“I’ll go slow,” promises Channing Tatum. He looks down, his chiseled brow furrowed in concern. “How’s that?” he asks. “Too slow?”
As an athlete and a dancer, Tatum is used to contorting his body into exotic positions, and it doesn’t take long for him to find his rhythm.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. His thighs are taut. His massive hands are made for stuff like this. “That’s what I’m talking about. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
I find myself starting to lose control. “Oh, God,” I say. “Oh, shit.”
“Oh, yeah!” Tatum announces triumphantly. “We’re making a baby!”
“Oh, nooo,” I shriek. The hunk of clay I have been attempting to make into a vase slips from my grasp and flings itself dramatically off the pottery wheel, which continues to spin madly, splattering me with viscous brown liquid until the instructor at the Brooklyn studio where we’ve been taking a lesson comes over to gently remind me to take my foot off the pedal.
Tee-hee-hee. I hear a giggle from the next wheel over. Tatum is hunched like a giant over his tiny bud vase, his broad shoulders, encased in a white long-sleeve T-shirt with “The Power to Satisfy” written across the chest, shaking with laughter.
“It’s so funny, dude,” he manages eventually. “I wish there was a video component to this interview, so I could just press Play and see you just, like, riding clay. Like you’re just trying to hold on to it like it’s a bull-riding competition, and you keep getting thrown off.” Tee-hee-hee.
If this were any other movie star, I’d probably be mortified, but Tatum—whose laugh, a high-pitched succession of actual tee-hee-hees—seems so genuinely delighted that I end up feeling like I’ve given him a gift.
It helps, also, that he’s not a complete stranger. We first met back in 2011, when I interviewed him for GQ. An up-and-coming actor whom, going into it, I had categorized as a minor player of the Young Hollywood era: The hot guy in movies like Step Up and She’s the Man, he was starring in a Roman historical drama in which his character appeared in muscle-bound body armor.
Twenty-four hours and I don’t know how many tequila shots later, I woke up next to some rocks in the desert, wearing a Snuggie and keenly aware, despite my piercing hangover, that I had been very wrong about Channing Tatum, and that while he may not have been the best-known actor in Hollywood, he was certainly the most fun. It’s a long story. You should probably google it.
I ran into him about a year later in New York, just as he was about to finish Magic Mike, a movie loosely based on the time he spent as a stripper in Tampa.
“And I think shortly after that,” Tatum says, summing up the period between then and now, “I got really busy, and then life kind of fell apart, and then I stopped working for almost five years.”
That’s the short version. More specifically—as you know unless you’ve been asleep next to some rocks in the desert for the past 10 years—Magic Mike was an enormous hit, a cultural phenomenon, and Tatum became an A-list movie star, a producer, a mogul, on the level of actors named Brad and Ryan (whom he refers to, incidentally, as his “homies”). Then he did something that most Hollywood stars would find unthinkable. He just…stopped.
Now, after a period of soul-searching and a lengthy hiatus from acting, he’s back, with at least five movies in the pipeline, including Pussy Island—the directorial debut of his now girlfriend, Zoë Kravitz—and the third installment of Magic Mike—Magic Mike’s Last Dance.
So, given that our tolerance for tequila isn’t what it used to be, and Tatum, 42, has just gotten over COVID (which he declared “boring”), we’ve opted for a mellow, age-appropriate itinerary: brunch and a pottery lesson, which some people seem to think is relaxing.
I thwack a new piece of clay onto my wheel. “You got this, girl,” cheers Tatum. “Ride the clay bull.”
Moments later, he has produced another small vessel. “Now I know why they put this in Ghost,” he says, then smooths out the lip of a piece he notes looks rather like a vagina. “This whole process is very, very sexual.”
Meanwhile, my clay is flapping around all over the place. “Ghost was great,” I mutter as I struggle to get ahold of it.
“We actually have the rights,” Tatum says.
“Yeah, we have the rights to Ghost.”
I press hard on the clay while he tells about how his production company, Free Association, is trying to pull together a remake of Ghost, with him potentially playing the Patrick Swayze role. “But we’re going to do something different,” he says, adding that the original, like many movies of its day, contained some problematic stereotypes. “I think it needs to change a little bit and have our…”
Thhhrrrump. Tatum looks up from his vagina as my wheel makes an angry spluttering sound.
“This is the funniest thing I have experienced in a really long time,” he proclaims as I wipe clay from my eyebrows again. “You’re trying so hard to have a conversation with me, and you’re just getting your ass beat by a wheel and a piece of clay. It’s so good.” Tee-hee-hee.
“I like laughing,” Tatum told me earlier that morning. “I like finding the hilariousness in things.” We were seated outside at a diner in Williamsburg (where Zoë Kravitz lives), which specialized in bagels—which was unfortunate, because Tatum can’t really do carbs. “My face gets really fat really fast,” he explained. Once, to please his ex-wife, he’d hired a vegan chef who wrapped everything in bread. “I just got fatter and fatter and fatter,” he said, his hands moving away from his face to indicate a head expanding like a parade-float balloon. This was also hilarious, he added.
Like many kids with wandering attention spans and excess energy, Tatum learned early how to use humor to deflect attention and defuse tension, a strategy that, as he has gotten older, seems to have morphed into a kind of worldview, an ability to see the silver lining in situations that others might find uncomfortable or unpleasant. “I don’t want to get all corny, but I guess that is kind of my coping mechanism in life, is to find the fun.”
“This is going to be crazy,” he told his friend as they slipped on thongs at Joy, the strip club in Tampa where he started dancing at 18, effectively reducing the experience into a funny anecdote as it was happening. This outlook was useful in Hollywood, an industry that can be similar to strip clubs, where one can easily end up in a bad situation.
“The industry is fairly brutal if you have a spark of creativity,” says Reid Carolin, who was in his early 20s and working as assistant to the director on the 2008 movie Stop-Loss when he met Tatum. Tatum was playing a soldier, the kind of role that, as a muscular white man with a hint of wildness behind the eyes, he’d be asked to play many times over the next few years, including in Dear John, G.I. Joe, Haywire, and the Roman movie, The Eagle. “You get typecast,” says Carolin, who became friends and eventually business partners with Tatum. “We pretty quickly realized the only way we could find fulfillment in the industry was to create and retain ownership of our own material.”
They formed a production company, which they called 33&Out, with the goal of working as hard—and having as much fun—as they could until they reached the so-called Jesus year, at which point they’d peace out. “Go and live on an island somewhere,” as Tatum told me back in 2011.
When Steven Soderbergh, who’d directed Tatum in Haywire, expressed interest in directing a movie about Tatum’s past life as a stripper, they jumped at the opportunity. Carolin, who’d never sold a feature-film script before, began working on a story they saw as being like Boogie Nights or Saturday Night Fever: a darkly comedic tale about a young man who enters a world that is superficially sexy but ultimately pretty grim. “Because that world is not rosy,” Tatum points out. “Some of the worst people I’ve ever met in my entire life were in that realm.”
Then again, a movie about the worst people in the world doesn’t sound like very much fun. “So Chan thought that maybe we could sort of clean it up and make it be something different,” Carolin recalls. The end result—a rom-com about a hot male stripper with a heart of gold dry-humping his way to his dream of owning his own business—was a lot more fun.
Sandra Bullock, “like every other woman in America,” rushed to the theater, where she recognized the guy grinding on all fours—a signature move Tatum calls the Old Faithful—as the same one who had crashed her birthday party a few years before. “The dance floor had never been so happy,” she recalls.
Needless to say, Tatum didn’t need to crash parties after that. “I would go into these meetings and all the female executives would be there, like, ‘What a genetic specimen, what a gift,’ ” says Cody Horn, who played Tatum’s love interest in the movie and later married Carolin.
Horn brings up something I also noticed about Tatum, which is that in his presence, it’s weirdly easy to forget he is an internationally famous movie star and universally revered sex god whose casual hoodie conceals a set of abs more valuable than the Hope Diamond. “He so rarely carries his movie star–ness around in his everyday life, it’s almost surprising when he does turn into that guy,” says Horn. “And when he does, there is such a magnetism to him that you can hardly look at him without falling on the floor. It’s insanely sexy. You’re kind of like, ‘Excuse me, turn that off.’ ”
Tatum’s ability to shift into regular-guy mode also enabled him to successfully cross genres. In the 2010s, he worked nonstop on a wide range of projects: iconic comedies like the 21 Jump Street reboots; critically acclaimed dramas like Foxcatcher; and big-budget franchises like G.I. Joe. Not to mention his own Magic Mike, which spawned a 2015 sequel, Magic Mike XXL, a live show in Vegas with versions in London and Miami, and a reality show on HBO Max.
Tatum never graduated from college, but he turned out to be a very adept businessman. Magic Mike landed him on the list of highest-paid actors in Hollywood, a place he continues to occupy, having recently negotiated a reported $25 million deal with Amazon to coproduce and star in the spy thriller Red Shirt. But according to Carolin, money isn’t Tatum’s main motivation. “It’s not like there’s some materialist end to his ambitions, like ‘I want to make a billion dollars,’ ” he says. “It’s more like, ‘What would be the most interesting use of my time?’ He’s a genuine artist in that way.”
Somewhere in between being named the Sexiest Man Alive by People and one of the most influential by Time, Tatum realized he’d stopped having fun. He was devastated when studio execs pulled the plug on a Marvel movie he and Carolin had spent years developing, based on the X-Men character Gambit. “It got swallowed up into Disney by way of Marvel when they bought Fox, and ultimately I just think that the tone of the movie we wanted to make was very far from what they wanted to do—or, you know, maybe they’re waiting to see how they do it with us or without us,” says Tatum. “We call every once in a while, but we’ve got to spiritually, emotionally, kind of mentally let it go.”
But it was more than that. Something felt off. “I was working a lot,” he recalls. “I had gotten to work with some of my favorite directors. I had checked boxes that I would never have hoped to dream about. But something just wasn’t quite filling me up. I was sort of kind of just trying not to be bad in movies, instead of being good. And I was kind of going, ‘What’s…’ And it really had nothing to do with my work. It was really about my life.”
Tatum and Jenna Dewan had been together ever since they met on the 2006 movie Step Up, which, in case you missed it, was one of those dance movies where the ballerina falls in love with the rough-and-tumble street dancer. Their real-life partnership seemed to mirror the plot: Dewan was a beautiful, poised former professional dancer into wellness and veganism. Tatum was an ex-stripper from Florida who hated vegetables and wore baseball caps sideways well into his 30s.
But unlike what you see in the movies, two wildly different people cannot always live happily ever after. “We fought for it for a really long time, even though we both sort of knew that we had sort of grown apart,” Tatum recalls at brunch.
“I think we told ourselves a story when we were young, and we just kept telling ourselves that story, no matter how blatantly life was telling us that we were so different. But when you’re actually parents,” he goes on, “you really understand differences between the two of you. Because it is screaming at you all day long. How you parent differently, how you look at the world, how you go through the world.”
In the end, try as they might, they could no longer find the fun. “In the beginning, it was super scary and terrifying,” he says of their initial separation. “Your life just turns on its axis. This whole plan that you had literally just turns into sand and goes through your fingers and you’re just like, ‘Oh, shit. What now?’ ”
But, on the bright side, Tatum continues:
“It was probably exactly what I needed. I don’t think I would’ve ever done the work, I think, on myself in the way that I had to do the work on myself to really try to figure out what next. And really, it just started with my daughter. I just dropped everything and just focused on her. And it was truly the best possible thing that I ever could have done. Because in the alone time that I have with just me and her, we’ve become best friends.”
See what I mean? He even makes a divorce sound kind of great.
To be clear, he wasn’t just sitting around in his feelings. Tatum rarely stays still, and during his supposed hiatus he managed to accomplish more than most people do in their entire lives: He painted, he sculpted. (“I like anatomy,” he says. “Not like in a Dahmer way, but if you give me a piece of clay, I could make your hand.”) He got really hard-core into dirt bikes and went hiking in the mountains of Norway with the British adventurer Bear Grylls. He started a children’s book series about Sparkella, a tutu-wearing girl with a fun-loving dad (the third one comes out this year), and began work on a romance novel with the writer and social commentator Roxane Gay, whom he befriended after she wrote about wanting to “hug every part of him with my mouth” online. “She has almost a roughed-out outline of a story that we both love,” he says. “We just got to find time to do it. She’s the busiest, she’s way busier than I am.”
He and Carolin also codirected Dog, a man-and-canine story inspired by the death of Tatum’s beloved dog Lulu. Although in the script, the dog lives: “You don’t want people to be crying their eyes out,” Tatum explains. “Especially nowadays. Jesus. No one wants to see a sad movie.”
Dog, which came out last year, and The Lost City, a rom-com in which he plays a Fabio-esque model opposite Sandra Bullock’s jaded romance writer, marked the official end to Tatum’s hiatus, although just as he began to emerge, the world shut down.
“It was a shitshow,” says Bullock of the havoc the pandemic wrought on the production, which filmed in the Dominican Republic. But it worked out. “The beauty about Channing is, while he is brilliant and savvy and a businessman, that is coupled with the spirit and joy and the inhibition of, like, a child,” she adds, talking about how they swam and rode dirt bikes on the beach on their days off. “He’s just like a beautiful evolved goofball who brings joy wherever he goes.”
In Project Artemis, the movie he’s currently filming with Scarlett Johansson in Atlanta, Tatum plays a NASA launch director during the Apollo program, which one might interpret as an attempt to “transition gracefully into the shirt-on phase” of his career, as Bullock’s character puts it in The Lost City. But, says Tatum, “I doubt that I’ll be able to keep my clothes on forever.”
Certainly not after audiences take in Magic Mike’s Last Dance, for which Tatum got into “the best shape of my entire life,” he tells me, at which point I actually have to stop making eye contact with him because, like, I know. The evidence is very much on display in the third and final installment of the franchise, which begins with a scene in which the title character dry-humps a character played by Salma Hayek Pinault for so long and in so many different positions that it may cause brain hemorrhages in women over 40.
“Hell, yes,” Tatum says when I ask if it was awkward to bury his face in Mrs. François-Henri Pinault’s crotch and carry her around a room with her legs wrapped around his neck. “I mean, she was one of my first crushes. But I do have to say that’s almost the comfort zone for me.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but back in 2012 few had expected the primary audience for Magic Mike to be women. Female desire wasn’t something popularly acknowledged or talked about until suddenly it was everywhere. “We caught the Fifty Shades wave,” says Peter Kiernan, Tatum’s former manager and a partner in his production company, which relaunched as Free Association after Tatum & Co. decided it might be possible to have fun in the business past the ripe old age of 33 after all.
Still, they didn’t have this audience top of mind when they made Magic Mike XXL. As in the first movie, the action centers on the male characters, something that as time went on and the world changed, Tatum began to have misgivings about. “Really, the first two movies are feathered-fish sort of movies, in my opinion,” he says now. “They’re movies about men made for women, or people that like men, but none of them had really strong female characters. So it felt like we sort of hoodwinked people on some level. Like we cheated the code.”
Tatum grew up around strong women, he points out. He is very close to his mother and sister. But he pinpoints his recent feminist awakening to the birth of his daughter. “Only in having a daughter did it start to really scare me how scary the world is for women,” he tells me. “You can conceive it when you love someone that is a girl, but it doesn’t land in the same way as having a tiny female human in the world that is so vulnerable and looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.”
Hearing the revelations of the newly woke can be as irritating as hearing someone talk about their dreams, but Tatum comes across as genuine.
“For whatever reason, he is intimately aware of his privilege,” Gay told me in an email. “He doesn’t apologize for it, which is, frankly, refreshing. Like, you’re an absurdly attractive famous wealthy white man. Please don’t pretend that isn’t great. But he treats people well,” she added, noting that on their “fun and sexy” romance-novel project, Tatum went out of his way to ensure they were paid equally.
“To be clear, that is the right thing to do,” Gay pointed out. “And we shouldn’t give medals to people for doing the right thing, but at the same time, most people simply don’t do the right thing and it is notable when it happens.”
Notably, Magic Mike’s Last Dance has a female lead in the form of Hayek Pinault, who plays Maxandra Mendoza, a wealthy divorcée who gets her groove back by reimagining a worn-out West End show as a male revue for the thinking woman. “I think we wanted that specifically because I feel some sort of more responsibility that the other movies weren’t about women, they were about men,” Tatum says. “And we tried to Trojan-horse some real feel-good, I don’t want to say woman empowerment, self-introspection stuff in there,” he adds, although this might not be quite the right metaphor, since the theme is pretty front and center.
“Wouldn’t it be chauvinistic to have a show about women empowerment that doesn’t have a female character?” a character declares at some point.
Like, the horse is right there.
If anything is being smuggled in, it might be the plot, which was inspired by the creation of Magic Mike Live and, like the movies, is semi-autobiographical:
“It begins with Mike, at 40, basically being like, ‘All right, I did the whole taking myself seriously thing, I started a company that ultimately I built up in this great way, this way that I always dreamed of,’ ” Tatum says. “ ‘But it still didn’t fulfill me. It wasn’t the thing I thought that was going to make me whole, or make me have self-respect or worth or whatever.’ And then this opportunity comes through that in a way brings him back to the thing that he started as.” Although it’s unlikely that anyone will notice, given the aforementioned dry-humping scene.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to get married again,” says Tatum, who suggests we get a foot massage after our pottery lesson. There’s a place nearby, one he’s been going to since he started spending more time in New York with Kravitz. Tatum is, he admits, a serial monogamist. After he and his wife separated, he dated the singer Jessie J on and off for nearly two years.
He first met Kravitz after reading an early draft of Pussy Island, which she and her cowriter had been inspired to write after reading stories about powerful men taking advantage of women. She had him in mind for the island’s owner, a sinister tech billionaire far removed from the affable, fun-loving types he usually plays. “I thought it was super punk rock,” Tatum recalls. “She had passion in there, and she had a point of view that was really specific to who she was and what her experience was. But I wasn’t sure it was clear yet, what it wanted to be.” They agreed to keep talking. “Literally, after that meeting, my life went how it did and we lost touch,” he says. “Then, cut to two and a half years later, they had a new draft, and it was great. I was like, ‘Wow. You are really saying something,’ ” he goes on. “That’s the kind of person you want to create with. That really has this perspective they’re constantly digging for.”
Tatum’s company is also helping to produce the film, which Kravitz directed. “Weirdly, it was comfortable,” he says, adding that work, like planting his face in a woman’s lap, is also his comfort zone.
“Relationships are hard for me,” Tatum says, unfurling his socks. “Even though I am a bit of a monogamist. In business, I have no real fear of anything being destroyed. But heart things, when it comes to people I love, I have a really hard time. I end up trying too hard, you know?”
In other words, as the internet observed after Tatum was discovered to be following a number of Kravitz’s fan accounts on Instagram: “I have no chill.” It was innocent, he swears. “I was just seeing what she was up to! Also, I didn’t know anyone would know.”
But these days he’s trying to have more chill in general. “So I can actually experience these moments, instead of just trying to change it or something,” he says. “Or being afraid that it’s not going to work out how I wanted or something.”
“You know when things are kind of just working, you don’t want to touch it? Like pottery,” he adds. “Like pottery. If I keep pressing on it, it’s going to buck me off. And you’re just like, ‘Ooh. Maybe I should stop.’”
He considers. “I think life—”
“Shhh.” The guy massaging Tatum’s feet hushes him. Someone behind a screen is getting a full-body massage, and he doesn’t want us to interrupt their zen with our chatter.
“This is hilarious,” Tatum whispers.
Afterward, Tatum offers to walk me to the subway so he can finish his thought. “I think life has a really fun way to give you exactly what you need when you need it,” he says. “Not meaning gifts, or anything like that. But what you need to learn.”
Early on in his separation, he says, when things were still really raw and painful, Reid Carolin told him about a professor of comparative religion who says that the best wisdom comes from people who have lost “two worlds.” “Meaning like experiences, two kind of life-deaths where everything changes,” Tatum explains.
“Everything that you thought was just all of a sudden in a blink of an eye, you lose a child or you, yeah, get a divorce, your life falls apart. You know? Where your world as you know it completely just evaporates in front of your face forever. So he’s saying wisdom only comes from people who have really had a life and experienced the spectrum of life, and all the peaks and the valleys, if you will. And Reid’s like, ‘So you’re halfway there, champ.’ ”
I was like, “All right. Yeah, that’s a good way to spin it.”
Grooming, Jamie Taylor; tailor, Yasmine Ezeli; set design, Philipp Haemmerle. For details, go to vf.com/credits.