From Stripper to Superstar
By Aaron Hicklin
After a few minutes of this back-and-forth (grudgingly he admits to liking black-eye peas), you wonder why it took so long for anyone to offer Tatum a comedic role. It was Jonah Hill who spotted the clownish wit lurking under Tatum’s masculine swagger and pegged him to play his sidekick in 21 Jump Street -- not only one of few TV spin-off movies that didn’t suck (we’re looking at you Bewitched and The A-Team) but surely one of this year’s most purely enjoyable movies.
“Jonah actually called me to do it,” says Tatum. “He said, ‘You can do this,’ and I said, ‘Are you sure? You gotta tell me that you’re sure.’ Nobody ever called me for a comedy before -- I couldn’t get them to call me for a comedy. I would call, and they would be, ‘No, no, no, just stick to what you’re doing.’ As soon as I made Jump Street, I had 20 comedies sent to me.”
This is not atypical of Hollywood. After Terence Stamp took the role of Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, for example, the actor complained that the only offers he received were for drag queens. Tatum, whose role model is The Honeymooners’ Jackie Gleason, yearns for an older Hollywood when actors were encouraged to develop range.
“Gleason was a guy you would completely buy if he was sitting in a bar and drinking, or running a multimillion-dollar business,” he says. “You would buy him as the schlub who can’t get the girl, and the debonair gentleman that has the starlet on his arm.” The career path of Tatum’s idol may explain why he hops from genre to genre -- drama, romance, comedy, and, with his upcoming role in Magic Mike, what he likes to call “Soderbergh.” (“He doesn’t make comedies, he doesn’t make action flicks, he doesn’t make dramas, he just makes Soderbergh movies.”) Nevertheless, Tatum is pessimistic. “I don’t know if people would run to see a Jackie Gleason movie now,” he says sadly. “They want superheroes and capes. They want spectacle.”
There is plenty of spectacle in Magic Mike -- a kind of modern update on Saturday Night Fever, with strippers -- if not the kind of spectacle associated with the coveted straight young men demographic. “It’s risky,” concedes Tatum. “People say that women and the gay community will go see it -- knock on wood -- but I know straight guys won’t be like, ‘Yo, what’s up man -- you wanna go see the stripping movie after the game tonight?’ I doubt they’ll have the balls to see it. What’s funny is that the girls don’t ask me questions about my stripping days, but straight guys want to know everything. It’s that fantasy element. It’s probably why a lot of females on Halloween are the whorey version of a ketchup bottle, or slutty nurse, which I love and respect -- it’s liberating.”
Tatum knows a lot about fantasy and sex. Magic Mike, which centers on a group of strippers that includes Alex Pettyfer, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, and Matthew McConaughey, is loosely inspired by his own formative experience stripping in Tampa, Fla., at the age of 19. “I was definitely looking for something to take me into the dark side,” he says. “You learn something about yourself, you learn about men, women, you see a lot of depressing shit, people that are lost. But at the same time, the dark side can be exciting. It can feel like you’re cheating death every night.”
Tatum didn’t intend to be a stripper. He heard an announcement on the radio and thought he might as well add it to his resume of random jobs -- framing houses, working at a puppy nursery, selling credit cards to students -- that sustained his hardcore club life. “I never enjoyed the taking-the-clothes-off part,” he recalls. “You are on a stage with people yelling at you, and you feel you’re a rock star, but you’re nothing -- you’re just a guy taking off his clothes, looking like a fool in a stupid outfit.”
The outfit, if you’re wondering, was a Boy Scout uniform. Eventually, Tatum rebelled and introduced an Usher routine, drawing on the skills he learned at the quinceañeras that are as ubiquitous in Florida as orange groves. “I just got tired of being the tall, skinny white kid that couldn’t dance. So eventually, I just grabbed an abuela and was like, ‘All right, teach me how to Spanish dance,’ ” he says, adding, “and I’ve always loved the movies Breakin’ 1 and 2, and Beat Street.”