When people talk about stripping, they may assume you are talking about women taking their clothes off. The most well known movies on the subject were the notoriously bad Showgirls and the Demi Moore comedy Striptease. Cop movies in the ‘80s frequently featured the heroes entering a strip club to find an informant ogling the ladies.
There is a healthy world of male stripping too. The comedy The Full Monty made fun of average joes putting on a nude revue, but in real life there are troupes of hunky guys who make a living strutting their stuff for female customers. Las Vegas has shows like Thunder from Down Under. The famous Chippendales is still in business.
The new movie Magic Mike is all about male strippers. Hollywood studs Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey lead a cast of well built boys who show everything on stage. The film was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who’s made exposes about the drug trade (Traffic), legal activism (Erin Brockovich) and historical figures (Che: Part 1 and Part 2.) He did not make Magic Mike as a frivolous exploitation movie.
“I think there might've been a concern for men who were having to see the film, that really the movie was so driven towards the female audience, that there would be nothing in it for them to latch onto,” Soderbergh said. “Of course I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do, that in point of fact some of the issues that the male characters are going through are issues that all men confront about what they want. Men tend to define themselves by what they do, and so if you're dealing with a character who's trying to figure that out, or multiple characters, then there's something there for guys, too. When we tested the film the female scores were not significantly bigger than the male scores. I mean, guys liked it. The trick is, I think, getting them to come, but we'll see what happens.”
Tatum also produced the film, and the screenplay by Reid Carolin was actually inspired by Tatum’s real life. Before he became an actor, Tatum supported himself by stripping in a male strip club. The film does not portray actual events, but the themes Mike (Tatum’s character) faces at age 30, were present in the real world he experienced.
“I think everybody either knows somebody or has experienced it themselves, whether they did or didn't graduate college. Afterwards you're like, 'Okay, what do I do now?'” Tatum explained to Dish. “You have the dream of what you want to do, and then you have to do other jobs until you can get to that dream. Mike, and I think a lot of these guys, just sort of fell into this thing and it was fun, and years just sort of ticked on as the party was happening. Then all of a sudden you're like, 'Wow, it's seven years later and I don't really have very much to show for it. I'm not any closer to my dream.’ At some point the party had just gotten away from you and it became your life. I think that's happened to a lot of people. They just get sidetracked.”
Two of the strippers Tatum knew in his teens, Thomas “Awesome” Austin and London Steele, have claimed the movie is so accurate, they should be credited with the story and choreography. Well, Tatum’s no thief but it shows you just how serious the world of male stripping can be.
“Look, there's nothing that's factual in this whole movie other than I was an 18-year-old kid and went into this world, and I dropped out of college and playing football and was living on my sister's couch,” Tatum said. “There's not one character that I took from my real life. This is just a world that I went into and that I had a perspective on, and we created everything from a fictional place. Those guys have been trying to make money off of me since I’ve gotten into this business. Literally, London was one of the guys that sold the video that my friend here [Soderbergh] saw and liked it, and then we made a movie of it. They're just very interesting people. I don't want to say anything bad about them because they're part of the reason why I think this world is so interesting. They're very interesting, intriguing, bizarre characters and I'm thankful for the weird people out there because they're some of the most creative people.”
At 30, Mike is hoping to start his own business with seed money he earned stripping. He meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) working construction, and gives him a start as a stripper. Tatum claims that the character of Adam does not represent him, however. Tatum got out of that business too quickly.
“Look, I was eighteen years old and I worked three jobs,” Tatum said. “This was just one of them, and I really enjoyed performing. It was probably my first performing job ever. I really like to dance, obviously, but I didn't really love taking the clothes off at the end. I basically kept working in the clubs, but I just went with some of boys that danced as well, and we'd just put on shows at this one nightclub. We put on these crazy shows in the back that we didn't get naked in.”
Now that Tatum is the star of blockbuster films like Step Up, The Vow and 21 Jump Street, he much prefers his job as an actor rather than a stripper. “I don't miss anything about this world,” he said.
His co-stars did not have the firsthand dance experience Tatum had. Matthew McConaughey plays Dallas, the owner of Club Xquisite where Mike and the boys work. McConaughey took to stripping quickly.
“I was very nervous,” McConaughey said. “Before going out on the stage to dance, even if you’re not taking your clothes off, live performing is kind of nerve racking, but then knowing you have to strip down, very nerve racking. Then after doing it once, God, I wanted to get up there and do it again. That was a lot of fun.”
All the strippers start out in a signature outfit. The clothes are specially designed to tear away quickly in the middle of a dance. “I kept all mine,” McConaughey said. “As soon as we found the leather pants on the first day with Christopher, the costume designer, we were like, 'Okay, that's Dallas's staple.'”
The boys may be the stars of Magic Mike but each scene is full of women sitting in the club watching them. Because films are shot over weeks and weeks, the women playing the club patrons became close with the actors.
“They were there for a while with us and they became sort of our friends,” Tatum said. “You'd get off stage and they'd go, 'That was a really good one. Really, that part where you did the thing, that was great.'”
Male strippers may seem like an unusual concept for a movie, however Soderbergh feels it speaks to the essence of film. He was pleased to be able to showcase a lot of visual movement on screen without relying on dialogue.
“In my mind, a movie should work with the sound off,” Soderbergh said. “You should be able to watch a movie without the sound and understand what's going on. That's your job, to build a series of chronological images that tell the story. I'm frustrated when I see movies in which I feel like the plot is being told to me instead of shown to me. I also like to stage scenes in which you see a lot of people in the frame at once. So, physicality becomes a really important part of the aesthetic. I need actors who understand how to use their bodies because the shot is going to be up there for a while. You're going to see them, if not full length, probably down to the thigh. So, all of that stuff becomes really important. Sometimes I'm choreographing moves with the camera, with moves that they're doing. So, they're sense of having to dance a little bit with the camera needs to be pretty pronounced. In this case, everybody, I think, fell into that very quickly and understood what I was trying to do.”
Magic Mike treads lightly on the darker aspects of male stripping. There is some drug use and some violence, but the film stops short of being an exposé.
“That world in itself was a very dark world in a way,” Tatum said. “I don't think we even scratch the surface of really how dark that place can get and how slippery of a slope it can actually be. This was probably the most palatable version of this movie. Otherwise, you wouldn't want to see it twice, you’d just be like, 'Okay, I feel dirty now.'”
Soderbergh has made dark, gritty movies about various worlds, but he did not want to take Magic Mike in that direction. “I think we were trying to find a balance,” Soderbergh said. “As Chan was saying, there's a very dark version of that movie to be made, but at the end of the day we wanted it to be fun, whether it was the costumes or the routines or just the way that people were acting with each other. We wanted to find this line where you were smiling as opposed to being disgusted. We were constantly surfing that.”
With half a dozen naked men on the set, the atmosphere was jovial. McConaughey had to have a sense of humor when he wore a thong.
“It is one of the larger leaps of faith to trust a thong,” McConaughey said. “It weighs like what a dollar bill weighs. It weighs nothing, and you're going, 'At the end of this performance, this is the only protection that I have.' So, the first time you put it on you're going, 'What is every possible angle I can be in? I gotta check to see if it's really covered, everything is covered.'”
After posing in the thong to experience the limited range of flexibility it allowed, McConaughey embraced it. He was the leader of the pack of actors, staying naked in between takes and acting naturally.
“I had to put on the thong and kind of walk around and try to have normal conversations,” McConaughey said. “You have to talk about football or what you ate last night, something. Then that's what's funny, and then you lean against a wall, like, 'Now I'm just hanging out, man,' to get comfortable with it because the first time you put it on your body kind of contorts and you're like, 'I need to straighten up, my shoulders back or something, hips out.' It is somewhat unnatural. Channing would be there just talking about what's going on in the scene with Soderbergh. He's in his red thong, just working it out, behind the scenes producer work.”
With everybody in a thong, it was impossible to make the intensely serious version of Magic Mike. “I felt if everybody is dressed like that then every conversation is funny,” Soderbergh said. “Anybody who starts having a serious conversation while they're wearing a thong, it's going to be funny. The mantra was, 'It's only weird if you make it weird.' So, that was the attitude that everybody took, which is ‘it doesn't have to be weird, if you don't want it to be weird.’”