Why We Can’t Look Away From Channing Tatum’s Face

Tatum is a former “Sexiest Man Alive,” but he’s not handsome, at least not exactly. His face charms through blunt force. And there might not be another one in contemporary Hollywood as powerful.

In its exquisite blandness, Channing Tatum’s face belongs to the pantheon of Great American Faces. Where others faces are chiseled, Tatum’s is a block of stone. It’s almost abstract in its angles, like a Picasso, only with better and bluer eyes, or maybe just like looking at a face without your contacts. Tatum is a former “Sexiest Man Alive,” but he’s not handsome, at least not exactly. His face charms through blunt force. And there might not be another one in contemporary Hollywood as powerful.

He started his career as a model; in the right get-up, he had the cocky lacrosse glower that helped make Abercrombie the brand of the turn-of-the-century. You can still see glimpses of that past in the photo shoots for glossy magazines: In GQ or Esquire, he looks almost at home in his tailored, slightly too-tight suits, biceps perfectly bulging.

That’s because his body, in long shot, is almost elegant, even sophisticated: Just watch him dance, and you’ll understand. How, truly, can a man be that smooth in a pair of XL sweatpants? It’s like he’s making up the moves as he goes, with a physicality and physical intelligence that recalls Gene Kelly, only with bare abs and/or a white ribbed undershirt.

But something happens when you look at Tatum close-up. The silhouette of his face becomes a helmet, turning his skull to right angles. I’m not trying to call him a blockhead: He may look cro-magnon, but in a way that ignites something deep and unspeakable inside anyone who looks upon him.

I felt that way about Tatum’s face in Stop Loss, and Fighting, and Dear John, and G.I. Joe. In The Eagle and Haywire and White House Down. But I felt it most keenly in Foxcatcher, a film about a pair of Olympic gold-winning wrestlers and their unlikely coach, that seems to strip his face down to its essence.

Dennis Liddiard, who served as Tatum’s personal makeup artist on Foxcatcher, transformed the actor’s face to replicate what happens to actual wrestlers’ faces after years in the ring. “The face flattens out; the nose gets smashed,” Liddiard said in a phone interview. “The forehead, nose, and chin all get on a single plane.” It’s the look of a face that’s spent so much time pushed, forcefully, into the dense rubber of the wrestling mat.

For that single plane, Liddiard used a dental device to push out Tatum’s gum line and chin, “plumpers” to widen and flatten the nose, shading to make his forehead look broader, wide-brimmed. It’s a look similar to the real Mark Schultz, whom Tatum plays in the film, but it’s also something more, somehow more basic or true, as if Tatum’s facial structure has been weighted under the heft of being male and dependent on your body as a source of capital during the decline of American industrial society.

Put differently, his is a classic working-class face — a face that looks like it belongs to a body that’s labored. Like it’s primed for a fight; like it can and will be busted. In that, it bears resemblance to other great faces of the last century: the face of Brando, the face of Renner, the face of Eastwood. Faces that mean more than they say.

There’s a reason his best work — in Magic Mike, in Foxcatcher, even in Step Up — is, at heart, about what it means to be a laboring yet ultimately disenfranchised body in America. His broken face tells the story of his frustrated body: its ostensible strength contrasted with its economic hollowness within the logic of late-stage capitalism.

Tatum’s face, which like so many in the pantheon before him, is a monument. Sculpted and busted, the way we love it says so much about what sort of physicality we yearn for, what sort of unified message (of self, of manhood, of nation) we’ve lost.

Yes, it’s just a man’s face, but that face, like so many other images we see magnified on the screen before us, is so much more: It’s a map of desire, fulfilled and frustrated; Roxane Gay described it to me as “a tabula rasa onto which I can project all my desires.” Tatum’s face is blunted, and broken, yet it tells a story of small wins and larger losses, seemingly without end. And I can’t, for the life of me, look away.

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