NEW YORK (AP) — Not since 2017’s “Logan Lucky” has Channing Tatum been the lead in a film. It’s been a confounding hiatus for one of Hollywood’s top stars — an actor (Gawker once deemed him the icon of “new masculinity” ) who has playfully, goofily, sometimes shirtlessly redefined male movie stardom. America agrees on very little, but who doesn’t love Channing Tatum?
Tatum’s five-year break ends Feb. 18 when “Dog,” in which he plays Briggs, a U.S. Army Ranger who drives a fallen soldier’s dog to his funeral, opens in theaters. It will be quickly followed-up next month with another film starring Tatum, “The Lost City,” a comedy with Sandra Bullock.
But as Tatum reenters the spotlight, he says he never really meant to disappear in the first place.
“I didn’t step away like ‘I’m out of here,’” says Tatum.
In the last five years, Tatum launched the touring stage show “Magic Mike Live” and penned a children’s book inspired by his 8-year-old daughter, Everly. In 2018, Tatum and Jenna Dewan, who had been married for nine years after first meeting during 2006’s “Step Up,” announced their split. All the while, Tatum’s screen appearances — a handful of cameos and voice roles — were fleeting.
“Time just kind of got away,” Tatum said in a recent interview from Los Angeles. “Really, being a dad sort of just swept me away for almost four years. I kind of got lost in doing that.”
“I acted for almost 10 years and I sort of needed to take a step back,” he adds. “My career was kind of my whole life. Everything revolved around what was I going to do with my career.”
“Dog,” the directorial debut of both Tatum and his longtime producing partner, Reid Carolin, was a way to get back to making the kind of movie that excited them about the business in the first place. Like the “Magic Mike” films that Carolin wrote, Brigg’s road-trip encounters make for an American odyssey navigating polarized views of patriotism and politics.
“I didn’t want to just go jump in somebody’s movie,” says Tatum. “We wanted our next thing to be something that was our story, that we did, and not just make something because we could.”
Tatum and Carolin spent years — Tatum estimates four and half years for himself — developing a Marvel project that ultimately never happened. Their “Gambit,” to be adjacent to the “X-Men” film, was among the highest profile casualties of 20th Century Fox’s acquisition by the Walt Disney Co.
“When ‘Gambit’ was falling apart, I remember Chan throwing a chair across the room,” says Carolin. “We were looking at it each other like: I can’t believe we put two years into that.”
The loss of “Gambit” still clearly stings. “I mean, the amount of time, the amount of sweat and tears,” Tatum says, shaking his head. They had pre-visualized large action sequences, shot scenes and designed the film’s entire world, says Carolin.
“We won’t know what it could have been unless Marvel calls up and says, ‘Hey, would you be interested in revisiting this?’” Tatum says.
After spending so much time prepping something that never came to fruition, Tatum and Carolin wanted to jump into a film they could make on their own terms, with much of the same crew and independently financed business model as their “Magic Mike” films. Gregory Jacobs, who directed “Magic Mike XXL,” is a producer. They effectively got the band back together.
“We were like: We need to be able to go make something. We reflected on the experience of ‘Magic Mike’ where we didn’t have anyone looking over our shoulder,” says Carolin. “There was nobody saying, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’”
Tatum and Carolin first met on Kimberly Peirce’s 2008 film “Stop-Loss,” about post-traumatic stress disorder and Iraq War soldiers, and they’ve since returned to other stories of American veterans, executive producing the 2017 HBO documentary “War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend.” The origins of “Dog” are based on Tatum’s own experience taking a trip to California’s Big Sur with a dog — named Lulu like his “Dog” co-star — shortly before she died from cancer. In “Dog,” their bond has been expanded as a commentary on the post-war life of veterans.
“A lot of times when you make movies about soldiers, they get archetypically pigeonholed as either heroes or broken people that need healing,” says Carolin. “We didn’t really want to veer in either one of those directions.”
Tatum’s character in “Dog” is searching for a place somewhere between partisan extremes. “Dog” is the relatively rare Hollywood film that may appeal as much to so-called Middle America as it does on the coasts, but Tatum, who grew up in Alabama and Mississippi, recoils as the thought of targeting any segment of moviegoers.
“I would not call myself a liberal. I would not call myself a Republican or a Democrat. I’m not political very much at all, but I definitely have my points of view that are kind of in all of those things,” Tatum says. “I do believe that the stereotypes and the generalizations can get us in trouble.”
“The news and political stuff, I think we’ve gotten to a place of real miscommunication and misunderstanding,” adds Tatum. “What does that even mean, to make movies for Middle America? I find it really strange even the concept of going: We want to make a movie for these people.”
The “Magic Mike” empire, too, has proved remarkably universal. After the first two movies grossed more than $300 million in ticket sales worldwide, “Magic Mike Live,” first mounted in Las Vegas, has played in London, Berlin and Australia. A North American tour is to begin April 6 in Nashville, Tennessee.
As Tatum tells it, after Steven Soderbergh saw the live show, he encouraged Tatum and Carolin to develop a third film. With Soderbergh directing and a script by Carolin, “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” is being made for HBO Max. Tatum has promised that “the stipperverse will never be the same.”
Visibly excited about the movie, Tatum and Carolin compare it to “All That Jazz” and “Pretty Woman.” Tatum (whose girlfriend, Zoë Kravitz, stars in Soderbergh’s just-released “Kimi” ) says that after two films that were “about men, for women,” the third will introduce a female protagonist “equal and if-not-more-central character than Mike.”
“I was like: Look, I would not want to do this unless we can really want to take the gloves off,” says Tatum. “I didn’t want to do a third movie unless we could truly break out of the traditional stuff of those movies and really do the Super Bowl of stripper movies, where the dancing is next level, where I hope male entertainment or stripping goes. It doesn’t have to be lame. It can be cool.”