Next month's 21 Jump Street, a comedic reboot of Johnny Depp's star-making 1980s TV series, holds some proof that they are. Yet there's a thoughtfulness about Tatum that remains untapped onscreen. And through all those wounded-soldier flicks, he hasn't really had a chance to display one of his core characteristics: Channing Tatum is damn funny. Had it not been for Jonah Hill, Tatum's Jump Street costar—and one of the film's producers—we'd have had to wait a little longer to see this side of him. The duo play fuck-up cops taken off their beat and reassigned to go undercover in their old high school. Tatum is surprisingly hilarious in the part and the perfect foil to Hill. "The studio wanted another traditional comedy person," Hill says, "the kind I always work with. But from Day 1, I wanted Chan. I needed somebody who looked like an action guy, but with real vulnerability that would make you care about his character. I called him up, not even knowing him, and he just said yes on the phone. That never happens. I'm in awe of the guy. I don't want to sound like a broken record, but Chan's the best."
Tatum has found another champion in Steven Soderbergh, who directed him in Haywire. Though his special-ops role in the film, released last month, is only a small one (the movie belongs to the furious fists and feet of MMA fighter turned actress Gina Carano), he and Soderbergh connected on a big idea. "Chan immediately struck me as somebody bright and attentive," Soderbergh says. "I knew he had a production company and was starting to develop things." In particular, Tatum and his production partner, the writer Reid Carolin, had started to shop Magic Mike, an ensemble comedy, scheduled for a summer release, based on Tatum's time as a stripper.
After taking one more swig of bourbon (his third), Tatum dispenses another tried-and-true Young Hollywood Maxim. "I really don't want to be in any more movies that I don't produce," he says. "Unless it's with one of the 10 directors that I really want to work with, I don't have any interest in not being on the ground floor of creating it." Every actor and actress under the age of 35 seems to say some version of this, regardless of intention or meaning. It's the new "But what I really want to do is direct." Still, with Tatum, you actually believe it, primarily because he's talking about movie production the same way he's talked about how he framed houses, sold mortgages, and danced on stage, peeling off a Boy Scout uniform. Tatum speaks like a man who understands and values work, which makes him utterly inept as a bullshitter. His pitch really isn't even about making it in Hollywood. It's about how to live as a self-actualized man.
Last year, on the set of Haywire, Soderbergh recalls, he asked Tatum, "What kind of stuff are you developing?" Tatum told him about his stripper screenplay in the pipeline, and the director went right for it. "It's one of the best ideas I've ever heard," Soderbergh says. "So I say to Chan, 'What's going on with that?' And he goes, 'Well, we got somebody working on it with us.' We finished up Haywire and then he called me—it would have been in March or April—and he goes, 'Look, it's an open assignment now, we don't have a director. Do you still want it? Do you still think this is a good idea?' I said, 'Not only do I think it's a good idea, but we've gotta do it right now, so let's go. Let's start, today.'"
Then, before Tatum can really tell me more about his production company, Iron Horse Entertainment, and its work on Magic Mike, we see a woman pushing a car down an exit ramp. We're just beyond Bob Hope Airport, near where the Verdugo Mountains start to rise. The woman is fortysomething and leaning hard into her bumper, trying to make her broken-down Toyota Camry move. We're obviously going to stop.
"The car's smoking," Tatum says. "Maybe it's on fire."
And with that, he's out the door, running across the road toward the stalled vehicle. "Oh, man," the woman says. She's on the verge of tears. Her grandson, a cornrowed toddler named Wallace III, is in the back seat, and she's worried the car might explode. "Let's get the kid out of there," Tatum says, which is probably something he's said in a movie. She agrees. "Sean," she says. "I'm Sean. You know, like Sean Puffy Combs."
Tatum's there for a good 15 minutes, getting under the hood, poking at hoses, pulling on dipsticks, and iPhoning Siri to find us a tow truck before the woman realizes she's seen this flannel-clad Samaritan before. "Wait," she says. "You're ummm . . . that's ummm . . . and you came out to help?"
To her, Channing Tatum, a.k.a. "Ummm," is simply the celebrity most likely to show up out of the blue and fix her Toyota. "Ummm," she says. "Ummm, you think you can get this sucker to start up again for me?" Tatum and Collins do their best. While our driver is more mechanically inclined, Tatum is excellent in an emergency. He's in the driver's seat testing the ignition. He's getting a smile out of Wallace III. He's pouring water into a tank beside the engine block. He's hugging Sean. "I wish I could say I'm good with cars," he says as Collins finally solves the problem.
A replacement hose is needed, but the vehicle is now in good enough shape for Sean to steer it to the nearest service station. "I just put all my money into the gas tank," she says, hands on her hips. "I can't pay for a new hose." Reflexively, Tatum takes her aside and presses a $100 bill, or maybe two, into her palm. "Get it fixed," he tells her. "Go fix it now. Don't get stuck out here again. Take it slow. Put on your flashers."
Before heading over to the Iron Horse offices, and with our hands reeking of gunpowder, we stop off at Tatum's house in Laurel Canyon, which he shares with his wife, the actress Jenna Dewan. It smells like scented candles. Flowers are everywhere. Lemons and limes grow on trees in the yard. The story is that the plot of land belonged to Charlie Chaplin. After all that Russian roulette, it's heartening to see so much vibrant proof of life. Dewan, whom he met while filming Step Up in Baltimore seven years ago and with whom he's lived ever since, greets us, smiling, at the door. "Hi, little face," Tatum tells her, planting a kiss on her lips. The couple's pit bull, Lulu, comes bounding up behind them.