Channing Tatum has come a long way from that streetwise dancer in “Step Up.”
Turning 29 later this month, the Alabama native stretched his acting skills in Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss,” but it was his supporting role in Dito Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” that got him taken more seriously by the industry and moviegoers alike. Now, he’s re-teamed with Montiel on the new Rogue Pictures genre flick “Fighting.”
Set in modern day Manhattan, the film finds Tatum playing Shawn, a young man who has some obvious fighting skills, but a mysterious and troubled background he just doesn’t want to talk about. After hooking up with a con man with a soul (the mercurial Terrence Howard), he finds a profitable avenue for his talents in the world of underground fighting.
Channing took some time out from a busy day last week to jump on the phone and chat about the difficulties of making “Fighting” and his upcoming films “Public Enemies,” “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (where he plays Duke) and Lasse Hallstrom’s romantic drama “Dear John.”
HitFix: Did you take the role because Dito was directing or was there something about bare knuckle fighting that just appealed to you on its own?
Tatum: It’s funny, the script was actually a basketball movie first, I don’t know if you know that. And Mischer, [the producer], gave it to me and I’d already done another basketball movie, ‘Coach Carter,’ and I really didn’t want to do another one. Not to mention that I suck at basketball. And I was like, ‘Man, I like the script. I think it’s dope, but I just don’t want to do basketball.’ And he was like, ‘Well, if you had to do it, who would you do it with?’ And I tried to think of the first person I knew who would not do a basketball movie and it was Dito. He makes these little independent movies. Low and behold, a month later I get a call from Dito saying, ‘Man, I know, I know, I know it’s a basketball movie, just come meet me. I’ve got a take on it.’ And I was just like, ‘What?’ A few months later the basketball games just kept getting more and more violent and finally I just said let’s make it fighting and they did and it was awesome. It just worked. I think it was just a collaborative thing and we all sort of jumped on it at the same time.
HitFix: So, obviously Dito makes it seem like it’s this real underground thing that’s going on in the bellows of New York. Is there truth to it or is it really all conjecture?
Tatum: Well, I have always followed underground fighting on YouTube, like felony fights and [expletive] like that, but we never really got a chance to do any real rehearsing [or research] for the film. We just went and started writing the movie. I knew a little bit about the whole underground fighting thing. We never went to any underground fights. We wanted to, we just didn’t have any time. We just did it. I mean, I’ve been watching underground fighting way before I got into acting. I love watching them online.
HitFix: Was that your training then? Or, did you do more conventional sparring work? Most of the fights don’t seem choreographed. It’s not like most boxing or martial arts you see in the movies.
Tatum: Well, first I went into and trained [with professional boxers] because, I just wanted a dude to beat the crap out of me, because there is a difference between someone who doesn’t hesitate in a fight and then there is a person that is afraid to get hit. And I didn’t want to be afraid to get hit. So, we just trained for about a month and then I went to New York and started training with the fight choreographers. We really wanted to try something a little new, a little messy — I guess improv is what you’d call it. And we found out really early that it didn’t look as good as [the choreographed stuff]. I got hit a lot and it didn’t look as good as the fake punches.
HitFix: You say you got hit in the face, is this the most punishment you’ve taken physically for a film?
Tatum: Definitely not man. My nose was almost like on the other side of my face during the Russian fight. That was the first fight we shot and we learned a lot on the filming of that scene. My whole objective was to not get hit in the face and his whole objective was to hit me. It was crazy. [The direction to my opponent was], ‘If he doesn’t move, hit ’em.’ And I was like, ‘[Expletive] it.’
HitFix: Sounds like there weren’t a lot of insurance reps on the set either.
Tatum: Yeah, we had to have it, but Dito didn’t even want a stunt guy. He didn’t want a stunt co-ordinator. He just wanted to set the cameras up and figure it out. That’s sort of why you need a stunt co-ordinator.
HitFix: Thank god for small miracles.
Tatum: Yes, exactly. I might be dead. I didn’t really need to die. (Laughs.) You can’t fake it.
HitFix; The movie also has this interesting dynamic between your character and the con man played by Terrence Howard. How much was that part of the original script? I’ve interviewed Terrence a number of times. He’s a very interesting guy…
HitFix: I was just wondering what your relationship was with him and was that a lot of improv or what was that all about?
Tatum: Ya know, everyone on a Dito film — I mean, I hate giving Dito compliments because I hate him, it’s like a big brother. I hate him, but I love him — I don’t want to give him a compliment, but he has such a beautiful talent with language and writing. He has a beautiful ear. He writes exactly how you speak. And once he does that, he frees you up to put in your own words in any of those scenes. In ‘Saints’ or in ‘Fighting,’ we knew what were going to say, but usually he writes a lot and then starts picking away lines. And usually it gets natural and nice. I dunno. He has a real poetic way of speaking and that’s one of my favorite things about doing a film with him. There’s no pressure on getting the words exactly perfect, but you put them in your own way.
HitFix: You’ve got a bunch of other movies in the can and I’m not sure what the order of shooting was, but what was it like going from something more free flowing like ‘Fighting’ to the more deliberate style of Michael Mann in ‘Public Enemies’ where you play Pretty Boy Floyd?
Tatum: Michael Mann, I’ve been a geek-nerd fan of his forever. They work very, very similar because Dito is an obsessive. He doesn’t do anything than the film when he does it. And Michael Mann came down the first day, I only had a day on the film, it’s a pretty small role, but he came down and picked out my tie. He’s that manically obsessed with even the small things. They are both very similar in that way.
HitFix: Well, for one day of shooting, they found a way to put you in the trailer. That must have been a surprise.
Tatum: Yeah. I have a big character historically, it’s just not his story. I introduce Purvis in the film.
HitFix: You’ve also got ‘G.I. Joe’ which was probably 180 degrees from both those movies. Was that a lot of fun to let loose some steam? Were you always a fan of the franchise?
Tatum: To be honest, I had nothing driving me to be in one of those big, huge special effects films and then my experience on ‘G.I. Joe’ totally turned that around. It was so much fun and in a way you get to actually do things you never would be able to do in a million years in any way, shape or form. We got to go to Prague and run around the streets. It’s one of those things like on small movies like a Dito film where you barely have enough money for craft services like ‘Are we gonna eat lunch today or buy it ourselves?’ And on [a movie like ‘G.I. Joe’] everything is a lot happier and there is a lot less drama. It’s supposed to be a big fun, family, kids film. We had a great time making the movie. It’s fun to get to mix it up. To go from a real dramatic role to a big sort of kids film and then to take it back down to ‘Dear John’ and do quiet, sitting and talking drama.
HitFix: I was going to ask you about ‘Dear John,’ because after reading the synopsis it seems like some pretty heavy stuff. Was that the most challenging work you’ve done so far? Was it difficult?
Tatum: No, it wasn’t so much difficult. Every movie is difficult. We choose to do them for a reason. There is a part in your soul where you are like ‘Yes, this something I have to do.’ And Lasse Halestrom directed. ‘Cider House Rules,’ you name it. And to get to work with him I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t meet him until we started to cast the girl role and then I just fell in love with the guy. He’s exactly how you would imagine him to be watching his movies. He’s just a big, sweet sensitive, extremely smart and he’s one of the first people I can say his emotional IQ is just as big as his his intellectual IQ. You don’t really feel like you’re scared of doing a movie like that, a big emotional film when you have someone like that who is directing. So, it’s not that it wasn’t hard, but you kind of find it together and then you feel very safe. If that makes sense or not.
HitFix: No, it absolutely does. It sounds like you’ve been able to work with some really interesting directors over the past year. Are you now planning on taking a break or do you have anything else lined up?
Tatum: I don’t know my next project yet. I’m sort of sitting around and trying to write my own stuff now and produce and just be more on the genesis of the project so I can have a little more control of what is coming out there. There are some amazing movies that are coming out and down the road soon, so I’m just looking forward to them. Everyone is starting to make movies again, so that’s exciting.
If you haven’t caught it yet, check out the trailer for “Fighting” below.
“Fighting” opens nationwide on April 24.
“Public Enemies” opens nationwide on July 1.
“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” opens nationwide on Aug. 7.
“Dear John” is currently schedule for a Feb. 2, 2010 release.