Channing Tatum's 'Foxcatcher' Role Almost Went to Heath Ledger

"This time, I felt ready to go down this dark road"

Foxcatcher actor Channing Tatum is receiving the best reviews of his career thus far for portraying Mark Schultz — an Olympic wrestler who meets an eccentric multimillionaire (Steve Carell) offering to sponsor his attempt to make it to the next Olympics. "Playing a young man who doesn't have a clue how to articulate his feelings and suffers for it, Tatum is a smoldering, festering piece of emotional raw meat, able to be manipulated this way and that by his benefactor," writes The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Todd McCarthy in his Cannes review of the film, also set to screen at the Toronto Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. "You feel his pain."

While Bennett Miller previously noted that Tatum was the first actor that the director approached for the tragic role (after seeing him in 2006's A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), the then-unknown name was initially put off by the opportunity.

"I didn't know what to think," Tatum said in New York Magazine's cover story. "I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't know how to read scripts, I didn't know anything about acting, and the way Bennett talked about this wildly dark character weirded me out a little bit, to be honest with you. I was super young, and I just didn’t get it. In a way, I think, thank God it didn't come to fruition then, because I don't know what it would have turned out to be."

Yet Tatum and Miller crossed paths around the time that Moneyball was in postproduction, and Tatum was reassured about the task. "I'd probably gone through a lot of growing in those years as well," Tatum said. "We got to talking about Foxcatcher again, and this time, I felt ready to go down this dark road." In the meantime though, Miller said that he also contemplated Ryan Gosling and Bill Nighy for the lead roles and spoke with Heath Ledger about the oft-delayed passion project.

To play benefactor John ­Eleuthere du Pont in the Sony Pictures Classics title, Miller recalled Carell explaining that "he usually plays characters with a mushy center” and wanted to take on the lengthy preparations that Philip Seymour Hoffman did for Capote, including what Carell called "a very specific physicality that I thought was informed by what was going on inside him."

On set, Miller had Carell give Tatum acting advice while in character as du Pont, and before shooting what Miller said "might be my favorite thing I've ever put on film," the director told the comic to "write the worst thing about yourself — the thing you wouldn't tell anyone, not even your wife — on a piece of paper, and put it in the pocket of your sweatpants. Just have it right there, and know that it's in a place where, if I was a dick, I could just grab it."

Tatum, who told THR at Cannes that the shoot was "a very, very painful experience," would follow the 12-hour days on set with two hours of weight training and wrestling practice with Mark Ruffalo, playing Schultz's brother, who also decides to live in du Pont's home and coach the wrestling team.

"The shoot really was like wrestling — there's no resting, there's no avoiding, you can't win just by defending yourself. You just keep going and going and going, ad nauseam, until it’s over," Tatum explained. Of the physical sequences and possibly the dark, quiet shoot altogether, he said, "Mark Ruffalo and I held each other and wept like children after the last wrestling scene was over. That's how ready I was to be done with it."

Foxcatcher hits theaters Nov. 14.

Twitter: @cashleelee