The Star Market: Is This the Year of Channing Tatum?

Channing Tatum. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Did the Mayans predict we’d see so much of Channing Tatum in 2012? We’re barely into February and Tatum already has Haywire, a Saturday Night Live stint, and this weekend’s weepie romance The Vow under his belt; then, over the next few months, we’ll see the 31-year-old in 21 Jump Street, Steven Soderbergh’s highly anticipated male stripper epic Magic Mike, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It’s clear that casting directors love the guy — there aren’t many young American actors who can toggle so easily between action, comedy, and romance — but do audiences feel the same way? To get a better sense of Tatum’s worth in what could be the most important year of his career, we polled industry insiders to ask one simple question: If Channing Tatum were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Famously, Tatum got his start as a stripper at age 19, which he eventually parlayed into somewhat more respectable work as a dancer and model. The latter gig led to commercials — “Forgot my Dew!” — and finally, his entree into film in 2005 with the movie Coach Carter. Success came quickly after that: Just a year later, he broke out with the triple-play of Step Up, She’s the Man, and a critically acclaimed role in Dito Montiel’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Since then, Tatum’s balanced his leading-man gigs in movies like G.I. Joe, Dear John, and The Eagle with a willingness to take a supporting part for a good director, and those instincts have made him the unlikely new muse for Steven Soderbergh, who’ll now make The Bitter Pill his third film with Tatum (after Haywire and Magic Mike).

Peers: He’s on that list of interesting actors like Chris Hemsworth (28), Andrew Garfield (28), and Sam Worthington (35) along with the “far more versatile” Joseph Gordon-Levitt (30). One agent tells us that although Tatum’s not as high up on the lists as Ryan Reynolds (35), he is “definitely on the ‘B’ tier,” and, more, “he’s really ‘B+’: He’s starring in movies above the title. He’s a commercial ‘guy’s guy’ — and there aren’t too many of them.”

Market Value: Hit and miss. Tatum’s played the lead in three big hits, the $65 million–grossing dance movie Step Up, franchise-starter G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (which made $150 million), and the romance Dear John ($80 million). And you’ve gotta say this for the guy: Those are all very, very different movies. Still, two smaller action movies sold on his name, Fighting and The Eagle, both topped out around $20 million, and some of his most finely attuned dramatic work in Dito Montiel’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and The Son of No One (in the latter, his was the only believable, grounded performance) was seen by few, as neither movie made even a million dollars. This weekend ought to provide a boost, though, as The Vow is currently tracking great.

What Hollywood Thinks: Said one agent we spoke to, “I think he’s getting a lot of opportunities and he’s working with great people, like Rachel [McAdams], who is back in fine form. I think he’s going as well as it possibly could. He’s certainly getting a lot more shots than probably more talented people. I mean, his talent level is above average, but he’s not a Brad Pitt or Joe Gordon-Levitt. He hasn’t shown that ability — yet.”

And therein lies the central question of Channing Tatum: Has he gone as far as a former stripper and ex–Ricky Martin backup dancer may be expected to go, or is there something more to him that will surprise us all yet again? Lest we forget, Tatum has been capable of surprisingly strong performances. Even though he’s become well known for popcorn pablum like G.I. Joe, he initially showed promise in smaller movies. “He shined in Coach Carter and Step Up as a kid who was ‘street’: tough, rugged,” says another agent, adding, “But that was all cheesy commercial popcorn. It was only after he did A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints with Shia and Robert Downey Jr. that it became clear: Hey, this guy might be the real deal.”

Since then, there have been occasional flashes of interesting roles, but they’ve been in low-grossing projects, like Kimberly Peirce’s underrated Stop Loss or Steven Soderbergh’s equally low-grossing Haywire. Happily for Tatum, neither of those projects’ failure to ignite falls at his feet. The public quickly revealed its distaste for Iraq war movies of any stripe, and Tatum is barely in Haywire, which is thought to have failed because it disobeyed Rule No. 1 for female action movies: Cast Angelina Jolie, or abort.

(Speaking of action movies, agents say you shouldn’t make too much of the fact that Tatum returned for another round in Hasbro’s G.I. Joe at Paramount, but don’t read on if you’re spoiler-averse: “They had an optional picture on him,” says a third agent, “he had no choice but to do it. And he asked to be killed off in it, to his credit.”)

“He’s got a real moment here,” observes one literary agent, “So if you’re a lit agent developing a script with him, you press ahead right now. But the worry is that he doesn’t have ‘the magic.’ Is he elevated enough to be more than a ‘lovable meathead’?”

Another agency talent partner is much higher on him: “I’d sign him if I could, absolutely,” says this rep. “He’s a very naturalistic actor. I don’t feel like I’m watching a fraud when I watch him. And I think he has some skill, too. He reminds me a little of Mark Wahlberg, except that Mark started out in life as a fucking punk, and Channing is not; he’s a sweet kid. But there’s something about him that seems … ever-so-lightly-brain-damaged. I mean, he’s clearly not in real life. But there’s a quality to him onscreen as if there’s something going on besides whatever else is going on in the scene; it’s an ‘absent’ quality. Real filmmakers are intrigued by him. You know how Mark Ruffalo was in You Can Count on Me? He invites your empathy. He really does. You want him to be capable enough to overcome the situation he’s in, but you worry that he’s not going to have it in him to pull it off. That’s where the tension is.”

The Analysis: Of course, it’s going to take a few more popcorn movies before we’ll get to see that side of Channing. First up will be 21 Jump Street, in which agents say his co-star Jonah Hill “does the really far-out stuff,” but as his straight man, Tatum is “surprisingly funny,” which will only broaden his range and chances.

Says our first agent, “If I could, I would make him the Cameron Diaz of men, very commercial: Have him do fun comedy-action, that kind of stuff. I think he can be in a movie every summer; he could be a $15 million guy in action-comedies. With Dear John, he showed he is somewhat romantically gifted, but I’d really like to see him in an action-comedy to see what he could do.”

It’s a shame that Saturday Night Live gave Tatum so little to work with recently, as he’s got a disarming flair for comedy (and we will prove it to you with links!). With that in mind, then, 21 Jump Street could break him out in a big way. “If you look like that and can also do comedy,” says our second agent, “The world is your oyster. It’s much easier to build a female audience when you’re a tough guy than it is to move away from being a teeny-bopper, like Zac Efron is trying to do.”

The Bottom Line: Ubiquity is a funny thing: When you appear in a zillion movies coming out at once, it can either turbo-charge your career (as it did with Jessica Chastain last year) or cause an audience backlash (Jude Law probably thought he was having a great 2004 until Chris Rock turned his prolific moviemaking into a punch line at the Oscars). Fortunately, though Tatum is in virtually every film coming out this year, they’re all very different from one another, which ought to work to his benefit. And if you’re going to run the risk that audiences will get sick of your face, it helps to have an awfully handsome one.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Strong Hold. “The guy could just as easily end up working at a filling station,” says one agency partner, “But I like him; there’s something slightly broken in him. I don’t see him as a down-the-middle leading man. There’s some tragedy in there somewhere. He’s interesting when people know what to do with him. There are fascinating qualities that seem to be coming to the fore. He’s going to score with The Vow, and then he’ll get lots of other opportunities. And then we’ll see if it’s going to work.”

The Star Market: Is This the Year of Channing Tatum?