There was cause for concern: Channing Tatum wanted to rock dad-bod.
Perhaps sporting a spare tire would be an acceptable creative decision for the lead of a Judd Apatow comedy. But this was "Magic Mike XXL," the second film in a franchise built on rock-hard abs, body lube and banana hammocks.
For the record, 11:58 a.m. June 26: An earlier version of the photo caption accompanying this post identified actor Channing Tatum as standing far left in the photo; he is in the center.
"It was a resounding 'no' all across the creative board," Tatum lamented.
"Everyone was like, 'You don't think he's serious, right? We want him to do the movie, but somebody convince him to work out,'" added Reid Carolin, who wrote both "Magic Mike" screenplays."This is one of those movies where you cannot step on set unless everybody is in that type of shape or you're [in trouble]."
"There's no not being in shape," Tatum said, turning serious. "You wouldn't do it — for you."
So, begrudgingly, he acquiesced. He started to bike 20 miles every morning and drink two green smoothies a day. You can see the results of his efforts plastered all over town on the "Magic Mike XXL" posters, which advertise the 35-year-old and his buff costars (Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez) in all their shirtless, glistening glory.
The male physique is the star of this revue show, out Wednesday, which follows a group of buddies who take a road trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to perform at a stripper convention. (Yes, that's a real thing, according to Tatum, who danced for thousands of women in a "ginormous, corrugated metal warehouse" during his oft-mentioned days as a male entertainer.)
Biceps and bulges were on display in 2012's "Magic Mike," of course — and were likely the main reason the $7-million production went on to gross $113 million domestically. But that movie was also directed by Steven Soderbergh, the indie-film pioneer who lent an auteurish touch to the story — in Tatum's words, pairing a "lowbrow subject with a highbrow creative team." There were plenty of revealing strip shows, but Mike (Tatum) was also struggling to move away from a seedy, drug-filled party world and start his own furniture business.
In other words, you had to finish your vegetables before you could have dessert. But the second film? It's all dessert.
Sure, the guys are fretting over how they'll make a living after putting on their final show at the convention. But another of the film's key emotional threads revolves around Manganiello's character having a penis so large women do not want to have sex with him. Sexual innuendoes abound: Guys are constantly spraying water bottles or cans of whipped cream from their crotches. Thongs are often in women's faces.
"I don't think there were any limits," said Tatum, who seems just as proud of his beginnings in the "Step Up" dance franchise as his recent dramatic turn as a troubled wrestler in "Foxcatcher." "I really didn't plan to do this again, so I was like, 'We're gonna find the ceiling on this one and go past it.'"
Finding a director
Tatum was sitting at dinner fully clothed — wearing three layers, in fact: a Henley, a cardigan and a blazer — next to "XXL" director Gregory Jacobs and Carolin, who's been his business partner for the last decade. Tatum met Carolin, a Harvard grad, on the set of 2008's "Stop-Loss," "looked in his baby blue eyes and that was it," joked the actor. Both men are good-looking in completely different ways: At 33, the screenwriter is far less bulky than his partner but has a good 5 inches on him.
Together the partners, through their production company Free Association, had to find someone to direct "XXL" after Soderbergh declined. But Jacobs, who was the first assistant director on "Magic Mike," did have a vision for the new installment.
Though the 45-year-old hadn't directed a studio film before, he'd served as Soderbergh's right-hand man since 1993 — the two have worked on more than two dozen films together. And with Jacobs on board, Soderbergh agreed to remain in a supporting role — or three: He was the film's director of photography, editor and executive producer.
"Greg got that the first movie was about leaving the world of stripping and looking at its dark underbelly," said Carolin. "And that the second was really a celebration of these guys and the thing they bring to women."
Indeed, the men of "XXL" see themselves as healers of sorts. They don't just walk off the stage and grind on women sitting in chairs. They sing for them. They throw out elaborate compliments. And they don't dress up in cheesy costumes.
Tatum has a lot of feelings about costumes. He loathed the ones he had to wear when he was a real-life stripper, in particular a Boy Scout uniform he donned during a routine to "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah." "I'm playing a child, and a lot of these women have children in the audience. It's weird, and it disturbs me."
After another routine in which he dressed like a clown — "big wig, the big red shoes, and balloons" — he decided to start creating his own acts.
"All those tropes — the fireman, the cop, the doctor — they're all characters of authority," said the actor. "And women's characters when they dress up for Halloween or whatever? It's like the maid, the nurse. It's very fascinating to me."
In his own experience, Tatum admits, his stripper colleagues weren't interested in what women wanted. They saw themselves as gods — "B-level rock stars who grew up in an '80s hair-band time" and thought their audience was "here to be fed cause they're hungry." So a movie about male entertainers who live to please women? That appealed to many actresses who read the script, including Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays the troupe's self-possessed emcee. (Matthew McConaughey, who took on that over-the-top ringleader role in the first film, does not return this time around.)
"Just because men and women are communicating in an erotic, sexual way doesn't mean there's a need for degradation," Pinkett Smith said by phone. "Here's Channing really presenting a radical idea: bringing a sense of exaltation and respect to an industry that's often looked down upon."
On set, the actress said, she was overwhelmed by the camaraderie she felt with the female extras enjoying the group's stripteases. It felt safe. There were high-fives. No one was acting catty or judgmental.
"We gave each other the right to enjoy these beautiful men that were gifting us," she said. "It was like Burger King up in there, and we were gonna have it our way."
What women want
Tatum agreed that men and women look for different things from strippers.
"I don't know if women go to male revues for sexual stimulation," he mused.
"It's a power dynamic shift," Carolin said, chiming in.
"Yeah, and the male revues of today are kind of clown acts," said Tatum. "They're almost being laughed at. There might be one or two things that might do something for a woman. But I don't think the majority of women get turned on by someone they're not having a connection to. They need some amount of real connection to be transported to a place where they're sexually open."
It's a topic of particular interest to Tatum, who is helping to put together a live "Magic Mike" show in Las Vegas. (He says he might appear in it, "when he's in shape.") He's been surveying his female friends via email to find out what women are attracted to.
"And it's very simple things," he said. "Like cooking for them. 'When my man makes me a meal.' Or when they do anything they don't know how to do, like craft something for me.'"
A striptease about a dude who whittles Etsy creations? It's not out of the realm of possibility.
"I have some girl friends that love the lumberjack-with-a-little-bit-of-a-belly type of gritty dude," Tatum said. "Do you really want a meathead every time?"