How Channing Tatum Became A Serious Actor

Wait, what? The guy from White House Down? Absolutely, says Kevin Maher – watch Foxcatcher and eat your words.

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Channing Tatum for an Oscar in 2015? Seriously? Channing Tatum? Me, I never liked the guy. I used to cringe every time I saw his hulking no-neck Abercrombie & Fitch poster boy persona lumber onto screen. There was something of the bully about him. An air of puffed up amour-propre. I saw him first in 2006, in the movie Step Up, where, aged 26, he played a street dancer from the wrong side of the tracks who mostly wore a white vest, regularly flexed his guns, and was forced to mangle his way through lines such as, “I’m fightin’ for something that’s real for the first time in my life!” 

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I saw him again in 2010, in Dear John, where he played a special forces soldier with a heart of gold who mostly wore a white vest, regularly flexed his guns, and was forced to mangle lines such as, “There’s a full moon tonight, which makes me think of you.” In the interim, as well as the kids’ blockbuster G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (black Lycra, no guns) and Step Up 2: The Streets (white vest, the guns are back!), Tatum made a big splash in the gritty New York-set coming-of-age drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (dirty vest, guns).

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The role of bad boy uber-rebel Antonio was deemed the official Hollywood “breakout” for an Alabama-born former model, roofer and — for a brief nine-month period in 1998 — male stripper. Tatum’s performance, all angry mumbles and recalcitrant rage, was “magnetic” according to the critics, and the actor was reborn as a new and exciting Brando-esque discovery.

Which, of course, was rubbish. Because everybody knows that the bad-boy rebel is the easiest role to play. Even Brando himself knew this. Why else do you think he openly despised an entire career that was built upon a leather jacket and a frown? But Tatum seemed to have it even worse. For, after ’Saints, he was anointed by the industry, whether he liked it or not, as the hot young thing, the “it” actor of the moment. I met with a director at the time, who explained that he had chosen Tatum for the lead role in his movie strictly because that’s where the money was. “Look,” he said, “As much as I love Channing Tatum, he would not be my first casting choice.”

And then, sometime in 2012, when I had happily written off Channing Tatum as a flimsy industry hoax, a strange thing happened. After pulling in over $100 million at the box office for the romantic sludge The Vow (V-neck T-shirt, hint of guns) Tatum got a call from 29-year-old character actor Jonah Hill, asking him to co-star in a comedy reboot of the TV cop show 21 Jump Street (no vest, brief guns). It was an inspired offer.

Tatum said yes. And in the knockabout antics of the movie (car chases, keggers and Johnny Depp cameo) Tatum revealed an unflinching and ultimately beguiling penchant for self-satire (an early highpoint is his dim-witted attempt to remember the Miranda Rights: “You have the right to remain an attorney!”). He followed that with Magic Mike (no clothes, all guns), a Steven Soderbergh directed exposé of Tatum’s months on the stripping circuit. Again he was solid, and admirably low-key in a role that could’ve very easily been all brash Gosling swagger and megawatt Tom Cruise smiles.

I met Tatum just before Magic Mike’s release. He was polite, witty, and self-effacing to a fault. “My looks got me into the industry,” he admitted, unapologetically, before adding with a slight wince, “But it’s taken me eight long years to figure out the acting part.” He was giddy on the day, because, yes, he had an action movie on the way (White House Down — white vest, more guns), but he was already preparing for the big one. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (leotard, guns).

The true story of the bizarre and twisted relationship between Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum) and his paranoid-schizophrenic multi-millionaire coach John du Pont (Steve Carell) was going to be “emotionally and physically draining”, he said, “and very much on the dark side”. And he wasn’t joking. You get the point midway through the second act when, after Schultz fails a weigh-in at the 1988 Olympic trials, he returns to his hotel room for what amounts to a scene of harrowingly violent self-abuse — some thunderous self-administered punches to the face, plus a head smashed furiously through a mirror. It’s a tough watch, and the pinnacle of a performance that has already, and rightfully, earned a place at the heart of this year’s Awards Season.

Channing Tatum Steve Carell Foxcatcher

And so, yes, you heard right. Channing Tatum for Oscar. And if, on 22 February, in the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, Tatum wins the Best Actor award (beating, say, The Imitation Game’s Benedict Cumberbatch) it’ll make 2015 the bumper year for the 34-year-old so far — to be followed by a starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s western The Hateful Eight, a Magic Mike sequel, and a spot in the new X-Men movie, X-Men: Apocalypse. It will also prove that critics and connoisseurs alike should never rush to judge. That Hollywood heat and innate talent are not mutually exclusive terms. And that, sometimes, very occasionally, it’s worth putting money on the guy with the guns.

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