In just a couple of years, Channing Tatum has quietly, unexpectedly turned into a genuine movie star. A former dancer and model who started out in former-dancer/model-friendly fare like 2006’s Step Up and She’s The Man, Tatum proved he could move beyond teen fare and operate comfortably in the realms of romance (Dear John), drama (Stop-Loss), and especially action (G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra and its upcoming sequel). But it wasn’t until his supporting role in last year’s The Dilemma and especially his co-starring role in this year’s well-received 21 Jump Street that audiences got to see how well Tatum’s intrinsic bro-ish charm translates to comedy. It’s almost possible to chart the increased potency of Tatum’s understated charisma over his last few films, culminating in his exceptionally likeable, occasionally naked turn as a veteran male stripper in the new comedy-drama Magic Mike. His ease in the role isn’t surprising, given that the film is a sort of passion project for Tatum, who’s spoken frankly about his past as an exotic dancer and his desire to translate his experiences—but, he’s quick to stress, not his life story—to film. Enter director Steven Soderbergh, who previously directed Tatum in action-star mode in 2011’s Haywire (as well as the upcoming The Bitter Pill) and helped usher Magic Mike to the screen, along with screenwriter Reid Carolin. While in Chicago promoting the film, Tatum spoke to The A.V. Club about the comedic potential of male exotic dancers, his relationship with Soderbergh, and how he hopes Magic Mike is his stripping swan song.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been talking about doing a movie based on your experiences as a stripper for a while. When did it actually start to become a reality?
Channing Tatum: It’s such a bizarre world. It’s by far one of the crazier, just uniquely bizarre people and world I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been all around the world and done a lot of crazy stuff. So I was just interested in getting it out there in some sort of fashion, but I never knew how to do it. I never really knew if I was ever going to get to make it into a film, and what kind of film would it be? Would it be a comedy? Would it be a really dark, weird, sort of Requiem For A Dream drama? And then I did a movie with Soderbergh, and we were just sitting after work one day, and having a beer at the hotel, and I told him about my past. His mouth hit the floor, and he was just like, “Holy shit. I’ve never seen that in a movie. That would make a sick story.” And he was like, “You should write it,” and I was like, “Okay, I’ll get right on that, Mr. Soderbergh. I’ve never written anything before, but, totally, I’ll get on it.” Cut to three months later: I read in a magazine article that he somehow got quoted saying that if there ever was a movie, he would direct it. So we called him up and we’re like, “All right,” and he’s like, “Yep, we should sit down and figure this out.” And we decided we were going to do it all ourselves—we were going to finance it ourselves, produce it ourselves, sell it ourselves foreignly and domestically, let it all be in-house.
AVC: You’re not credited as a screenwriter, but obviously you had some input. How did the actual writing process work?
CT: Reid Carolin and I, we have a production company together, and he’s an out-and-out writer. He wrote part of Stop-Loss, that’s where I met him. He’s written on a lot of things, but this is his real first time working with a big director, scribing the thing. And we just really see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, on what kind of movies we like, what we feel about them, what we feel about story and character. He’s taught me a lot about story. I sort of conveyed to him what I believe about character and acting and whatnot. I just started telling stories. Nothing in the movie is accurate. It’s not my biopic or anything. [Laughs.] But it’s just sort of the world I experienced. The only thing that’s factual is that I was an 18-year-old kid, and I had a sister, and I dropped out of college, and that’s it. But other than that, I would just tell him stories and we’d be like, “All right, well, what if this happened?” And we just kind of made the whole thing up. [Laughs.] Because the reality was so bizarre that I don’t think you’d even believe it. I think people would have thought we just decided to make a movie and make some stuff up, so we just went ahead and did that anyway.
AVC: You only stripped for a few months, right?
CT: Yeah. Anywhere from six… I don’t know, it was a really foggy part of my life. [Laughs.] I wasn’t looking at months, really, but I think it was right around six to eight months.
AVC: Your character, Mike, has been in it for a long time, he’s made much more of a lifestyle out of it than you did. Was it odd for you to put yourself in the mindset of someone who stuck with it, sort of an alternate-reality exercise?
CT: Yeah, because I basically took The Kid [Alex Pettyfer], which I guess you could say would have been my character, [and thought] if he just got lost, wrapped up for the next six years, he’d have been late 20s then. It’s like, what was the goal? It must have been something. There must have been some sort of endgame. Like, what did you want? We were just like, “All right. We want it to be a mirror, that Mike sees himself in this kid, and really kind of wakes up. Wakes up and realizes he wants more than just what he has.”
AVC: And there’s a potential, unsettling future in Matthew McConaughey’s character.
CT: Yeah, exactly. We kind of did like, future, present, and past. That was it. We modeled it after Saturday Night Fever, in a way, and kind of took that template and tried to inject a bunch of things, and stole from other movies, like Shampoo and whatnot. You know, we just kind of want to tell a simple story within a crazy world. McConaughey sort of ran with his. He’s my favorite part in the movie.
AVC: He’s very funny. There’s something kind of inherently funny about male strippers…
AVC: …so where did the idea to address the consequences of this lifestyle in a more dramatic way come in?
CT: In this world, that stuff is just a real thing. GHB was a drug that was widely used at that time, especially in Florida. It was like a date-rape drug, and bodybuilders used it. Because I wasn’t even 21. You just take it and it kind of loosens you up, makes you feel a little drunk. If you take too much, you go into a G-hole. And that stuff, you don’t know how strong the stuff is; it’s not measured out. It’s a very gross drug. It’s just inevitable, if you keep doing that stuff, that stuff’s going to happen. And you have to be willing to pay the consequences if you’re going to go down that road. You know, we didn’t want to take it—we wanted there to be stakes and a real danger in the world. But we didn’t want to have it be disease or drugs or knocking somebody up or whatever, because all of that just seemed a little too dark, a little too weird. So we just kind of kept it lightly on the surface, kept it around. And drugs were around, but it’s not a drug movie. It’s kind of like, “If you go down that road, it needs to be about that. It just needs to be in the world, so you know it’s a part of it.”
AVC: It was nice seeing you do actual dance again. Did you have any input into your choreography?
CT: Yeah, you know the spinny dance [in the movie]? That was completely just freestyled, the whole thing. We didn’t know what we wanted to do for the last dance, and we were like, “I don’t want to do the staple, sort of, ‘Do another policeman’,” or something like that. So we figured Mike is trying to be something more. He wants to be more than he is, so we figured he would try to do something completely different, and just go out and try to make something that really doesn’t even work for this venue. He doesn’t even strip. He just sort of walks offstage, just like, “Fuck it.” [Laughs.] He’s like, “I’m over it.” And that’s his choice at that moment, to be like, “All right, this is a means to an end.”
But the rest of the stuff, we had choreographers. Alison Faulk and Teresa Espinosa, they’re big, big choreographers in the business. It was hilarious to have them come and be teaching us stuff. It was so funny. They’re like, pocket-sized, too. And to see them being danced on by Kevin Nash and Joe Manganiello, it’s comedic. Teresa is the girl I danced on, and then Alison was the red-haired girl that Adam [Rodriguez] dances for, that Tito dances for.
AVC: Speaking of that, your character talks about the buzz you get from performing, from having women freaking out over you. When you were doing those scenes, did you feel that buzz, or did the remove of filmmaking take you out of it?
CT: Oh, no, no. You’re still going out there and getting naked in front of 250 women, and then there’s also another camera crew and everything around. So you want to bring it. The guys were all like a team. It’s a camaraderie feel to it. After people had shot their scenes, they stayed around to see the other performances, because not only did you want to do good, but you wanted them to do good. I remember Matt Bomer had to go first, he was the first one up. And he was like, “What am I about to do, bro?” and I’m like, “I don’t know, just do it!” The guys just jumped in with both feet; everybody did. They had never done anything like that, and it took a huge leap of faith, you know, for them to throw caution to the wind and not know how things are going to look or turn out, and just have faith that they were going to come off well.
AVC: Did you have to serve the role of team captain, the way Mike does, to the rest of the guys?
CT: Yeah. I was like, “This is going to be nuts. Any way you look at it, you’re going to be nervous. I’m nervous.” Even when I stepped out there, I was like, “What did I want to do this movie for, again? This is such a bad idea.” I stopped dancing for this exact reason the first time, because I didn’t really like getting naked. It wasn’t my favorite part. I really enjoyed the dancing part and the performing aspect of it, but I didn’t really enjoy getting naked on somebody onstage. I was like, “Eh, I’m good. I did this; I can check the box now.”
AVC: And now you have to talk about it in every interview.
CT: Every single interview. [Laughs.] But it’s fun. This is going to be my swan song. I made the movie to show people what it was like, so we can stop talking about it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think that’s actually going to happen?
CT: I’m going to make it happen. I’m literally going to be like, “Look, I love you. Let’s talk about something else. Watch the movie if you want any answers.” [Laughs.]
AVC: What was it specifically about the stripping world you thought would translate well to film?
CT: I think the venue is so strange. And the reason women go compared to why men go are completely different reasons, and the way it’s done is such a strange thing, because it’s corny and cheesy. But you still kind of feel like a rock star; you still feel good about it. Women go for the entertainment value. Even though it’s kind of lame entertainment, they still go to watch their friend get embarrassed when they’re getting grinded on. They’re not getting, I don’t think, any real sexual stimulation from it. Guys go for a visual sort of thing, and it’s more of a serious, kind of darker thing, I think. The characters I met along the way in this world were far and beyond some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. And they’re still sort of stuck in this world, some of them. Some of them are great people that moved on and do different things and whatnot, but some of them are still kind of stuck.
AVC: Are you still in contact with anyone from those days?
CT: Not that many of them. I’ve talked to a couple of them. I met one of my best friends, that was my best man at my wedding. The first night I went in and—not auditioned, but, I guess, applied for the job, was the same night he came in. He was two years older than me, he was in college, and so we started on the exact same night, and we ended up leaving on the exact same night.
AVC: You didn’t want to do it without each other.
CT: Yeah. We were both young kids, and everybody else was sort of older and had been doing it for longer, and from a different time period. And we were just sort of the young kids that came in and had fun for a little while and then hung up our thongs.
AVC: This makes a couple of films you’ve done with Soderbergh now, and you have another, The Bitter Pill, coming up. What is it about that relationship that’s working for both of you?
CT: I think we just really enjoy each other. We just hang out. We’re completely from two different worlds. I think he grew up in the South, but he grew up different than I grew up. We’re just two different people, but I think we have like minds about how we love movies and how we love to see them made. I’ve probably made a friend for life, you know, and when I hopefully start directing soon with Reid, we can learn a lot from him. I think what he does… He’s a very unique director as far as, he can’t make a movie that’s not his own. He’s not a director for hire that can make someone else’s film. He has to sign on to do a film, and whoever signs him on to do it has to understand it’s going to be his, and it’ll be uniquely him.
That’s why you can’t really genre-ize Soderbergh films. They’re not comedies; they’re not dramas; they’re just sort of a Soderbergh-esque film that have all of it in it. It’s all-encompassing. I think his next film, Bitter Pill, from what I hear, is going to be a classic. Rooney [Mara] just kills in it. She’s one of the more fantastically gifted people I’ve ever met. She has a unique set of acting skills that I don’t know if very many girls have in the industry. She’s such a unique little thing. But he kind of finds that in people. He really is like a study of individuals and behavior. He’s a very cerebral person, but he also has a heart as well. I think he thrives on problem-solving, even though he hates it. You know what I mean? Like, when somebody is like, “I hate problem-solving, but I’m just fucking good at it, so I can’t not do it.” So I hope he comes back to film. I know he’s going to take a break. I hope he comes back to it. I think he will. I don’t think he can stay away.