A Movie Star Returns: Why Channing Tatum Is Finally Ending His Break From Acting

Photographs by Brian Bowen Smith

Channing Tatum loves a good costume. Just watch “Magic Mike” or “G.I. Joe” (or his Instagram account). In “The Lost City,” he adds to his ever-expanding look book with Dash — a model who graces the cover of a series of romance novels by a bestselling author (Sandra Bullock), the victim of a kidnapping scheme. In the upcoming Paramount Pictures comedy, Tatum dons an unbuttoned white linen shirt and acid-washed jeans as he shows off his golden locks.

Tatum, 41, wanted the hairpiece to pay homage to a range of iconic hunks. “I definitely have a Fabio wig,” he says over breakfast one morning at a restaurant near his home in Los Angeles. “But my inspiration was the man himself that’s in our movie, Brad — from ‘Legends of the Fall.’” Yes, Brad (as in Pitt) makes a cameo in “The Lost City,” which opens in theaters on March 25. “I was like, ‘I want the “Legends of the Fall” wig,’” Tatum says as his face lights up. “I don’t even know if it was his hair. He was fucking gorgeous. And I was like, ‘Please make me that.’”

Channing Tatum Variety Cover

“The minute he came out of his dressing room, the wig took over his entire personality,” Bullock recalls, laughing. “We lost Channing for a moment. Someone has to have great physicality and comedic timing to take ownership of that in a genuine way rather than make fun of it. He embraced what it was, and it was pretty spectacular.”

Before he wore his hair like Pitt’s, Tatum had been following a similar career path. In the 2010s, he became one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Tatum spent his late 20s and 30s churning out one box office hit after another — playing a romantic lead in “The Vow,” a comedic action hero in “21 Jump Street” and a stripper with abs of steel in “Magic Mike,” an autobiographical indie film based on Tatum’s early days as an exotic dancer that became a worldwide phenomenon. In addition to the 2015 sequel, “Magic Mike XXL,” the franchise has spawned an HBO Max reality series, “Finding Magic Mike,” and a cabaret show, “Magic Mike Live,” both of which were made through Tatum’s production company, Free Association.

But in front of the camera, Tatum was pushing himself too hard, and he burned out. “I felt like I was the fat kid at the buffet, just working and working and working,” he says. “I took four movies back to back without any time off. I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be in those last two movies because I didn’t have the energy.”

He singles out “22 Jump Street,” though the 2014 comedy received good reviews and grossed $331 million worldwide; and “Jupiter Ascending,” the infamous 2015 outer space flop from the Wachowski siblings, in which Tatum plays a soldier with pointy ears and a goatee. “‘Jupiter Ascending’ was a nightmare from the jump,” Tatum says. “It was a sideways movie. All of us were there for seven months, busting our hump. It was just tough.”

After a four-year hiatus from multiplexes, he’s back to starring in movies again: Audiences are about to get a double dose of Chan (as his friends call him) in the next few weeks. In addition to “The Lost City,” there’s “Dog” (in theaters on Feb. 18), in which Tatum stars as a U.S. Army Ranger who drives across several states to take a Belgian Malinois to its owner’s funeral.

Lazy loaded image
Brian Bowen Smith for Variety

The MGM Studios and United Artists Releasing movie is a personal story for Tatum on several fronts; it was inspired by the death of Lulu, his beloved pit bull-Catahoula mix, from cancer in 2018. And it’s the first time Tatum has stepped behind the camera, co-directing the picture with his longtime producing partner Reid Carolin. Tatum worked overtime as the cameras rolled, carrying every frame of “Dog,” acting opposite a fictional version of Lulu played by three different dogs.

“I saw it and really liked it,” says Steven Soderbergh, who is directing Tatum in “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” the third and presumed final chapter in the “Magic Mike” franchise, which starts shooting in London next month. “I was really proud of them,” Soderbergh says of Tatum and Carolin, sounding like the world’s coolest parent. “If people didn’t know Channing and Reid were making their directorial debut and saw it without the credits, it has all the elements of a polished studio movie. I called Greg Jacobs” — its producer — “afterward and said, ‘That looked hard.’”

Over a two-hour interview, Tatum shows himself to be a storyteller who toggles between Mark Twain and Rocky. He talks in detailed monologues, packed with comedy and drama. “We didn’t have any live leeches on set,” he says about shooting a scene in “The Lost City” in which he treks through the jungle with Bullock. “We had a man gluing rubber leeches to my butt. That was my second day on set, and I had to be buck naked. I was like, ‘Hi, my name is Chan. I’ll be naked today.’ Everyone is trying to look up and away.”

Bullock vividly remembers shooting that scene. “Naked as a jaybird,” she says. “We had his trainer in the budget. We had his blanched chicken and broccoli in the budget. He would be up at 4, going for a swim in the ocean. He worked so hard for a comedic moment that he knew needed to look and be a certain way. And I spent the remainder of the day just looking at it all, having long monologues to his bits and pieces.”

Speaking of which, Tatum admits that he prefers the film’s original title — the racier “The Lost City of D,” which has been abridged. “I wished they wouldn’t have dropped the ‘D,’” Tatum says. “You never drop the ‘D.’”

During his break from headlining movies, Tatum gave himself time to think about what he wanted. He even contemplated quitting the business in 2018, around the time he announced his divorce from Jenna Dewan, whom he’d met on his breakout movie, 2006’s “Step Up.” (They share custody of their 8-year-old daughter Everly, and Tatum is now dating Zoë Kravitz.) “Do I want to act anymore?” Tatum says he asked himself. “Was I going to direct? Do I want to be in the industry anymore? I got lucky. I won a creative lottery ticket. I made a little bit of money, so I could take a step back and figure out what life is.”

Lazy loaded image
Brian Bowen Smith for Variety

That led him into other artistic pursuits, including publishing a children’s book, “The One and Only Sparkella,” last year. “I really took time off,” he says. “I sculpted. I took pictures. I wrote my own stuff, not like a script or anything. Just creating on different levels. I wanted to take a breather.”

In that downtime, Tatum kept developing movies and TV shows at Free Association, which he launched in 2014 with Carolin and Peter Kiernan, his former manager. The list of projects they’ve been working on includes the Adam Sandler drama “Spaceman,” which is now in production at Netflix, and “Step Up: Highwater,” the Starz TV series. Tatum is attached to produce and star in the thriller “Pussy Island,” which will be Kravitz’s directorial debut. He says that — based on his around-the-clock hustle on “Dog” — he told Kravitz not to take an acting role in it too. “I was like, ‘You’ll need double the days,’” Tatum says. “She’s a perfectionist in the best possible way.”

Tatum has also been busy mining the intellectual property rights to “Magic Mike,” which he owns. He independently produced the original movie with Soderbergh in 2012, and Warner Bros. marketed the film as a summer escape as the “Fifty Shades of Grey” books were burning up the charts. It worked, and the movie grossed $168 million worldwide. With “Magic Mike,” Tatum has championed a world of stripping that isn’t seedy — these characters have humor and heart, and they stand against toxic masculinity. “It’s unthinkable that they would ever become involved in something that’s mean or cynical,” Soderbergh says. “I think that’s one of the reasons we all synced up.”

In 2017, Tatum and Carolin were on the ground producing “Magic Mike Live,” which launched in Las Vegas as a Cirque du Soleil-style event and opened in London a year later. Before the pandemic, the show was selling to crowds of 300,000 annually, grossing $80 million to $100 million a year. While COVID-19 has put a damper on the live event business — closing productions in Australia and Berlin — Kiernan says that a Miami version will launch later in the year as part of a U.S. traveling tour. “Then we’re thinking Nashville or New York,” he says.

Tatum speaks about “Magic Mike Live” in uncharacteristic — for him — hyperbole. “It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “And I’ve gotten to make some really cool movies. I remember sitting next to Reid on the opening night of the live show [in Vegas], and I said, ‘If you told my 18-year-old self I was going to own a strip club one day, I would have believed you. But if you told my 18-year-old self how I was going to do it, like the road in which I was going to take, I would have never been able to fathom it.”

• • •

Tatum grew up in Alabama and Mississippi with no notion that he could ever act in movies. “I played one year of football at a little school in West Virginia,” he says. “Came home, was just kind of aimless. Tried to get back to school — that didn’t work.” He saw himself running a company, but he wasn’t sure what that would be. “I did everything from framing houses to stripping, obviously,” he says. “And dancing in the clubs, not stripping. I worked at a mortgage company. Some people hate work. I didn’t mind work at all.”

Tatum modeled for three years, which brought him to Los Angeles on trips. “And then, luckily, my angel mother worked for Continental,” he says. “So I could fly for free. I got a Pepsi commercial. I threw myself into acting class.” He started making movies. “It was on-the-job learning,” he says. “I had no idea how to break down a character.”

Lazy loaded image
Brian Bowen Smith for Variety

To spend time with Tatum is to witness an ever-revolving door of ideas. He met Carolin, the screenwriter of the “Magic Mike” films, on 2008’s “Stop-Loss,” which Carolin produced, and they’ve been inseparable since — brainstorming so many stories together over the years. At one point during breakfast, Tatum drops the news that he wishes he could have produced a TV series like “Pose”; he’s a fan of “Paris Is Burning,” the 1990 documentary about New York drag ball culture. “I definitely wanted to live in that world,” he says. “I found the dancing, the characters, fascinating. But the best people made it.”

Another missed opportunity: Tatum and Carolin spent four years developing “Gambit,” a raunchy stand-alone superhero movie about the “X-Men” mutant, for 20th Century Fox. “The studio really didn’t want us to direct it,” Tatum says. “They wanted anybody but us, essentially, because we had never directed anything.”

Tatum was so in love with the script that Carolin had co-written, which resembled the tone of “Deadpool,” that he was open to letting go of directing. “They would call him ‘flamboyant’ in his description,” Tatum says, defending the title character from any pushback as if he were real. “I wouldn’t — he was just the coolest person. He could pull anything off. Most superheroes, their outfits are utilitarian. Batman’s got his belt. Gambit’s like, ‘No, this shit’s just fly, bro! This shit walked down the Paris runway last year.’ He’s just wearing the stuff that’s so dope because he loves fashion.”

But after Disney merged with Fox, “Gambit” became a casualty of the corporate takeover in 2019.

“Once ‘Gambit’ went away, I was so traumatized,” Tatum says, adding that he swore off watching the Avengers. “I shut off my Marvel machine. I haven’t been able to see any of the movies. I loved that character. It was just too sad. It was like losing a friend because I was so ready to play him.”

Tatum was also reeling from another loss. After he made 2010’s “Dear John,” he attended his uncle and aunt’s wedding in Kentucky. “They just had a litter of these two legendary dogs called Dip and Daisy,” Tatum says. Legendary how? “Dip was this wide-eyed coyote-looking thing that impregnated every dog for, like, 100 miles. And he’d win any dog fight. And Daisy was this beautiful American pit bull mix.”

And that’s how Tatum adopted his new best friend. “I took the runt, and that was Lulu,” he says. While she could be a nightmare, running into a neighbor’s yard, causing her A-list owner to chase after her, crashing barbecues and pool parties, she also had a sweet side — sitting on Tatum’s shoulder as he drove his car. When Lulu was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on her urethra that metastasized to her bones, Tatum took her on one last road trip to Big Sur, one of their favorite destinations. They sat on the beach as the sun rose.

Lulu died the day after they came home, and he was a ball of tears as he told the story to Carolin. They decided that this could be their next movie together. The original script for “Dog” was darker and less upbeat. “We wrote it as an R-rated comedy with adult themes,” Carolin says. But as time passed, “we consciously decided, ‘Let’s make it PG-13.’ Both of us felt like we had to make it more accessible.”

Lazy loaded image
Brian Bowen Smith for Variety

They independently financed the film, as they had “Magic Mike,” although the budget for “Dog” grew from $11 million to $15 million because of unforeseen challenges. “We got our insurance the day before lockdown started,” Carolin says. Eventually, they were able to shoot in the fall of 2020 for 35 days, adhering to COVID-19 protocols. The film’s outdoor locations helped.

“Our hope is that it’s an eight-to-80, red state, blue state, old, young, male, female movie,” says Michael De Luca, the chairman of MGM, which has a first-look deal with Free Association. “It feels like it has appeal to everybody. It’s just kind of touching and funny.”

As for Tatum, he didn’t anticipate just how difficult it would be to direct and star in a movie with a partner who didn’t always cooperate. In one scene where his character collapses on the floor, the dog who played Lulu that day kept smiling and barking. “I don’t have massive aspirations to be a giant director or anything like that,” Tatum says. “I don’t know if I will direct again.”

But Tatum will be playing Magic Mike one more time. He didn’t think he’d be going back to the stage wearing his famous leather chaps. “I didn’t want to,” he says. “My live show was the third one. We chewed off all the meat off that — no pun intended.” But while Tatum was producing the live show, Soderbergh was developing his own “Magic Mike” stage musical bound for Broadway. The two projects weren’t supposed to intersect. Then one night, Soderbergh went to see “Magic Mike Live” in London, and he was floored by the show’s themes about desire, and how it shatters tropes about what women supposedly find sexy.

Soderbergh got on the phone with Tatum and Carolin that night with a new plan. First, he decided to scrap the musical. “I said we’ve got to do another film,” Soderbergh recalls. “I know exactly what it is!”

And what that will be is still a mystery, although Tatum drops some clues during our conversation. “This one’s going to be a full dance-icle. We’re going to swing for the fence. I’m going to dance as hard as I’ve danced in any movie other than ‘Hail, Caesar!’” he says, referring to the 2016 Coen brothers film in which he learned how to tap dance. “I want this movie to be filled with joy and fun. Everybody is like, ‘Less character, more dancing.’ So I’ve listened.”

Styling: Andrew Mukamal/Streeters; Grooming: Jamie Taylor/The Wall Group; Look 1 (Tan Sweater): Sweater: Brunello Cucinelli; Pants: The Row; Look 2 (blazer): Blazer and Pants: Saint Laurent; Sneakers: The Row; Look 3 (Grey Sweater): Sweater and pants: Brunello Cucinelli