by Jessica Pressler for GQ
I wake to see Channing Tatum’s face, framed by a camouflage Snuggie, wobbling above me. “Hey,” he whispers, exhaling a cloud of booze so thick I can practically see it in the chilly air. “I think we should go into the house before anyone sees us out here and shoots us or something.” Near us, beneath the bushes we slept under, are a half-empty bottle of Patrón, a glow stick, an unopened bag of Stacy’s Pita Chips. I’m wearing a Snuggie, too. We are probably not exactly what the residents of this tiny mining town deep in the California desert would expect to find outside their windows.
Wait, pita chips? “You brought snacks out here last night?” I ask.
Tatum starts to giggle. He has a great laugh—a boyish, highly contagious stream of actual tee-hee-hee’s. It’s not something you get to hear much in his movies, since his chiseled-out-of-a-side-of-beef looks mean he is usually cast as soldiers, bors, or criminals. But in real life he’s like a big, good-looking Tickle Me Elmo. “Tee-hee-hee. I have to get a picture of this,” he says, standing up and fumbling in his pockets. Then his joyful expression suddenly collapses. “Shit,” he says. “Where’s my phone?”
We search for it, but his iPhone isn’t at our campsite, so we go look in the house. It’s a house belonging to someone called Rusty, who, wherever he is, would probably be flabbergasted to know that the star of such movies as G.I. Joe and the upcoming Roman epic The Eagle—not to mention a journalist from New York City—have just pried apart his La-Z-Boy in search of a piece of technology that, judging from the 1974 copies of Hollywood and McCall’s on his living room table, he does not necessarily know has been invented.
“It wouldn’t be in Rusty’s bedroom, because we didn’t come into Rusty’s bedroom,” Tatum says, tentatively peering at Rusty’s neatly made bed through the open door.
“No, we did,” I say. “Because at one point we were wearing those hats.” I point to the two straw hats sitting on Rusty’s dresser, beneath a sepia-toned portrait of what looks like a dwarf in eighteenth-century dress.
“We were?” Tatum says, crinkling his forehead. Then he remembers. “Oh yeah! And I took a picture of that lady. With my phone. And that was after we left the bar. But was it before or after we went to the jail?”
Tatum starts to giggle again. “We’re in somebody’s house right how,” he gasps. “Tee-hee-hee. How did this happen?”
It’s 7 a.m., so we have an hour to find his phone before the car comes to take us back to Los Angeles. We decide to retrace our steps. I swallow a couple of Rusty’s aspirins. “I’m having a beer,” Tatum announces, cracking open a can of Rusty’s Coors Light. He hands me one. “You should have one, too. It’ll make us both feel better.”
According to Channing Tatum, every night out has its tipping point: “You know, that one part where you’re just like, ‘Is this going to be one of those nights?’ “ He’d said this to me the day before, as we were driving. We had just left Los Angeles in a town car headed for Randsburg, California, an old ghost town where he’d spent an afternoon shooting a short film for his friend, the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and wanted to revisit.
The tipping-point theory also applies to Tatum’s life. Take, for example, the time he signed up to dance in an all-male revue in Tampa. He was living there after giving up a college football scholarship. (School always made Tatum, who has ADD and “something like dyslexia,” bored and restless.) He’d always been athletic, and a dancer, and had gotten bored with the grind of day jobs he’d been working—house framing, cold-calling people for a mortgage company, cleaning cages at “a puppy-kitty nursery.”
“This is going to be crazy,” he recalls saying to a fellow dancer, who is still a friend, as they pulled on G-strings for their first shift at a nightclub called Joy. Then they made a pact: “Okay, we’re go ing to do this for a little while just to be crazy and insane; then we’re getting out.” And they did. Tatum’s stripping experience remained just that—some insane thing he’d done—until the man who hired him for that stripping job sold a tape to Us Weekly in 2009. It shows him, working as Chan Crawford (he still goes by Chan), wiggling in front of a room full of screaming ladies in a tiny thong and copious hair gel. His public-relations team was horrified. This part of his past was meant to be secret.
“I had wanted to tell people,” Tatum said in the car. “I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t regret one thing. I’m not a person who hides shit.”
Nor should he. Steven Soderbergh, the director who cast Tatum in the upcoming spy thriller Haywire, said he’d love to direct the movie of Tatum’s stripping life. And it was some “sketchy dude” who’d seen his work on the stage who planted in Chan’s head the idea to pursue a modeling career. That led to a small part in a Pepsi ad, which led to a leading role in the dance movie Step Up and ultimately put him on a trajectory that has him, at 30, “poised to become the next Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp,” according to Ryan Kavanaugh, whose company, Relativity Media, has produced a number of Tatum’s films. Whether or not that is true remains to be seen. Although G.I. Joe grossed $300 million worldwide and he’s since landed a number of high-profile movies (he just signed on to anchor the movie remake of the former Depp vehicle 21 Jump Street), a lot of people still view him as a handsome, affable beefcake. “No one’s calling me for lawyer roles,” he said. “I still have a lot to do to prove myself.”
We were an hour and a half outside L.A., and the freeway fast-food chains and gas stations were giving way to a rusty Martian terrain punctuated by cartoonish cacti and the occasional bombed-out-looking shed. “How far are we?” he asked. The driver said it would probably be a hour more. Tatum leaned back. “Wait until you see this place,” he said. “I was actually going to camp out. I even brought my bedroll. But I wasn’t sure…”
“I’ll camp out,” I said.
“Yeah?” he said, his eyes lighting up. I know, that sounds like a cliché. But even though Tatum possesses what his friend and G.I. Joe co-star Marlon Wayans calls a “pretty-ass Blue Steel face,” it’s also very expressive. “It sounds corny, but he’s got something that’s behind the eyes,” says Dito Montiel, the writer-director who cast Tatum in the films A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Fighting. “He’s almost like an Al Pacino or a Sean Penn, in that he’ll be doing a scene where he’s telling this woman he loves her and you feel like he’s going to kill her.”
“Okay,” he said. “Done. We have to get you a bedroll. It’s gonna get cold out there. All right. All right. Hahahahaha! My publicist is going to kill me. Tee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee! Who knows what we’re going to get into.”
There was a Rite Aid in Rosamond, the last outpost of civilization before the barren road that would lead us to Randsburg, and Chan asked the driver to pull over. Inside, he barreled down the aisle and started plucking merchandise from the shelves. A sleeping bag, hat, and jacket for me, plus firewood, a pack of iced Christmas cookies, glow sticks. At the cash register he picked up two Snuggies, just because Snuggies are “hilarious.”
“And we’re going to need two of those,” he told the cashier as we checked out, pointing to a bottle of silver Patrón. “ This is going to be so fuunnn.”
But miles more into the desert, as even the cacti gave way to a rocky landscape with only the occasional tuft of brush, our driver started to get nervous. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he said. “It’s going to be freezing cold out there.”
“It’ll be fine,” Chan says. “We have Snuggies. Tee-hee-hee. It is on.”
Patrick, the driver, relad visibly as we pulled into Randsburg around one in the afternoon. “It’s like a little town,” he said, relieved. Randsburg is actually a very little town in the Old West style. It could be described as “one-horse,” or even “one-donkey,” since the first thing we see as we walk up to the Joint is a fiberglass donkey in front of a worn storefront announcing the availability of “antiques.” The Joint is a bar Chan had read about. He was actually panting with excitement. “Yeah! This is it! This is the place! This is fucking awesome. There’s two bars, we can barhop!” He turned back to the driver. “We’re good to go. You were all nervous for us and shit!”
We took two vinyl stools at the bar. A woman in her fifties in a flower-print blouse came over to take our drink orders and introduced herself as Bernadette, the daughter of Olga, the bar’s 99-year-old owner. “That is so cool!” Chan said to her. “I read about Olga on Yelp! Can I have a Bud Light? And do you have tequila?”
Chan was still thinking about the driver. “You know when someone is so nervous about something, it makes you doubt yourself? Like on Step Up, I was going to do this backflip off the car. That’s something I do, like, all the time. I just do backflips off things. By the time it was time to do it, I was, like, shaking, because everyone was all, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ But then I did it, and it was fine.”
Back home in Alabama, he grew up riding horses and jumping into lakes and ramming his head into other people. And he doesn’t like it, as an adult, when people tell him what he can and can’t do physically.
“On G.I. Joe, there was a scene where they wanted a stuntman to run into a burning building,” said co-star Marlon Wayans. “And Chan went all Method. He was like, ‘I should be in there! I need to feel that!’ If adrenaline was a drug, Channing would be the Charlie Sheen of adrenaline.”
“I think people pay money to see the actor go through a wall,” Chan said matter-of-factly. “I want to be like, ‘Holy shit, Johnny Depp actually jumped off that building. That guy’s fucking crazy. I want to be him.’ “
On-set for Fighting, Montiel says, Chan and his co-stars Terrence Howard and Peter Tambakis had a game where they would punch each other as hard as they could. Once, after a night out in New York, where they were filming, Tambakis came back to the set with an unexplained black eye. “When Chan drinks, you gotta watch it,” Montiel said. “It’s not like a bad drunk, it’s like a crazy drunk.” By the time he warned me, though, it was too late.
“Bernadette, can I have another Budweiser, and can we have two more tequila shots?”
“Um,” I said.
After a while, Chan asked Bernadette to come talk to us. “Do you know where’s a good place to camp around here?” he asked.
She hollered down to the end of the bar, where two white-haired, ruddy-faced men in motocross T-shirts were drinking beer.
“Up the road there’s a canyon with some big rocks that you can kind of hunker down in,” the smaller of the two men said. “Big boulders. You drive here?”
“Um, yeah,” said Chan, thinking of Patrick sitting in the car outside. “We have a car. Just a normal car, though.”
“Should be fine. It’s just yonder.”
Chan told me he’s not nearly as much of a daredevil as he used to be: “I lived crazy really young. So now I don’t need to go out and get nuts.” But then, moments later, he was telling me about how crazy last weekend was, how he and his buddies all ended up with tattoos. He rolled up his sleeve to reveal the letters IH, for Iron Horse, his uncle’s ranch in Alabama, stamped on his upper arm. His friend Kurtz got SIT HERE tattooed on his lip. Oh, and after that happened, they subjected Marlon Wayans to a Spontaneous Home Invasion, a term he dropped so casually that it was clear this is something that happens not irregularly.
“We sneak up to his house, okay, and we’re like, ‘Shit! He’s home!’ “ he recalled with glee. “There are girls around the pool, and we can see him sitting there. So Kurtz and I strip down.”
“And we open the door and just pounce in like, ’Rawr!’ And Marlon jumps up in this fighting stance, like he is going to bust out some martial-arts shit. And his cousin grabs a pillow. A pillow.” He giggled. “Bernadette, can I get another Bud Light and two more tequila shots?”
In a few minutes, the guys from the end of the bar ambled over and pulled up stools. They introduced themselves as Chris and Matt and asked us what we were doing in town.
“Oh, we’re just doing a little road trip,” Chan said. “I’m Chan. Like Jackie Chan.”
“I’ve never met a Chan that wasn’t…”
“That wasn’t Asian? I know. I don’t know how they came up with it. Growing up a Chan, kids were mean. Like, ‘What’s up, Ching Chong?’ “
“You should have been like, ‘Martial arts is up, bitch!’ “ said the one called Chris.
Chan laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Matt and Chris were clearly charmed, even though they had no idea he was famous, and it was easy to see how being handsome, huge, and friendly makes life easier, even when you have no license, even when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Eventually it was revealed that Chan is an actor.
“What have you been in?” Chris asked.
“I was in G.I. Joe?” Chan said, almost apologetically.
“What were you in G.I. Joe?”
“I was…the guy?”
“G.I. Joe? You were G.I. Joe?”
Chris looked impressed, though clearly he hadn’t seen it. The movie was mostly a hit with teenage boys.
“We’re going over to this banquet later; you should come!” Matt said.
“Oh, wow, thank you,” Chan said politely. “That would be awesome. We don’t want to intrude on you, though? We’ll see where it goes.”
Chris and Matt returned to their seats.
“This is exactly what I wanted to happen,” Chan whispered to me excitedly. “To just see what happens.”
From the other end of the bar, Chris and Matt announced their intention to buy a round of Jägermeister shots. “Nectar of the gods!” Tatum said, and pounded his chest.
Several boozy hours and two cheeseburgers (that Chan will have to seriously work off—”It sucks,” he says. “I love nothing more than eating and drinking beer”) later, we found ourselves standing alone in a house across the street and down a rocky hill from the Joint. We’d released a relieved-looking Patrick from his duties by telling him we’d call another car in the morning, and after giving us a tour of the area’s abandoned cathouses—the bordellos that local miners once frequented—and insisting we take a hit each of their joint, Chris and Matt brought us to Rusty’s. They showed us how to turn on the heat, assured us that Rusty, who was out of town, wouldn’t mind if we slept over, and then they drove off to their banquet.
“See ya in the movies!” Chris shouted as they backed away, honking.
Chan and I looked at each other and collapsed into stoned giggles. “I never smoke pot,” he gasped. “Really! I’m not just saying that.”
“I know,” I said. “I don’t, either, but he pressured me! He was like, ‘That’s not a hit.’ “
“I thought he’d be mad if I didn’t.”
As the sun set, we thoroughly explored Rusty’s house, which was intriguingly equipped with, among other things, a hot tub, an old-fashioned soda machine, and the bottom half of an extremely curvy mannequin. (“She got a Beyoncé booty! Check that out!”)
Then Chan remembered he should probably call his wife and stepped outside. Marlon Wayans says of Chan’s wife, the actress Jenna Dewan, whom he has been with since they met on the set of Step Up five years ago, “She has a way to calm him like nobody. She’s like the music they played for King Kong.” They have matching tattoos underneath their wedding bands that say TWIN in white ink. When he goes to dial, I notice she is programmed into his phone as “Baby Butt.”
He came back into Rusty’s house once the call was finished. “ ‘You know that’s kind of weird, right?’ “ he told me she said. “ ‘I mean, that you’re sleeping in the desert overnight with a girl?’ “
Chan, to whom this hadn’t occurred, apologized profusely.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I just wanted to note that it is kind of weird.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“So you had your phone then,” I say the next morning. “And it was probably like six thirty or so. What happened after that?”
“We went back to the bar,” Tatum says. Chan had ordered more tequila. Now that night had fallen, there was a different set of people in residence, including Bernadette’s mother, Olga, who was sitting quietly by the fireplace.
“Olga,” Chan says the next morning at Rusty’s, dropping his head into his hands. “Man, she’s so old. I respect that, though. She’s been here a long time.” Then he looks up. “That’s when we met Ordinary Tom.”
Chan had gone to the bathroom. A middle-aged man, the shape of a perfect oval with stubble and glasses, introduced himself.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Ordinary Tom.”
Chan came back from the bathroom. “Dude, did you see that the bathrooms were labeled GOLD MINERS and GOLD DIGGERS?” he said to me. “Brilliant.”
“Chan, this is Ordinary Tom,” I said.
“Why Ordinary Tom?” he asked.
“Well, the town already had a Psycho Tom and a Vietnam Tom,” he explained. Ordinary Tom was with his second wife, Vik, he told us, pointing at a slight, toothless woman at the bar. “That’s my little flower,” he said. “She had cancer. She’s in remission now, but she lost her teeth and her tit.” He shook his head. “She used to be built like a brick shithouse.”
“Oh, my God! Yes! Brick shithouse!” Chan says, slapping his knee the next day at Rusty’s. “See! This is why I wanted to come out here. I love these places. You can’t get this good a time in the city! Real people, man. Real people.”
Then what happened? We played pool for a couple of hours with Ordinary Tom, who was a miner and taught us about tungsten, a metal commonly used in cell phones. He helped improve my shot. “You learned how to play pool. We learned what tungsten was,” Tatum recalled slowly. “It was like a vortex of time. And we went to the jail.”
The jail in Randsburg isn’t a real jail; it’s for tourists, so you can come and go as you please. “Holy shit! There’s someone in there,” Chan had said, clutching my arm. “It’s a mannequin. Ahhhhh! Holy fuck that mannequin is scary. Holy FUCK.”
“Wait!” he remembers now. “I could only see the mannequin because I had my phone and I was shining its light on her. You want to walk back over there?”
Still in our Snuggies, we trudge in the brilliant morning sun over to the jail, looking for clues. There was the sign we’d seen: MADAMS PLEASE KEEP YOUR GIRLS OFF THE STREETS AFTER DARK. There was the giant tire. There was the sad one-eared donkey in front of the antiques store, which Chan had sat on. “Why didn’t we try to sleep in here?” Chan says when we get to the jail.
“Because you were afraid of the mannequin.”
“I was afraid of the mannequin.”
“So we slept in the bushes.”
“I know! What possibly were we thinking? I had reasons in my head, I guess. Wind and cover. Tee-hee-hee. There were coyotes, though. You didn’t hear them. You were sleeping like a baby.”
Back behind Rusty’s house, intent at looking at the stars, Chan had insisted I take his warm sleeping bag while he used my crappy Rite Aid one. It was so comfortable that I fell asleep as he was talking. “There are so many things I want to do,” he was saying. “Like, I want to get an artist, a musician, a photographer, and a bunch of dancers that I know and just travel across Africa and just film it and just see what happens. Do and learn as much as I possibly can. Luckily,” he was saying just before the battery died on my phone, which was recording, “I have a lot more time.”
It’s nearly time to head back to Los Angeles. Back at Rusty’s, Tatum takes $100 out of his pocket and carefully writes a note on a paper plate.
“Dear Rusty,” it says. “Thanks so much for letting us keep our gear at your house. We slept out by the cathouses, which are awesome, by the way. Thank you so much. We hope to get to meet you next time. Matt speaks very highly of you.” I look at it and start laughing. “ ‘Matt speaks highly of you’?”
“That was the rationale for letting us stay there!” he says. “That Rusty was a nice guy!”
Hopefully he’s enjoying Tatum’s phone, which we’ve given up on finding by the time we see a black town car slowly crawling up the street. When the driver sees us in our matching camouflage Snuggies, he looks just as terrified as Patrick had. “He probably thinks we’re tripping balls,” says Chan.
We get in the car. “We had a wild night last night, man,” Chan tells the driver. “We closed the place down. The Joint! Randsburg! We burned it down!”
The driver pulls onto the endless road out of town. “Wow, look at that road—it’s like the longest road in the world,” Chan says. “Like the road to heaven.” He turns to me. “How are you even going to write this thing? There’s not enough pages to encapsulate everything. If you need notes, just call me. Tee-hee-hee. I can’t wait till you have the next interview with someone in this industry. If anyone tops this, you have to call me and be like, ‘You just got topped.’ And I’ll be like, ‘What! No! Where are you? I am flying to wherever you are. You have to call me. Promise.’”