How Channing Tatum Learned to Tap-Dance (and Sing, Kind of) for the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

Tatum had to take “ten years of tap-dance training and crunch it into three months,” says Caesar! choreographer Christopher Gattelli. Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Channing Tatum has popped and locked in Step Up, vogued in viral videos, and waxed strip-club floors using only his pelvis in the Magic Mike movies, so naturally Joel and Ethan Coen assumed he’d be perfect for the big song-and-tap-dance number in their new comedy, Hail, Caesar! But no sooner had they cast him — as actor Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly type starring in a movie-within-the-movie, a sailor musical in the mold of Anchors Aweigh — than two problems arose. “One, I don’t sing, and two, I don’t tap-dance,” says Tatum. “Joel and Ethan were like, ‘Here’s a part, which we hope you want, because no one else can do it.’ Knowing what it turned into, it’s hard to believe that was the truth.”

In the script, the number was “like five sentences,” says Tatum, but it grew into a technically onerous six-minute sequence during which Tatum’s Naval cadet bemoans, with tongue slightly in cheek, his all-male work environment in the song “No Dames!,” which he sings while dancing with shipmates around a pub, on stools and tables, among other precarious surfaces.

Tatum wasn’t overly worried about the vocals, because he did have a little singing experience — “I’ve sung to my daughter, and she cried every time” — and besides, “if I’d sucked, they could have dubbed someone else’s voice in,” he says. It’s Tatum on the soundtrack, though, to which he credits “the magical tools they have” in recording studios nowadays.

The dancing was trickier. Since he’d never even laced up a pair of tap shoes before November 2014, Tatum had to take “ten years of tap-dance training and crunch it into three months” for the January shoot, says Caesar! choreographer Christopher Gattelli. “He worked through his whole holiday break. His wife, Jenna [Dewan], is also a dancer, and she taps, so when we all got back, she said, ‘I helped him through.’ And then he was dancing alongside Broadway dancers who’ve tapped most of their lives.” “Chris kept telling me, ‘I’m not dumbing this down just because you’ve never tapped,’” says Tatum. “But everybody took care of me to a degree that is not even explainable, so I’m super lucky.”

How did the Coens pitch this part to you? It’s a good thing you said yes, because there probably aren’t many other actors that could have pulled it off.
I can’t exactly remember what the email was. Joel and Ethan — we have the same agent — were like, “Look, here’s a part, which we hope you want, because no one else can do it.” Knowing what it turned into, it’s hard to believe that was the truth. I know there are a lot of other people that could have crushed this thing. Because one, I don’t sing, and two, I don’t tap-dance. So all of that was completely new to me.

But I’ve been beating on the Coens' door for years, man. One of the turning points in my whole career was my audition for No Country for Old Men. They wanted to see everybody — no-names, which I was, and name-names. I was almost 15 years too young for the part [that eventually went to Josh Brolin], but I just wanted to get in the room with them. I know I’m too young. Just get me in the room — I know that when I leave, I’ll be a better actor. It was when I realized that I should just try to be around very talented and smart people, and not worry about what the job is, even though I was never going to get it. And then cut to this. It was just so crazy for me to finally be on set with them.

Your dance number is really something. It just keeps going on and on... 
In the script, it was like five sentences long — a dance number on a battleship, just a knee-slide, and then cut. And that became a six-minute song with tap-dancing. Chris Gattelli was my tap teacher and choreographer, and without him I never, ever, ever would’ve been able to do this, not in a million years. He believed in me until the day I was about to crack. I didn’t think tap-dancing was going to be easy, but I also had no idea how hard it was actually going to be. I just figured that if I did the moves, the sound would come out. But you actually have to be musical. You’re drumming with your feet, and you’re a part of the actual song. I’m used to dancing on the beat, or riding the beat, and with this you are the beat. If you miss a step, everyone can hear it — or not hear it. It’s nerve-racking. But everybody took care of me to a degree that is not even explainable, so I’m super lucky.

Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/Courtesy of Universal Pictures

How long did you prepare, and what did it involve?
I spent about three months preparing. It’s the most I’ve ever prepped for a six-minute section in a movie. We went over Christmas and New Year’s [in 2014], so I had all that time to let it gestate. I let it sink into my bones over the holiday break. When I’m nervous about something, I drill it to a point that is probably unhealthy, but as long as it works even halfway, I’m happy at the end of the tortuous day.

Did you have any background in singing?
This was the first time I’ve ever sung in front of anyone. I’ve sung to my daughter, and she cried every time. No, I’ve never been a singer. When I was younger, just a dumb kid, and Usher came out, I was like, “Oh, man, I want to be the white Usher.” Then I was like, “Oh, right, I can’t sing.” I’m nowhere near as talented as Usher is, so that was quickly erased in my mind. But Ethan and Joel told me, “We don’t need you to riff.” And you know, Gene Kelly wasn’t like some fantabulous singer — he could sing efficiently.

I actually haven’t heard the finished version of the song, but I’m hoping and praying that with all, like, the magical tools that they have [in the recording studio] it’s going to sound decent. I probably didn’t work as much as I should have on the singing, because if I’d sucked, they could have dubbed someone else’s voice in, and I would not have felt bad about it. So I put all my efforts into the tapping.

Was there a part of the dance that was hardest to get right?
Yeah. The section where I was dancing on the table was the hardest. Dancing on any surface with tap shoes is hard, but the table was raised, and it was only, like, four feet in circumference, and you just can’t misstep. It was also the fastest part of the song — it was hard even when we practiced on the ground. Chris kept telling me, “I’m not dumbing this down just because you’ve never tapped. We’re going to make this on a level that is legit, and all tappers around the world will be like, ‘Okay, that was sincere, that wasn’t a joke.’”

How does this compare to the dancing in Magic Mike?
They’re not even in the same realm. The fact that we had fun doing both is the only way they compare. With Magic Mike, we just tailored the dancing to everyone’s skills and strengths. You just did that all right, that’s a good look on you, let’s do that. This was a completely different thing, something that was done specifically at a certain time and in a certain style, and then kind of taking it one degree off and making it a Coen brothers film.

Now that you’ve done this, would you try something similar on Broadway?
I don’t think I would ever consider trying Broadway. It would be a monumentous undertaking for me, and I just don’t know if my skill set is for live performing. Some people have been training to do that their entire lives. But I definitely am going to try something in the musical space in film, for sure. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and I have been friends since I got to town 13 years ago, and we’re going to eventually land on something together, because we’ve talked about it too long for it not to happen. He’s one of the most creative people I know, and I don’t think there’s anybody besides him I would think about doing it with. We’ll eventually land on something. Yeah, I want to.

You emailed Quentin Tarantino every day until he cast you in Hateful Eight and pursued the Coens for years until they gave you this role in Hail, Caesar! Which A-list director do you plan to harass next?
Oh, man, all the usual suspects. But I’d have to say, the next thing for my creative partner Reid Carolin and I will be the very slow, slow learning process of directing ourselves. We’ve produced, written, acted, financed, and marketed. Directing is kind of the only thing we haven’t done. And it was sort of our hope — like both of ours, even before we knew each other — to be able to tell our own story and fully make a film from start to finish someday, and that’s what’s probably going to be next. I’m always going to be an actor for hire looking to work with unbelievable people, but right now that’s where I’m at. Look, though, if Iñárritu or Scorsese calls …

*A version of this article appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.