You may be able to take Channing Tatum out of the military, but you can’t take the military out of Channing Tatum.
That’s because the 29-year old actor keeps getting cast in roles in which he plays a soldier.
For example, in 2008’s Stop-Loss, directed by Kimberly Peirce, he played a young veteran of the Iraq War who returns to his Texas home with fellow townie Ryan Phillippe who decides to re-enlist in the service in order to become a sniper. And in last year’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, he was Duke, a buzz-cutted human incarnation of a 1980s Hasbro cartoon/action figure. Down the road there’s The Eagle of the Ninth, a sword-and-sandal epic directed by Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) in which he plays a Roman centurion in the year 108 A.D.
Tatum’s current stint in fatigues is the male lead in the early ‘90s-set Dear John, in which he plays a soldier on leave visiting home in early ‘90s Charleston, South Carolina, where he falls in love with an idealistic college student (Amanda Seyfried).
Why does Tatum think directors are so eager to send him to war in the movies?
“I joke that it’s because I have a shaved head and thick neck,” says Tatum, in Philadelphia for the afternoon to talk about the Lasse Hallstrom-helmed picture. “I respect what soldiers do so much. I hope that the director sees how much I value what they do. And I love every single one of those soldiers, but I’ll admit that I don’t for a second know what it is to be a soldier. I don’t think that anybody who hasn’t been one knows what it’s like. I just try to wear the clothes right and sling the gun right.
“I try not to make them look like idiots. I have a lot of soldiers that are my dear friends. Three so far, I’ve played three soldiers—I don’t know if G.I. Joe counts or not.”
With Dear John, based on a novel by author Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe), Tatum was involved with the project from its inception through completion. It was the first time the Alabama- born, Mississippi-raised actor had the opportunity get his feet wet at the start of things.
“I was on this film for three, four years” says Tatum, who is married to Jenna Dewan, who played ballerina to Tatum’s troublemaking street dancer in the 2006 sleeper hit Step Up. “Temple Hill (the production company) sent me the book, and I knew Nicholas Sparks’ work from the movies that were adapted from his books—The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember. I remember (The Notebook) every time I watch it and the couple die together in bed, my wife looking up at me, crying her eyes out, making me promise they we would die together in bed. I knew what that did to people. Nicholas knows how to pull your heartstrings, and he’s successful for a reason.”
“I read this book, and it seemed to have more grit and logic than some of his other novels, and it was almost present-day. So I got to be on the ground level of the building, and took it from a book to finding a writer to the various stages of the screenplay to finding a director and having his input and feeling it out and seeing where it should grow and where it should be.”
The director that was eventually chosen to bring Sparks’ much-read prose to the screen was Hallstrom, the Oscar-nominated Swedish filmmaker behind such sensitive efforts as My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat.
“The first thing (Hallstrom) said was ‘I’m going to give you the same freedom I gave Leo in Gilbert Grape,’” says Tatum, referencing Leonardo DiCaprio’s developmentally disabled character. “And I freaked out immediately. Is there something I don’t know about this character—am I supposed to be mentally challenged?
“’Oh, God!,’ I thought, ‘I don’t know what he means!’ What that meant is there was no wrong way to do it. He wanted to figure out actually where we were going with the character. He’s not the kind of director who tells you what he wants you to feel. He wants you to figure it out because he doesn’t know himself. It’s what the characters will be –how I want my character to be—but we figure it out when I get there.”
But Tatum had to put Dear John on hold when he was offered the big-budget G.I. Joe. “I decided a long time ago I wanted to do a film like this. Then G.I. Joe just came along and it was a crazy, huge film. I grew up with G.I. Joe so to play Duke, I couldn’t pass it up.”
Tanning, who is signed for a sequel to G.I. Joe (a likelihood since the film brought in $150 million in the U.S. and about the same overseas), says he likes the character of Duke, but Snake Eyes, played by Ray Park of Star Wars’ “Darth Maul” fame, was the character he really wanted to play. “Snake Eyes is the best character,” he says, “but I’m OK with Duke.”
In Dear John, John Tyree, Tatum’s character, is affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The day also holds special significance for Tatum. “I was in New York, taking the train in from New Brunswick,” recalls Tatum. “Where I was staying on a friend’s couch. When you take the train in, you come around this bend on the transit coming into New York City and you see the skyline all the way to the train center. And one of (the Towers) was smoking. Phones were going off, but no one was calling me.
“I didn’t think anything of it. I got off and kept walking. At some point, I think I was at Union Square, and everyone came out of buildings. It was an exodus. Cars were stopping in the middle of the street and people were looking up and, just like in the movies, you make your way to a café and everyone’s watching the TV. There were lines down the block at every pay phone. It was the most surreal experience. People weren’t panicking. Everyone sort of didn’t know what to do. Everyone was just looking at each other. It was an out-of-body experience. “
Along with the arc between Tatum and Seyfreid’s characters, Dear John offers another key relationship between Tyree and his uncommunicative, numismatic father, played by character actor Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading).
“I had three weeks of the film and I didn’t know what my father was going to act like.” relates Tatum, who has an older sister. “There were scheduling conflicts with Richard. I had to make comments and talk about my father, not knowing how he was going to play it. A little floorless feeling. You know you are making these statements and you don’t know how he was going to play it. You can tap the guy (Jenkins) for anything—comedy, drama, little characters, and he’ll come off and give you a brilliant performance. He’s so giving. I probably owe a lot of stuff in the movie to him. He was just there for me.
“You read the script and it says ‘And so and so cries…’ You know what’s expected, or not expected but you know it’s supposed to be emotional. You never want to say ‘I have to cry, I have to cry.’ We went and did the scene and there was one where I have to read the letter. And that’s the one that ripped my heart out. I think he was just waiting for the one. And I think he’s that smart of an actor. He knew that. And I owe that scene to him, and I owe a lot of scenes to him.”
The most difficult thing to do in movies for Channing, a former model who made his on-screen debut, dancing, in Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” video, is “to be on the beach without your shirt on. I love food and I’m a lot bigger than Amanda (Seyfreid). I tried to get as small as possible for this part.
“I lose about 30 pounds between each film,” continues Tatum. “The Biggest Loser is such a testament for losing weight. It’s not easy—it sucks. And I was an athlete in college and high school. I walk around like 210 pounds, but when I do a movie I have to be between 170 and 175 because film makes you look big. I wouldn’t get a job if I didn’t look good, especially when I first got into modeling…as shallow as it seems.”
Of late, getting work doesn’t seem to be a problem for Tatum, whose early roles were on the TV show CSI: Miami and in such films as Coach Carter, Supercross and Havoc. Last year, he played Pretty Boy Floyd in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. In the near future is Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming thriller Knockout, and Son of No One, a third collaboration with director Dito Montiel following A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Fighting. On the back burner are a major role in The Stanford Prison Experiment, helmed by The Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie, and Oliver Stone’s Vietnam drama Pinkville, which also showcases Bruce Willis and Woody Harrelson.
But being a working actor is a tough balance for many, Tatum says. There are, after all, roles you’d like to get but don’t, and parts you take because of the payout.
“It’s almost like a Catch-22,” says Tatum. “You need not to need or want the result of the audition in order to just have fun.”
Tatum talks about auditioning for No Country for Old Men. He sought the role that eventually went to Josh Brolin, that of the Vietnam veteran who stumbles across a large batch of drug money and is pursued by Javier Bardem’s monstrous hitman.
“I was ten years too young for the part, but I love the Coen Brothers and I had to go in and try,” says Tatum. “I need to have been in Vietnam and I said, ‘That’s never gonna be me.’ I made it far in the audition process simply because I didn’t care. They flew me out to New York and we went out a couple times and we had a great time.
“But I knew I was never getting the movie unless they rewrote the thing. Then I could go in and say ‘F**k, it’s really good to really met y’all, man. And this is my version and it’s great to meet you.’ We would just play and do different versions. And they didn’t know and they’d say ‘We’re not sure.’ And you just get out of your own way and you just say ‘Look, I want to go play around with these people.’”
“Acting—I don’t know what getting it right is. It’s all perspective One person can say ‘I love that scene’ and someone else can say ‘That was the worst scene I’ve ever seen.’ And you never know if you can get it right, and if you can just let it go and say ‘I’m gonna do me,’ then you just do you.”