So It Turns Out That Channing Tatum Is a Pretty Good Actor

With guidance from director Steven Soderbergh, ex-stripper Tatum has impressed audiences with sure-footed, naturalistic performances. Where does he go after Friday's Side Effects?

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Tatum with Rooney Mara in the upcoming Soderbergh-helmed thriller 'Side Effects.' (Open Road)

When, in 2011, Steven Soderbergh announced his forthcoming retirement , film geeks pulled up his development slate on IMDb Pro to find that three of the great director's final four movies—including this Friday's new medical thriller Side Effects—would be starring Channing Tatum. If someone back then had drawn a Venn diagram of fans of Soderbergh's and fans of the Tatum-starring Step Up franchise, the overlap between circles would have been slight. Soderbergh followers knew, of course, that the filmmaker behind Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience loved to work with non-actors, but, they thought, why does he insist on casting this one?

Might it be the fact that Soderbergh remains, as he has been for the last quarter century, two steps ahead? That the director of Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean's Eleven, who has Clooney, Damon, and Pitt seemingly on call saw something in ex-dancer/model/stripper Tatum that few others did—namely, that he's really good? Increasingly, the answer to those questions appears to be "yes."

Their first collaboration, Haywire, snuck out in January last year. The movie's great—spare, fresh, elegantly constructed. And during scenes with star Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter, Tatum seemed kinda sorta fine, even well-suited for the role. That fleshy-faced physicality that he'd once bundled with menace in a chilling scene from 2006 indie-awards contender A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was still there. That physicality always will be there, as he seemed to understand, without his having to puff up or so aggressively smolder. And so he acted against it, playing his contract agent as bored, exhausted, and impatient, thereby giving a tired film trope a new, human feel.

If watchers were intrigued by Tatum's turn in that film, they were then bowled over by what he did next, sans Soderbergh. 21 Jump Street, a ridiculous-sounding adaptation of a ridiculous '80s Teen Beat TV show, paired co-producers Tatum and Jonah Hill as Odd Couple buddy-narcs reliving high school to catch a drug dealer. But it was astonishingly good, offering clear, bright, and zany Police Academy-style fun. What's more, Tatum, as a once-popular jock at odds with the new sensitive world order ("I blame Glee," he says, deadpan and disillusioned), was effortless, silly, and genuinely funny. The whole trailer-park-Zoolander vibe slid off him and he hit a register we previously thought out of his reach. In just a few moments of screen time he'd done what Marky Mark has failed to do in 20 years: Stop taking himself so seriously. Tatum's physicality now became the butt of a self-effacing joke at the expense of meatheads. He looked at home with the self-aware dialogue and scatological hijinks, at perfect ease with the post-millennial mix of intensity and irony.

Beyond his lone remaining collaboration with Soderbergh, the rest will be up to Tatum himself—a future reality about which he seems to want to be in control.

It was a beautiful moment in a way, like watching an athlete find a new dimension to their skills during a break-out game. But his real homerun was Soderbergh's Magic Mike. The bildungsroman is a kind of Good Will Hunting of male strippers, and for former-stripper Tatum, who produced it, his 8 Mile.

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Christopher Wallace

Chris Wallace is a writer and editor in New York. 

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