEAVING HIS MARK
We sat at a stone picnic bench beneath the stirrings of tall trees, where the conversation turned trippy and philosophical. Tatum, having found a crayon, sketched a clown on the table as he spoke. I called it an evil clown, but he disagreed, saying there was no reason to judge, good or evil — that’s coming from me, not the clown. “Me and Jenna just saw Step Up on TV, and we watched it for two seconds,” he said. “We made that 10 years ago or something. It was hard because you’re like, ‘Wow, I remember it being so much better.’ Then other times you’re like, ‘I remember it being worse.’ Things happen that change your perspective. Not just your opinion but your windshield, your lens. Like you put on a 50-mm. [lens], then take that 50 off and put on a 16. Now you can see so much more, but you’re missing the little things. I think for a while I’m going to try to make movies that, even if they don’t make a dollar, I’ll still be so proud to be a part of them that it won’t matter.”
What did you think of all that graffiti in the cages?,” I asked.
“They leave their mark, don’t they?” he said, grinning. “And why do they want to leave it anywhere, much less in an abandoned cage. Why do we do what we do on a daily basis when we have the freedom to do anything we want? It’s like that line from Death of a Salesman: I work 50 weeks a year for a two-week vacation. You know, you don’t have to. You can make money and figure out how to live a life that you’ve dreamed of, but so many people don’t look at it that way. Because life is hard. You get fearful. The fact is, one day, the house I’m living in is going to be like those cages, and some other civilization’s going to be pockmarking the walls and spray-painting whatever shit — oh, man, I wish I had this Dalai Lama quote. They asked him … I’ll send you the quote. It’s a long quote. But somebody asked what’s the most confounding thing about humans to him, and he goes — I’m going to butcher it — it’s that humans live like they’re never going to die, then die having never really lived.”
A short time before I met with Tatum, I’d attended a press screening of Magic Mike XXL. There were half a dozen people in the theater, mostly women, presumably from the production company. In the last 30 minutes, the film hit such a crescendo of colorful, gyrating, music-driven all-male erotica that I felt as if I were hallucinating. Walking out, benumbed, I was behind two women in their 20s, discussing the movie as friends and I once discussed Stripes or Lost in America.
“What d’ya think?” the shorter one asked.
“What’d I think?” the other replied. “I think I could’ve watched that all day.”
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