Channing Tatum on Magic Mike XXL and the inside world of male stripping

Actor has several big roles lined up, but none more personal than that of a stripper named Mike

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 July, 2015, 10:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 6:06pm

Within the space of a few years Channing Tatum has portrayed an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler, a not-too-bright cop posing as a high school student, a genetically engineered half-albino half-wolf alien, and, of course, a buff stripper.

So to say that the 35-year-old actor is versatile is quite the understatement: he can dance, is naturally funny, and acts with enough heft to earn all sorts of accolades in the 2014 film Foxcatcher, where he played Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz.

In person, Tatum is what you would expect: he has that laid-back confidence typical of successful, thirty-something actors at the top of their game, as well as some serious Southern charm (he was born in a small town in Alabama).

Given his presence in a string of critical and commercial hits, Tatum is one of the most in-demand Hollywood actors today. Still, in the course of a conversation, Tatum likes to say that he's not intellectually equipped to discuss certain things - like, say, the lack of opportunities afforded to women in Hollywood, or how feminists might respond to his latest film, Magic Mike XXL. He's not afraid to admit not knowing certain things, but get Tatum talking about the power of dance, the importance of storytelling, and how to create a convivial atmosphere on set, and he sounds like an expert.

"We never planned on making this second movie," says Tatum of Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to 2012's Magic Mike. "We could never have known that the first one was going to do what it did."

That first film brought in US$167 million worldwide, nothing compared to modern day blockbusters, but quite a return for a film made for the Hollywood pittance of US$7 million. Tatum's stripper character, Mike, was partly based on the actor's own pre-stardom life, when he really did work as a stripper.

Film review: Magic Mike XXL

Steven Soderbergh directed the original, endowing the film with a gritty, indie sensibility, while Matthew McConaughey's sleazy strip club boss gave the film star power and weight.

That film had a slice-of-life feel to it: here is how hard it is for an earnest male stripper to get out of the business and get a real job; here are the types of people the industry pulls in, and this is how grim and unreal this business can be.

Why male strippers feel good about being sex objects

But Tatum says they wanted to go in a different direction with the sequel. Soderbergh didn't return, but they got Gregory Jacobs, assistant director on the first film and someone who has worked with Soderbergh extensively.

"It was really cosmic that Greg came in and carried the torch," says Tatum. "I think creatively, it was a lucky thing that happened. It's a nice change of gear in some strange way, while still being able to keep the connective tissue of the first film. They have the same sensibility."

That said, Magic Mike XXL feels like it belongs to an entirely different genre. It is brightly lit, bold, light-hearted and plays out like a comedic bromance-driven road movie, reuniting Lane with his co-strippers from the first film as they hit the road in a frozen yogurt truck.

Tatum says that the change in tone was necessary in the sequel - the first one needed to be grounded in reality, the second one does not.

What the second film really needed was Tatum, and there's plenty of him to go around. In addition to serving as producer, he also contributed to the film's dance choreography - after all, it was his moves that first brought him success in Hollywood.

"I got my biggest break in Step Up," Tatum says, referring to the 2006 film about a delinquent teen who finds purpose through dance.

"I never had any training, I never looked at myself as a dancer. I didn't know how to count music before that movie."

Tatum says he learned his moves from hanging out at clubs and attending quinceaneras - the symbolic birthday celebrations of 15-year-old girls from certain Latin American countries.

"I was tired of being the tall skinny white kid who didn't know how to dance. I've always loved movement. I used to watch breakdancing and I'd just mimic it."

While the opportunity to dance may have driven the choices for his earlier films, Tatum is now in the enviable position of being able to pick what he wants to do.

He has signed on for a third 21 Jump Street movie, reteaming with Jonah Hill as a pair of buffoonish undercover cops. He will also be seen next year in the Coen brothers film Hail, Caesar! with Scarlett Johansson and Ralph Fiennes, as well as the title role in Gambit, yet another film adaptation of a Marvel superhero.

"Early in my career, I looked for characters that I thought I could do - much less do well," he says. "It was, 'all right, what can I do so well, better than anyone else?' But I've moved beyond that. I've learned a lot about storytelling; that you can't be in a good movie without a good story. Even if this character is cool, or good, why is this story being told? That's where I begin. I'm not doing a one-man show, where your character is the show. Ultimately, it's the story that people are going to go and see."

Although light-hearted at its core, Tatum still wanted to infuse his latest film with ideas, and went into it armed with at least a rudimentary knowledge of why women might go to a male stripper revue.

"Being a man who is a sex object is way different than the objectification of women, for a lot of reasons that I'm not smart enough to lay out," he says.

"Women don't go to male strippers to get turned on. They go with their girlfriends for a wild night. You're not going for anything substantial. But men click into that reptilian side of their brain, it's a very animalistic thing. It's different."

The second Magic Mike has a few women in key roles: Amber Heard, the supermodel and wife of Johnny Depp, plays Mike Lane's love interest. Jada Pinkett Smith is a sassy woman who runs something akin to a high-class bordello for women, while Andie MacDowell is a Southern belle with the most pristine manners who crumbles in the presence of male strippers in her fancy living room.

But in making both films, Tatum discovered something else: the world of male stripping has barely evolved over the decades; almost every show will feature a troupe of men in cowboy attire, or dressed as firemen, before they begin disrobing.

"It's fascinating to me that male stripping hasn't changed since it began," he says. "Nothing has evolved. It's just a lot of body rolls and bad costumes. It's more of a clown act.

"I can promise you on my life that women you think would never go to see male strippers, do go," he adds. "There's no judgment on you as a person, your intellect or personality."

Magic Mike XXL opens on July 23