Interview: Channing Tatum

[John Rubio interviewed Channing Tatum February 2, 2011.]

Rounding the top of the staircase of the Se Hotel (lusciously subtle decoration with an Asian accent), I almost miss him until we are introduced — Channing Tatum. It’s not that he lacks notable size and chiseled features that he is known for, it’s something more innate that causes my double take. It’s something in the generosity of his handshake, strong and masculine, but with no hint of affectation — something that is still gracious even after a parade of interviews. Something that says, I’m may be the star of the movie, but please don’t peg me as a movie star. It’s the pride of the humble.

He sits down across from me, smartly dressed in a black V-neck sweater over a black-collared shirt. He looks refreshed, even having answered questions all day; the melted ice in his water glass shows the passage of time. Oddly enough, but in keeping with Tatum’s munificence, the first bit of information is about me. I tell him that I teach high school.

Tatum: There’s certain teachers that you’ll always remember.

Rubio: I hope to be one of them.

CT: [Laughing] Yeah, I gotta go back and get in touch with a couple of them. You know, there are just some good ones that really, really care. I know it’s a hard job.

JR: I know you’ve been doing this all day, so to avoid being repetitive with questions, is there anything you haven’t been asked that you’d be interested in discussing?

CT: That’s a good question. What haven’t I talked about? I guess [I’m interested in] what the appetite is for these types of movies. Why have they gotten harder to make over the years...period pieces or historical or epics? Now it’s all graphic novels and comic books. I think what Kevin [Macdonald] did really well in this movie is [to] really walk the line with it being both very accurate and very entertaining and still on budget and making that money go a long way.

JR: This movie is definitely not the Spartacus: Blood and Sand image of Rome.

CT: You know, it’s really interesting why people need so much escape right now.

JR: Did you do much research for this one?

CT: I love historical drama. Kevin didn’t want us to read [The Eagle of the Ninth]. They changed it pretty substantially. But The Mark of the Horse Lord — another book that [Rosemary Sutcliff] wrote I bought randomly, and I loved — she acknowledges that [her stories are] not in any history book you’ll ever find. She paints it, like, “Is this fiction or not?” Is this a fable or a story around a campfire?

JR: Aside from historical research, did you have to do any training, because the physical protocol for this movie looked intense?

CT: Running and working out and sword fighting — that was definitely hardcore. But have you ever tried to be freezing, convulsively cold for 13 hours straight? Try sitting in a tub with ice in it and see how long you can sit.

JR: Sounds like David Blaine kind of stuff.

CT: Truly, and knowing that you’re gonna have to do it for the next seven weeks.

JR: I heard you had a pretty rough injury.

CT: That was pretty bad. We were doing some of the river work [with] a rain machine pumping freezing water on us. And here comes the guy with this huge bottle of water. And, he — poor guy — had been doing this all day to keep us warm. They’d been pouring warm water down our wetsuits underneath our costumes to keep our core warm. We were all exhausted, and he’s literally running 15 minutes up and down with huge bottles of water, and he just [forgot] to dilute the boiling water. By far the most pain I’ve ever been in.

[I have to pause here for a moment. Do you know anyone who would suffer boiling water down the groin only to refer to the one responsible as “poor guy?” To be empathetic about a guy’s tough job when you’re the one in searing pain over his mistake, that shows some character. But back to the interview.]

JR: Didn’t you train in martial arts when you were younger?

CT: Yeah, I did Kung Fu from about 9 to 13.

JR: I train, too.

CT: Really, what style?

JR: I train at Krav Maga, San Diego, with Dana Kaplan.

CT: Nice, man! I love Krav Maga. I’ve played around in it. I think I still like Muay Thai a little better, for the defensive aspect. But Krav Maga — the attack, attack, attack — it’s intense in a street fight.

JR: Or maybe a Roman Legionnaire fight.

CT: Yeah, they were insanely strategic and so efficient. I have more war knowledge in my head than I care to even know.

JR: You’re character Marcus changes his dynamic with Jamie Bell’s character quite a bit. Was there anything you two did to help establish that relationship arc in the film?

CT: You know, we just hung out. He’s such an easy guy to get along with, [and] he’s very serious about his craft. That’s inspiring for another actor because it makes you want to do better.

JR: I know the line that really brought me into your character was “The men have to eat, too.”

CT: Right.

JR: You could see this man’s value system and how the common foot soldier would have faith in him.

CT: Well, everyone’s kind of treated him like shit his whole life because his father was a disgrace in Rome’s eyes. And I think [my character] really relates to the peasant in a way, to the foot soldier, and not these “silk-arsed” politicians.

JR: And then he’s injured and has his glory robbed from him like an athlete at the height of his career.

CT: That’s actually verbatim what Jamie said. He sees Marcus as this Olympic athlete who, right before the games, breaks his leg and can’t show up. [Jamie’s character] sees that, and kind of respects [Marcus] for handling it in a way that is half-dignified.

JR: What about Donald Sutherland? He’s a pretty venerated actor.

CT: I just got to work with Al Pacino. [Sutherland] may be even more venerated than him, and that’s hard to say. [They’ve both] been doing it longer than I’ve been alive. [And Sutherland] really, really cares. He doesn’t just do a scene and say, “That was good.” No, he goes over to director and takes notes. He wants to make it better every time. And that’s such a good thing for a young actor to see, because you can get really complacent. I don’t think people care as much now. If you make a good trailer, people go see [the] movie. Some of the best movies of the year are never seen, because they might not be commercial. It’s probably a pretty frustrating thing for someone like Donald who loves great movies and great characters and great stories. I think that’s maybe why he’s held on so long. He knows that he can still make something great. He puts in the effort. He doesn’t look for someone else to do it for him.

JR: In terms of distinguishing between the blockbuster and the quality film — as that gap is ever widening — was The Eagle different for you?

CT: You feel more responsible. How do we make it special? It goes back to bridging the gap between something that is realistic and yet still commercial. So many people want an escape. They want to be on whatever the Avatar world was.

JR: Pandora.

CT (chuckling): Pandora, that’s it. Nice memory. They want to go to see what Pandora’s like. They want to know what other races look like. Now more than ever, [they] want to believe that there’s something else out there, an alternate reality, even if it’s in their imagination. I truly believe that history is just as good as sci-fi because it uses your imagination in the same way. You just gotta get people to go, and hopefully we’ve made a good film.

There’s no more mistaking Tatum as we shake hands to end the interview, only a pinching reminder to check my expectations at the door. For those who still only see the fashion-model hunk, look again. There’s an insightful, articulate professional to be found.

Also this week: David Elliott reviews The Eagle

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