By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES - Channing Tatum sinks his muscular frame into a restaurant chair and makes a request to the waiter, no menu necessary.
"I know it's the afternoon," Tatum says, turning his baseball cap from sideways to backward. "But I need a beer." Changing a Hollywood reputation can work up a sweat.
Tatum and co-star Jonah Hill hope to shake up at least two reputations on Friday with the opening of 21 Jump Street, an adaptation of the 1987-1991 Johnny Depp TV series about undercover cops who infiltrate a high school.
he film marks one of the year's odder pairings and comes as the stars are battling their own stereotypes.
Hill flexes his screenwriting muscle on Jump, a movie he has tried to make for five years. He also is coming off a best-supporting-actor nomination for his dramatic turn in Brad Pitt's Moneyball, a movie he says opened doors he never realized were closed.
For Tatum, who made his name with the fleet-footed Step Up musicals, Jump not only marks his first professional attempt at laughs; he is following The Vow, a surprise hit that collected $118 million and made him one of the industry's most bankable romantic leads.
Both concede they're adjusting to their newfound reps.
"Who knows, maybe we're at the height of our careers," Hill says over a cheeseburger and Diet Coke while picking at Tatum's fries at Cheebo, a Los Angeles fixture a few blocks from Hollywood High School.
"But we're randomly in this movie together and in this very unique position where good things are happening for us," Hill says. "Now is the time to show what we can do and not be pegged as certain types of actors."
Though Hill and Tatum are coming off personal highs, Jump falls into Hollywood's riskiest category: TV adaptations. While the genre can churn out monster hits like the Transformers franchise, it also spits out movies like 2009's Land of the Lost, the $100 million Will Ferrell train wreck that mustered $49 million.
"I'm not going to lie and pretend I'm one of those guys who does a movie and doesn't care how it does" at the box office, Tatum says over a Guinness. "Anything new is nerve-racking. I want this to do well. That's the only way you get to do something different in this business."
Breaking out of the box
Not that long ago, neither Hill nor Tatum seemed destined to be doing much of anything different. Hill had made his mark with raunchy comedies such as Superbad and Knocked Up in 2007 but got few auditions for dramatic roles. Tatum, a former Chippendales-style dancer, had a minor hit with the 2010 romance Dear John ($80 million) but was still known more for his footwork and 6-foot-1 physique.
Tatum says he gets the pigeonhole. As a boy growing up in Alabama, he so revered Dirty Dancing's Patrick Swayze that he and buddies turned the name into an adjective.
In '21 Jump Street,' the characters played by Tatum, left, and Hill go undercover as high school students in order to break up a drug ring.
"Instead of cool, we'd say something was so 'Swayze,' " says Tatum. "I guess since I loved it and could do that (dance films), that's how people saw me."
Not Hill, 28, who first saw Tatum in a fleeting role in 2006's obscure A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. A cinephile, Hill says he went to the coming-of-age drama to see the performance of friend Shia LaBeouf.
"But I walked away thinking about Channing," Hill says. Tatum's turn as a troubled youth "was gritty, but more than that, it seemed honest. That's what people don't get about comedy. You don't need to always say funny things. A lot of times, you need to say them honestly and sincerely."
Jump, about two slacker cops investigating a high school drug ring, doesn't pay homage to the cop show so much as it lances the industry that loves the genre. The movie begins with a joke about how unoriginal the film is and how fickle Hollywood marketing can be. Still, Hill says, the movie "needed someone genuine who could treat ridiculous lines with a sense of honesty. I knew after (Saints) that Channing was a sick actor."
Still, Tatum, 31, concedes he thought it might be a sick joke when Hill called last year to offer him the role.
"The first thing I told him was that he had to make me funny," Tatum says. "I had always wanted to do a comedy, but that's not something I'm going to pretend I know. But Jonah said he'd have my back. That's all I needed to hear."
Well, that and one other thing: No practical jokes. Hill has a reputation as a wicked practical joker and had just finished working with Pitt, whose high jinks have included the mock kidnapping of a crew member during Fight Club. Tatum says he was too nervous about being funny to worry whether he had a "kick me" sign taped to his back.
Channing recalls: "I said, 'Me and you, we're on the same side. Let's keep that going. But if I shake your hand and make this treaty and you break it, all hell is going to come down.' "
Hell apparently didn't come down. The two developed an outsider's bond, says co-director Phil Lord - a partnership the filmmakers may have unwittingly helped create.
"It was our prejudice that (Tatum) wasn't as thoughtful" about the role as a seasoned comedic actor might be, Lord says.
"But he's a person who doesn't take himself so seriously that he's not willing to take a risk," Lord says. "He put a lot of energy into preparation. He knew he was breaking in from the most unlikeliest of places, and he surrounded himself with intelligent people. Like Jonah."
Co-director Chris Miller (he teams with Phil Lord) says that Tatum, a former high school jock who plays one in Jump, "would do the big-brother stuff. He'd grab (Hill), wrestle him, things that worked their way into the movie. You can only hope that kind of thing happens" during a shoot, he says.
Ice Cube, who plays a snarling police captain, says that while Tatum was "the action star" on set, Hill was the cut-up.
"Jonah kind of reminds me of John Belushi," Cube says. "Not quite as slapstick, but the life of the party. Channing was the cool guy, but not in a bad jock way. It looked like they were real tight friends."
More collaboration is possible
Not that they didn't let differences shine. Tatum caught himself watching slack-jawed "when Jonah started doing his comedy thing," he says.
That "thing" meant halting in mid-scene and telling a joke a half-dozen times, adlibbing or changing cadence.
"Jonah has a sense for when the funniest moment of a scene is," Tatum says. "He'll stop, go back, say a joke over and over until he feels like they'll have it in editing. I learned so much just from watching him."
Hill, too, says he was surprised by what he saw. In one scene, Tatum can't help but get airborne, leaping and sliding lengthwise over an abandoned car. The move, directors say, was unscripted, as was Hill's stupefied response: "How do you learn to do something like that?" Both moments made it into the film.
If the movie is a hit, Hill and Tatum know what's coming: sequel offers.
"After Moneyball, I was suddenly a dramatic actor and was getting all these roles," Hill says. "After this, I'll be getting comedic roles again. It's whatever people saw you in last."
Tatum, too, has been fielding a flood of romances "that are just versions of The Vow. That's great, but it's like your eighth bite of steak. It's delicious, but it's still just steak. You hunger for something new."
How new? Though Tatum next appears in the action film G.I. Joe: Retaliation (out June 29) and Hill stars in the comedy Neighborhood Watch (July 27), the two are hoping to make a biopic of Evel Knievel.
"Wouldn't that be cool?" Tatum asks. "He was a normal guy who did these amazing things."
Hill chuckles. "You just don't want to be put in a box. I know we're making a movie, not saving the world. But that doesn't mean it can't be the best hour and a half of your life. And unexpected."