"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 Hallstrm 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."
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.
"Want to see dirty dancing?" Tatum asks. Lulu trots over to the far side of the patio. When Tatum snaps his fingers and commands "Dirty dancing," the muscled pooch—in her rhinestone-studded pink leather collar—charges toward him. She leaps high into his arms, and he thrusts her upward until she's suspended over his head in a balletic lift. Then the two twirl around, poolside, illuminated by twinkle lights. "You jumped the gun," Tatum says to the dog. "We'll do it over." Which they do, again and again.
And then we're back in the Town Car, Collins taking us over to Iron Horse Entertainment—adjacent to one of Hollywood's seediest hotels. It has a great American literary name but looks like something off the streets of Baghdad. The light pouring from its window is a diseased, piss-colored shade of yellow. "This is the kind of place," Tatum says, "where you'd walk in and AIDS would just jump all over you. It's mostly transients and addicts in there." But, still, he's more comfortable in its shadows than at the Chateau Marmont or the Sunset Tower.
Tatum's office has 25-foot-high ceilings, a desk made from the wing of an old airplane, and an enormous chalkboard with ideas and stories blocked out all over it. A couple of leather saddles sit on sawhorses near the door. Tatum says he's often there until 4 a.m., brainstorming or writing snippets of scenes or making clay torsos. "Jenna's not always happy when I come home that late," he says, "but I've just got to get it out."
Reid Carolin, Tatum's partner in the endeavor—the two met while shooting Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss—is sitting at the airplane desk, where he worked on Magic Mike. Tatum provided the context and many of the stories, but the script is Carolin's. "To clarify," Tatum says, "it's not really my story. It's really about that world: the people and the decisions you have to make. It's not as dark as you might think. Soderbergh really had a clear vision as far as not making it overly sexual, overly dark." The director predicts the name Channing Tatum is about to become an indelible one. "He has a lot of the qualities I associate with people like George and Matt and Brad in terms of being clear-eyed, hardworking, and masculine. He's a man. I wish there was a better word, but in movie terms, he's a man, he comes across on the screen as a man," Soderbergh says. While Magic Mike isn't exactly Boogie Nights, it figures to launch Tatum on a very Wahlberg-esque trajectory: picking choice roles while amassing cred as a producer. He's already shown some savvy, landing Soderbergh and assembling the ensemble cast that includes Alex Pettyfer, Matt Bomer, and Matthew McConaughey.
"This is where people smoke crack," says Tatum, walking me out the back door. "This is where people do heroin. Reid walked out here once and there was this guy with a spike in his arm." Tatum shrugs and adjusts his Houston Astros cap, backward and low on his forehead. "Whatever," he says, grinning. "I like it here. Should we go get more drinks?"
Two Woodford Reserve bourbons go down fast at the Blue Boar bar around the corner, where the bartender greets Tatum with a fist bump. Half an hour later, Tatum orders two shots of Bulleit whiskey to cap our bullet-filled day. "What are we toasting?" I ask. He looks up and meets me dead in the eye. "Isn't it obvious?" he says. "We're just getting started with our lives, just figuring out the rest of it. The creativity is in place, the sex is good. There's really only one toast to make." Tatum lifts the glass as high as he lifted his dog. "Live forever," he says. "Just live like this forever."
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