In his new film, The Eagle, Channing Tatum fulfills a childhood fantasy playing Marcus Aquila, the son of a Roman commander whose Ninth Legion vanished without a trace in the Scottish Highlands in 120 AD. When Marcus and his slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), set out to find out what happened, their dangerous and obsessive quest will push them beyond the boundaries of loyalty and betrayal, friendship and hatred, deceit and heroism.
Last week at a roundtable interview for The Eagle, Channing told us why he was attracted to the Roman epic action drama, what it was like working with director Kevin Macdonald, and how his dance training prepared him for the fight choreography. Channing also discussed his production company 33 & Out, his plans to get behind the camera and direct, and the kind of films he and production partner, Reid Carolin, plan to make including What’s Left of Us. He also updated us on what he has coming up next including The Son of No One that was just picked up at Sundance, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, The Vow with Rachel McAdams, and what’s up with the G.I. Joe sequel. Hit the jump for the interview:
CT: Truly. As a kid, Braveheart and Gladiator are two of my favorite movies of all time. So yes, it’s full fantasy, but really I came to the movie because of Kevin Macdonald. Kevin is by far one of the better filmmakers that is out right now or is ever to come. Touching the Void, if you can make almost a reenactment movie that compelling and that engaging, I was head over heels to try to even get in front of him, much less be in one of his movies. He does relationships so well that it’s insane. Between Touching the Void and Last King of Scotland, look at that relationship, it’s very similar to Esca and Marcus. This script has a very interesting structure to it. It’s not your normal thing. It’s very different. Jamie doesn’t come in until almost the first act break. It’s kind of an odd one.
One of the things I like is that neither Marcus nor Esca are very sympathetic characters and everything is very internal in terms of how they express themselves. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CT: We have only four to six really talkie scenes in the entire movie. That’s the filmmaker. The filmmaker pulls that out of the movie in the way he constructs it. Jamie says so much without saying anything because he’s so smart. He has so much going on inside that it just oozes out of him. If you haven’t met him yet, he’s one of the more fast talkers that you’ll ever meet and he’s incredibly witty and hilarious. I hate him for it. I want him to do a comedy because he’s truly a hilarious guy. But yes, they’re not very likeable characters. They’re not trying to be liked. I don’t think these people back then really gave a shit to be totally honest. They had what they believed in and they honored and there were no apologies, and I think they didn’t make apologies to each other either.
Do you like these more internal kind of characters better or the more dialogue-driven ones?
CT: I love the supporting characters because you get to do more, to be totally honest. It’s been sort of a theme with me. In Son of No One, I think I might have seven lines in the entire movie because everything is happening to my character. It’s definitely a challenge to try to convey stuff without having anything to say or very much to do, but you still have to do a lot. It makes you listen and that’s what I’ve been working on the last few years, just truly listening to everything. Watching and listening, that’s what my characters happen to do all the time. It’s not really a choice. It’s just something that has happened.
When you have a film like this where you’ve got a lot of action and then also some very emotional moments, does it require the same kind of focus from you or is a different kind of acting muscle needed for one vs. the other?
CT: No, I think they’re very similar. It’s not just action for the sake of action. We talk about it a lot with the sword master. He wants to tell a story with the action. It’s finding a style of fighting that’s yours. Jamie’s and my style are very different in the film. Fighting for men back then, I think, was just more a way of life, especially if you were a soldier obviously. With Jamie, it was for survival. His [style] was more animalistic and carnal and mine was very trained. He was just a soldier. It was brutal and efficient and getting it done any way you could get it done. If you watch it, it’s the moments in between the actions, or the looks to see where Jamie is, and the fear, and the watching for the next person, and then reacting at the last second, that’s the acting in it. If you’re just going and doing the motions, it won’t be as dangerous and compelling.
You and Jamie both have a lot of dance training, did that play into your ability to fight and follow the choreography in the battle sequences?
CT: Absolutely. With dancing, you have to know spatial movement with somebody. It is steps. It’s literally steps and knowing how close to be or how far away. You have to have the beat in the right place with the camera. It’s for sure a dance but a dangerous, more violent one where you have to stick a sword in somebody’s throat and have it go here (to the side of the neck) instead of here (directly into the throat). Even though they’re plastic or wood or non-sharpened aluminum, they can still hurt you and hurt you badly. One guy definitely got smacked. It didn’t cut him but it definitely opened his skin up. It’s not a light thing when you’re swinging sharp points at people.
Have you recovered from all of your injuries?
CT: (laughs) Yes, absolutely. Thank God.
Like boiling your testicles in hot water.
Is this movie now synonymous with your penis?
CT: It’s bled over into other movies and I don’t use bleed lightly. It’s kind of been the thing. The thing! Wow! I can’t get out of this. It always comes up. It’s fun, unless it was traumatic to the point where I remember the paramedic saying “I know it’s no consolation right now but it’s a good thing that it hurts because there’s no nerve damage.” And I was like “Thank God!” and then I went immediately back into screaming.
Was the event documented?
CT: I think my Mom’s done that in all my exploits as being a child and trying to kill myself. She’s always taken pictures and documented all my scars, stitches and bruises. My Dad was like “They’re badges of honor!” Getting hurt and narrowly escaping death is sort of a thing for me.
Did she see this one?
CT: No, she definitely didn’t do this one. I did this one myself.
Are the pictures going to be posted somewhere?
CT: Oh no, that would be very humbling.
What was it like filming in Scotland?
CT: Don’t go there in the winter. Do not do that. Don’t go to the Highlands at all in the winter unless you want to be cold and alone and rained on. It’s so romantic though. It’s so beautiful. And because I think it’s so violent and kind of unforgiving, there’s no reason to be there unless you do want solitude. The people that are up there are up there because that’s maybe where they were born and they don’t want to be anywhere else or they’re fishermen or farmers or sheepherders. By far, it has some of the most lovely, warm people that you’ll ever find in your entire life. Again, it goes back to people respecting and needing to have honor in their name because they need each other up there. If there’s really harsh weather and you can’t get food, you’ve got to go to your neighbor’s house and if they don’t like you, you’re going to starve. That’s just the way it is. You have to have more of a community when you live way out on the middle edge of the planet. You’re on the edge of the world up there. There’s a reason why Rome never conquered that part of the world because it is so harsh. It is truly so harsh.
What was Kevin Macdonald’s style like on set?
CT: He’s a scientist. He’s very calm and never yells. He only yelled at me once because I hated saying the words “You tribal scum!” He’s like “Say it!!” “I can’t say it! I can’t get behind it. I hate the word.” He’s so intellectual. He really does think about it and he’s so specific. We didn’t improv. There wasn’t any. It’s really hard to improv a period piece to begin with. We had three weeks before to really get into it and get behind it to the point where we were like “Okay, we just need to put this up now.” We had thought about everything and the intentions behind almost every single line. He’s so thorough. I think it comes from his documentary training.
The look of his films is kind of like a documentary with all the handheld cameras and so on.
CT: Entirely. Anthony Dod Mantle just danced all over this movie. He just took a big ‘ole mud stomping on this film and he killed it.
What do you look for in a project? You’ve done a movie like this which is a childhood fantasy realized and you’ve worked with Dido Monteil three times. Do you read a script and feel an immediate connection? How does it work?
CT: It goes a few different ways. You read a story that you love or it’s a filmmaker that you want to work with or it’s a character you know you have to play. For me, it’s always filmmaker and then character and then story. They’re all equally important but if you don’t have a great filmmaker, you will not have a great film unless you just get lucky. The film is a direct mirror of the director. If your director doesn’t know how to dress, there will be an aesthetic of the film that won’t come through – whether it’s in the costumes if he doesn’t know exactly what he wants or the look of the film. You’ll see Kevin all over this film. This film is so smart and so tasteful. I would do anything with him again.
You said earlier that you have to have a name that has honor when you’re in the Highlands and you often end up playing characters that are intrinsically honorable even as they face difficult situations. What is it about those roles that speaks to you?
CT: I think it’s just what I respect. I respect people in life that are that way. That comes from my Mom and Dad. They don’t lie. If my Dad doesn’t like you, you will know. My Mom is just too innocent to ever lie. She doesn’t even cuss. But then, with you saying that, people are always the opposite of what they play in roles but I don’t know. It’s probably just a dream. I grew up watching Braveheard and Gladiator. Those are my Star Wars. They have values and traits about them that I wish I had. Randall Wallace who wrote Braveheart is one of the most interesting, smart and honor-filled persons that I’ve ever met. He was born in the wrong era. He should be on some throne somewhere with a sword and a dog next to him.
When you’re working with someone like Donald Sutherland, what sort of things do you learn?
CT: He’s so thorough. He really is. He’s been doing this for so long, longer than I’ve been alive I think. It’s true. I mean, Kelly’s Heroes, Mash, you name it, Animal House, Backdraft. He really still cares. I just got to work with Al Pacino as well and they both haven’t lost that fire and that still makes them want to get up every day and go and read a script and go play make believe. After each take, they don’t just phone it in. They don’t just say “Okay, that was it” and then walk out. They’re like “Alright, what else can we do?” He’s there every second off camera. He’s just such a pro. If that does anything, it just makes you want to be better as an actor. It’s such a good thing for a young actor to see and make yourself know that there’s a reason why these guys are great.
CT: No, no way, not Sutherland at least. He tells jokes and stuff, then he’ll drop right into his 120 AD Roman and you’re like “Goddamn it! How do you do that?” Jamie and I are just trying to hold onto his coattails and keep up with the guy. He’s such a pro at it. Al Pacino wasn’t joking around but I don’t know if he was in character the whole time. You could have a conversation with the guy. Christian Bale is probably the only person that [stays in character the entire time]. God, I respect him so much. He stayed in and around where he was the whole time, but I don’t know if I could do that. I want to try it on one movie.
And have people call you by your character’s name?
CT: Yeah, but that sort of happens sometimes by accident either way just so you can get used to it. But to truly stay in it the entire time, that’s a discipline.
The Eagle is one of four movies you’ve got out this year, are you worried about overexposure?
CT: This movie was supposed to be last year but I think we got a little afraid of Wall Street and the marketing engine behind that and we didn’t put it out then. I think 300 had been successful in this first quarter so we were hoping to get lucky, but now we have a bunch of big movies on this weekend too so no winning in this time.
Is there a strategy to your career?
CT: There’s not really a strategy but I do want to take some time and try to reinvent and get better and maybe get behind the camera a little more. I do want to try to direct at some point, start failing really early (laughs), start shooting videos and then commercials and then hopefully do some narrative.
Do you worry about box office in terms of how this film is going to do and how it will affect your standing?
CT: A little bit but I let my people, my representation, do that. They think about that stuff. If you think about it, you will go insane. Obviously, you want every movie to do well.
You’ve named your company 33 & Out, you’re 30 years old, and you’re going to be 31 this Spring. Does 33 & Out mean that’s when you’re going to quit acting and go behind the camera?
CT: That’s a funny story. My best friend growing up, we always had this thing. He was always two years older than me and he’d always say “Man, when I’m 35, I don’t care what I’m doing, I’m taking everything and I’m just moving to a tropical island and I’m opening up a liquor store and developing liver cancer. And I was like, “I’m in! Well I’ll be 33.” So I just named the company that. I’m not going to be done at 33. That’s just a fun thing between him and me.
CT: Really anything. We’re doing stuff all over the map — from fantasy to documentaries. Reid Carolin is my production partner. He and I want to try to direct something soon. It’s called What’s Left of Us. It’s like a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Requiem for a Dream, Death of a Salesman type film.
Are these films that you’ll be in?
CT: I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’ll be in it or not. We gotta go and try to put some things up on its feet with me in it and then out of it to see how that works out. I’m not sure about directing myself. He’s a great safety net to have because we’ll both be directing together. I don’t know. We’ve got to figure that out. But I don’t want to do only movies that I’m in. I definitely want to start to branch out doing TV and stuff that I’m not in and really make a good run at it as a production. I’m probably going to take a break from acting after a little while because I’ve enjoyed the developmental process so much. It helps you as an actor to learn story and to learn how to really nurture a script and work with a writer so you’re not sitting there having to write it yourself and give notes. It’s been a lot of fun for me so I might take a minute.
What do you have coming out after The Eagle — the next of the four Channing Tatum movies?
CT: Haywire with Steven Soderbergh.
Will it be at Cannes?
CT: Maybe. I don’t know what’s going on with it. The studio and him, they might have been disagreeing because he scored the entire movie like a spaghetti western. Literally I get out of the car and it’s like [whistles like he's in a Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone film] and it’s like I don’t know if this works but it’s frickin’ awesome. It sounds great. But that’s Soderbergh though, you can’t really put him in a box. You can’t put him in a genre or a type. He’s going to do Soderbergh. I can’t wait. I haven’t seen the movie yet.
What’s your character?
CT: I play a Blackwater type agent. We get commissioned to go and kidnap this person and everything goes wrong in a way, and Gina Carano who plays the lead character gets set up for it. It’s kind of like a female Bourne Identity. My wife always hates when I go “I just don’t love female action movies!” I don’t know why. I just don’t go run to see them. I’ll watch them but I don’t run to go see them. And then I was like, find a girl that can, pardon my French, whoop my ass and I will go to the movies to watch it. And they did. They went and found one. And she did! And it was awesome! And I truly loved it! So yeah, I’m interested to see it myself to be totally honest.
What else do you have coming out?
CT: The Vow, I think, will be next year with Rachel McAdams.
What about the comedy, The Dilemma?
CT: The Dilemma was a blast. People don’t call me for funny. When I heard Ron wanted to Skype with me, I was like “What?! Who? Ron Howard?” Then I read the script and I was like “Are you sure this is Ron Howard?”and they were like “Yup.” And I got on the Skype with him and he said “Hey man, would you mind putting yourself on tape?” I did. I was like “I don’t know how. One, I want to direct, but two, I’m a director of funnies.” I didn’t do the scene. I just made up the character that I thought would have been Zip and sent it to him and he was like “A little less high, but I like it.” I was like “Great!”
Why did he pick you?
CT: I really don’t know. I think his daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) is friends with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He and I have done some of these weird comedy-vaudevillian type things on his website, HitRecord.Org, and I think she just said “Hey, why don’t you think about him?” I probably got the nod from her so I should probably go and buy her something. Joe knows he can call me up and I’ll pretty much go and do anything he asks.
You also worked with Al Pacino on The Son of No One?
CT: Yes, The Son of No One just came out of Sundance with Al Pacino, Ray Liotta, Katie Holmes and Tracy Morgan. It got bought and I’m not exactly sure about the finer points of that.
Has Jenna (Dewan) given up acting?
CT: No, no, she’s just plugging away. It’s hard for girls, man. It is really, really hard for girls. I didn’t know that. When she told me, I was like “Ah, whatever! It’s not hard for girls. It’s just as hard for guys.” But it is, there’s less roles and there’s more girls and there’s a lot less good roles and it’s a hard market out there right now. But she’s plugging away. She’s got some good stuff coming up.
Will there be a sequel in your future?
CT: For G.I. Joe? Yes, I think so. From everything I’ve heard, there’s a script. They’re trying to figure out something going on behind the scenes with the director. They keep everything pretty close to the chest with those big movies but I do know there’s a script. I have not read it yet. I’m about to start lighting a fire under those guys’ feet to give it to me because I’m dying to know. I know it’s substantial. It’s definitely different from what I hear.
What about Step Up Forever?
CT: (laughs) I’m not opposed, but they would have to come with a pretty hefty number.
And some fancy dancing shoes, huh?
The Eagle opens in theaters on February 11th.