Channing Tatum (May 2003)
Straight out of the croc-infested bayous of the mighty Mississippi, Channing Tatum roared onto the world's television screens this spring in a fiery-hot new TV spot from Mountain Dew called "Drive."
If you missed the Mountain Dew commercial, you may remember Channing Tatum as one of Tear Sheet Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful faces (October 2001), or even as the kid with the platinum Mohawk in Ricky Martin's video "She Bangs." But regardless, in less than two years he's been featured in campaigns for Nautica, Abercrombie & Fitch, Emporio Armani, Gap, Aeropostale and American Eagle, in addition to television commercials for Pepsi, Mountain Dew and American Eagle, and the sequel to his first 'Dew' spot hits this summer. First movie? He's already signed.
Channing has been photographed by Wes Bell, Todd Oldham, Tom Munro, Tony Duran, Richard Phibbs, Mikael Jannsen, Bruce Weber, Arnaldo Anaya Lucca, Dewey Nicks, Walter Chin, Rudy Martinez, Pamela Hanson and Randall Mesdon, for Vogue, Flaunt, Gentlemen's Options, Spoon, Empire Magazine, Out, Contents, l'Uomo Vogue and Citizen K magazines. He's achieved belted status in Kung Fu and Gor-Chor Kung Fu, and has years of experience practicing the ancient art of Wah-lum and Capoeira, the Brazilian dance/martial artform.
Born on April 26 and just turned twenty-two years of age, he stands 6' 1-1/2" tall, and is a true Tauran — "kind of animalistic," as he later confides. Part native American, part Irish and part French, he has all the pride, charm and passion that ancestry implies. What's clear is that he's going places, fast. But it all began where he was born, in a tiny little town just outside of Montgomery, Alabama, called Culman.
"I left Alabama when I was very young," Channing says as he sits down to chat. "But all my mom's family is there and we still have land, so I go back just about every summer. It's been a little bit more difficult the past two years just because I've been so busy."
Do you still have childhood memories?
From where my grandmother Nana and my Papa used to live. I loved my Nana and my Papa. They were my roots. Every summer my folks sent me off to the country to stay with them, hoping to keep me out of trouble. And you know grandparents are so real they don't even know how to be fake. They never bother saying what you want to hear, they just say "this is the way it is." I'd get up to something and they would just look at me and shake their heads and say: "Oh Channing ..."
You said you left Alabama at an early age?
When I was six we moved to Mississippi. We lived on the bayou actually, right on the Mississippi River, and that's where a lot of my early memories come from.
What was it like?
All the rattlesnakes and alligators a boy could possibly chase, fishing every day, Pop Warner football league, stuff like that. It was one of those kinds of settings. I'm not a country bumpkin hillbilly, but I do love the outdoors, totally.
Did you play any sports in school?
I played everything — football, soccer, track, baseball. I was always pretty athletic and my dad tried to keep me busy doing marshal arts and sports so I wouldn't get into trouble.
Staying out of trouble is already a recurring theme and we haven't got past the age of nine...
(laughs) Exactly, I had a lot of energy. I was bouncing off the walls. They had to do something with me. No more than your usual kid though — running, scuffing knees, getting in fights. I wasn't into stealing cars or anything. I was just very easily distracted. If there was a cute girl on the far side of the class, I'd be flirting with her every time. Girls were always my biggest distraction in school.
When did you start doing martial arts?
When I was six. At that age I don't think I even realized what it takes. They throw these kids in a ring and they're kicking each other's brains out. It took a lot of guts. You know, "Oh God, I can't lose, Dad's watching." But even after I left Mississippi I returned every few weeks to test for another belt. I loved it, the tournaments, the fighting ...
I don't know. The focus, the determination, the adrenaline — all those very basic emotions, I just loved them. Before, I'd always been involved in team sports. But this was something I could do that was just me. It was completely up to me to be however great I wanted to be.
And it kept you out of trouble?
I was trying to, trying to stay out of trouble ... (laughs). Things got a little bit rocky for a while when I started ninth grade though, so dad sent me to a military school. They had a good football team so I was fine with it, and it really did straighten up my act. I got with this really good girl that helped me a lot with school and with trying to be good ... (both of us are laughing as the sentence peters out)
What was your goal as you approached graduation?
From the start it was always football. That's all I worked for. From the time of my very first year playing football in the Police Athletic leagues, that's all I wanted to do, play ball. The only reason I wanted to graduate high school was to get a scholarship and play football.
Why did you love it so much?
Probably because my dad played college ball. It was a 'following in my dad's footsteps' sort of thing. It was one of the ways we related to each other. We'd butt heads now and then, but as soon as football season came around, we'd be back on track. That would always be our thing to keep us sane and together.
You won an athletic scholarship?
Yes. To a school in West Virginia, but I found out it wasn't what I wanted. There was no fun in it. Football at that level can still be fun and all, but it's a job. You're working all the time to keep that scholarship. You're working, doing two-a-days, three-a- days.
What's that, a two-a-day?
It means two football practices a day. A typical day is you wake up at 6am and you've got to be on the field by 7:30 am. You practice for three hours, then you have football study groups in a classroom for an hour, then you hit the weight room, then you have lunch, then you have another 3 hour practice, then you have school one more time at night, and then you're allowed to sleep for six hours. But all the work wasn't the bad thing, it just wasn't fun any more.
Sounds like the coach didn't inspire you.
Not at all. The coach that recruited me left before I got there, so I got stuck with a coach that had nothing invested. There was no bond at all. The other thing that was different was that I couldn't really play for my parents anymore because it was too far for them to drive up to the games. Anyway, I wasn't happy, and when I get unhappy I start fighting, and I ended up getting into a lot of fights. So I decided just to hang it up. It was definitely not what I wanted to do for the next four years.
That must have been a low point for you?.
Absolutely, because I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I went back home.
You mentioned that when you were little, back in that martial arts ring, that the pride of your parents meant a great deal to you. What was their reaction?
They just told me to come home if I wanted to, but they weren't too excited. They were used to being able to brag about me, so yes, it sucked. I definitely felt I'd let them down. If it wasn't for my mom, I just would not be here today. Not just the physical part of bringing me into this world, but she got me through everything. A lot of the bad stuff I don't really want to go into? She totally saved my life. She was the cornerstone. She got me through it no matter how bad it got.
Because she always believed in you?
Yes. She would never let me give up. Her word was relentless. Whenever I wanted to give up, she got me through it. When you're young, you always think you have it so terrible. But I look back on it all now and I realize how bad I didn't have it. I am who I am because of the way they raised me, and I'm so happy for it. I've really tried to take all the good things from everyone in my life and hold onto them.
So what did you do?
Well, I got a job with this puppy/kitty nursery, I worked in construction - framing houses, I worked as a mortgage broker, I got a job at the cologne counter of Dillard's and then at this edgy little raver clothing store.
Was that the scene you identified with?
Yes, I was really part of the raver club-kid thing, right from the time I was sixteen. That's still who I get along with best.
Is there anything in your life that takes you away from competition?
Dancing. I don't really like to compete with it now? But I used to be this really freakin' battle kid. I used to love going into clubs, whatever and getting into a breaking circle.
When did you get into it?
I was about sixteen and I was living with my sister for a while, and her friends would get me in. The clubs down in Florida are kind of lax, they're a little more grimy and a little grittier. But I got into the clubs and I saw this crowd of people going nuts over these kids flipping and spinning on their heads, and I was like: "What? I want to do that." Oh yeah.
Was it the physical challenge or did you want the attention?
It's not the attention, because I don't even really like to be looked at. At first it was the adrenaline, getting out there and performing, and there's another guy across from you that you're competing with. And you develop your friends that are your crew and you've got people who are coming into your club from the outside, and then you're going nuts and you're kind of like battling.
But I don't go in circles anymore. When I go out to dance now I go into the corner of a club and just kill it. It's so much more fun when you're not there thinking "Oh my God, who's looking at me?" When I was younger I definitely did it for the attention but now I do it for me. Like I'll go into the aerobics room of my gym and kill it for a couple of hours. I love it.
What is it you love about dancing?
It's more like a really cool body thing. The only other time I've felt it has been acting. Like, you feel this rhythm, or this beat or this lyric that means something to you. Or it doesn't even have to mean anything, you just relate to it somehow, it makes you want to move. The people who like to dance, they like the way their body moves because that's what's intimate to them. Moving their arm a certain way, that feels good to them. So the next thing you know, you're spinning around in circles and you're not even aware of what you look like, you're just kind of going with it.
I really get inspired by songs. Like, if I hear a thug "Want to kill ya" song, I'm ready to go out and get crazy. Or if you hear this really sexual, sensual slow song, I want to go have sex. I'm very animalistic when it comes to stuff like that. Very basic emotions. I don't know if I'm very complicated at all. I wish I was. I wish I was one of these deep, intricate people. But I just love having fun really.
Is that feeling of losing yourself in the music when you're dancing the same as it is for an athlete hitting their zone?
I guess they could be related. Anything physical, you're doing it, and then ... let's say you're playing football and you just get handed the ball and you're running. Sometimes everything just goes quiet, and the next thing you know, you're flying. You're just dipping and running and ... that's when the amazing things happen, when everything just focuses in for two seconds. Then it's over and you're just like "Yes! That was hot!" The excitement comes afterwards, when you realize what you've just done.
How did you get the Ricky Martin video?
I got into the Orlando casting through a friend's agency. There were about one hundred people in the room and they were playing "She bangs." They auditioned people in groups of three, so you kind of tried to dance with each other.
Did you think you'd get it?
I didn't expect to hear anything because I knew they'd alreeady done a casting in Miami and I was pretty sure they'd get all the dancers they needed there. And they did, except me — I was the only dancer they took from Orlando.
How much did you get paid?
I was so excited. I was just an extra, but they offered to pay me $400 and fly me to Atlanta, so I thought "Shit! I want to go to Atlanta." And it was crazy. Seven days and I don't think I slept once. It was so beautiful. Ridiculous. I think there were four guys and probably thirty girls. We never slept, we didn't sleep at all. We just partied the whole time. The only time we actually did sleep was when we went to costume, waiting to get dressed and made up and everything.
How many people on the crew.
I'm not sure but it was a huge set and the biggest production I've ever been part of. The whole thing was enormous. I had this platinum hair and a big Mohawk with these crazy spikes. Now as far as the pay was concerned, I realized being a dancer in videos wasn't for me. But I'd always wanted to be on an MTV video, and I'd done it, so I was like: "Cool! Done. Check that. What's next?"
So what did you do?
One of the dancers I met on the set got me a job as a choreographer with this little hip-hop dance group down in Miami.
Does it seem at all incongruous to you, Channing, that you're this football star doing dance choreography? I think it's so cool you have both sides going on, but don't you find it just a little jarring?
If I was doing ballet I could see it more, but yes, I have changed tremendously since I got out of high school. By leaps and bounds. (laughs)
What finally got you into modeling?
Another girl I knew was down in Miami doing some modeling and really wanted me to meet with some agencies. At the time I was still getting over the platinum hair from "She Bangs," so I looked like this little club kid, which is what I was, and I thought she was nuts. I didn't think of myself as a model at all.
ou mean you thought it was phony?
No, more like I'm not pretty. The truth is I didn't think I could be a model at all. I was looking at some of the guys on the walls at Irene Marie and I thought to myself "Jesus Christ. I can't do this. I don't look anything like these guys." But Paige Parkes represented actors too, and that was one of the things I thought I could really do, far more than modeling.
It's fascinating, Channing, there are so many twists and turns here -- martial arts black belt, high school football star, dancer, choreographer, actor ...
Acting has always interested me. You get to play all these different roles and I've always had a vivid imagination. I even had an invisible friend for years. I love games, I love role-playing — cowboys and Indians sort of thing. And I always loved movies: 'Goonies' was my all-time favorite movie! (laughs) ... that's what I wanted to be ... 'The Lost Boys,' 'Stand By Me.' all those movies I grew up with as a kid. I just knew I wanted to play those adventure roles out on TV.
So you signed with Paige Parkes?
I really liked them. They took the time to explain everything to me. They asked me what my goals were, what kinds of work I was interested in, and they told me what was involved and what I'd have to do if I was serious. So I moved to Miami, this is about two years ago, and I was down there for six months doing tests and stuff.
Were you worried about doing well?
I tried to prepare myself in advance and once I got there I asked my agent a lot of questions — "What makes a good model? Is it body? Is it face?" They'd tell me "It's modeling." And I didn't understand what that meant, 'modeling,' being comfortable in front of the camera.
What happened those first months?
In the beginning I didn't do very well. I did these little editorials, but no one knew what to do with me in Miami.
I was too edgy. I had this shaved head and I kind of looked like a skinhead or a thug. I couldn't do catalogue all that well, and that's all there is in Miami really. But then I did this fashion show for Danny Santiago in Miami. Danny was the one who really kick-started my career. He helped me get an editorial shoot with Greg Lotus for Spoon Magazine. It didn't run, but I still think to this day that they were some of my best pictures — pictures worth taking to New York, which is what I needed.
What was Greg Lotus like to work with?
He was awesome. I just love him. He's so interesting to work with. He's the kind of photographer that likes taking the picture. He likes you to be very still ... you just give it to him with the eyes. No running and jumping, more like portraits.
Then, Danny (Santiago) showed the Greg Lotus pictures to Tony Duran, and Tony wanted to shoot me for an editorial in Gentlemen's Options, so I got to fly up to New York. I was so amped. As soon as I got off the plane I was like: "This is it. This is where I want to be!" The fast pace, everything. And you actually get appointments here. For my look, Miami was a great place to get a book started, but not so much for work.
When did you first shoot with Bruce Weber?
It was for an editorial in Vogue, my very first published editorial in fact. It was a two-day shoot with all these amazing girls and Joel (McMillan) and here I was, this no-name kid, just trying to get into the picture somehow.
Shooting with Bruce Weber is like a right of passage. What was it like working with him?
First of all, I love Bruce. I really, really love him. He gets a bad rap. It wasn't scary at all. In fact, he's the one who really taught me how to model. I went to his house and he started taking Polaroids, so I started doing my whole "Blue Steel," "Magnum" shit, and he just looked at me and asked "What are you doing?"
He taught me a lot about being a model and about just being myself. He told me to stop and just relax, and showed me how to chill and be as natural as possible, that whole James Dean kind of 'let it go,' you know? Just learn to let it go.
So you have the distinction of shooting Vogue with Bruce Weber before shooting A&F?
Yup. And as a matter of fact, I'm still kind of offended. Bruce never asked me to get naked once. (laughs) I really noticed it at the A&F shoot — they never asked me to get naked and I was wondering "what's wrong with me? I mean what am I? Chopped liver?" (laughs)
To be honest though, I still don't think I fit into the Abercrombie category. You'll see in the pictures how everyone looks a certain way and then there's this bald ghetto kid in the corner.
I wasn't very big at the time and Bruce likes 'em just bulging, really, really in shape. So I was just the team mascot. I had to stand on the sidelines and watch while these guys got to put on pads and go out and hit. I was watching them just panting (he pantomimes) to get out on that field and play some ball. I was so pissed off. I was thinking to myself "you've got to be fucking kidding me."
I was so upset man. I wanted to get out there and crack heads so bad. It offended me. I should have been the one on that field. I mean, Who wouldn't want to use me? They don't have to love me, I just want them to use me. (laughs) It was pretty funny. As you can tell, I'm very, very competitive. I don't like losing, at all. That would be my biggest thing. I love competition.
How did you like shooting with Rudy Martinez?
I loved it.
All the guys rave about him. He and Tony actually. They are mentioned as favorites time and again.
Every photographer is different. I tried to be with Rudy (Martinez) the way I was with Bruce? No sir. (shaking his head) Now someone like Bruce, he wants you to literally just stand there and he's the one that takes the beautiful picture.
But Rudy likes you to work it, to keep moving — to stay with whatever attitude he's given you, something like "that tough, come-and-get-me-but-if-you-touch-me-I'm-gonna-kill-ya" sort of look? I think that's verbatim what he said to me. He said that's what I want: "Come get it, but if you touch me I'll fuck you up." That's exactly what he said to me. (laughs)
I love the way he shoots. It was my very first New York test, an editorial for Empire Magazine and I still have it in my book — gym scenes, a shower, naked basically, but I like taking beautiful pictures.
What about Walter Chin?
I worked with him on a shoot for l'Uomo Vogue. He pulled up in this amazing sports car. He got out of the car, an assistant handed him a camera and he just started shooting. He was totally amazing.
Have they sent you to Milan?
The first time I went to Europe was summer 2001. The plan was to spend about two and a half weeks in Milan and then a month in Paris. I'd always wanted to go over, so I was really psyched.
Everyone talks about how difficult Milan is their first year. What are you dealing with? The heat?
It gets so hot there in the summer, and you're packed into these crowded hallways.
Too many guys at every casting?
That's an understatement. 75 to 100 guys are lined up in front of you no matter where you go.
You've got Team Brazil cutting the line?
Yes, I don't know why they get away with it, but it's not worth fighting over.
A little impersonal?
Every client has a certain look they're going for, whether it's long hair, short hair, skinny, built, London look, scruffy look, clean-cut. So you stand in line for hours to do five castings, and then they don't even bother to take a Polaroid of you.
How long does it take to do those five castings?
It can take you all day, especially when you don't know where you're going. So you really start to question what you're doing there.
Does your agency give you anything to live on?
Nothing. Sometimes they'll front the hotel cost, but you end up paying for it out of your fees anyway.
What else do you have to overcome?
Not being able to get food. Store hours are really limited there. You're tied up in lines all day, and then when you want to get something to eat at eight o'clock at night, you are shit out of luck. There is nothing you can do about it except pray to God that your hotel has something in the mini-bar or you will die. And there are no gyms ...
I remember David Fumero talked about lifting boulders in a park to stay in shape.
It's just the whole vibe. You're all alone, you miss home but you can't call because it's so expensive.
And I guess this is the first time away from home for a lot of the guys?
Exactly. You learn to survive by asking as many questions as possible. I was pretty burned out by the time I finished up in Paris, but the clients that booked me that first year still book me today. After that I just spent four months traveling. I went to Spain, Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia ... no one knew where I was.
So you kind of checked out for a while?
Yes. In the meantime Metro Models, my old agency closed, so I had to track Jason (Kanner, director of Major Models) down at Major when I got back. He told me to come back and he'd get something going for me.
How did you first connect with Jason?
I met with him the very first day I arrived in New York for the shoot with Tony Duran. Jason arranged the meeting. It turned out that in one day he'd heard my name from Greg Lotus, Al David, someone at Bloomingdales and then from Tony Duran, all in that same day. So he called my Miami agency and arranged to meet me. He was totally positive and promised to back me 100% and he already had six appointments for me. I really couldn't believe my luck. I was like: "This is great, this is just awesome."
Jason is my manager too. There's no one I'd trust my career with more. He is a total confidante. And he always has words of wisdom when I'm going through a tough time. He's like the quintessential big brother — that scolding, constructive criticism that's really tough on you, the sort of guy that won't take any shit. That's what I need.
So he's made a big difference?
I am where I am because of him. You've got to have a very good relationship with your agent — a personal relationship. But don't get it screwed up to the point that he can't tell you the bottom line about what's really going on.
So how did you get the Mountain Dew Commercial?
First I auditioned for this Pepsi commercial. It was called "Scratch" and it was directed by Tarsem Singh, the guy who directed "The Cell," and it featured a DJ. Every DJ in New York was up for that audition and they had records with them, mixers, everything. They were really tearing it up and I didn't have anything. I had to borrow a record from one of the DJs. But I went up there and tried to look like I was really killing it. The other guys were saying "You sure can't scratch for shit, but you can dance" and they were laughing, man. (laughs). I was spinning on my back, scratching with my elbow, just dumb stuff. Afterwards I told Jason it was pretty bad, but a month later I got the commercial.
And that lead to the Mountain Dew ad?
After "Scratch" for Pepsi was released they asked me fly out to LA to audition for Mountain Dew. I was a little intimidated — the casting was full of people I recognized from TV shows and I'd never even taken an acting class. But finally they called me in, gave me some direction, and I just did it exactly the way they wanted me to. Basically they just sat me in a chair pretending to drive and I said "Gotta have my Dew" and that was it. A day later they gave me the part and we started shooting. It was crazy.
How many days did it take?
Seven. Just sitting in the car and saying the lines took the first day. The really tough part was being strapped in the car on a flatbed truck and then driving while the car flips upside down, this guy steps under and I grab the can out of his hand.
You were actually moving when you grabbed the can out of the guy's hand?
Yeah. Some shots I'd just pretend I was grabbing it, but then they'd put him under and I had to grab the can as we moved past him, while we're rolling and then I had to pour it down my throat practically upside down. That's why it spills out of my mouth.
That's the sexiest part of the commercial.
(laughs) It's funny — that wasn't planned at all, it just happened.
Did you actually get to drive.
Oh yeah. They taught me how to do 360s and 180s and stuff. They had me do some of the driving where it's fast, and for the stunts where you had to see me swinging around with the car. But the shots where you had to just miss the camera by a couple of inches? No way. They had stunt drivers for all of that. I got to do a lot though. It was really cool.
How long before it was released?
It came out four weeks later. I remember the first time it came on. I wasn't watching TV, I was in a hotel with my girlfriend. But my phone started blowing up. Then her phone blows up. And we don't get that much time alone, so we're wondering what's going on, but finally I pick up for one of my friends and he's practically screaming on the other end of the phone: "Dude! Dude! Dude!" He was just going nuts. And so we turned on the TV and that's the first time I saw it. Then people started recognizing me on the street.
Yeah, which was pretty cool. I've had a lots of little girls come up to me especially, it's really sweet. (laughs)
Has it affected other aspects of modeling?
It's probably kicked it up a little bit for me. And Nautica has been really cool. They've helped me with the whole acting thing. The Nautica Jeans campaign is the first campaign I ever did, and that was very, very nice. It started things rolling for me. Then I got Emporio (Armani). Then the commercial happened, so it was a very cool series of events.
Do you consider it part of the job to get out at night and be seen?
That's something I don't really do. If you want to go out and have fun, go out and have fun. I've found that that's where you find the wrong influence. Not to say that everyone that goes out and parties is a scoundrel, but that's where I've found some of the dogs, the scummy people, that don't really have your career in mind — they're working another angle. And no one needs to be bothered with that.
All the people that are really about it in the industry, that have it cornered, that can either help you or can at least give you advice? More than likely you won't find any of them in a club. You'll see them in an office. It just makes sense. Huge people that are really into their jobs are not out there partying. Yes, you do find people from the industry that go out, but you don't get jobs in clubs. You get jobs in offices.
I think that's really important. It relates to what you said earlier about the kind of photographers a good agency can connect you with. At the right level, everything is set up to help you. But the wrong influence at the beginning can hurt your chances.
Very, very easily. And they'll taint you. You'll get jaded. So just be careful. Don't think that any one person is the end of your world. And trust me. For anyone listening out there, once you get here, it's like: "OK, now where do I go from here?" So it's not as if ... modeling saved my life, because I'm not a 9-5 kind of guy; I love being free and doing what I want to do — but there are crappy things about it too. It's not all glamour.
Do you mind if I ask what you think about ModelLaunch?
It would have been really nice if I could have found this when I was starting out. It seems to me that this is the real deal kind of thing. You seem to be very wholesome in what you're trying to do. It's all positive, very clear, and you can learn a lot, even just to see whether or not you want to do it. You hear about the good and the bad and can judge for yourself.
There are a lot of shady people in this business and it's priceless to be able to get in with the right kind of people and sidestep all of the bullshit. You hear a lot about model searches where you have to pay a bunch of money. But to be able to put your picture on something good, to be able to get a real response from very good agents, it's priceless, especially compared with getting the runaround from some Joe Schmoe who just wants to get in a kid's pants. This business can definitely do a head job on you if you let it.
Especially at the entry level?
That's where they scavenge and prey on the unknowing. I can see how some kid coming from Nebraska might not know any better, but I've been around the club scene for a long time. I always had the idea when I went into this field that I wouldn't put out any stupid amount of money for things that wouldn't get me ahead.
First of all, I knew the only places I could get good pictures were New York, Miami or LA. Second, I made sure I got into a prestigious agency that I knew wouldn't hook me up with any shitty photographers. I paid whatever I had to within those parameters, but that was it. I didn't have to spend any extravagant amount of money.
What would you say has been the best thing about modeling for you?
It's made my life, and my family's life, a lot easier, because I never knew what I wanted to do and now they don't really have to worry about me anymore. I've been able to explore life, and through exploring it I've found that I love art, I love writing, I love acting, I love all the things that make sense to me. And I've been given the chance to go out and see the world, and to see all the things out there. Not everyone gets that chance.