Channing Tatum is taking a step into serious leading man territory. Known up to now for Step Up and GI Joe, Tatum this year arrives with The Eagle, a historical adventure taking us into the wilds of Scotland during the Roman Empire’s dominion over Britain. It’s an altogether harsher, more dramatic experience than we’re used to from him. But Tatum seems relaxed with the demands of an arduous shoot in the Scottish Highlands, breezily recounting an unfortunate accident on set as he slips into a London hotel to talk about a film that may well give him a new level of credibility.
“They try to keep us warm”, Tatum recalls when discussing how hot water would be poured into their clothes to keep them warm on set. “This poor guy was running up and down a hill that was about ten minutes out of where we were shooting. He forgot to dilute the boiling kettle water with river water. Once it’s poured down you pull your suit away from your body and it just keeps going lower. I had no skin anywhere down there to speak of. But we’re good now; it’s pretty regenerative down there!”
If that seems like an unusually jovial way to recount a pretty gruelling experience, then it is in keeping with the tone of the conversation. Jamie Bell, Tatum’s co-star, is also on hand to discuss a long, cold shoot. Despite the travails it seems they had a whale of a time. “It was childish stuff” says Bell, grinning ear to ear. “We got to ride around and throw swords and spears on horseback . It was really good fun.”
The story of The Eagle, even if it takes in some serious themes of honour, reads like the perfect boy’s own adventure. Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s much-loved The Eagle of the Ninth, it sees Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young centurion who travels north of Hadrian’s Wall in AD 140 to recover the eponymous Eagle, the standard of his father’s regiment which disappeared more than twenty years before. Joined by Bell as Esca, the slave on whom he relies to pass unnoticed amongst the Gaelic speaking tribes, it is a tale of an arduous journey and blossoming friendship across societal and class divides.
Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) came to make the film as a fan. “I read the books when I was eleven or twelve, and it made a big impact on me. I grew up in Scotland, and I couldn’t imagine there being any Romans there, so it captured my imagination. Then I heard 25 years later that Duncan [Kenworthy, producer] had the rights.” His stars, though, had some catching up to do. “It was my favourite subject in school” says Tatum, explaining his attraction to the part, “I think because of the stories and the characters. Gladiator and Braveheart were my favourite films. But Kevin was great. He comes from the documentary world, and he inundated me with a lot of material that I could sink myself into.” Bell came to the film from a different perspective. “I was completely unaware of the novel, and it was really the screenplay that I read a long, long time ago. After I had met Kevin I then went and read the novel, which is obviously a fantastic journey of the same characters.”
The result is a surprisingly physical adventure story, and one that has gotten into some trouble with American censors. “We agreed that the film would tell us what the rating should be” Kenworthy explains. “You can’t have a film on battle and warfare without having some violence, but we weren’t making it because we were driven to make a gory spectacle”. Of the cuts, he says “I’m glad that the film is 12A here, and that is the director’s cut. It was rated a hard R in America, and the studio wanted a PG-13, so we had to make a few.” MacDonald elaborates. “They’re very literal in America. You’re allowed blood on the ground but not in the air”, to which Channing responds “I’m sorry!” in a voice of mock-apology. The spirit of the team seems unusually good, and MacDonald in the end dismisses any controversy over the film’s gore. “I think that it’s striving to be historical, and to put these men’s lives into some sort of context. In doing that you have to have a certain amount of horror to show the danger they’re in.”
It was a tough experience, but one that was aided along by a spirit of fun, as well as an element of competition. “We’re both competitive with each other, and we really pushed each other through some of the harder scenes”, says Bell. “You know, whose got the fastest horse, whose got the best fight scene, who can stay in the river for longer!” Tatum agrees . “Jamie and I did get along so well right off the bat”, he says. “We had to make sure we reminded each other of it because we never really laugh until the very last scene, but we were laughing all the time [on set]. It’s just a small knit family and you go through hell together. I really think that’s what Jamie and I did”.
MacDonald agrees about the arduousness of the shoot. “A lot of the shooting was in quite remote locations, particularly in the villages up in the Northwest”, he says. “You had to walk quite a long way. It was so windy and there was a terrible a patch of weather just before we started shooting. The guys were only wearing period costume most of the time. It was hardly Gore-Tex”. Tatum nods in agreement. “Even if they’d told me it was the coldest thing you’ll ever go though in your life, I still don’t think I would have understood until the second day. You’re soaked all the way though, and outside for thirteen hours like that. We couldn’t get trailers out, and we would hike in for twenty or thirty minutes. Kevin was carrying cameras and reels out to the set”. If the film’s producers had asked why only Rob Roy had really shot on location, here was why.
An often spectacular battle with the terrain, The Eagle is a physical, CGI-light affair. Bell at least was partly prepared, having had a similar experience when making Defiance with Daniel Craig. “The next time I make a film and it’s comfortable, that will be uncomfortable” he grins. Indeed, while the plot becomes increasingly silly, the thing that keeps it compelling is the convincing physical journey of the two leads. “The physical nature of getting it done was part of the struggle” Bell says. “In the story, it’s their endurance and stamina that gets them though it. I don’t think we had the same endurance and stamina. There were moments when we had to keep each other going”.
It was not just the landscape that needed conquering . “I think we got very lucky, because we’re very good physically”, says Bell, discussing the training that went into the roles. “We both have physical backgrounds, predominantly in dance, and you can compare that to things like sword fighting or even horse riding. I had never ridden a horse before, which was a big gamble, but I was very honest about that. A lot of actors lie, but I learned from scratch.” Bell’s training, though, was very different from Tatum’s . “I tried to bulk up a little bit, as we wanted these characters to feel that they could definitely take care of themselves. But obviously Channing is very big, and his character is a trained, formal fighter. We wanted to differentiate Esca as a feral, wiry, instinctual fighter. We did that in rehearsal.”
Tatum, meanwhile, practised relentlessly with weapons in the lead up to the shoot. “My first training was probably in the backyard swinging around sticks, and I have had training before with martial arts. But you’ve got to be really careful. You want to make it look like it’s an extension of you, just a part of you that you’ve trained over and over again.” Portraying a fearless centurion decorated for bravery, his determination also extended to stunt work. “We did almost all the stunts except for the river scene”, he says, talking about a sequence in which Marcus and Esca swim down a dangerous river canyon. “They wouldn’t let us go down the rapids because it had been raining for a month straight. The river had risen three feet, so it was too dangerous.” You can sense the disappointment in his voice.
Bell seems to agree about the toughness of the stunts, although the seriousness doesn’t last for long “I think when you’ve got your fellow actors incredibly game for doing a stunt” he begins, “and obviously very competent at doing it, it requires you to really step up”. Channing instantly starts guffawing at Bell’s use of a film title that might be coming back to haunt him now he’s in the serious acting world. Bell protests, “that really wasn’t intentional at all! You can’t pussy out on them, you’ve gotta step up to it!” The whole table breaks into fits of laughter.
Not all of the shoot was such fun, though. Of shooting a scene in which Tatum holds nemesis the Seal Prince (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet) underwater, he says “It’s so cold that when your head goes under all thought, all air goes out of and you, and you are just in shock. He’s supposed to tap me when he’s ready for me to pull him up, but he didn’t”. Rahim was unharmed (he is sitting next to Tatum as he recounts the story) but it underlines the risks of making such a film. Unpleasantness of a different kind occurred during a scene in which Esca, accustomed to the necessities of surviving in the wild, forces Marcus to eat a dead rat. “I still don’t know what they gave us to eat, do you know Channing?” says Bell, with Tatum laughing, shaking his head. “They said it was the gelatine that holds together Haribo treats. Bullshit!” MacDonald pipes up at this point: “Let’s break out the rats!” he says gleefully. Tatum glances at him, amused. “He decided to do a few extra takes because I think he was enjoying it so thoroughly. We were literally retching!”
It is in these scenes that The Eagle manages to separate itself from the pack, by acknowledging the harsher realities of a warrior’s world. This extends to the near total absence of women. “I don’t think it’s ever refreshing not having women around”, says Tatum, “but I thought it was really smart to make the decision to really stay with these two, and not feel the need to fall into the stereotype of needing to have a love story. They really just focus on the friendship”. Bell agrees. “I don’t know how you bring that convention into the film without it becoming convoluted . But there was a serious lack of women around; way too much testosterone!”
Bell was filming Steven Spielberg’s motion captured adaptation Tintin shortly before making The Eagle. “They’re two completely opposite things. One is technology, one is nature”, he says. “You would think that one would be more freeing then the other, being in nature and having that physical environment, which did inform the performance. But I find that motion capture allows you to ‘fill in the blanks’. It is a space which is inventive, and it becomes much more creative than you can imagine. It’s strange to go off to the Highlands of Scotland and actually interact with real animals and real people. But it’s funny, it works against the way you think”. It’s an appropriate final note about a film, and its stars, that impress in ways you don’t expect.
The Eagle is out now.