A random (but not really) sampling of jotted quotes from a day with Channing Tatum:
"The Goonies is one of those rare '80s movies that still works -- everything holds up."
"Tampa is a really strange place."
"With Joe Manganiello naked in a movie, I think even straight guys are going to be, 'Shit, I need to see that. That man is a specimen.' "
"Elton John had his hand up my ass the other night."
To which the obvious response is, "Really? How did that feel?"
"Like any other hand up my ass, but more knightly," Tatum replies. "I can check that box now. It falls under the umbrella of doing sexual shit with Elton John in public. I'm sure I'm not the first."
But that was at 7 o'clock in the evening, when we were getting our first drink of a day that began with breakfast, and Tatum considerately dictating his own ad-hoc magazine profile to me: "And when we sat down at breakfast for coffee and eggs, we went ahead and ordered shots of whiskey," he says.
There is no liquor on the breakfast menu of New York's Setai Hotel, all shiny marble walls and hushed, carpeted corridors, though Tatum assures me he can rustle some up. "I would drink it just for the sake of giving you the opportunity to write about it," he says after being quizzed on the ubiquity of alcohol in most every article written about the rising star. In a GQ cover story, I counted three Bud Lights, four shots of tequila, two bottles of Patron Silver, and a round of Jagermeister shots (by which point Chan, as he is known to friends, was thumping his chest and yelling, "Nectar of the Gods!"). So I'm a little bummed that my date with Tatum amounts to a side of scrambled eggs and a fruit plate -- scratch that, not even a fruit plate.
"Do you have grapes?" he asks the waitress.
"Only grapes?" she asks.
"Yeah, I'll just do only grapes," he replies.
Later Tatum confesses that he has a "texture" issue with fruits and vegetables, which is problematic when you are also avoiding meat. His wife, Jenna Lee Dewan-Tatum -- they met on the set of urban dance movie Step Up; watching the movie today, he can pinpoint exactly when they fell in love -- made him go vegan for two months. "I gained weight, because I don't like vegetables, so I basically had to wrap them in bread," he says. No vegetables whatsoever? Not even a tomato?
"I will never eat a raw tomato. I can do the shit out of some tomato sauce, or even sun-dried tomatoes, but never raw."
"Fuck eggplant--it's too spongy. I hate spongy stuff."
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 quinceaneras 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."
Matt Bomer, who studied for his Magic Mike role by spending time backstage at Hollywood Men, an L.A. revue show, says working with Tatum was a revelation.
"He's obviously very good-looking and effortlessly cool, but he's also one of the kindest, most open-hearted people I've ever known," he says. "More than anything, he just has a lust for life that makes him want to tell stories and to dig deeper than someone who looks like him might have to dig. He kind of reminds me of Steve McQueen in a lot of ways -- completely authentic and comfortable in his own skin." (For his part, Tatum describes Bomer as "the most talented and committed person I've ever got to work with.")
There's something about the way Tatum, a former model, has chosen to manage his career that also resembles Mark Wahlberg's trajectory -- from the Funky Bunch and modeling for Calvin Klein to admired actor and dedicated producer. Tatum spends huge amounts of time thinking about movies -- how they're made, how they work. It's one of the most impressive things about him. Everything gets noted, indexed in his head. An instructive anecdote involves auditioning for Josh Brolin's role in No Country for Old Men. "I went into that audition knowing that I was 15 years too young for the role," he says. "But I really fought to get the audition because I knew that I would come out a better actor because of the Coen brothers. I just wanted to be in the room with them."
Although he hasn't always picked the best movies, Tatum has proven that, when the material is good -- as with the 2006 indie movie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints -- he hits it out of the park. But he also worries that the kinds of movies he likes are just not made in Hollywood any more. It's why he's so invested in the filmmaking process, something that started in earnest with the Nicholas Sparks-penned tearjerker Dear John, to which he was signed before they had a script.
"It was not a perfect movie, but I loved it because it was a labor of love, every single part of it," he says. "You go through every single variation of the script, and you work on it with the director and the actress, and then you decide whether you can make it better with reshoots. I wish more actors would do it, because I think it would give more connection to what they're doing and why they're doing it."
Like Wahlberg, Tatum also comes from humble beginnings. He grew up in Alabama, in what he calls a straight-up middle-class family. His dad was a roofer, until he fell off a roof and damaged his back. His mom worked for AAA. He describes his older sister as "the dog's bollocks, just the sickest chick on the face of the planet," and is candid about the world he grew up in.
"My uncle Bruce is about as country as you get," he says. "He's not OK with interracial stuff, probably, and I don't think he'd met a gay man before my wedding. Where I'm from, there's not a lot of out gay men."
It's easy to see why Tatum gravitates to stories about blue-collar people who do extraordinary things. He remembers, as a child, sitting rapt in front of Disney's animated Robin Hood -- "Especially the bit where he kisses the lady's hair and smiles, and you realize he's sucked all her jewels into his teeth," he says. "It's a classic storyline -- a tyrant, a penniless thief who is the hero and gets the beautiful damsel in distress." He likes stories about class warriors and freedom fighters. The movie he's watched most often -- at least 100 times, he says -- is Braveheart.
"Chan comes from a ranching family in Alabama, and didn't grow up with a lot of money, and I think both of us can relate to those kinds of characters more than we do to superheroes," says Reid Carolin, Tatum's producing partner and creative collaborator. "He is vastly different from everyone else I've met in this business, perhaps because his ambition was never to be famous, or have pictures taken of himself." The two met when Carolin was producing Kimberly Peirce's Iraq movie, Stop-Loss. "A tape came in of an actor that I'd never seen before in my life, and it just kind of blew us away," Carolin recalls. Soon the two men had formed their own company.
Among their slate of movie projects is a Peter Pan origin story, Neverland, which they are filming for Sony, and a biopic about daredevil motorcyclist Evel Knievel that focuses on the mid-1960s, when he jumped the fountains at Caesar's Palace and crashed. This summer, they are planning a jungle survival trip to Guyana where they plan to rappel off waterfalls and kill their own food.
"We're always talking about, 'If the world comes to an end we're fucked. We're totally screwed because we don't know shit about survival,' " says Tatum. "How do we find, like, food, because eventually food is going to run out in the cities."
It is dusk, and Tatum is studying a whiskey menu at a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "I wish I had a palate to be able to choose one over the other," he says. "I'm a redneck -- I still love Coors Light."
Although he lives in L.A., Tatum doesn't take his success for granted. He knows that the movie industry is a fickle mistress, and remembers a not-so-distant time when his wife was the principal breadwinner, paying his rent for six months.
"I've been acting for eight years now, and I feel I'm just starting to understand things," he says. "As soon as you think you're the shit, you'll find 100 people that will point at you and laugh. I don't ever want to be that person -- I want to keep finding people I can learn from. That's my entire journey in life."