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This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.“>
Channing Tatum twirls a pool cue in the air, twists around a billiards table with the effortless ease of the striptease artiste he once was, lowers his torso until it’s almost parallel with the green baize, lines up a shot and then — bang! — drills three balls in rapid succession.
I stand across the table, gaping. In the clash of cultures we represent — on one side, a staid British reporter, on the other a quick-as-a-whip Southern hunk — the hunk is winning. Call it Manifest Destiny, if you will, or at least Tatum’s.
A chorus of cheers rises from his three-person entourage here in the dank pool hall about 40 minutes outside Savannah, Ga., where we’re playing late on a Sunday night when the rest of the Deep South has gone to bed. A blinking neon light casts its yellow glow over the bare-bones setting. Tatum is hyperkinetic, even after inhaling four straight Coors and wolfing down great steaming mounds of French fries and chicken wings, on his first day free from the rigid diet he has maintained during most of his current shoot, Magic Mike XXL.
He seems compelled to triumph. And then a curious thing happens: He blows a shot, I sink the black, and it’s over. I throw up my arms in victory, and it’s only moments later that doubts seep in. “Did you just let me win?” I ask.
“Kind of,” he admits, with the slyest of grins.
Photo by Brian Bowen Smith
Forget everything you’ve heard about the 34-year-old Tatum (“Chan,” as everyone calls him): that he’s a likable lad but not too bright, that he’s a good old Southern boy who rode a lucky wave into Hollywood, that he stumbled onto a career more by happenstance than intent. He’s as shrewd and smart and canny as they come — shrewd enough to throw this game. His eye is always on a bigger prize.
Everything about him is forward-moving. He reads scripts voraciously (despite dyslexia) and limits his television viewing to sports and a few choice shows (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead), preferring to concentrate on work. He’s ultrafocused on every aspect of filmmaking, immersing himself in old movies and new, and taking part in granular marketing meetings (“He’s a fantastic businessman,” says Sony Pictures chairman Amy Pascal).
Observes one friend: “He’s enormously competitive, enormously ambitious. There’s something inside him that is really intolerant of anything other than ascending in an almost Nietzschean way. That’s coupled with a very good nature, but he has demons. Sure, he can joke about, ‘Yeah, I was a stripper.’ Stop and really think about that. Stop and think about what that is and what it means and how you see your place in the world. He’s an intense guy.”
That intensity was on display early in 2012, when he joined a group of friends who named themselves Nothing Further Beyond and went on a survivalist vacation to Guyana, the first of several projected trips (another will take them to Greenland). “We saw snakes, we saw crocodiles and stuff,” says Tatum. “But really the scariest thing is deadfall. More people die from deadfall trees [than anything else in the jungle]. We were probably in danger the whole time — I mean, you sleep in hammocks at night and you’ll hear trees falling all the time. And it’s so loud in the jungle; you’d think it’s quiet, but it’s louder than New York by 10. The howler monkeys sound like demons, and they’re everywhere. And there’s these beetles that sound like a hurricane coming through, like, ‘Waaaahhh!’ It’s insane.”
A decade since he began acting, Tatum now makes upward of $10 million a picture and is one of the few movie stars who has had three back-to-back $100 million hits (The Vow, 21 Jump Street, Magic Mike). He’s coming off the box-office success of 22 Jump Street ($330 million globally) and soon will open the Oscar-contending Foxcatcher (Nov. 14), starring opposite Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo in a dark, real-life drama about two Olympic wrestlers and their pathological billionaire patron.
Tatum, left, with Mark Ruffalo, in a scene from this year’s Oscar contender Foxcatcher.
He has formed his own production company, Free Association, with Magic Mike writer Reid Carolin. The two are housed in a first-look deal at Sony, developing such projects as an Evel Knievel biopic, a documentary about military dogs and a drama set in Gambia, a country the partners visited earlier this year, though they’re keeping details of the movie under wraps. Tatum also plans to make his directing debut with Carolin, though he hasn’t decided what it will be. “We have a few things we’re thinking of,” he says.
Like his career, the actor’s private life is flourishing. Tatum has been married for five years to actress Jenna Dewan Tatum, 33, with whom he has a 17-month-old daughter, Everly. He says he still is trying to navigate parenthood and is giving considerable thought to how to bring up his kid (“I don’t know if I’m going to spank my child or not”). The couple already is contemplating another child. “I don’t think very, very soon,” he says, “but it really depends if Jenna’s show [Lifetime’s Witches of East End] gets picked up for a third season. Then we would probably wait.” (Lifetime said Tuesday that it will not renew the show.) The two are pondering a move to Ojai, Calif., and selling their home in the Hollywood Hills. If Jenna agrees to relocate, “I would be immensely happy. I just love the country.”
Tatum clearly is irritated by tabloid reports that a $50 million divorce is in the works. “It’s all bullshit,” he says. “These people just [make it up]. Some of our family members don’t see [it’s not true], and they read a stupid thing and don’t understand it’s a tabloid.”
Tabloid titillation notwithstanding, Tatum has every reason to be satisfied. But he’s not. There’s an inner restlessness that pushes him to go ever further, faster, harder — as if this college dropout who once felt so bleak about his future that he teetered on the edge of despair (“It was scary, more than painful”) won’t rest until his achievements equal those of his heroes, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.
“There’s not enough hours in the day,” he says. “I can’t schedule my life and give my daughter all the time that I want to give her and also my wife and all the creative stuff. You can’t really physically be fully present — mentally, spiritually. And that’s my struggle: putting things in perspective [and] being there for everything.”
With a white baseball cap turned jauntily to one side and a matching white T-shirt that has “Budweiser” scratched across it in blood-red letters, his body chiseled into a masterwork of human flesh, Tatum has perfected the art of seeming laid-back. But scratch the surface and a different Tatum emerges.
It’s there when he talks about his dad, whom he didn’t tell about his stripper past until years had gone by. It’s there when he talks about the panic attack he once had. And it’s there when he talks about the rage that at times overwhelmed him.
“I was having a lot of anger in me. ‘I hate this industry,’ or whatever,” he says of the time before his career truly soared. “Because it was frustrating. When things aren’t easy, you go, ‘Oh, I don’t need this.’ And I think [Jenna] made me realize that that was really just me being afraid.”
Afraid of what? “Of not getting what you want. When you feel someone else is in control of your life, of your destiny or your future, that can be very scary.”
Fear was not a factor in his initial reluctance to play Mark Schultz in Foxcatcher, he says. Rather, it was a degree of doubt about the project itself.
From left: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, a crewmember, Tatum and director Bennett Miller on the set of Foxcatcher.
“[Director Bennett Miller] wanted to meet after he did [2005’s] Capote,” he explains. “Then he gave me the script, and I’ll be really honest: I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why to make the movie. There was no resolve.” A few years later, the two ran into each other on the Sony lot when Miller was editing Moneyball. “And then we started talking about Foxcatcher, and I read it again, and it was interesting.” The script, which revolves around Olympic wrestler Schultz (Tatum), his brother Dave (Ruffalo) and their toxic relationship with John du Pont (Carell), hadn’t changed, but Tatum’s own ambitions clearly had.
If Carell had the showier part, thanks to a transformative prosthesis and unrecognizable voice, Tatum had as great a challenge: to make his character believable as the athlete forced to deal with the older man’s whims.
“He didn’t take himself seriously, but he took the work seriously,” says Carell.
To create the character, Tatum bulked up about 20 pounds and put himself through marathon training sessions over the course of a month. “My knees will probably never be the same,” he says. “And see these old knobs on my ears? That’s the beginning of cauliflower.”
When Tatum and the real-life Schultz, now 54, met, the actor was stunned by the wrestler’s intense emotions. “Within the first five seconds, he’s tearing up with excitement, and immediately I was terrified. This big man was so unabashedly open and emotional. It was a powerful moment.” Later, they spent a week together in New York, and Tatum learned how to wrestle. He was surprised by “how unbelievably suffocating it is. It’s a flow sport, so there is no resting. In jujitsu, you can pull guard. Thai boxing is the same. Wrestling, you can’t. There is zero time down.”
On one occasion, Tatum became so consumed with a scene where he has to smash his head against a mirror, he drew blood. The crew had covered the mirror with a plastic sheath, says Miller. “But he punched that thing with his head three times and shattered it, and put his head through it and through the frame behind the mirror and through the drywall that the mirror was hanging on and left a divot two inches deep. When we took the mirror down, there was a hole in the wall. And he actually cut himself, and you see his blood in that scene. This was somebody uncorking something that you can’t make up. It’s inside you somewhere or it’s not.”
Tatum seems uncomfortable dwelling too long on what was a difficult shoot in and around Pittsburgh (a “test of fire,” he calls it). He seems far happier to talk about Magic Mike XXL, which was scheduled to wrap its 29-day shoot a week-and-a-half after our late-October interview.
The $12 million to $15 million Warner Bros. film picks up a few years after 2012’s Magic Mike — which was based in part on Tatum’s own experiences as a stripper — and takes Mike on a road trip through the South toward a stripper convention, a convention Tatum experienced firsthand in the late 1990s. “I have no idea why it’s called a convention,” he says. “The ‘convention’ was not strippers peddling stripper technology or anything like that. It was just a big show with 50 to 70 strippers and 2,000 to 3,000 women. It was crazy. They attacked me every night.”
One time, while giving a woman a lap dance, “The lady goes, ‘Oh my God! Look at you! You remind me of my nephew!’ — and then grabs me. It hit me like a hand grenade. It was like tick, tick, tick, boom: She’s grabbing my butt and saying, ‘You remind me of my nephew.’ “
Tatum was 19 years old when he started stripping, a phase of his life that has become ingrained in his story. He had dropped out of the University of South Florida and had been hopping from one menial job to another, thinking of becoming a veterinarian but realizing he would never get through all the schooling it required, when he fell into dancing after hearing an ad on the radio. He was drawn to the wild side, the partying, the drinking and the risk. It was this, far more than the money, that appealed to him. How much did he make? “Not as much as you think,” he says. “On a good night, 150 bucks. On a bad night, 70 bucks — even 50 at times.”
Photo by Brian Bowen Smith
He admits it was a dark world, replete with drugs and alcohol, in which he indulged. “I wouldn’t say I was losing myself in drugs because I wasn’t doing anything habitually,” he says. “Just experimenting. Experimenting, I would say. Never the big ones — crack or heroin. I never OD’d or anything. Never.” What about cocaine? “Maybe a couple times, but that was later. Drinking was probably the biggest [thing]. I didn’t look at drinking as a problem. It wasn’t at that point, and I still don’t think it’s a problem. But at that time in my life, it was, ‘Let’s go out and have a great time.’ ”
In a recent interview, he called himself a “functioning alcoholic,” but today he qualifies those words: “It was something said that wasn’t meant to be factual. It was said in context with the glutton side of myself. I’m constantly a flip-and-flop of extremes. I take care of it, to an extent — and then I kind of knock it all down and destroy the sand castle. All I meant was that I do things in extreme.”
His father learned of his stripping on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2010. That’s when his dad brought it up for the first and only time. “We were walking together, and my dad said: ‘Why? You didn’t need the money. We always provided,’ ” recalls Tatum. Seeing his father blame himself “broke my heart. I told him it had nothing to do with him. ‘That was my road. That was the road I had to take.’ “
Born in Cullman, Ala., Tatum (the younger of two siblings; his older sister now lives in Maine) moved from one place to another as a child before settling in Tampa.
“My dad was a roofer when I was young,” he says. “I believe he owned his own roofing company in Florida. And then he fell through a roof, broke his back. Permanently. I mean, he’s not paralyzed or anything, but he’s had to deal with pain for all of his life since then. He couldn’t work. And my mom at the time was working as a bank teller. And then he started his own sales company, building-products sales, and he did that pretty much until he retired.”
He adds: “My dad was like the town tough guy. He’s a hulking guy [who weighed up to 370 pounds]. You know, anger went up pretty quick. You didn’t want to mess with my dad. No one wanted to mess with my dad. Of course, I was his kid. I had to push. [But] he never hit me, ever.” He pauses. “You know, just whippings or whatever. Nothing that people would be weird about.”
He says he remains in close touch with his parents (“My mom is literally one of the most supportive and sweetest people on the face of the earth”), and friends of his note that they have met Tatum’s parents on various shoots.
Early on, Tatum discovered he had trouble with learning, but it wasn’t until eighth grade that he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Medication helped, but only for a time. “They put me on a bunch of medicine,” he says. “I got really, really good grades in the beginning, but the medicine stopped working after a while. I felt it did its job less and made me feel worse. I would medicate to do my schoolwork, but I didn’t like being on it. People would always be like, ‘Are you OK? You don’t seem like yourself.’ It definitely sucked a little bit of the life out of me.”
When the medication wore off, his grades collapsed — so much, in fact, that he frequently found himself at the bottom of the class. He was a jock, though he says for much of his youth he was bone-thin. “I was as skinny as it gets, like completely, utterly bone, bone to skin. You couldn’t put weight on me if you tried. And we did. I had a TV up in this little office room, and my mom would fill the filing cabinet full of food. Cookies, chips, cheese puffs. And I would eat and eat and eat, and I couldn’t put on weight. Which is a bit of a problem now because that’s all the food that I crave. Junk food. And, you know, your metabolism slows down when you get older, and beer doesn’t help.”
A football star in high school, Tatum had hoped to play college football at Wake Forest University, but his grades weren’t good enough. Instead he enrolled at USF, where he felt aimless and adrift and entered his darkest days.
“I was in college that first semester, and I was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t who I am. This isn’t what I want to do,’ ” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to go out and make something of myself, and I have no clue what that is. In the script of Foxcatcher, in an old draft, [my character] would sometimes wish that the plane would go down so he didn’t have the responsibility of not losing.” Tatum felt the same: “It was, ‘I can’t lose.’ And that was terrifying.”
During one history class, he had that panic attack. “I had to walk out of the class because I was like, ‘I can’t imagine doing this for another four years. I can’t imagine sitting in this class or doing numbers on a board,’ ” he says. “It was a suffocating feeling of, ‘That’s what I’m going to have to do.’ That was really dark. ‘Where am I going to go? Where is this going to lead?’ And I really think I just started going down the rabbit hole [and] started stripping.”
Tatum left stripping and stumbled into work as a model when he was spotted by a scout and placed in ads for Abercrombie & Fitch, Pepsi and Mountain Dew. But in New York, struggling to get by, he was aware of how ephemeral that work could be and started thinking of other options. “You always are looking for something,” he says. “I mean, as a model you don’t [get paid much]. You can’t do it forever.”
He started taking acting lessons and auditioning, sleeping on people’s couches to survive, and by the time he was in his mid-20s, his career had taken off with such movies as 2005’s Havoc and 2006’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Realizing he had to relocate to Los Angeles to further his career, he soon was cast in the 2006 dance movie Step Up, where he met Jenna Dewan. It was the beginning of an upward trajectory that hasn’t stopped, in which Tatum has defied naysayers who thought he was nothing more than beefcake — this era’s Victor Mature — to vindicate himself over and over again, in everything from the most fluffy to the most dramatic.
He has proved himself that rarest of Hollywood commodities: an actor who can cross genres. He has delivered in action (G.I. Joe), comedy (21 and 22 Jump Street) and romance (Dear John, The Vow). Even if last year’s White House Down flopped, his track record still is impressive in an era where stars increasingly are unable to guarantee an audience.
He easily could continue along this path, making purely commercial movies that simply reinforce the successes he has had, but he is aiming for much more. He has been wise enough to associate himself with directors like Steven Soderbergh and start developing his own material. He soaks up information about them, and the industry, like a sponge.
Steven Soderbergh, left, and Tatum at the Magic Mike premiere in 2012 at L.A. Live.
Those who know him well call him incredibly astute. “He’s really, really smart,” says Pascal, with a slight pause to let the full weight of what she’s saying sink in.
“He’s truly emotionally one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” says his close friend and 21 Jump Street co-star Jonah Hill, who speaks with him on a regular basis. (Tatum says there are no specific plans for a 23 Jump Street, though Sony is developing a script.) “He’s so emotionally intelligent, and he knows everything about someone within five minutes of meeting them. He figures them out. He’s aware of everything. Nothing gets by him.”
That includes this reporter’s desire to win the game. So what if he lets this one go? There’ll be others bigger and better.
As we shake hands and I leave him with his friends, still playing despite a 6 a.m. start on Magic Mike XXL the following morning, I think of the long distance he has traveled since his youth in Florida. Back then, haunts like this, pool halls where so many of his peers frittered away their lives, must have seemed like the fabric of his future. But not anymore.
“I’m wholly changed from where I was at the beginning,” he says. “I have a flashlight, and this is a really big room.”
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