From his growing list of films that include Dito Montiel’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Andy Fickman’s She’s the Man, Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss, Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and most recently, Dear John, Channing Tatum has captured the attention of critics and audiences alike by choosing diverse roles in vastly different genres and working with some of the best directors in the industry.
Helmed by three-time Oscar nominee Lasse Hallström and based on the novel by best-selling author Nicholas Sparks, Dear John tells the story of John Tyree (Tatum), a handsome, soft spoken Special Forces soldier visiting his father in South Carolina while home on leave, and Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), the beautiful, idealistic college student he falls in love with after they meet following a chance encounter on the beach during her spring vacation.
Channing Tatum sat down with us to talk about his character, the line between drama and melodrama, what it was like working with Lasse Hallström and Richard Jenkins, and his upcoming projects Son of No One with Dito Montiel and the recently completed The Eagle of the Ninth directed by Kevin Macdonald. Here’s what he had to tell us:
Question: When you’re making a film, it’s two years before the audience actually sees it and you never know what the cultural attitudes are going to be. Do you think there’s been a change in how people perceive the nobility or the choice that somebody might make to serve in a wartime situation rather than stay home and be with the woman he loves?
Channing Tatum: I think if anything’s changed, it’s more about the politics and the politicians. I don’t think anyone faults a soldier. If anything, I think it’s gotten more pro-soldier. In my mind, at least, it has. I’m not a political person. When I start to get into it, it just upsets me. I feel so powerless when it comes to politics. So I’ve just decided to be non-political and very, very pro-soldier. I don’t think anyone faults. They can’t. I would love to talk to somebody that would fault a soldier for going and fighting for our country because I would have a lot to say to them. A lot. No, I don’t. I don’t think so.
You’ve played a soldier before, but is this the first time you’ve jumped into the romance genre?
CT: Yeah. For sure.
How is that?
CT: In all the movies I’m in love with someone in my head. There’s always love in a film somewhere. It doesn’t matter even if it’s an action movie. This is more of the quiet type of love film and a lot of sitting and talking. I went from “G.I. Joe” to this film and it was such a great change of pace. You’re reacting to a tennis ball one moment and now you’re sitting on a beach looking into a real person’s eyes and talking about real things. Real emotions and great writing and great directing, and it was so easy to make the film. Not that the film was easy to make. Obviously, there was some pretty heavy stuff there. Lasse, I think you’ve seen his energy, is such a laid back, sweet guy. He’s over there looking up YouTube videos just for fun in between takes. He used to direct all the Abba videos and he’d be like, “Hey, do you want to see some of my early work?” He would show me all the Abba videos and I’m like “Okay, Lasse. I’ve seen this one.” (Laughs) The man is over there doing some weird dance and we’re all playing around, and then that energy went on into the scene. It didn’t matter if it was an angry scene or a fun scene. I don’t know. It just made the whole experience really, really simple and easy. But, you’re right. This is the first time that I’ve done a love story type movie and I enjoyed it immensely. I want to do another one.
CT: Melodrama on the page is always good because you calibrate it in your head. You can just read it. But, seeing it in real life, acted out, is an entirely different thing. That’s why I think Lasse was perfect for this. He has an allergic reaction to a melodrama but he likes to go and find it though. We would constantly find where the ceiling was just for fun. He’s like “Alright, let’s just see where it’s not” He’s like, “I think we got it. Let’s just see where it’s not.” We would go and do the really bad version of it and sometimes it wouldn’t be the bad version. Sometimes we’d find another little caveat to explore and he’d be like, “No, it was actually kind of good. Let’s just do it one more time and see if that has anything different in it.” You know, it was just playing. It’s kind of nerve-wracking because he goes, “I’m going to give you the same freedom that I gave Leo (DiCaprio) on “Gilbert Grape” and I’m like “What?! You saying you want me to be mentally challenged? Like what do you want from me? Don’t tell me that! I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do with that.” It terrifies you, but then also it makes you work harder and it makes you show up prepared and with a plan, not just show up and figure it out on the day. That’s what he’s there for. You start the scene the way you want to start it and then he starts nudging you. I think it’s just enough melodrama in there in certain parts, like “I’ll see you soon then” That could be done so bad and I hope we didn’t do it bad. I think we did it right at that level where it could teeter if you give too much on it. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a coined phrase with anybody. I’ve had inside jokes and stuff with people but not like “I’ll see you soon then” type of thing. That’s really sentimental and it can mean so many different things. It could mean “Goodbye,” “Hello,” “I love you,” everything. That’s a hard thing to do in a movie like that. I think Lasse did it very well.
Was it easy to jump off the pier and dive into the ocean?
CT: Yeah, that stuff was fun. They almost didn’t let me do it. I pitched a fit. I was not happy with it. It was a 10-foot drop. It wasn’t that far, you know. The stunt guys were doing it. They went down and saw that there was nothing under the water. It was really deep and they weren’t going to let me do it for insurance reasons, and I utterly pitched a fit and they let me do it once and that’s the one that’s in the movie. But, the underwater stuff was actually done in Miami. They flew me down to Miami at 3 in the morning because they needed clear water and Charleston does not have clear water that you can see through. So I’m in Miami at 4:30 in the morning diving down out in the middle of the ocean. It wasn’t even by the shore. They drove us way out there near this lighthouse that was out in the middle of nowhere in the water, and that was a little bit weird and scary but it was fun.
Do you surf as well?
CT: A little bit. Yeah. I mean, I had to learn it for the film. I still surf a little bit but the water’s too cold out here. I like to go where it’s bathwater. I’m from Florida. I’m spoiled, man. The water is entirely too cold here and there’s big sharks.
Are all the surfing scenes done by you?
CT: Yes. They did film stuff with other people but I don’t think they used any in the movie. Most of it is all me.
Some of your most poignant scenes were with Richard Jenkins. What was your relationship like with him?
CT: He’s fantastic. You can tap him for anything. I keep saying it. He can come off the bench and do a drama, a comedy, and a character – a small little weird character in a movie – and he will knock it out of the park every single time he steps up to the plate. I really owe that hospital scene to him. We tried it a bunch of different ways and it was all good, but we tried it once just reading it. Actually, we talked about it. The reason why I wrote him the letter was because I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t figure out how to tell him. So we read it like that, that I just had to read it because I couldn’t get it out any other way. And then, right at the end of the letter, his hand came up and it just destroyed me. It ripped me open. There’s something about him and the nurturing way that he has with people in general, not just a young actor, that’s heartbreaking. He wants you to be good and wants you to be better and tries to help you as much as possible. Seeing a strong man and a strong personality so weak and caring and loving, and then having somebody grab your head and say it’s okay with that emotion was enough to break my heart.
What about the coin that he gets back? It’s a museum piece but he’s throwing it in the dirt as if he hated his father.
CT: No. You know, we talked about that a lot. At one point, I think in the book, he sells the entire collection. He doesn’t keep anything. I bucked on that hard. I was like “He just sold his dad’s entire collection that he worked his entire life on? Like what?” And then, we came up with saving that one thing. John doesn’t care about museum pieces. He’s not saying “This coin cost $5,000 and I’m going to cherish it for life.” He’s saying that this means my father and that it’s going to lead me through life. I’m going to let this help me go through life and have that connection with it and that relationship with it that I didn’t have with my father in a way. That’s how I thought of it. He doesn’t want to keep it in a nice case where he doesn’t have a relationship with it. He wants it to be in his pocket with him. He didn’t treat it with such reverence as his father did.
What’s your relationship with the book? Nicholas (Sparks) pointed out that there are differences in the adaptation to make it work on screen. Did you ignore the book or did you go to it to learn more about John that might not have been in the script?
CT: I read the book first. I was on [the film] really early. I’ve been with the film almost 3 to 4 years. I’d seen “The Notebook” and I knew “The Notebook” worked and I’d seen other ones. My wife looks up to me at the exact moment every single time that they pass away in the bed and she makes me promise that we’re going to go the same way. I mean, just bawling tears and it’s like a button, and I’m like there’s something that works in there. The books are genius. He has got a magic wand on the heart strings. He just does. And it’d be stupid to ignore the book, I think. Now, how do you translate that to your character or to a film? Totally different, you know. You’ve got to figure that out and that’s where it gets really convoluted and you can go really easily to the melodrama. Sometimes you need it and sometimes you need to run away from it. Thank God we have a great director. (Laughs) Lasse is really, really the key to this film.
Would you have done this without him? Did you have director approval?
CT: I did actually. I never really like to be like, “Oh, I have director approval,” because I wouldn’t do it with anybody else or anything like that. Marty (Bowen) and Wyck (Godfrey) at Temple Hill, we have a great relationship and it would never get to a point where I’d be like “No! I’m not doing it with this person.” We all came together very early because we all have very, very similar minds. That’s why they brought it. We work very well together. We knew that we had a great script. We got the script there and we just had to pick the right person for it. I don’t think it ever would have really been a huge issue.
You’ve made some very interesting career choices where you have a modest film in terms of the scale in this case and then you’ve just come off of a huge action event film and now you’ll go back and do another film with Dito Montiel that might be a return to guerilla-style filmmaking.
CT: It’s definitely going to be guerilla.
Is there a plan here? Is there something that feeds you creatively to do those more modest films and then you’ll do another “G.I. Joe” in order to bankroll them?
CT: It’s generally the characters. I was terrified to do “G.I. Joe.” I had no idea how to do one of those movies. I was kind of scared. You know, if one of those doesn’t work, it’s a huge hit on your career. People are like, “Well he couldn’t make a $170 million movie work. I don’t want him in my film.” And, those movies are strange in tone and I’d never done one before. I just really gave it up to Stephen (Sommers), but I like smaller films better. I don’t know why. I think it’s the intimacy and there’s not this avalanche. It is an avalanche, but it’s really myopic. It’s really small. Dito and I, when we’re running through the subways, trying to catch the subway just to get a shot real quick, and he’s literally got the DP — it’s just me and the DP — and we want to get a shot of me sitting on a subway bench, but with the train going by and it’s not on the schedule. He knows there’s a train over here and we just run over there and do that. It’s really fun. It’s really intimate. And, you feel like you’re really doing it. But, when you’re on a crazy huge movie, they’re fun too in their own way. People come up to me and are like “Yeah, I worked on ‘Joe’” and you’re like “What? I’m sorry, man. I never met you. Hi.” There are so many people working on it that it feels a little impersonal. But, character is really where it starts and ends for me. I want to start doing different characters. I’ve played 3 soldiers now and I think I’m done with the soldier thing for a while. I just went and played another soldier, but a Roman soldier at that and it’s a different type of film. So I’m excited about it.
CT: Yes, it’s “The Eagle of the Ninth.” It’s like 1st century Kevin Macdonald, kind of like “The Searchers.” It’s two guys going into the unknown to try to find something and to try to find out what happened, but really they’re trying to find and fix parts of themselves. It’s a really beautiful relationship story.
When is the last time you wrote or received a letter?
CT: I got a letter from a writer named Randall Wallace who wrote “Braveheart.” “Braveheart” is one of my favorite films and I have it framed. It’s one of my favorite things that I own. He’s a mentor of mine now. That’s probably the last time I got a letter with a stamp and an actual [envelope]. It was really cool. But the last time I wrote a letter? I don’t know if I’ve ever written a letter really and stamped it and sent it. I just don’t know if I’ve ever done it. I feel like I’ve done it when I was younger, like really, really young, but I think my mom probably helped me. I write stories now or I’ll write little notes and leave them around the house, but I don’t think that I’ve ever written her a love letter, like “let me count the ways” or anything like that. We do other little things.
Have you ever gotten a Dear John letter?
CT: No. I’ve always been broken up with in person, I guess. I made a joke yesterday and I remembered it right as I was making the joke. I got broken up with through a moving bus window. I think I was in 4th grade. I was both boyfriend and girlfriend with this other girl or going together or whatever you want to call it. I think we were talking. And then her friend yells out the window after I got off the bus “Hey, so and so doesn’t want to date you anymore or talk to you anymore” and you’re like “Okay. I’ll just move on.” That was the closest thing I think I’ve ever gotten to a Dear John letter.
You mentioned working with Dito again. Is it a totally different kind of movie than “Saints”?
CT: It’s Saints-esque really. It’s like the grown-up “Saints.” Where “Saints” focused in on the kids, it’ll be flip-flopped. It’ll be focused on adults this time with kids as well. Look, that guy’s lived a crazy life and he’s known a lot of crazy people and this will be a true story or pieces of it, and it’ll be insane – (Robert) DeNiro, Ray Liotta, I don’t know if Terrence Howard is going to be in it, I think he might, and a bunch of other people with some really strong personalities coming in. It’s like a psycho cop New York thriller and it’ll be Dito-esque again. With “Fighting,” we just tried to go and do something fun, and then this is him going back and swinging for the fence again into his crazy mind. It’s an independent film so he’ll be allowed to do whatever he wants. (Laughs)
What’s the greatest thing about being married?
CT: The greatest thing about being married? You know, I like to sing it. My wife, you know, it’s great. Nothing has really changed in our relationship. I think we did it really smart. I lived with her for 4-1/2 years before we got married and nothing’s changed yet. We’ll see when kids come. We’re not expecting them anytime soon, but I don’t think anything’s changed. I think that the divorce rate’s over 50% for a reason. I don’t think people are taking enough time now to really see if they can make it work and live together. I know that religion doesn’t let you live together so that can kind of get in the way sometimes because of tradition, but I feel like we did it right. I just love being married. It’s nice. I like the ring. It’s cool.
Dear John opens in theaters on February 5th.