While we’ve all been watching, the rules of movie stardom have changed. There’s an expectation today that to secure a slot on the A list, actors must stake their claim in a cinematic universe like Marvel or Star Wars. (According to their agents, both would be ideal.) But in an era of Hollywood when superhero capes and masks are the currency of the global leading man, Channing Tatum donned a thong.
Or in the case of Jimmy Logan, the unemployed construction worker that he plays in Steven Soderbergh’s mosquito-bitten heist movie Logan Lucky (out Aug. 18), a pair of camo pants and a trucker hat. Logan has been dealt a series of bad hands. His football career and marriage have failed, and he’s wound up with a desperate need for cash. Worse, his one-armed brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), insists they’ve got a family curse hanging over their heads. But Logan is willing to risk it all on a crazy scheme to rob a NASCAR event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In a sense, Logan is a fun-house-mirror reflection of Tatum himself (the character, for instance, is driven in ways that are deeper and more complex than he’s comfortable expressing). It’s the kind of performance that transcends era, and Tatum, in many ways, is a throwback. While the rest of Hollywood uses franchises as big-budget day jobs — relegating indie films and Oscar bait to nights and weekends — Tatum remains a free agent.
That would be a precarious place to be if he hadn’t been so smart in his hustle. Coming off the box office momentum of the Jump Street and Magic Mike films, and the prestige of Bennett Miller’s Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher, Tatum has spent the past two years working with some of the most admired filmmakers in the business. After emerging from under the floorboards of Minnie’s Haberdashery in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Tatum made a good case for himself as the heir to Gene Kelly in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! Now, in addition to Logan Lucky this month, he’s got the debut of Comrade Detective, a Romanian ’80s police-procedural spoof that he executive-produced for Amazon, on which he dubs the English-translation voice for the hero cop.
All this is not to say that Tatum, 37, hasn’t tried to break into the franchise game. But his more overt attempts at them were busts. The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending is remembered mainly for GIFs of Eddie Redmayne screaming, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation killed off his character, Duke, in the first act. “I’ve done things where I thought they were going to be financially successful, and they failed,” Tatum says. “For me, the only thing I can be super sure of at the end of the day is whether I’m proud that I made the movie, even if it never comes out.”
That epiphany came courtesy of fatherhood. Four years ago, his wife, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, gave birth to their daughter, Everly. She became, in essence, a baby barometer for his career. “When you start worrying about what the outcome is more than what you’re making, it’s really tough to make something that is pure,” he says. “At the end of my life, when I have to look at my daughter in the face and go, ‘Daddy took time out of our lives, out of our relationship, to go do something,’ it better be worth it. It better not just be for money.”
The money — we’re talking about those franchise checks — could be coming anyway. Tatum’s efforts to make a movie centered around the X-Men character Gambit have resulted in a series of false starts, but the project is still in play, and later this year, he’ll portray Taron Egerton’s American bourbon-distilling counterpart in Kingsman: The Golden Circle. If the odds are with him — who knows? — a spin-off isn’t out of the realm of the possible.
In the meantime, Soderbergh alone has kept him plenty busy. Tatum and the Ocean’s Eleven filmmaker met on the set of the 2011 Gina Carano action vehicle, Haywire. Soderbergh sparked to Tatum when the actor suggested that his character, a black-ops agent, fake a hangover to lull his former partner (Carano) into a false sense of security before attacking her.
“You have to make a determination when you start to make your way into this business about what version of Hollywood you want to participate in and what kind of people you want to connect yourself to and spend time with,” Soderbergh says. “You spend your life putting a band together. Chan was immediately someone where I thought, ‘Well, he needs to be in the band.'” Six years — and four more Soderbergh projects — later, the band is still jamming. And Tatum is still marching to his own beat.