Channing Tatum has been a street dancer in Step Up, a gun-toting cop in White House Down and a stripper in Magic Mike. But one thing he has never been, until now, is someone who is taken seriously.
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After making their way through high school (twice), big changes are in store for officers Schmidt and Jenko when they go deep undercover at a local college.
The huge career shift that’s on the horizon for the beefcake is not coming courtesy of his new comedy sequel 22 Jump Street, in which he and Jonah Hill return as lovably roguish undercover cops who go back to college to bust a drug ring, but thanks to Foxcatcher, the wrestling drama that premiered at the the Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation and earned a Best Director prize for Bennett Miller.
Now being hailed as an Oscar frontrunner, the 34-year-old one-time Sexiest Man Alive pronounces himself surprised at all the buzz.
“It's really interesting to be sitting here with you, 10 years after Step Up,” he says with giddy enthusiasm while on the promotional trail in New York for 22 Jump Street. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot and I’m at an evolutionary turn in my career, and Foxcatcher is the next phase where people may sit up and be surprised.”
Based on the true story of the Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Tatum), whose brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) is murdered by his paranoid schizophrenic mentor John du Pont (Steve Carell), Foxcatcher has earned Tatum rave reviews, with Variety calling his role "the most emotionally complex performance of his career", while the Hollywood Reporter praised him for being "a smouldering, festering piece of emotional raw meat".
Tatum’s 22 Jump Street co-star Hill – who also received some serious acting accolades including an Oscar nomination for his role in another Bennett Miller film, Moneyball – describes Tatum as “a really authentic actor”.
“The reason why Channing is equally great in Foxcatcher and 22 Jump Street is the fact that he treats all his roles honestly,” Hill says. “Even if he is saying really stupid things, he brings a truth to his performance no matter what the genre.”
The actor, whose bulky physique resembles that of a sports jock more than a typical movie star, almost ended up as the former, after a stint as a star footballer on his Catholic high school team in Florida. That all changed in 2001, however, when he was approached on the street by a talent agent, signed a modelling contract and turned down a football scholarship to move to New York City.
He landed his first role in a 2004 episode of CSI: Miami and had a brief flirtation with critical acclaim in the 2006 indie hit A Guide to Recognising Your Saints before becoming eye candy later that year with his dance moves in Step Up. This led to a slew of mostly action films and romances, including Public Enemies (2009), Dear John (2010) and The Vow (2012).
Known for more earnest roles and groomed as a sexy leading man, Tatum admits he was initially hesitant when co-writer/producer/star Hill first contacted him about the 2012 movie remake of the popular 1980s TV show 21 Jump Street.
“Jonah and I had waved at each other across a room at a restaurant but we didn’t know each other, and then he called me out of nowhere and said, ‘I have this terrible idea for a movie and I think you'd be right for it’,” he recalls with a grin. “I told him, ‘I don’t do comedy, I’m not funny’ and he said, ‘I’m not a stand-up comedian either, I just act in funny movies'.”
The bromance grew from there and really pays off in the sequel, as the pair bicker like an old married couple. “Jonah took such good care of me on the first one,” Tatum says, “because I’d literally be saying, ‘I don’t know where the joke is!’ and he would just tell me, because it came so easy to him.”
As the characters strive to fit into college life on this film, Tatum says the actors themselves were also having the same difficulty. “The first day Jonah and I watched the monitors, we thought the extras who played college kids looked like they were 12 years old but then we realised it was because we were the old ones!” he says, chuckling. “Part of the whole joke was that we actually didn’t know how to fit in ourselves, so there wasn’t much acting involved.”
In person, Tatum comes off like a puppy dog: fun, friendly and eager to please. He’s also surprisingly grounded when it comes to his personal life. He married his Step-Up co-star Jenna Dewan in 2009 and the pair welcomed their first daughter, Everly, last May.
Asked how he’s coping with his burgeoning career juxtaposed with the nappy changing at home, Tatum wisecracks: “Maybe not a good idea by the way, I wouldn't advise it!”
But then he quickly lights up as he acknowledges, “Before Everly, I would go to Botswana if I thought it would help sell a film but now I know there’s going to be a point in my life that I’m going to want those days back with my daughter so it will absolutely affect the amount of movies I do and the amount of time that I take away from my family.”
Although it’s too soon to tell if little Everly will follow in her parents’ dance shoes, Tatum is prepared for anything. “I just hope whatever she chooses, it will be with the understanding that she wants to do it and not just because everyone else is doing it,” he says. It is advice he has taken to heart in his own career it would seem.