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Channing Tatum: A Work in Progress

He has gone from being a stripper in Florida to one of Hollywood’s top-earning actors. What does that do to a person?

by Rob Haskell for New York Times

Earlier this year, a university in Illinois called Robert Morris decided to offer scholarships to prospective members of its new varsity video-game team. At a time when mathletes, chess kings and all manner of nerds have avenged themselves thoroughly and far beyond the horn-rimmed realm of Silicon Valley, this piece of news shouldn’t have raised any hackles. Perhaps more surprising has been the attention suddenly focused on the high school athlete, so often doomed to a more bitter fate. In February, the satirist Jason Headley released a web short called “It Doesn’t Get Better” — a spoof of the “It Gets Better” campaign against bullying — in which erstwhile football captains and homecoming queens warn that life goes swiftly downhill after graduation. In June, the journal Child Development published a study that showed that popular adolescents were more likely to abuse drugs and commit crimes.

In Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film “Magic Mike,” we meet the title character, played by Channing Tatum, as he emerges from postcoital slumber into a beer-colored Tampa morning, dragging his remarkable body — huge shoulders, tiny waist, a bas-relief of bare buttocks — to the bathroom to shave his pubic hair. “Foxcatcher,” the new film by Bennett Miller, opens to a somewhat different expression of Tatum’s intense and bankable physicality: the figure of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz grappling violently on the mat with a dummy, the camera trained on his squirming fingers and misshapen ears, the microphone uncomfortably sensitive to the sound of his panting. After practice, Schultz retreats to a grim brown apartment where the lampshades don’t entirely cover the bulbs, and where a gold medal in a velveteen case seems to offer hollow consolation. This is a Tatum role bereft of sexual glamour; the jock has come crashing down to earth.

“Foxcatcher” explores the true-life relationship between Schultz and John E. du Pont, who in 1996 murdered Schultz’s brother Dave, also an Olympic champion wrestler. It’s a cautionary tale, Tatum says. And for all its libidinal swagger, so is “Magic Mike,” whose script was based on Tatum’s own experience parlaying his football physique into work as a stripper in Florida at age 19. Both films speak to the limits of physicality, to the hazard of betting early on one’s body. Joseph Allen, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who was the lead author of the study on popular kids published in Child Development, has a cute term for this: “the high school reunion effect,” in which the beautiful ones return looking diminished, to the quiet glee of rehabilitated nerds in their Audis. Tatum, if he hadn’t stumbled into movie stardom — hardly the career he dreamed of while on the football field at Tampa Catholic High School — might have been just such a casualty, and he knows it well.

He arrives for breakfast in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice wearing khakis, a white T-shirt and turquoise sneakers — the costume of someone who doesn’t feel the need to embellish what nature provided. He is missing a sliver of his left eyebrow, the result of a bad hop on the baseball field, one of the many stigmata of his athletic glory. “I’ve always negotiated the world very physically, from football to tussling at the playground to taking my clothes off,” Tatum says. “My dad’s a physical guy. I think that’s how I wanted to see myself as a kid, how I won approval, and it’s no secret that that’s how I got into this business. But over time I’ve been able to develop other aspects of myself, sort of on-the-job training.” Tatum’s corn-fed look and winking self-awareness have proved a winning combination. Two years ago he starred in three films in the span of five months that grossed over $100 million each; a feat unheard of in Hollywood.

One of those blockbusters, “21 Jump Street,” offers a hilarious exploration of the high school reunion effect. In it, Tatum plays a barely literate meathead (opposite a meek and bookish Jonah Hill) who returns to high school as an undercover police officer to find that the behavior that had made him a popular teenager — for example, punching a black, gay student in the parking lot — now begets outrage. Reid Carolin, Tatum’s best friend and production partner in the company Free Association, believes that the movie succeeds in part because we are watching Tatum work through his own life story. “I don’t know if he understands how brilliantly he’s channeling and poking fun at that part of himself in the character,” Carolin explains. It’s tempting, in any case, to think that Tatum has been reappraising an old idea about himself so that he can move on to new ones.

Tatum’s path to fame is well known: a blue-collar upbringing mostly in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, an unsuccessful go of college on a football scholarship, then construction jobs, stripping, dancing, modeling and, finally, Hollywood. The actor, now 34, had to cobble together an education along the way. He is still adding matter, to use a term from sculpture, which has been his quiet passion for the last few years. “I could never carve away marble like the ancients,” he says. “I’m more of an additive guy.”

Tatum did not exactly coast through adolescence on the strength of his appearance, and he did not always believe that the world of ideas was available to him. As a child he struggled with A.D.H.D. and dyslexia, was prescribed stimulants and did poorly in school. “I have never considered myself a very smart person, for a lot of reasons,” he says. “Not having early success on that one path messes with you. You get lumped in classes with kids with autism and Down Syndrome, and you look around and say, Okay, so this is where I’m at. Or you get put in the typical classes and you say, All right, I’m obviously not like these kids either. So you’re kind of nowhere. You’re just different. The system is broken. If we can streamline a multibillion-dollar company, we should be able to help kids who struggle the way I did.”

It amazes him now to consider that, given his academic challenges especially, no one thought to push him toward the arts. His father was a roofer who fell through a roof and broke his back, and his mother worked a variety of what he calls normal American jobs. “It’s just weird that for some people art is a luxury,” he says. “My parents had no artistic outlet. Some people pass down music to their kids, but I couldn’t tell you what my mom’s or dad’s favorite song is. So when I started going out into the world, I was drawn to people who knew about movies, art, even fashion. I went to New York and did the whole modeling thing, and I just learned everything I could from anybody who knew something I didn’t. I’ve had a few John du Ponts in my life, to be honest. I think that’s one thing I’m pretty skilled at. I can look at a person and say, They’ve got something that I want up there in their head. I’m going to do my best to get in there and absorb it. My mom said, ‘Be a sponge.’ And so I’ve learned more from people than I have from school or from books.”

Tatum met Carolin during the making of “Stop-Loss,” the Kimberly Peirce-directed 2008 film about young Iraq War vets. Carolin had a number of fascinating projects on his plate at the time but wasn’t earning tons of money, and Tatum was having no trouble making money but couldn’t find a project that interested him. Their union has been felicitous: Tatum produced “Earth Made of Glass,” Carolin’s award-winning documentary about the Rwandan genocide, and Carolin wrote “Magic Mike,” a film that earned more than $150 million on its $7 million budget. And though their collaboration may initially have married one man’s brain with another’s body, it has evolved into a partnership of equals. Earlier this year they visited Gambia in pursuit of a story they are hoping to develop together. They are honing a script for a biopic about Evel Knievel and another for a film about the Marvel superhero Gambit. They are working on a documentary about military dogs for HBO. There are television projects on the horizon, too. And the pair may try their hand at directing. In September they began shooting a sequel to “Magic Mike,” a road movie based on Tatum’s experience at an annual stripper convention, where, with thousands of women in the audience, a dancer could make more money in a single night than he could over the entire rest of the year. Tatum wrote a handful of scenes with Carolin.

“Chan’s a blue-collar person, a worker by nature,” Carolin said. “So when he’s producing or financing or developing, he doesn’t just want credit for something. He’s looking to get into it, to learn to do it. He’s so physically talented and good-looking and all that movie star stuff, but there’s a curiosity in him that originates in the fact that he really did struggle. Football didn’t stick. College didn’t stick. And yet he has the highest emotional intelligence of anyone I know. And he has the ability to teach others, including me, how to make decisions from that place.”

People who know Tatum often refer to his sweetness, and lately, unbidden, they mention what a terrific father he must be. In May of last year, Tatum and his wife, the actress Jenna Dewan-Tatum, had a daughter, Everly. He finds fatherhood difficult, but it has taught him to be a more diligent student of himself. “You notice your behavior, like, Wow, I don’t have much patience right now. Why is that?” he explains. “You spend the day watching this thing constantly taking in information, and you have to be sure you’re making that happen. At the end of the day when I put her to bed, I feel glad to have some peace but say to myself, That was so much fun.”

Tatum pursues his sculpture in a small studio made from a converted catch-all room at the back of his house in the Hollywood Hills. He stumbled into the art several years ago while shooting Soderbergh’s “Haywire” in New Mexico. Wandering through town on his day off, he passed a storefront through which he could see someone working on a large figurative sculpture. “For some reason I was captivated,” he recalls. “And I had this sort of feeling that I could do it. I don’t know why.” He stood staring until the artist beckoned him inside and offered him some clay to work with. Tatum, who still prefers to work in clay, cites Auguste Rodin as one of his sculptural heroes. (“My stuff ends up looking like his stuff,” he says, “although it’s crazy that I would even put our names in the same sentence.”) He acknowledges that making art has been a refuge from acting at a time when he has never had more offers. “It’s so internal. You get so focused on yourself as an actor,” he says. “You never feel totally confident that you got it right, and in the end the director will cut everything away to tell the story he wants to tell. With sculpting, nothing is cloudy or mystical. It’s just about this object, and if you’re trying to depict reality, and you do it well, then the outcome is the truth.”

“Foxcatcher” is a film that frustrates any search for the straightforward truth; it offers a devastating account of an inexplicable act, and Tatum admits that when he first read the script, about eight years ago, he didn’t understand it. Was John du Pont, played by an utterly transformed Steve Carell, in love with Mark Schultz? Was he driven by a desire to please an unloving mother (Vanessa Redgrave, marvelously haughty as the old Mrs. du Pont)? “There’s definitely an Oedipal element,” Tatum acknowledges. “But there’s no resolve. There’s no huge lesson. It just tries to show what really happened, and that’s never easy.” Tatum’s friends say that he has never prepared more intensely for a role. He trained for it in the gym during breaks from shooting “White House Down” in Canada. Mark Ruffalo, who plays Mark’s brother Dave Schultz, advised him to study the real Mark Schultz closely. Tatum spent a number of days with Schultz, and the two remain in touch.

“It felt like a sensitive situation because Mark Schultz really wanted me to get everything correct,” Tatum says. “In a two-hour movie I’m never going to be able to show everything about a person, but I tried to grasp the most poignant things and to imbue them into the film. Mark didn’t expect to like it, though it turned out that he did. He was just hoping he’d be relieved, and I think maybe he wanted to get some justice. I’m not sure it’s full enough of that stuff for him — all the stuff that people did to him, terrible, terrible things. The movie doesn’t do that. It shows these relationships that are complicated and beautiful and horrible.”

Schultz seemed to understand that he might benefit from moving outside his tightly circumscribed world by accepting du Pont’s offer of housing and financial support. This proved to be a disastrous mistake, but Tatum empathizes deeply with the notion of risk that originates in desperation. “Personally, I like being pushed into corners,” he says. “It forces you to be creative. Being a stripper exposed me to a lot of people I might never have met, and that has turned out to be a gift. There are lots of characters I feel I can play as a result. So when people tell me they want to act, I’m like, Okay, if you want to act, go see America. If you can afford gas money, go talk to people and see how they really live. Sure, you can go to theater class at a young age. That’s not how I did it. I would have loved to learn things earlier than I did, but then maybe I wouldn’t have gone and done the things that gave me insight into what it is to be human — to have fears and wants. Like the fear of asking a girl out on a date when I can’t afford dinner at Chili’s, so instead maybe we go to Checkers and I make it cool by turning it into a picnic, put the burgers in a basket of my mom’s and try to make it romantic. That’s the kind of worry I used to have.”

On screen, Mark Schultz’s brooding face, the stiff, lumbering carriage of his body, so primed for violence, seem to offer testimony to the deepening wells from which Tatum, no longer merely a heartthrob or a gunslinger or a slouch, is now able to draw in his acting. Critics who have not always taken him seriously will find it hard to ignore the achievement of “Foxcatcher.” Though he remains a physical specimen — this summer he backflipped off the skids of a helicopter into a mountain lake on “Running Wild,” the popular television show hosted by the extreme outdoorsman Bear Grylls — there is still more catching up to do. Recently Tatum’s wife bought him lessons from a sculptor who emphasizes classical technique.

“I’ve never studied the classics, but I’d like to,” Tatum says. “My teacher offered to show me how the Greeks were able to sculpt someone perfectly. From there you can go off and experiment — sort of like jazz. Once you learn to play anything, you can break the form and go and do something even bigger.”

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