Interview: Channing Tatum Steps It Up for 'Step Up'

Channing Tatum

Touchstone Pictures

Hot off of starring roles in Coach Carter and She's the Man in 2006, Channing Tatum got the chance to show off his dance skills in Step Up, co-starring Jenna Dewan (whom Tatum married in 2009).

A free-style street dancer with no formal training, Tatum was chosen for the role because of his natural talent. Producer Erik Feig says that Tatum moves "like water" while Step Up producer Adam Shankman claims Tatum is "one of the best natural street dancers" he's ever seen. At the time of the film's release, Tatum spoke to us about the film.

A Rookie Among Trained Dancers

Channing Tatum found the experience of working around trained dancers to be a little nervewracking. “You know, they are so many different levels of it. For example, I had to learn how to count music. I didn't know how to count music at all. And [choreographer] Jamal Sims kind of found a way in for me. He'd like to make sounds. He would make sounds like [demonstrating a human beat box], and I remembered what I would do for those things. And once you start getting it into your body and into your mind...

It's two things learning something: your body has to learn something and your mind has to learn something. You've got to connect the two sometimes, and one of them always remembers it more than the other. Just getting them to work together is like the big key. Then aside from that, you learn it in like a closed environment, like in a dance studio by yourself, where it's just you and Jamal. Then they throw you out in front of people, and you're like [nervously], ‘You all are going to be here while I'm doing this?’" It's kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ It's different than going and dancing in a club. Even in a circle in a club, I don't even like to do [that] because it's really strange. I don't know, it's strange. It is. It's weird. You go to stand in a circle, and you watch people dance. I don't know, that's nervewracking to me.

It kind of makes me pinch myself every day that I did a dancing movie. I haven't even seen the whole thing, so I don't know if I will be able to watch it all the way [at the premiere]. I'll just be like sinking into my chair more and more and more, knowing that the final dance number's coming. But yeah, it was an amazing experience. I don't know if that answers your whole question or not. I go off on tangents - I apologize.”

Channing Tatum on His Dance Partner, Jenna Dewan

“I don't know how I would have done it without her, to be honest with you. I was nervous with the partnering, but I actually got the partnering better than some of the other stuff. You know, it's easy for a guy to be a partner, especially if he's working with someone that knows what they're doing like she does. I don't know how much partnering she had done, but I don't know how we would have done it without her.

We were auditioning other actors that didn't know how to dance, and it just would have never worked. It would have never worked in a million years because they'd have had to get a dance double, and it just would have been fake and unbelievable. She walked in and gave an amazing read, but then after she danced, it was over. They just closed the door and there were like, ‘All right, cool. So we got our Nora now.’

It was a hard process to find Nora. Tyler's a little easier to find, because you can kind of find an actor that - I don't know, in my mind, but maybe it wasn't for them, I don't really know - knows how to dance or freestyle a little bit. But as far as like an actor that has done professional, technical stuff that you have to learn from six and on up, that was a huge, huge thing. She had to do some of the most technical stuff in the movie. Tyler's stuff, he takes the technical thing, he kind of makes it his own, so it was whatever I was comfortable doing. I could manipulate mine. Hers had to be dead-on.”

Tatum continued, “I learned so much from her. Dancers, apparently, I found out, make it work. I want to make a T-shirt: ‘Make it work,’ because I was falling on my face every five minutes or just forgetting it. The day of she was just like, ‘You just got to make it work. You just got to plunder through it, and whether it's good or bad, you just get it done.’ You want to make it as good as possible, that's why you work so hard. But I was nervous.”

Relating to His Character in Step Up

Asked what his friends and family are going to think about this role, Tatum said, “They're going to say that it's like a movie about Chan's life, sort of thing. Like they were like, ‘You couldn't have got a better role for yourself.’ But I wasn't a foster kid, was the only thing. (Laughing) But a lot of my friends are going to clown me because they're going to see me in tights. But for the most part, I think I'm making everybody pretty proud."

Step Up and the Rest of the Pack of Dance Movies

“You know, I don't know if we're exactly trying to separate ourselves. I don't think we were ever really trying to like, ‘Oh, we're going to break ground with this.’ Dancing movies are good because they have a formula, and you love them for a reason. It's always like the underdog-type thing. There are not a lot of movies that don't have the same formula nowadays, for one. But I think, if anything, if I had to pick a special thing, one) we do all of our own dancing. There's not one take in this whole movie that we're not doing our own stuff. Not one. We didn't even have dance doubles, much less us not do it.

There have been certain movies that have excelled in one thing or the other. Like there have been just movies that were incredible dance movies that had some of the most amazing dancers in LA. You're just like hypnotized by them, but some of the story could have been better. Or you have some of the other dancing movies that don't have that much dancing in them. You're like, ‘It was a great movie, but I didn't see very much dancing.’ So you're kind of torn. But I hope that we have an even keel. I hope the story's good, and I hope that the dancing is enough and big enough.

We just tried to make it really real. If anything, we didn't want to make an hour and a half long music video. We wanted to have a decent story with no gratuitous dancing. No like ‘silhouetted in the alley, it's raining for some reason now, and you’ve got your shirt off, and you're like [roaring] slow motion’ - just for no reason, you know? We didn't want to have that. You know, most dancing movies, you love to see those moments, no matter how much we make fun of them, I loved it. Because I was like, ‘Yeah! I want to dance in the rain! That's so cool! I love that!’ But it's not real, you know? Unless you do it on your own, which I didn't.”

Channing Tatum’s a Fan of Flashdance

And he doesn’t care who knows it. “Yeah! I don't care. I don't know if that makes me metro or not, but I love that movie. [Does the Flashdance legs thing] I mean, it was the best thing ever. Footloose...the warehouse scene. He's doing gymnastics! He's swinging around the bar! It was nuts! You love all those. In Breakin' 1 he has the whole scene outside with the broom. I don't think it was gratuitous because I've actually done that before. Like no reason, just like in your garage... Again, I didn't live my whole life in my garage. (Laughing) You know, cleaning up the gasoline and the s**t I burned.”

One Performance Channing Tatum Hopes We’ll Never See

Tatum joked that he’s trying to block his audition for Step Up from his mind. “I hope it never makes the light of day. I'm not ashamed of it by any means, but I've come a long way since then. It's different than I thought it was going to be, but it was still nervewracking, because you never know. Anne [Fletcher, the director] is the elite of the elites in this whole industry. Even in the dance world, not even just in the film. Everyone knows her. She's ‘mama’. That's what everyone knows her as in the industry. And going in and auditioning for her dancing was a huge thing for me. I'm pretty insecure about my dancing because I had never been trained before. But I know what I like to do, that sort of thing. It's kind of like you painting and someone looking at your work and like...I don't know whether they’ll trash it or whether they like it. (Laughing) You know, for her to be like, ‘You know, you're good...’ I would have just been [cringing].”