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'Foxcatcher' star Channing Tatum still wrestling with his ambitions

Making 'Foxcatcher' wasn't fun for Channing Tatum. And he's the kind of guy who likes to have fun.

Making "Foxcatcher" wasn't fun for Channing Tatum. And he's the kind of guy who likes to have fun.

He was named People's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 2012 — not an honor for any actor who takes himself too seriously. This year he did a TV show with survival expert Bear Grylls in which the two snacked on a scorpion and spent a night spooning on a sheer rock cliff. He co-owns a bar in New Orleans called Saints & Sinners, for God's sake.

So he had trouble reeling in his daffy energy on the set of "Foxcatcher." Director Bennett Miller even had to reprimand him a few times.

"Bennett is a stay-in-it guy — he really wants you to live it. There's no laughing on set," the 34-year-old recalled. "If you start laughing or cutting up, he'll correct you and be like, 'Get your head back in it, Chan.'"

If that seems harsh, consider the film's real-life story. Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a star wrestler who, despite an Olympic gold medal, lives in the shadow of his beloved brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a legend in the wrestling world. Just when he's beginning to sink into an abyss of self-loathing, Mark receives a letter from an eccentric millionaire named John du Pont (Steve Carell) inviting him to train for the World Championships and 1988 Olympics at his expansive Pennsylvania estate.

Mark is impressionable — wide-eyed over Du Pont's horses and trophies and facilities — and takes his boss' word as doctrine. He starts reading the bird-watching guides Du Pont gives him, doing the lines of cocaine Du Pont puts out for him — even chiming in when his benefactor starts to bad-mouth his brother. Things don't end well.

The film opened in mid-November to spectacular reviews, but it's yet to break out at the box office — its dark themes perhaps too difficult for mainstream audiences seeking a cheerful holiday film option. Carell's performance as du Pont, for which he donned an unattractive prosthetic nose and adopted an odd, regimented manner of speaking, touched off immediate awards speculation. Ruffalo, one of Hollywood's most respected actors, was also singled out for his performance as Dave, the film's most empathetic character.

Though his discussion didn't generate that same kind of buzz, many were pleasantly surprised by Tatum — best known for his work in the comedy-action "Jump Street" franchise and for playing a male stripper in the breakout hit "Magic Mike." Like those other performances, Tatum brought an intense physicality to "Foxcatcher" but to opposite effect. His Mark Schultz was a brooding, lumbering force with a simian-like bearing whose only real form of self expression happened in the wrestling ring.

Hollywood knows Tatum best as a solid, likable performer. In the past few years, he's proven himself both as a leading man and a box-office draw. In 2012, he starred in three totally different films that all opened with more than $100 million: the Nicholas Sparks weeper "The Vow"; his first comedy, "21 Jump Street"; and "Magic Mike," based on his own experience as a stripper in Florida. (The latter two films did so well that they each spawned a sequel.)

He's getting his own superhero film as Gambit, a mutant from the "X-Men" comics. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers want to work with him. But is he the kind of actor destined for Hollywood's version of the Olympics? Nobody seems to have figured that out. Tatum included.

"I've gotten to know Channing pretty well, and I've gotta say, I don't know," "Foxcatcher" director Miller said, reflecting on Tatum's ambition for critical acclaim. "We haven't talked about it yet. I think he's proud of the film. I feel that he gets uncomfortable when the focus is concentrated too sharply on him."

That may be so. Talking in Los Angeles last month, the actor seemed hyper-aware of how he described himself. He chose his words cautiously and apologized any time he sensed one of his answers was not especially revelatory. ("I know that's probably not the answer you're looking for," he lamented at one point. And: "This is going to sound so corny and terrible and I'm going to hate reading this later. If I read this.")

Perhaps it was that talking about his preparations for "Foxcatcher" or laying bare his career hopes felt pretentious — at odds with the affable, let's-go-have-a-drink persona he's become recognized for. During an interview he was bundled up in a shawl collar and sick, he said, having caught a cold from his 17-month-old daughter, Everly, whom he is raising with his wife, actress Jenna Dewan-Tatum. And perhaps not keen to relive the experience of making the movie simply because it was so unbearable for him.

"It was a suffocating movie and a suffocating experience," he said. "I never want to wrestle again."

Tatum spent a month training with Ruffalo before production began but never shared in the pleasure Schultz got from wrestling. It made him feel like he was dying — not being able to breathe, not being able to tap out. "You have to be so comfortable being uncomfortable," he said.

He had a better time picking Schultz's brain. He met the 54-year-old in a hotel lobby, where he tried to assure the athlete that the movie wouldn't be a disaster. He wanted to win Schultz's confidence. That felt important — for Schultz to ultimately be happy with his portrayal.

"But having him on set was complicated," Tatum admitted. "It was confusing, because he's still so inside of it. But then there were scenes I don't think I could have done without him there. He'd give me tidbits or tell stories that had nothing to do with anything — like an opinion on hair or something that was pretty noncongruent to what I was actually doing — that would give me insight."

Schultz told Tatum that during his athlete days, he wanted to be a caveman. He didn't want to talk a lot. He'd give one-word answers to reporters and then stare at them silently. He wanted to incite fear. That silent-giant thing — it's something Tatum is really good at. Miller praised the actor's ability to emote physically instead of verbally.

"He's extremely intuitive. He's also said that he's dyslexic, which makes a certain kind of sense to me," said Miller. "Not just in the Malcolm Gladwell way, but also in the Malcolm Gladwell way." (In the author's 2013 bestseller, he argues that dyslexia can be a "desirable difficulty" — something that actually pushes someone further than they knew they were capable of.)

Even though they are entirely different films tonally, Tatum shows off this same ability in the "Jump Street" franchise. The cop he portrays may be dimwitted, but he's always lovable, always determined. It was a part he almost passed on after Jonah Hill offered it to him a couple of years back, because his team was so against it.

"They were like, 'Let's find something else for you and Jonah. He wants to work with you — let's find something else,'" Tatum said. "They didn't get it. They're like, 'You're too old to play high school. The script is unoriginal.' And I was like, 'I know. I think that's what's punk-rock about it.'"

Which is to say that he's aware of the choices he's making and that they might be risks. His next movie in theaters, the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Ascending," was supposed to have a splashy summer opening until Warner Bros. ominously pushed it back by nearly seven months. So maybe the film will be a pricey misfire.

The point is to take chances and to grow. He acknowledges, if somewhat reluctantly, that he hopes "Foxcatcher" signifies to audiences that he's a capable actor.

"I think people are going to have a different opinion of me," he acknowledged quietly. "Like, I've heard, 'This is a step up for you.' And I go, 'That's for you guys to have that opinion.' I just want to be part of good movies. I know that's probably boring to hear."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

Twitter: @AmyKinLA

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