The Eagle star Channing Tatum is not just a pretty face

Film legend Joan Crawford once remarked that "Hollywood is like life, you face it with the sum total of your equipment." A very quick Google search for actor Channing Tatum (and countless have before me), reveals his Hollywood equipment to be an aesthetically pleasing arsenal of pouting, topless shots; a thin, white shirt flapping in a mysteriously ever-present breeze, revealing a six-pack that rivals Brad Pitt in his Thelma & Louise physical heyday.

The Eagle star Channing Tatum is not just a pretty face A model for Abercrombie & Fitch in his pre-movie star days, it's easy to see why the world would want to pin him down like a big-armed butterfly, to insist his sole life equipment remain that of a male Megan Fox. Tatum, however, has other plans. "Well, I hate saying I have a plan," he says, "because the best-laid plans always go to hell, but you know … I do kind of have a plan!"

Channing Tatum, 30, is primed for his serial-killer moment. Which is not to say he's one bad review away from hotfooting it down Route 66 armed with a pickaxe, but more to suggest that if ever an overly pretty actor was ready to break out of the beefcake box and ugly up in the name of art (à la Charlize Theron), it's our man with the plan.

At first, the plan was simply to get work. The model-turned-actor first gained attention when he street-danced his way into the hearts of teenage girls everywhere as sexy hooligan Tyler in 2006's so-bad-its-good Step Up (where he met future wife Jenna Dewan). A few montages later, and a succession of roles followed that seemed to tick off every box on the list of testosterone-drenched stereotypes: the brooding hustler (Fighting), the arm candy (The Dilemma), the romantic lead (upcoming film The Vow), and of course, a whole lot of soldiers (Stop-Loss, GI Joe, Dear John). But this is no Ikea flat-pack CV – mostly because in among the fluff, Tatum has worked with some of the most respected directors in the business – Steven Soderbergh, Ron Howard, and Michael Mann – not to mention sharing a screen with Donald Sutherland in his latest film The Eagle (directed by Touching The Void auteur Kevin Macdonald) where he takes on the toga as brawny Roman soldier Marcus Aquila.

But for every director willing to propel him, Boogie Nights-style, away from the torso shots and on set with the big boys, there are plenty more who can't see past the cheekbones. Refreshingly, he's not desperate to talk his way out of his looks, nor does he deny their mesmerising power. When the Guardian poses the question-as-statement, "You're a good-looking man", he merely chuckles and politely says thanks. How does it feel, we ask, the whole all-American heartthrob thing?

'Of course I get more jobs because of what I was given in the genetics lottery … but I do want to play characters with more depth. I'm really ready to become unrecognisable'

"Of course I get more jobs because of what I was given in the genetics lottery, and I'd be an idiot to assume otherwise," he says, charmingly, though it's clear he's heard the same question, in various guises, all his working life. "I do want to play characters with more depth. I'm really ready to become unrecognisable. But I know that at the moment, that is not why people hire me. If they're looking for a stereotypical red-blooded all-American male, they'll come to me. So you have to start making those decisions: who are you going to be? Do I say yes to those roles, and carry on working but not necessarily grow? Then again, look at someone like Christian Bale. He's done extraordinarily well in some action roles, because of the way he approaches them. I hope I have it in me to be that good.

"Look," he says, a sudden earnestness flooding his gentle drawl, "I never trained as an actor, and I'm really aware of it. I was a street dancer before I made Step Up, but even then, I'd had no formal training. But if I'd been too scared to say yes because I wasn't qualified, then I wouldn't be here. Do I have something to prove? Absolutely. Come on – I'm walking on to a set and acting opposite Donald Sutherland. Donald Sutherland! I know every second I'm in a movie opposite a Hollywood great that I need to step up my game."

If his breakout performance in A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints is anything to place your bets on, Tatum certainly has a shot at thespian credibility. As Antonio, a hot-headed New York troublemaker, he was described by Total Film as "exuding charismatic, feral intensity to disguise vulnerability, powering the narrative with his fists and strut". But then you watch The Eagle, and hear the travesty of a Bradford-meets-America accent that he and the rest of the cast employ, and you just about want to weep. Though it's not a rip-your-face-off-so-you-don't-have-to-watch performance, and an enjoyable romp through the wilds of Scotland, compared to his stunning turns in Saints and 2008's powerful Stop-Loss (in which he gave a powerhouse portrayal of an Iraq war veteran), The Eagle smacks a little of rewarding yourself for months of not smoking – with a cigarette.

"As far as the accents go," he says hesitantly, "well, there was a method behind it. The Romans were this huge army who marched in and occupied a foreign country, and Kevin wanted most of the actors to retain their American accents, to kind of symbolise this pre-modern melting pot. For mine, well, whatever it comes across as in reality, the thought process behind it was one of a watered-down Shakespearean pronunciation. I hope that comes across. Or it'll just sound like we had no idea what the hell were doing, won't it?

"Plus, come on: every kid wants to be a Roman!" he counters good naturedly. "Watch Spartacus and Ben Hur young enough and all you want to do is play legionnaire with a chariot made out of old bike parts. The Romans were the ultimate warriors. I studied martial arts as a kid, and you never stop wanting to play the ultimate hero. And those battle scenes are absolutely exhilarating. It's like the coolest game of make-believe ever."

'Let me tell you something, there is no pain to equal burning all the skin off your penis. And the mental anguish! You're thinking: Do I have nerve damage? Will it work again?'

He's nothing if not game. During filming in a freezing river in the Scottish Highlands, a crew member on hypothermia-watch accidentally poured boiling water down his costume, burning the skin off his penis. I hesitantly bring it up, and Tatum bursts out laughing.

"Let me tell you something, there is no pain to equal burning all the skin off your penis. And the mental anguish! You're thinking, 'Do I have nerve damage? Will it work again?' Believe me, there is nothing – nothing – more humbling than being wheeled into the emergency room, your man in your hand, and all these male nurses standing around you shaking their heads and going, 'Dude … that sucks!' And you're sitting there in tears going, 'Yeah … it really, really does.'"

Hollywood may yet allow the planned transcendence of Channing Tatum. Five years before his Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones, Tony Curtis was just a good-looking guy derided for using a heavy Brooklyn drawl to butcher 1954's The Black Shield Of Falworth ("Yonder lies the castle of my faddah") into infamy. So what, we wonder, is the actual plan?

"I want to direct this film that I have the rights to, an adaptation of What's Left Of Us, the story of reformed heroin addict Richie Farrell. It's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest meets Requiem For A Dream with shades of Death Of A Salesman," he says enthusiastically.

That's an awful lot of emotionally shredded American dreams in one movie. "I know, right?" he agrees, somewhat gleefully. "We're writing the script with Richie, and it's a real challenge. Plus, I don't necessarily get to go all thin and have Hollywood say, 'Oooh, he lost weight for the role, he must be really committed,'" he adds with a knowing laugh. "Not all drug addicts are skinny. In fact, on heroin, Richie was still 200 pounds. Maybe I'll get fat instead."

A commitment to the rise and fall of an antihero and a casual attitude to obesity? Yes, movie fans: Channing Tatum may just turn out to be the only all-American hero you'll ever need.

Powered by article was written by Andrea Hubert, for The Guardian on Saturday 19th March 2011 00.03 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010