Channing Tatum stars in the swords-and-sandals epic "The Eagle." (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
Some actors like to tout their methods. Others boast of roles they've pulled off. Channing Tatum prefers a little more candor.
"I'm never going to be the best actor," Tatum said over lunch last week at the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank. "I'm just not. But I will work harder than anyone out there."
He's living up to that pledge. In the last year, the 30-year-old former fashion model has appeared on the big screen as a lovelorn soldier ("Dear John"), a maniacal but oddly sensitive Casanova with a happy-face tattoo in a private place ("The Dilemma") and, at the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival, a New York City cop harboring a secret ("The Son of No One").
The Tatum barrage continues this weekend when "The Eagle," a swords-and-togas Roman adventure, hits theaters. Tatum plays the soldier Marcus Aquila who, after being wounded in clashes in the 2nd century AD, embarks on a mission in the dangerous Scottish highlands to recover the "Eagle of the Ninth," a military standard his father lost in a battle that also took his life. Marcus brings with him a British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell) as the two form an unlikely friendship.
Born in Alabama, Tatum spent his childhood years on the Mississippi bayou and his adolescence in Tampa, Fla. He got an offer to play football at a West Virginia state college and went on to work, among other things, as an exotic dancer. He later moved to Miami, where he was discovered on the street by a fashion scout. His first acting job was in a Ricky Martin video.
"I didn't really grow up educated. But I work every single day to get better, to educate myself as much as I possibly can," he said, eating an order of ribs and French fries in a way that underscores too perfectly his meat-and-potatoes attitude. He later adds, "People don't understand how hard [actors] work and how good we want to be."
To help him prepare for "The Eagle," director Kevin Macdonald gave Tatum the diary of a warring Roman leader. The actor dutifully read it all. "I never would have lasted two seconds back then. Not a day," he said, his face breaking out in a trademark tentative grin as he recalled the reading experience. "It's just insane what these guys did. You can't imagine. It's insane."
Film critics have not always been charitable in assessing the actor's skills ("Mr. Tatum's stolid reserve decays into dull passivity," the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern wrote in his review of "Dear John"), and with his sleepy eyes and voice, Tatum can seem disengaged or even, sometimes, a little mimbo-ish. But beneath the casual demeanor and speech, the actor often makes sharp distinctions and nuanced points.
He also comes off as humble, even guileless, in a way that makes him hard to dislike. Spend time with the actor and it becomes clear why so many top-flight directors — Macdonald, Michael Mann, Ron Howard, Kimberly Peirce, Steven Soderbergh — have chosen to work with him.
"Channing doesn't have any training," said Macdonald, who also directed "The Last King of Scotland" (for which Forest Whitaker won a lead actor Oscar in 2007). "But he's hugely keen to learn and be good, and he takes it all very, very seriously." (The director added that in "The Eagle," Tatum is "like Gary Cooper — he doesn't seem to doing very much but there's a building tension, a cumulative effect.")
Tatum says that he particularly finds himself fascinated by character motivation and often looks for on-set guidance on the subject. "You're always trying to figure out, 'Why am I doing this, what do I want in this scene?' That's what I ask my directors all the time," he said, adding, "I love taking direction from anyone and everyone." He accepted a role on the Soderbergh movie, an upcoming action-thriller titled "Haywire," mainly to be a fly on the wall. "I just wanted to watch him do what he does, and I learned a stupid amount. A stupid amount."
Tatum first became known to a mainstream audience as the twinkle-toed Tyler Gage in the "Step Up" franchise — in which he played a character not unlike himself, a blue-collar kid willing to unassumingly shoulder burdens. He received a boost of artistic credibility in Dito Montiel's well-regarded "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" and continued to build credibility as a soldier in Peirce's "Stop-Loss."
"Eagle" is Tatum's first lead period role (he was only a supporting player in "Saints" and "Public Enemies"), a particularly tricky part because it follows in the footsteps of so many revered historic warrior roles.
"We knew we were never going to be able to touch 'Gladiator' or 'Braveheart' or even 'Spartacus.' Those movies are so grand in scope and size," Tatum said. "But Kevin is such a smart filmmaker. He knows how to make relationship films."
At lunch, Tatum, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife ("Step Up" costar Jenna Dewan), had just come back from promoting "Son of No One" in Park City, Utah. That came not long after the premiere of "The Dilemma." Now he's heavy into interviews for "The Eagle." He's managing to schedule all of this publicity around the shooting of "Haywire" and the reunion comedy "Ten Year," and preparations for the upcoming big-screen remake of "21 Jump Street."
What was that about outworking everyone?
We may, however, see a little less of Tatum in the coming years. After his next wave of movies, he says he wants to step back and concentrate on his production company or even on directing. "I love the development process," he said. And then, "I think I'm going to take a break from acting for a little bit. I think maybe people are tired of seeing me."