“I didn’t want to move or act like a rich man. I wanted to dance in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets.” – Gene Kelly
It’s hard to imagine — let alone remember — living in a world where it wasn’t a universally acknowledged truth that Channing Tatum used to be a stripper. Today, that particular chapter of his origin story seems as inextricable from the 35-year-old actor’s story as Ginger Rogers is from Fred Astaire’s career, or Scientology is from that of Tom Cruise, or Michael Fassbender’s penis is from that of Michael Fassbender. And yet, considering that the news only broke a few years ago, there’s a pretty good chance that you were alive and present for such a blithely ignorant time in our history.
Before the news of his past life was made public, Tatum was just another Hollywood lunk with a square chin, an easy charm, and a body that most men took as a personal insult. Somewhat famous but far from a household name, recognizable but difficult to place, he played characters with names like Zip, Jake, Leo, Caine, Mark, and Rowdy. Just Rowdy.
His best early performances each worked to underline a singular quality that couldn’t be replicated by the next vanilla talent in a casting agent’s Rolodex. His breakthrough turn in 2006’s Step Up showcased his history as a free-style street dancer, while his standout work in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints — a Sundance coming-of-age drama from earlier that same year — hinted at an actor whose radiant sweetness was ready to be exploited by the violence indicated by his body (the perfect equation for a contemporary action star). His charm was easy to feel, even in endearingly lobotomized turns in films like the Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man (also from 2006). Though it raised questions about his limitations — such as: “Is this guy really doing enough for his first name to sound that much like an action verb?”
(Or at the very least, a slang term. According to Urban Dictionary, a “Channing” is “a very cute boy who is really fun to be around. He sometimes acts like a five-year-old, but he probably treats girls the right way. As a very mature young man, he is talented in many areas. He is gifted and extremely loveable. This boy would have to be the highlight of every party.” Sample sentence: I wish I could find a Channing.)
But a trio of filmmakers were intrigued by the kid’s oafish sensitivity, and seemed eager to prove that the actor was more than the archetypes into which Hollywood had tried to fit him. Kimberly Peirce gave Tatum a choice role in the otherwise unremarkable time capsule Stop-Loss; Michael Mann did the same in the gangster dress-up playdate Public Enemies. And then there was Steven Soderbergh, who enlisted Tatum for some sharp supporting work in his director’s attempt to turn MMA star Gina Carano into an action heroine, Haywire. It wasn’t long before the dude had made enough people enough money that he could start making actual career choices. And in that regard, his deep dark secret couldn’t have become public at a better time.
In August 2009, the guy who had once hired Tatum to perform at a now-defunct Florida strip club sold a video to Us Weekly. Watch the clip, and you’ll see a lean young man called “Chan Crawford” gyrating on a stage in front of a banner that reads: “You have to see to believe.” Women scream with delight from behind the camera. Tatum’s public relations team was reportedly horrified. The actor himself, on the other hand, took the whole thing in stride “I had wanted to tell people,” he would later insist in this immortal GQ profile. “I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not a person who hides shit.”
No kidding. Not long after that, Tatum put his money where his mouth is, and — with a kick in the ass from Soderbergh — found himself producing, starring in, and co-financing a movie about the eight months he spent as a police officer in tearaway pants.
And just like that, his nature started to become his brand.
Rather than try to withstand the press cycle and embrace a traditional Hollywood narrative of reinvention, Tatum started to leverage what could have been the most embarrassing chapter of his past into the cornerstone of his present. His trajectory from stripper to celebrity to movie-star-playing-a-stripper is easy to trace, and in a time where there have never been more of the former and fewer of the latter. With Magic Mike, Tatum minted his stardom by making his public persona indivisible from his most iconic role. Encouraged by the response to 21 Jump Street, Tatum doubled down on the same flair for transparency that made him such a perfect choice for that endlessly self-reflexive reboot. The gamble paid off: Budgeted at $7 million, Magic Mike grossed $167 million worldwide, making it one of the most absurdly profitable films of 2012. That’s 167,000,000 $1 bills. We’re gonna need a bigger banana hammock.
Tatum has never claimed that this magnum opus, in which he plays a veteran stripper who dreams of crafting his own line of bespoke furniture, is his biopic or anything. “It’s not my biopic or anything,” he told The AV Club. “It’s just sort of the world I experienced.” While that may be true, Magic Mike film was nevertheless Tatum’s most personal film to date. The man wasn’t just telling us who he was — he was telling us who he wants to be.
On screen, his character’s journey is depicted as a broad recession fable that’s framed as a tug-of-war between the promise of carpentry (represented by a girl) and the profit of stripping (represented by stripping). Like all stories about money, it’s also a story about integrity. Mike loves being on stage, but he doesn’t want to be defined by that, and he can’t afford for it to impinge on his ambitions. There’s something both adorable and tragic about the scene in which he tries to score a loan from a local bank — dressed in a collared shirt and adorned with a pair of glasses. It’s the only time in the film that the dude looks like he’s wearing a costume.
Budgeted at $7 million, Magic Mike grossed $167 million worldwide, making it one of the most absurdly profitable films of 2012. That’s 167,000,000 $1 bills. We’re gonna need a bigger banana hammock.
The film, which ends with Mike’s greedy boss getting the better of him, galvanized something for Tatum. As the actor told Details magazine in the months leading up to the film’s release: “I really don’t want to be in any more movies that I don’t produce . . . My bar for being successful is being able to do movies that really mean something to me and being able to make a living off of that . . . I think it’s about believing in what you do.”
You have to see to believe.
The movie was a pivotal moment in Tatum’s career for any number of reasons, but chief among them was how it allowed him to publicly announce (and privately determine) that he was going to do things on his own terms. He was going to do things as himself, or not at all. After all, that was the only way he could do it, as the ethos dovetailed with his talent. He’s played a stripper, a gangster, a soldier, an undercover cop, an aspiring Secret Service agent, a troubled Olympic wrestler, and a half-human half-dog hybrid that skates around the galaxy on a pair of rocket shoes, and yet — for better or worse — it always feels like he’s playing himself. Which is the only person he’s ever wanted to be.
Magic Mike is the movie that confirmed Channing Tatum as a star. Magic Mike XXL is the movie that confirms why. He’s the Gene Kelly of his generation, and this is his Singin’ in the Rain.
The sequel, easily one of the better films of the summer (and certainly it’s most joyful), finds the eponymous conjurer living his dream as a small-business owner, complete with a single employee whom he can’t afford to provide health insurance. He’s proud of the life he’s made for himself, and yet — when it all goes quiet — Ginuwine calls to Mike in the night. He’s tried his damnedest to stifle the stripper inside him, but some beasts can’t be tamed. Cue Mike pantomime-fucking his entire woodshed.
All it takes is a call from Tarzan, the Magic Mike Cinematic Universe’s Nick Fury equivalent, for our hero to put a pin in his entrepreneurial zeal and hit the road with the gang for one last ride (#OneLastRide). A bro-mantic odyssey that has all the conflict of masturbating, Magic Mike XXL delights in its gratuitousness from start to finish, and yet it’s nevertheless a vital corrective to a concession made at the end of the original film.
The original ends with our hero abandoning the stripper community cold turkey and trying to find happiness through denial. Magic Mike XXL systematically defenestrates that choice. Gone are all of the characters that prompted Mike to choose between his loves and his dreams, replaced instead by an ever-expanding party of pals who appreciate, support, and respect each other for the multitudes they contain. The movie’s euphoric final set piece explicitly hinges on the dancers incorporating their personalities into their routines, building to a sequence in which Mike strips in front of a human mirror, a poetic grace note for someone getting paid millions of dollars to mime an idealized version of his former self. He’s turned the looking glass into the two-way mirror of a peepshow, and he’s invited the world to look through it. Magic Mike XXL is a portrait of two guys clearing their personal bars for success. Both of them have washboard abs and know their way around a stage. One of them is a fictional character.