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Acting wasn't always on his docket

Channing Tatum enjoys learning as he goes along

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By Mark Shanahan
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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Movie stars are created in different ways. Matt Damon, for example, is a marquee name today because he made smart choices — OK, maybe “The Legend of Bagger Vance’’ wasn’t his wisest decision — while other A-list actors like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio built bankable reps with roles that capitalized on their charisma. Then there’s Channing Tatum. The Alabama native isn’t a household name, but it’s clear from the sighs of female filmgoers that he could be. And soon. At 30, Tatum is a handsome lad who’s shown sufficient promise in a handful of films — notably “Step Up,’’ “Public Enemies,’’ and “Dear John’’ — that celebrated directors such as Steven Soderbergh (“Haywire) and Ron Howard (“The Dilemma’’) have come calling. A former model — his chiseled mug appeared in ad campaigns for Abercrombie & Fitch and Dolce & Gabbana before he was in movies — Tatum plays a rugged Roman centurion in his latest film, “The Eagle,’’ an epic adventure directed by Kevin Macdonald. Filmed in the Scottish Highlands, the film, which opens Friday, plays to Tatum’s strengths: He fights, he broods, and he flexes. But he’d like to do more. Over coffee on a recent afternoon, Tatum talked about the appeal of “The Eagle’’ — “it’s about men doing men things’’ — and his desire to play more nuanced characters in future films.

Q. Talk to me about this movie.

A. Well, “Gladiator’’ and “Braveheart’’ are my two favorite films of all time. I’ve done martial arts my entire life and I’ve always had an affinity for period pieces that are, I don’t know, honor-filled, I guess. This is a movie about friendship, and Kevin Macdonald does friendship so well. “Touching the Void,’’ which was one of the first things he did that got some critical acclaim, is a reenactment of two guys on a mountain, and it made you really care.

Q. Backing up a little, how did you get into acting? You’d done some modeling, right?

A. It happened so strange and kind of serendipitous. I had no intention of acting. I remember staying home from school sick, and my dad was home, and we were flipping through the channels. He told me to go back and it was “Cool Hand Luke.’’ I was like, “Oh, Dad, I don’t want to watch this. It’s barely in color. That’s not what I want to see.’’ He was, like, “If you want to know what cool is, son, you need to watch this.’’ I just got into it. “The Hustler’’ is one of my favorite films, and Jackie Gleason is one of my favorite actors. But I’m not a film head. I just saw “The Seventh Seal’’ for the first time. I had no idea it was such a seminal film. I’m still learning about acting. It was definitely not on the docket of things to do with my life.

Q. What was on the docket?

A. You know, my only plan was to play football as long as I could. I played for 10 years and one year in college, and then the love went out of it a little bit. It became a job. I didn’t really want to go to school because I was not good at school. I wish I liked to read as much then as I do now.

Q. What we learned about you in “Step Up’’ is that you can dance.

A. Physical things I’ve always been obsessed with, whether it’s martial arts or . . . I remember I was in the eighth grade and I saw a kid do a backflip off a chain-link fence and my buddy dared me to do it, so I did.

Q. Does your interest in that sort of thing influence the type of roles you take?

A. Sometimes. Like “The Eagle.’’ I get to do some totally cool things — horseback riding and chariot races. Even though it didn’t make it into the film, I got to learn how to really, really, really drive a chariot. When on earth would I get a chance to do that?

Q. The odd thing about “The Eagle’’ is the absence of a romantic interest. There are no girls.

A. Yeah, the whole structure of the film is strange. It’s not typical as far as that goes. There was a relationship with one of the northern tribeswomen, but it got cut because it was confusing.

Q. I thought maybe you and [costar] Jamie Bell were going to get together.

A. He’s a sexy man. It could have happened.

Q. You’ve been in a couple of films — “Stop-Loss’’ and “Battle in Seattle’’ — that could be called political. Is that a consideration in the choices you make?

A. I’m not a very political person, to be totally honest. In the case of “Battle in Seattle,’’ I saw something in that character. He starts in one place and ends in another, and I like that. For “Stop-Loss,’’ I just love soldiers and the military. I wish I had the courage to do what they do, but I don’t.

Q. Do you worry that “The Eagle’’ might reinforce the notion of you as a strong silent type, a leading man who’s not terribly nuanced?

A. Look, I gotta get jobs, and the people that come to you — I trust in what they think I can do. I would love to change some things up, but I think I’ve done a pretty OK job at doing different things within a certain reach of mine. I’m about to take a beat and really change things up. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve done a lot of learning on set. I’ve taken a lot of acting classes on set. It’s hard not to keep working when people like Soderbergh and Ron Howard knock on the door.

Q. Your next film, the police drama “Son of No One,’’ got a lot of press at the Sundance Film Festival.

A. [Director] Dito [Montiel] likes to paint outside the lines. He doesn’t like to stick within a formula. That’s his brilliance, but some people can’t agree with it. At Sundance, I think people kind of [attacked] the movie because of certain people who are in it. But I think it has incredible voice. We set out to make a gritty little ’70s film and that’s what we did.

Q. You’re also working on a film based on “What’s Left of Us,’’ a memoir by Richie Farrell, a former heroin addict who grew up in Lowell. What appeals to you about that story?

A. It’s such a love story between a father and son but in such a dark sort of way. When people are honest with themselves, they make discoveries when they grow up.

Q. You’ll play a junkie.

A. Truthfully, that’s really just a backdrop. It’s not what the story’s about. I’ve never read something that has the exact tone of someone who truly loves someone and truly hates them, too.

Q. Do you think the success of “The Fighter,’’ which also exposes the underbelly of Lowell, bodes well for “What’s Left of Us’’?

A. Only in terms of location. Our film won’t have the same tone. I see “Requiem for a Dream,’’ “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’’ and “Death of a Salesman.’’ In terms of tone, it’d be more like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’’ and “Trainspotting.’’

Q. Why don’t you sound like you’re from Alabama?

A. I sound like whoever I’m around. I’m OK with accents. We had an interesting time figuring out what the accents would be like in “The Eagle.’’ Kevin wanted it to be American, but I think when English actors do an American accent they sound like they’re from New York.

Q. The movie looks lovely, but it could be CGI for all I know. Where was it shot?

A. The whole thing was done in a studio. (Laughs.) No, it was shot in the Highlands. And if it looks cold, it was colder.

Q. And apparently that caused a problem at one point.

A. Do you mean the burning?

Q. Yes, tell me about the burning.

A. I burned my man, my little guy. He was not happy that day. While we were shooting the river scene, I had to wear two wetsuits. I was in the water for 13 hours and it was freezing, absolutely frigid. It was so miserable we had to pour warm water down our wetsuits to keep our core warm. Well, toward the end of the day, the guy with the hot-water bottle came along and — he just wasn’t thinking — poured boiling water down my wetsuit. It was a straight-up accident. He hadn’t diluted it with river water. If the guy was incompetent, I would have knocked his teeth out, but we were all fall-down exhausted. He was a good, hard worker. He bought me a really nice bottle of scotch afterward.

Q. I’m guessing that was painful.

A. It was suffocating pain. More pain than I can explain. It was humbling as well to be in an emergency room in Glasgow with two male nurses just looking at your little guy, and he’s not doing well.

Mark Shanahan can be reached at mshanahan@globe.com.

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