How a Star Is Born: The Making of Channing Tatum
The word ‘star’ is bandied about a lot about actors working in the entertainment business, but usually only by those outside of it; those who work in it tend to use the words ‘cast’ or ‘talent.’ More often than not, we will say ‘above-the-line talent’ when we are referring to someone who is starring in a project. We don’t say, “Brad Pitt is starring in my movie,” we say, “Brad Pitt is attached.”
So it is quite rare that an actor is anointed with the moniker ‘star’ in a serious way by movie folk. It wasn’t until this year, after The Vow and 21 Jump Street did so well at the box office, and after this weekend, when Magic Mike crossed the seventy-million mark, that the grand arbiter of the film business, Nikki Finke, began to refer to Channing Tatum as a ‘new star.’ He’s now firmly part of the Hollywood firmament, and he’s worked his ass off to get there.
Despite what people have been led to believe by movies and shows like Entourage, the creation of a true Hollywood star is seldom a Big Bang explosion that happens overnight with just one film. Channing has been on the scene now for almost ten years, exactly, slowly building up to this point. I can time it because I was very much present at the beginning of his film career, and was in a small way a link in the chain of events that led to the supernova currently unfolding, just to flog that star metaphor like a dominatrix with a grudge.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making any claims here, even though Tarsem Singh and I had a funny moment once when he said, “I discovered Channing Tatum.” And I replied, “What rubbish! I did! Ask his agent!” And then we both chuckled our director’s insider chuckles and turned our attention to Henry Cavill’s screen test for Immortals. That’s because we knew it was ridiculous to make that assertion. As Alan Cumming once said, “Nobody discovers an actor.” And he is correct.
Many people, struggling actors especially, tend to ascribe a star’s success to the fact he had some sort of lucky break, or that he’s just very good-looking, or to some extraneous force that has nothing to do with talent or innate skill. That has never been the case in my experience. I have never met a star, or even just a successful working actor like Alan, who isn’t extraordinary in the sense he is just that: above the ordinary. And Channing is certainly above the ordinary, like no one I have ever met before.
After I wrote Hatter almost ten years ago, the reaction amongst my “people” was instantaneous. “Congratulations. This is great,” said the film’s line producer, Lisa Bruce. “And it’s X-rated.” I tried to persuade her that I would film it tastefully, that I would somehow bring it in for an R, but Lisa is the line producer’s line producer, like a mentat human computer in Dune: she is not there to be wrong. There was no way around Hatter being awarded an NC-17 rating based on the script as written.
The film is a riff on the Mad Tea Party scene from Alice and Wonderland: the world’s most influential fashion designer, Matt Hatter, is interviewed by a powerful journalist, Alice Allyson, who has the goods on him, so she can’t be allowed to live. It all takes place in Hatter’s spectacular loft, a converted theater with a reflecting pool in the middle of it. Also present are Matt’s lover, Mark Hare, and a twenty-two-year underwear model they have been partying with for four or five days (nobody is quite sure), Dor Mauz. I like to describe it as Sleuth meets Who’s Affaid of Virginia Woolf? on speed
The project picked up steam very quickly. I had the money promised from an influential company in London, which opened a lot of doors, and a bizarre twist of fate landed me Alan Cumming, my first choice for the lead, very quickly (I was on a flight to London to pitch the project and ended up sitting next to Alan’s ex boyfriend).
Alan then secured Rebecca Romijn—the two of them had just “starred” together in X-Men 2. When we met over lunch in Beverly Hills, Rebecca turned to her manager and said, “What I love most about this man isn’t just his project, it’s the fact it’s the middle of the day and he’s never met me, and he’s just had four martinis.” In the elevator of the parking structure, she kissed me full on the mouth and said, “We’re gonna make a great film.” And then she stepped out the door backwards, waving, just like Mystique. True story.
With two ‘name’ attachments, I had fulfilled the requirements for financing by the executive producers in London, so I could take whomever I wanted for the other two roles, and I wanted Jeremy Sisto from Six Feet Under. I loved him as the psycho brother in that series, but it was when I was tripping on some dastardly mushrooms at the very first Coachella in Palm Springs and he was in this random short film about a schizophrenic that was screening in a random tent, and he, like spoke to me and stuff, so I knew he had to be part of Hatter. Which meant that soon I found myself in front of his agent at Innovative Artists, the remarkable, redoubtable Louise Ward.
Aside from a rapier wit that makes me seem like a dullard, Louise has this raspy voice that has earned her the nickname “Weezie” among some of her friends and colleagues. When we met at Innovative, she sat there curled in an armchair bantering with me, flapping a slingback shoe back and forth like a flip-flop, while I made my impassioned pitch for this strange project. She never took her eyes off me when she summoned her assistant, who like all good assistants at talent agencies just materialized beside her like I Dream of Genie. “What do I have this afternoon?” she asked, her gaze still locked on me. The assistant scribbled on a Post-it and put in front of her eyes.
“Clear it,” she said. “I’m reading this man’s script.” Yes, I was getting called ‘this man’ by women in the business a lot those days.
As I was leaving, Louise asked me whom I was casting for the young underwear model. “I dunno yet,” I replied. “Maybe Jason Lewis?” The role of Dor Mauz was the last on my list, mainly because he had so few lines, even if he was on screen most of the time, either naked or just in underpants, semi-comatose on GHB. But I was actually concerned about this role most of all because it was so physically challenging that a real underwear model in my considerable experience with the fashion world would fuck it up. I was seriously thinking of mining Cirque du Soleil for a handsome young acrobat.
“We represent a lot of models in transition,” she said. “I’ve just had a meeting with this guy Channing Tatum, and he really interests me.” She showed me his modeling composite card, and I instantly saw that he was all wrong, nothing like what I had in mind. But at that point I was a little bit smitten with Louise and her clacking slingbacks and her razor-sharp observations, and the fact she really seemed to get me in a genuine, non-Hollywood blowing-smoke-up-your-ass way. So looked at Channing’s card politely and returned the favor by blowing smoke up her ass and feigning to be as impressed with him as she was.
The thing is, I have very narrow tastes when it comes to guys, and Dor Mauz is meant to be the ideal young man for me, the Hatter character. In other words, he is meant to be a strapping blond Tarzan, and is written to be the stereotypical Aryan SoCal surfer dude, the kind of boy I was partying a lot with in those days. Channing is some sort of ethnic-like, Native American mix, and had a shaved head at the time. He was deliberately working a deep urban ghetto hip-hop look at the time, the complete opposite from the Leni Riefenstahl’s wet dream that Dor Mauz was meant to be. I was going to stick with Jason Lewis, or someone like him. But I didn’t say that to Louise and played along with it; after all, I hadn’t signed Jeremy yet.
A few hours later, Louise had read Hatter and declared it “genius,” and promised to get me Jeremy, which she did after a bit of cajoling; he didn’t think he could do everything required of him in the script, and was a bit shy. She was also sending over tapes of two commercials Channing had made, one for Mountain Dew, the other for Pepsi. I’d seen the Mountain Dew, everyone had, and half of homolandia was in love with the cocky driver. I wasn’t immune to it, either, I had to admit. The Pepsi ad, on the other hand, was directed by the aforementioned Tarsem, and that had a huge impact on changing my mind; if Channing was good enough for Tarsem, he was probably good enough for me. (Now you see the origin of our flash spat years later over who discovered Channing.)
I did further research and saw that Channing had worked with my old friend and mentor Pamela Hanson, a fashion photographer I had assisted when I was nineteen in Paris, who was instrumental in forming my early language as a visualist. She had an enormous amount of influence over me, period. When I was twenty and on some misguided adventure that had me stuck in Australia, Pamela replied to a letter of mine with, “You should think about becoming a writer.” I promptly sat down and began the long, arduous process of becoming a writer, self-taught, just to make the process even longer and more arduous.
A few months after I had met with Louise and Jeremy has signed on, I was sitting in Pamela’s office discussing where I was with Hatter and I said, “By the way, do you remember working with a male model named Channing Tatum?”
“Of course! He’s such a kick in the pants! What a character! He’s amazing, danced the whole the time he was on set, couldn’t keep still. We even filmed him he was so great. Hey, Dereck?” she shouted to her assistant.
“You remember that guy Channing Tatum we worked with, and you taped him break dancing and stuff?”
“James is casting him in his film.”
And that was that. I hadn’t said I was casting him for sure, but now that the same woman who, with a single sentence in a letter almost twenty years earlier, had transformed my career path had declared that Channing was Dor Mauz, he suddenly was. The cliché blond surfer boy fell away, and the badass kid in the Mountain Dew ad, with his clenched jaw and jaded eyes, suddenly took over the role. Hatter was now edgier, darker than ever, and I loved it even more, if that was possible. Just by being himself, Channing was starting to inform the way the role should be played and portrayed, and I hadn’t even met him yet.
I called Louise and said that I was interested in speaking to Channing next time I was in L.A.; by then, I had moved to London to begin pre-preproduction. “Chan and I really bonded over your project,” Louise said to me over the phone. “He totally gets it. He’s just been cast in a basketball movie called Coach Carter with Samuel L. Jackson. They love him so much they’re expanding the role for him.”
But things were growing shaky with the financing; UK tax codes had changed and the company I was working with was trying to find alternate ways to fund their entire slate. Still, I persevered as if everything was on track because that’s what you have to do in these situations—almost will it into being.
A few months later I was back in L.A. and Louise arranged a meeting between me and Channing. Ordinarily, this is the point in an article about him where the hard-drinking writer kind of trails off and hazily hints at a wild evening with few details except how down to earth Channing is and how much fun he is to party with. That wasn’t the case with me because I wasn’t interviewing him for a magazine, I was casting him in a role. As I’ve said, it was one that demanded great physical dexterity, which I’d heard from Pamela Hanson that he had in spades; Dor Mauz is quasi-somnambulant most of the film and has moments that would have challenged Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. It’s a tall order to find a world-class beauty who is limber and unselfconscious enough to pull that off; most very good-looking people are trapped within a rigid headspace created by their extraordinary physicality and the way they are perceived by the world. But as I soon discovered, Channing could have cared less about all that.
He and I met for lunch at Baja Cantina in Venice, and while we did drink some, we didn’t get drunk. Again, Louise hadn’t been blowing smoke up my ass; he really did get the script. He’d read it twice, and was full of questions; he’d been around, this twenty-two-year-old, and was clearly as street smart as his mannerisms. His intelligence is like mine, almost entirely intuitive, cognitive, which meant that, even though Hatter works on many different levels—a modern philosophy professor once described it as “metaphysical rupture”—he didn’t have to overly intellectualize it to grasp most of my intentions.
His head was bald, like mine, and he twiddled and flipped his phone incessantly while we talked and he absorbed what I was saying and I began to feel what I needed to feel as a director for the actor playing Dor Mauz: the blush of a crush, that slight exhilaration of a new romance, despite the fact I was fixated on the mildly disgusting sore he had on the top of his head from spinning on it while break dancing on the set of Coach Carter. Ninety-nine point nine percent of actors would have covered it up with a baseball cap or something for the first meeting with a director, but Channing didn’t give a shit.
“So basically,” he said at a certain point. “You just want me to do my G face.” And he slumped his head forward, dropped his chin to his chest as if he were passed out on GHB, and in that moment he became Dor Mauz. “It would mean a lot to me to play this part. And I would dedicated the performance to one of my best friends who died from an overdose of GHB.” (Indeed, it didn’t surprise me that the narcotic makes a few cameo appearances in Magic Mike.)
I returned to London, and the project began to collapse like a slow-motion train wreck. Still, Louise checked in with me from time to time. “What is going on with this film? The way things are going with Chan, his attachment alone will be able to finance it…” She wasn’t wrong.
I wound things up with the production company where I was making Hatter and started Pure Film Limited, putting my problem child on the backburner for the time being while I went back to basics: writing far less outrageous scripts and making short films. Whenever I went back to L.A., I reconnected with Louise. We’d become good friends at that point, which was a consolation prize for the heartache of coming so close to going into production with such a perfect cast. “You missed your opportunity with Chan,” she said once, after she’d left Innovative and moved to William Morris with her star client. “There’s no way he can do this now.” Heartache on top of heartache.
I reconnected with Alan Cumming in 2007 when he was in London starring in Bent, and we decided to reboot Hatter with him as my producing partner. We still had Rebecca Romijn, but given what Louise had told me over the years, we had lost Channing. He’d made Step Up and was now a teen/tween heartthrob. He was also at William Morris, and that was a whole other species of corporate fish compared to a boutique agency like Innovative. So we decided to pull a little Entourage stunt and bypass the corporate agency thing by orchestrating a red-carpet collision between Channing and Alan at the Independent Spirit Awards, when they were both nominated for separate films.
I don’t know the details, but they hit it off. A couple of friends who saw Alan that weekend at Oscar parties said he looked like he was having a very good time, which he usually has. Channing told Alan he was still interested in Hatter, but felt he was too old to play Dor Mauz and wanted to play the second male lead, Mark Hare.
I thought about that a bit, weighed my relationship with Louise, which was very precious to me, with where Channing was in the star-making process together with the fact this was still the same script and the MPAA was unlikely to change its NC-17 rating. Enough shenanigans. I would rather never makes films and write children’s books the rest of my life than play some distasteful Entourage wannabe game. I came clean with Louise.
She called me while I was in a pub in London and read me the riot act. I deserved it. She had always been very supportive of me and Hatter, a huge champion of it, and I’d gone around her back. “It’s not the same situation any more. He’s represented by a whole team here at William Morris. If you want it to be a firm ‘no’ forever, go ahead.” Then she softened. “Maybe when he’s old and rich he’ll do this. But not right now.”
So Alan and I decided to approach his friend Anson Mount for the role of Mark Hare. Then I stumbled on Israeli star Michael Lewis to replace Channing as the underwear model, and for reasons I’ve written about before, the project unraveled for the second time, and the winds of the Great Recession blew it to bits for good. Alan backed out and into television, Rebecca had kids and became too old, Anson go his own TV show as the lead in AMC’s Hell on Wheels.
For various reasons to long to explain here, Hatter was turned into a play to be directed by Sean Mathias. It once again sits shivering in development hell while we wait for the right actor—yes, has to be a bona fide star—to have the courage to play the lead. I take a sort of perverse pride that my problem child is still too edgy for most, and you’d be surprised who among the he-men of Hollywood has read it and quaked.
Louise left William Morris a few years ago and joined UTA, where she is much happier. Channing went with her, which tells me just how much of a mensch he is. To remain loyal and levelheaded despite all the fickle temptations thrown at you in this town, and to be so young and not be impressed by any of it is more of a testament to his character than any amount of adjectives I can string together. And I know that his creative decisions over the past few years have been his, like going out on a very far limb to produce and finance a smash hit about his life as a stripper. “Nice to know he’s not just a pretty face,” Daily Beast writer Tricia Romano tweeted to me the other day, when she and I were cheering on Magic Mike to win the weekend over Ted just after they both opened. We knew Ted would win, but we just wanted the better guy’s film to triumph because it seemed right.
I am still very close to Louise, damned proud of her after Channing’s accomplishments this year, as I am of him. “I’m not like other agents,” she said to me when we were having dinner together one night years ago, during the first iteration of Hatter. Then she squinted her eyes, focused on my chest and growled, “Does your tee-shirt say ‘I committed suicide’?” She guffawed in that throaty Weezie way. “Oh my God, you are so random! I love it.”