Chiselled Channing Tatum shows soft side in Dear John

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      A Channing Tatum character is often shirtless or, if not actually bare-chested, at least wearing little more than a muscle shirt. Frequently he’s a fighter or a soldier or even a street dancer—anything, really, that lets his body and especially his fists do the talking and naturally necessitates removing his shirt to reveal that seriously chiselled physique.

      Watch the trailer for Dear John.

      It’s not that the actor, who has starred in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and the dance flick Step Up, minds a little activity. In last year’s Fighting, Tatum gave a charismatic performance as a bare-knuckle pugilist working New York City’s underground fight circuit. The fact that it was stunt fighting doesn’t mean he wasn’t perfectly capable of inflicting serious damage. By age 13, he admits modestly, he had a black belt in Shaolin Goh Chor kung fu. But the suggestion that Fighting had a 1970s Scorsese vibe going on pleases him inordinately. “Aw, that’s cool, man! I don’t think a lot of people got that,” he says.

      Tatum is calling from a publicity stop in Montreal for his latest film, Dear John (opening Friday [February 5]). Or perhaps he isn’t. “Sorry, I’m in Toronto! Shit!” he says after being corrected by a voice somewhere in the background. “We get off the plane and we’re like, ”˜Where are we again?’ ” Tatum once modelled for Abercrombie & Fitch and Dolce & Gabbana and appeared as a dancer in Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” video. Now his name brings up 1,860,000 search results on Google. No doubt becoming a movie star is just cause for occasionally not knowing which city you’re in.

      He had no such uncertainty about Dear John. “I love being physical,” he says, “but the emotional tone in this movie was something I hadn’t gotten to do in a movie yet.” Nevertheless, his character, John Tyree, manages to punch several people, fire automatic weapons, and spend quality time shirtless on South Carolina beaches.

      Based on weepie-novel master Nicholas Sparks’s same-named book, the movie chronicles the romance between John, who had a tough upbringing, and the more privileged Savannah Curtis, played by the equally young and attractive actor Amanda Seyfried. As such tales are wont to go, blossoming love gets rudely interrupted when John goes off to war in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that you can’t imagine Tatum ever receiving a “Dear John” letter, tear-stained missives ensue.

      “It’s that first love you find once,” he says. “You can only have that first one one time, and I think Savannah opens John up. He’s withheld and solitary, and she makes him want to be a better person. It’s just a beautiful young relationship.

      “Me and Amanda talked really early about how it’s going to be really fun because she was in a long relationship and I was engaged, and we could explore knowing that neither of us are going to cross any lines and feel weird.”

      Chats aren’t enough, apparently, to fend off faux-fornicating awkwardness. Just asking him about Dear John’s decidedly chaste “sex scene” makes Tatum laugh. “It’s humbling and awkward,” he says. “It’s good, I mean, it’s fun to, you know, you sort of laugh your way through it.” Thinking about it later, he says, “Love scenes are weird. It’s just weird to have that situation with someone you don’t really love.”

      Fake rolls in the hay aside, Tatum found himself doing some tricky scenes with actor Richard Jenkins, who plays John’s emotionally detached father. “Richard Jenkins, God, the guy could do any role anywhere anyhow and give you an award-winning role,” he says. “You always wonder if you’re going to be able to get out of your own way, get out of your own head. He was hugely instrumental in helping me get there.”

      He found director Lasse Hallstrí¶m’s on-set style terrifically amusing. “He’s over there looking up ABBA videos on YouTube, and to him we were just hanging out and doing some filming on the side.” This did, however, include entertaining improvisation. “Lasse likes to improv, and it’s fun,” Tatum says. “He lets you find your way. He doesn’t come in with a heavy hand and tell you how he wants the scene.”

      Even as Dear John is poised to set theatres awash in romance, he’s thinking about his next film. “Steven Soderbergh’s Knockout,” he says. “It’s like a female Bond or Bourne movie. I have a small, kind of flashy role in it, so it’s cool.”

      It reminds one of another small, flashy role he had in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, playing bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd. Even in that brief, surreal scene in which G-men and camera chase Floyd through an orchard, you can see that Tatum is, indeed, very pretty. He, however, isn’t thinking about that. “That was one of the best days of my life, to get to act with Michael Mann,” he says. “I’d never died before in a movie, so that was kind of cool.”