Making a leading man

Hollywood Hero

Hollywood may have long ago left behind its studio system days, when leading men were manufactured on assembly lines, but star making has changed less than you think.

Next in line : Channing Tatum (right) and Jonah Hill in a scene from ‘21 Jump Street’.

Behind every ascending actor is a team — usually an agent, a manager or two, a lawyer and a publicist — that obsessively works to build their client into the next Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise or Will Smith.

Channing Tatum, one of moviedom’s best hopes for a new male superstar, is no exception. A former Chippendales-style stripper, Tatum, 31, will next appear in the comedy 21 Jump Street — a calculated move by this actor and his advisers to broaden his fan base beyond the young women who have flocked to see him in romances like The Vow.

But leading-man manufacturing has changed in one very important way: the success rate has plummeted. For over a decade now, Hollywood has failed to mint a new heavyweight, the kind of actor who can anchor a blockbuster and repeat that feat over a prolonged period. Today’s A-list includes Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Adam Sandler, all of whom climbed into the cultural firmament 15 or more years ago.

What’s wrong? And does Tatum have any shot of beating the odds?

Tatum is practically living in multiplexes this year. In January, he appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, which was a hit with critics if not audiences. Recently, Tatum starred as a husband trying to win back his wife in The Vow. This month, he can be seen in 21 Jump Street, where Tatum and Jonah Hill act as blundering undercover narcotics cops. And Tatum plays a lead role in the sequel G I Joe: Retaliation, which arrives later in the year.

He will also appear as a stripper in the comedy Magic Mike, a star vehicle based on his days in a nearly nude male revue. Tatum produced and helped finance the film, which was directed by Soderbergh.

But Tatum, who goes by Chan, knows Hollywood is littered with eight-pack abs that have failed to make the leap from hot young thing to leading man. “I’ll definitely think about it,” he said over a recent lunch of roast chicken and macaroni and cheese. “All I can do is work my tail off and try to make smart choices based on the advice of smart people.”

When you ask industry veterans why it has been so difficult for Hollywood to turn out a new crop of megawatt male stars, the fast answer usually involves the state of movies. Stars like Matt Damon, Russell Crowe and Tom Hanks came up in medium-size dramas and comedies that let them build a fan base, the kind of movies Hollywood has all but abandoned as it pursues bloated special-effects extravaganzas that play increasingly to an overseas audience.

Then there is what Jeanine Basinger, the chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University, describes as the “pretty boy problem.” “Now, all we get is an assembly line of young guys who look the same,” Basinger said. “The audience has been trained to know that it doesn’t really have to pay attention to any of them. If you miss one bus, you just get on the next one.” She added: “If I could tell studios one thing, it is less emphasis on the abs, more attention to the acting.”

“Part of Tatum’s appeal is old-fashioned movie star charisma — that ‘it factor’ that really is a real thing,” said Amy Pascal, the co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which produced The Vow and 21 Jump Street. “But it’s more than that. He has now shown that he can hold a gun, kiss a girl and tell a joke. Most actors are lucky if they can believably do one of those.”

Soderbergh said: “I certainly would never place him in that category of young actors who get hired just because they look good,” noting that he had found Tatum’s acting in the indie A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints particularly impressive. “He comes with ideas that are well thought out but also doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is really refreshing.”

Tatum, who is married to the dancer and actress Jenna Dewan-Tatum, grew up in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. He attended Glenville State College in West Virginia on a football scholarship but dropped out after a year, returning to Florida to work odd jobs: framing houses, spritzing cologne in a department store, processing loan applications, stripping.

A modelling scout found him, which led to work for Abercrombie & Fitch, which led to dancing in Ricky Martin’s She Bangs music video in 2000. His big break was Step Up, a $12 million dance movie that sold over $114 million in tickets and spawned three sequels.

“I remember talking to him about how you go about building a career in Hollywood,” said Anne Fletcher, who directed the first Step Up. “I told him, ‘Get your train moving, and after people are invested in you, they will go anywhere with you.’ ”

Tatum has deliberately worked non-stop since. “Taking a break is a problem because audiences today have attention-deficit disorder,” he said. “They forget you quickly or get tired of seeing you do one thing quickly. You’ve got to be in there, swinging all the time.”

To that end he has made 16 movies just in the last five years, including Stop-Loss, about young veterans of the war in Iraq, and The Eagle, a Roman period drama.

Many young actors whine about the publicity demands placed on them by studios, but Tatum said that stardom these days requires both non-stop interviews and innovative types of interaction with fans on social networks. Now that he’s got momentum, Tatum says his strategy involves “grinding it out” for a couple more years before slowing down a bit and focussing on more serious roles.

“I know you can’t make decisions about your career out of fear,” he said. “When people in this business start doing that, it leads them back to nowheresville.”

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