Suddenly Tatum is scaldingly hot
His role in The Eagle added to Channing Tatum's high-flying CV but it also brought a certain amount of pain, says Evan Fanning
CHANNING Tatum screams all-American hero. From the moment he bounds into the room offering a firm handshake and a greeting of, "How are you, dude?" it's as if we are old college buddies meeting for a drink. The 30-year-old could easily be the amiable quarterback in some American high-school movie, but then that's a role he has lived for real.
"I was the whole cliche," he says, laughing. "I was on the football team, I had the cheerleader, prom-queen girlfriend growing up. And now I've married a prom queen, but not the same one."
Tatum is a rare thing among people in his profession. He stumbled into his line of work. He didn't play Hamlet in his school play when he was nine, or grow up starring in movies or TV shows. He was too busy playing football. "I really liked to hit people," he says. "That was my speciality."
In fact, without his own Sliding Doors moment, Tatum could easily be back in Alabama fixing cars or working on a farm. It seemed to be a life he was destined for after he won an American football scholarship to Wake Forest, North Carolina, but failed to get the minimum academic marks needed to take his place in college.
His father's family came from Ireland to the US. "I haven't traced it yet," he says. "I have red in my beard even. My dad looks like he's straight off the island." The arts, however, were not in the family DNA. Tatum began working odd jobs, including as a stripper for a time (something which he hopes to make a movie about in the future), before he was literally stopped in the street and asked if he had any interest in becoming a model.
"I didn't really get what that meant," he says. "I didn't really understand that you could make money at it."
He spent three years on the modelling circuit, appearing in ads for the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch and Armani. It was a massive culture shock for the son of a construction worker from Cullman, Alabama. "Modelling took me all around the world, which was really nice and it afforded me the ability to find my way into something that I really was fulfilled in," he says.
That fulfilment came through acting, and again it was a chance encounter that paved the way for the career. "I did a Pepsi commercial for the director Tarsem [Singh] and it was so much fun," he says. "You got to put so much more of yourself into it. Modelling, you just sort of stand there and all the art is the other side of the camera. Acting is therapy -- you get to create something out of nothing and you get to put so much of yourself into it. There's so many different nooks and crannies that I love about it. I am so lucky that my calling found me. I won't do anything else now. This is it for me."
He won small roles in shows such as CSI: Miami before winning critical recognition for his performance as violent street kid Antonio in the 2006 film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.
By that stage, he was already a teen heartthrob thanks to his role in Step Up, which combined a long-held love of dance with his new-found passion for acting. It's also where he met his wife, the actress Jenna Dewan, and the two married in 2009.
With a career on a rapid rise, finding the time to be in the same building as his wife, let alone the same country, is proving difficult.
"Right now, my wife's in Chicago shooting a pilot and if it gets picked up, we might have to move there," he says. "That's the nature of our business. You have to be pretty malleable as to where you go.
"When you're both working, it can get pretty sparse the time we have together, but we have a pretty good system. We try to see each other every two or three weeks. It keeps the connection. Anything longer than that, we just start fighting for no reason. It isn't even fighting -- you're just so mad that you want to see each other. You're aggravated, but as long as you can get past that stuff ... We're fine. We've been doing it for six years."
One of the jobs that took him away from home is the one he is here to promote today. Tatum takes the lead in Roman epic The Eagle, directed by Kevin Macdonald of The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void fame.
Set in the first century AD, Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a Roman centurion who goes in search of a gold eagle lost by his father's legion in a battle, which led to the construction of Hadrian's Wall. On his journey into the wild terrain of what is now Scotland, he takes a native (Jamie Bell) with him to ease his passage.
This is a movie that is all-man (there are no female characters of note and barely a line of dialogue spoken by any woman). "For sure, it's a guy's film," Tatum says. He says 'for sure' a lot. "But then I talked to a few women who loved it. Even my wife did. She just loves period films in general, so there's something romantic about that. It is very muscular and masculine, I guess, but I think the women can enjoy the romanticism of that time."
It's hard for Tatum to discuss the movie without dealing with an injury he received during the difficult shoot in the Scottish highlands; an injury that left him with burns to a man's most private part and an embarrassing trip to the A&E department.
"It really wasn't the person's fault," he says immediately when I bring it up. "That's why they call them accidents. We were shooting in a freezing-cold river, and at the breaks they were bringing boiling water from a kettle and mixing it with the river water to warm us up. After a scene, I went and met him halfway up the trail and he hadn't got down to the river to dilute the boiling water and he just poured it all the way down my front. It was not good. It pretty much scalded me all the way down.
"It was a hilarious thing -- after the fact. You never in a million years think you're going to be holding your bits and looking at three nurses, and they're just staring at you saying, 'How did that happen?' All I could say was, 'I don't want to talk about it. Just give me something for it.'"
He insists a full recovery has been made. "We're back on top now."
The Eagle also afforded him the opportunity to act alongside a genuine legend of cinema in Donald Sutherland. I wonder if these are the moments when the voices in his head start making him doubt his own credentials?
"I always find myself to be the lone man on the totem pole, as far as experience goes. It's a good thing because it doesn't let you get complacent and you always try to get better, because if you don't, you will fall by the wayside.
"When you are working with someone like Donald, and I just got to work with Al Pacino, there comes a moment where you have to stop being starstruck and just know that you're a real person just like they are, and if anything you might have had more real experiences in certain things than someone who has had a lifetime of experiences of movies. Because I didn't grow up in this atmosphere, I might have something more accurate to pull on. It's just whether I can get it across or not."
For now, Tatum seems to be getting it across just fine, with films directed by heavyweights such as Steven Soderbergh and Randall Wallace in the pipeline.
Despite his highbrow connections, he is determined to remain the down-to-earth son of Alabama. His family wouldn't have it any other way. "I don't think they can understand my life at all," he says. "They're just, 'Ah, that's just Chan.' I come home and nothing's changed. They still make fun of me like they always have. I like it that way. If they came out to LA that would be weird. I wouldn't even enjoy it. I like them being where they are so I can go back there and find myself again."
The Eagle is showing in cinemas now
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