A fan of historical epics, being able to star in The Eagle (inspired by the Rosemary Sutcliff book The Eagle of the Ninth which he didn't read before shooting the movie) was actually a dream come true for the 30 year old actor. Of all his past action films, The Eagle is the one closest to his heart as it's the type of film he grew up wanting to be a part of. Citing Braveheart and Gladiator as two of his favorite films, Tatum said he loved the idea of being able to fight with swords in an epic tale from the past, and The Eagle allowed him to live out that dream.
The Eagle follows Tatum as Marcus Aquila, son of the disgraced commander of the Ninth Legion who marched off to battle in Caledonia with his 5,000 men and was never seen or heard from again. The Legion's standard, the Golden Eagle, also vanished with the Legion. Marcus believes it's his duty to restore the family's honor and to serve the Roman Empire bravely.
After a particularly brutal battle in which he's severely wounded, Marcus is honorably discharged and proclaimed a hero. However, after recovering - and despite a severe limp - Marcus is not content to relax at his uncle's house while others are out fighting. And when he hears rumors of a sighting of the Eagle, Marcus is driven to travel beyond Hadrian's Wall (a structure built to seal off the Roman territory) and bring back the missing company standard.
Jamie Bell co-stars as Esca, a British slave Marcus saves from death in the gladiator arena. Esca hates the Romans but has sworn to serve Marcus and reluctantly accompanies him on the dangerous journey.
Behind the Scenes of The EagleAlthough their characters start off hating each other because of their nationalities, in reality Tatum and Bell became friends before rehearsals wrapped up. Asked how difficult it then was to play enemies forced to work together, Tatum explained there was actually an alternate version in which they became close friends early on. "We shot a version that we actually became a little closer while we were still in sort of Roman's occupied territory, in Britain," revealed Tatum. "We became a little more close, a little bit warmer toward each other, and shared a little with each other. We ultimately figured out that that was a little bit more confusing, that we needed to keep the tension from the very beginning and have these people just be entirely different people that do not like each other."
"I never saw that version, but I think it's just stronger this way. But that's how the book is written; the book is written that they're best friends. They're devoted to each other from the jump, and just because they have a kindred spirit in that they totally understand each other and they really respect each other and love each other, and that is why they go over the wall together - and Esca never really falters. He never ever falters, and it's just a different way to play it. I think this is more intense. It makes you wonder more. It ups the danger and the intellectual side of the film, of really trying to figure out what would you do. You're essentially free because now your master is your slave. You can have this guy killed at any time, but how important is your word or your bond that you've given somebody?"
Tatum and Bell did almost every single one of their own stunts, which is an incredible accomplishment considering the horse master working on the project said these were the most dangerous stunts with actors on horses ever attempted in any of his past films. Being pushed off of a horse wasn't one Tatum was allowed to do, but other than that he and Bell handled the fight sequences on their own.
"Neither one of us had a double," revealed Tatum. "We did everything except for one dive off of the horse when Jamie basically tackles me off the horse and we have to fall. It's like a 10 foot fall and they wouldn't let us do it because of insurance. We wanted to. I think we could have done it, especially seeing how they did it. But it didn't look safe at all. I mean if you didn't fall right... I'm used to falling because of breakdancing and other stunts and stuff, that's what you do is you just fall. But, you know, I really wanted to. The only other ones are, I think, there's two riding scenes that are really far off. One's a silhouette that's not us because of time-wise, we were filming something else. And another one's like a running scene where it's the insurance thing again. Everything else is us."
"I've played with swords before in martial arts and stuff, so it wasn't the first time," said Tatum, "but I learned some really cool stuff on this movie. The sword master was so smart; he's so good. He did Troy. We walked the line of how fantastical do we make it and how realistic do we make it. I think we walked the line pretty well. It was not too flashy and showy that you didn't believe it. And it wasn't so boring of just like stabbing people straight forward. I think we straddled the line."
Both Tatum and Bell have a background in dance and that helped when it came to handling the intricate choreography of the fight sequences. "Definitely, because you've got to know body control because you need to be spatially in the right place at the right time. You're still swinging heavy things at each other; you can put eyes out and you can break things. I got hit accidentally with a short axe and thank god it was just wood and it hit my breastplate. But either way though [and it could have been horrible]. It was one of those things where you go to block it and it's just at the wrong angle because you're doing it faster, because you're filming it. It comes and just hits you and you're like, 'I'd have been dead...awesome...or close to it.'"
The Eagle took a toll physically on its actors, but prior to filming - on orders from his director - Tatum didn't hit the gym to get ready to play this Roman soldier. "I was in pretty good shape before it and Kevin goes, 'I don't want you to look like you've been in a gym.' I'm like, 'That's awesome. That's perfect. I will not go to the gym.' He's a soldier, but they didn't lift weights, you know? They were just lean people. All they did was they marched, they set up camp, they built things, and then they fought, and then they marched some more. They didn't have good diets. They ate whatever the region they were at had."
"I tried to get my hands really strong and my forearms, because that was pretty much it. They would be really strong and lithe. You would never see a fat guy as one of the soldiers. You just wouldn't see it; there's no way. They just didn't have the food to do it. If anything they would be skeletons, more than likely. They were just the hardest men on the planet, you know? So I show up - and I took the note wrong. I was just like, 'Okay, I'm not going to work out. I'm just going to look like a normal guy.' And he was like, 'I was thinking tighter.' I was like, 'Awesome. Thanks Kevin, you should have told me this.' So I dropped a bunch of weight. I just ran and ate chicken and broccoli."
Is that his go-to diet? "That is the go-to diet," said Tatum, laughing. "It's still a starvation diet unless you eat rice with it. It's not healthy, but I didn't have any time. So, yeah. I'm going to do it smarter the next time."
And it's a good thing Tatum was in great shape - even without benefit of extra time spent in the gym - as the shooting conditions were extremely harsh, with freezing rain and fog making the actual logistics of filming The Eagle extraordinarily difficult. In fact Tatum has no idea how editor Justine Wright (who worked with Macdonald on Last King of Scotland, State of Play, and Touching the Void) was able to piece together the scenes given the torrential downpours they faced and the ever-changing lighting conditions. But despite the inhospitable weather conditions and being immersed in freezing water with the threat of hypothermia hanging over his head every minute he stayed wet (and the much-talked about injury to his private parts), Tatum claims he thoroughly enjoyed his time spent working on the film (and he'd do it again).
The production had a relatively low budget to work with, and at times it required 30 minutes of hiking to get to the set where then there wouldn't be any of the comforts of a major studio shoot (they sat by a fire to warm themselves, not in a fancy trailer like you see on most movie sets), but still Tatum says from the crew on up to his co-stars it was just an amazing group of people to be involved with. Looking back on the experience, Tatum recalled one night in particular he spent drinking tequila and just hanging out with Mark Strong, an actor Tatum says audiences sometimes fail to recognize because of the way he completes disappears into characters. Tatum said it was just incredible to hang out with Strong, relaxing, drinking, and having a good time following a tough day of shooting.
Romans as AmericansDirector Macdonald chose to have the Roman army (the invaders) be Americans and that meant Tatum didn't have to learn an accent so much as develop a more formal way of speaking that would be more appropriate to the time period. He changed his cadence and even adjusted the way he moved his body for the course of the shoot. It took some getting used to but Tatum agreed with MacDonald's choice as far as his character's speech pattern and mannerisms, and found himself falling into the rhythm fairly early on in the process.
And speaking of Macdonald, Tatum had nothing but praise for his The Eagle director. "I think Kevin negotiates relationships in films maybe better than anybody, especially one-on-one male relationships. You know, you see it in Touching the Void. Their relationship there - he handled it amazingly. Last King of Scotland...I mean, look, that is a very tumultuous relationship. You just can't even comprehend it at times. Like, how are these people even still on the same planet together? But yet they're running side by side and they're having real relationship issues and friendship issues, but it's so bizarre and turned upside down that you can't even believe that any of this is happening. And it's kind of the same with this. They're in entirely two different places but they're running parallel, and they're eventually going to meet."
The Eagle's the most intense action film Macdonald's directed thus far, but Tatum said he had a clear vision of the movie he wanted to make. "He wants to be good. I think he sees it in his head, which parts he's going to use and which parts he's going to change. You know, I really wanted him to pull back so that they could see that it was us doing it and not be so close in so that it's just all close, and he did it. Kevin hasn't done a lot of action, but he's great at it and I hope he does it more," explained Tatum. "[He] already had it edited in his head which parts he wanted. And one of the things that he did want was he wanted that whole parapet scene start to finish from the time that I get hit and I fall on the ground up until the end of the thing. We shot it in one long steadicam thing, so it was pretty intense."
On Other Upcoming ProjectsIn addition to acting, Tatum's production company is busy getting projects that interest him made. The company's currently in post-production on its first major effort, Ten Year, starring Tatum, Jenna Dewan, Kate Mara, Rosario Dawson, Justin Long, Scott Porter, Brian Geraghty, and Lisa Kudrow, and Tatum's serious about making his production company work, pointing to the work Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg have been able to do under their production banners as the sort of success he hopes to ultimately have with his 33andOut company. And Tatum revealed one of the projects he'd like to be able to do some time in the future is Mark of the Horse Lord (another book by Sutcliff). That's a long way off, but Tatum definitely believes that book would make for a great feature film.
With just the Los Angeles press junket to contend with when we sat down for this interview, Tatum was preparing himself for taking a few months off to recover from hip surgery. Only semi-joking, Tatum confessed he brought the injury on by abusing his body with stunts and action scenes. But the surgery isn't going to keep him from tackling more films in the action genre in the future. In fact, after healing he'll be getting into fighting shape once again for what he says will be his most intense action film yet - 21 Jump Street.
Tatum says the action comedy is "broad" and an "insane ride," and loaded with tough stunt sequences - and he can't wait to get started on that film. But what would make the experience even better would be for Johnny Depp (one of the stars of the original 1980s TV series) to say yes to coming in for a cameo. Tatum says they have a part written for Depp (but he wouldn't give specifics) and they've already launched their campaign to get him to commit to the project. Depp's said in interviews that he's not adverse to showing up for a cameo spot in 21 Jump Street, and if the script's as solid as Tatum says it is, here's hoping Depp can clear a space on his jam-packed schedule to revisit the world of 21 Jump Street.
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The Eagle hits theaters on February 11, 2011 and is rated for PG-13 battle sequences and some disturbing images.