"Want to do something fun?" Channing Tatum asks. "It's probably not fun. It's probably kind of sadistic. We're going to play a little Russian roulette." Tatum is holding a .44 Magnum: a silver-barreled world-ender with a scuffed black butt and a tendency to misfire. We've already shot 399 bullets in a concrete box of a shooting range, just off the Grand Army of the Republic Highway in Burbank—and, yes, there's just one slug remaining.
It's been an hour since Tatum, 31, cocked the Magnum's hammer the first time. We'd already finished up with a smaller HK pistol and a reasonably intimidating .357. By comparison, the .44 feels frightening and lethal—a tumescent revolver snorting fire and huffing its flinty breath into our faces every time we pull the trigger. Tatum warns me about the dangers of "going bitch on the gun," which is to say letting the gun make a bitch out of me. Then he proceeds to rip apart a tennis ball with a shot. "Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!" he stammers—incredulously, ecstatically. His eyes roll back in his head. He squeals, grins, and purses his lips.
"When I was a kid," he says, "we lived on the bayou in Mississippi. My dad would throw a beer can into the water and have me shoot at it. Once, when I was really little, we had this huge double-barrel shotgun, and when I tried it, it literally blew me off the dock."
Full disclosure: We're shooting under the influence. Two hours earlier, Tatum picked me up in a black Town Car chauffeured by a kind-eyed Ghanaian named Collins, greeting me with a Global Bro Hug, slapping me twice on the back. Once inside the Lincoln, Tatum took a swig of Knob Creek from a half-full bottle he pulled from a suede messenger bag. "Maybe you shouldn't tell anyone we're drinking and shooting," he said, not serious in the least. After wiping the bottle's lip with his sleeve cuff, he passed it to me. "There goes Jesus," Tatum said as we rolled along Sunset. And there He was in the crosswalk—latte in hand, robe flowing in His wake, fluttering across Fairfax Avenue. "I'd walk around in a man dress," Tatum said. "It looks so comfortable. I'd do that all day long—walk around in a dress like Jesus." Tatum's 1957 Chevy pickup wasn't an option today, nor was the Corvette I'd been given thanks to a magnificent screwup at the LAX Avis. Tatum's publicist wanted us driven, not driving. "I'd rather not see you guys get a DUI," she said. "I hate to be a mom here, but I am a mom, so I can't help it."
Better maternal advice might have been Don't drink and shoot. Nevertheless, here we are alone at the range, with Channing Tatum loading what Dirty Harry calls the world's most powerful handgun, himself loaded with several shots of bourbon. And now he's talking about blowing our brains out? He adjusts his goggles and the noise blockers capping his ears. Dressed in a heavy flannel shirt draped loosely over a gray tee and baggy jeans tucked into high-top Chuck Taylors, he lifts the weighty Magnum, mocking a biceps curl. "That'll be us," he says, pointing the barrel at neither his nor my head but instead at a 17.5-by-23-inch orange-and-white human-silhouette target we bought for 75 cents at the front desk.
"I'm gonna load and spin," Tatum says. "I'm gonna fire." Hundreds of copper casings glint around his feet. Through the window into the lobby, we can see a corpse being autopsied on an old TV. Tatum extends his arms, sets his legs, and aims at the silhouette's head. He exhales. Pulls the trigger. Nothing.
We go on like this, taking turns, holding breath, closing eyes, curling fingers around the steel-comma trigger. Exhaling. It's a sick game and one that Tatum is playing with surprising seriousness. He's darker, deeper, more creative than his easygoing manner—and most of his roles—might suggest. These days, when he's not attempting mock suicide, he spends a lot of time sculpting torsos from clay and drawing severe oil-stick sketches on butcher paper.
"I'm still here after four rounds," Tatum says, placing the gun on a ledge. His mood elevates every time the Magnum fails to fire. This is more than a game to him—it's a life-affirming exercise. "Let's each take one more shot," he says, flashing a goofy grin. "If the gun doesn't go off, we'll just live forever."
All simulations aside, Channing Tatum is a man who pulls the trigger with little hesitation. At 19, he was working as a stripper in Tampa and living in a government housing unit. Twelve years on, he has five movies coming out in the first six months of the year, including his first feature as a producer. The only way you get to this point is by never being gun-shy. By always saying yes. It might result in playing an eighties street tough in a beautiful indie like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Or in becoming the backbone of a bankable dance franchise like Step Up. Maybe you will emerge the proven face of a summer blockbuster like G.I. Joe, or as the male ideal as envisaged not by Michelangelo but by Nicholas Sparks (Dear John).
"You gotta do the Dear Johns," Tatum says."You gotta do The Vow." He's talking about this month's installment of Channing Tatum Will Crush Your Aorta With His Eyes, His Abs, and His Unbelievable Propensity to Stand by Your Side Through Anything, Always, No Matter What. It's not officially a Nicholas Sparks movie, but it may as well be. Plot: Tatum's wife, played by Rachel McAdams, loses her memory after being propelled, slo-mo, Nine Inch Nails-video-style, through a windshield. Tatum is then charged with the hero's quest of making her remember everything, making her . . . love him again. It's based on a true story, so Happy Valentine's Day from all your friends in the neuropsych ward.
"I'm conscious about why I did those parts, those movies," Tatum says after jokingly apologizing for my having had to watch them. He says he took the roles for the sake of his education, which is, of course, an industry trope. But it's one he delivers with such sincerity that it's impossible not to absolutely take him at his word. "I wanted to learn from Rachel on The Vow," he says. "I wanted to learn from Lasse Hallström on Dear John—he did The Cider House Rules and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. I didn't go to acting school, so my knowledge of story, filmmaking, and character comes from just being on set and doing it." We have another Knob Creek moment, merging onto the Hollywood Freeway, heading for Burbank. "I know I'm not the best actor," he says. "But I hope my characters are getting better."