NEW YORK — The well-trod path of models-turned-actors can offer some rather tragic scenery, but former male mannequin Channing Tatum looks set to prove he is more than just an Abercrombie & Fitch-worthy pinup. His physically taxing role in the summer crowd-pleaser “Step Up” showed his dancing moves, and now he demonstrates his dark and violent side in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” due out Friday.
The film, which won awards for directing and ensemble cast at this year’s Sundance, is based on director and writer Dito Montiel’s memoir of the same name. Framed by Dito’s (played by Robert Downey Jr.) return home for the first time in 15 years to see his ailing father (Chazz Palminteri), “A Guide” follows, through his reminiscences, his teenage life and his group of friends as they navigate their rough, mid-Eighties immigrant neighborhood in Astoria, Queens. Tatum plays Antonio, a violent, volatile guy from an abusive home who acts as the gang’s de facto leader and, at times, dictator.
When he first read the script — in the bathtub, where he does all such perusals (“I hope that’s not creepy,” he grins) — Tatum felt an immediate kinship to the story, even if he spent most of his life in Tampa, Fla.
“My childhood friend is Antonio,” he explains, perched on a couch at the SoHo Grand. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I grew up in the projects, because I didn’t. But you can get into trouble and have just as many crazy, crazy, crazy times, and I did. I was more the Dito in my life, though. I was more the guy just trying to keep everything together and chill out and make everything OK. And then I left everybody, I left a lot of people in my life.”
Indeed, Tatum, 26, has moved many miles from his high school jock days. He played a season of college football in West Virginia but soon felt the game’s luster had faded. So he returned home, where he spent two, rather lost years. “I was a nomad. I was a gypsy.” He moved down to Miami, was discovered on the street by a modeling scout and soon found himself in New York doing commercials, including a high-profile one for Mountain Dew.
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“People were talking to me about scripts and stuff, and I was like, ‘I don’t even know how to act!’” says Tatum, who grew up watching classic movies, from “The Goonies” to “Cool Hand Luke.” Ten seconds in an acting workshop had him sold, and he hasn’t stopped since. He is already halfway through shooting an untitled project from “Boys Don’t Cry” director Kimberly Peirce in Austin, Tex., opposite Ryan Phillippe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“It is a movie with a huge background of military and war, but it is so much more about the relationships that are forged by these things,” says Tatum. “You get put in these situations with these people and you make these bonds with them….You can be lifelong friends with somebody and then you go through a war…and people change, and you know they’ve changed, and you don’t know how to fix them.”
For now, it is just these kinds of emotional parts that appeal to the actor. Certainly his role as Antonio, with his violent outbursts, can be a tough-love sell to some viewers. But Tatum has little interest in winning over the affections of his fans through his character choices.
“You’re not supposed to like everybody. Do you like everybody that you meet?” he challenges. “Get over having a happy ending. Why can’t you look a little darker and a little deeper into yourself and see maybe some of the wrong things you might have done in your life? No one’s a saint….But I think it’s just a picture, it just shows you something that happened….I think so many movies don’t do that anymore. They try to be funny and witty. And this just says, all right, this happened. Take it for what you will.”