Unlike Jamie Bell, his co-star in “The Eagle,” a new adventure inspired by the legend of Rome’s Ninth Legion — which, around the year 117, is said to have vanished north of Hadrian’s Wall — Channing Tatum is no stranger to playing the hard guy.
In 2009 alone, he starred as a bare-knuckles brawler in “Fighting,” a military hotshot in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and as the notorious Pretty Boy Floyd in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.”
Yet nothing prepared Tatum, 30, for the scalding pain he would experience playing Marcus Aquila in the film, opening Friday, based on the book “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff. The character is a Roman warrior who ventures behind enemy lines — and into the frigid waters off Scotland’s remote Summer Isles — to redeem his slain father’s honor.
To keep the actors from freezing while braving the icy current, director Kevin Macdonald’s crew regularly poured hot water into the wetsuits hidden beneath their Roman garb.
Unfortunately, Tatum, who found the cold far more daunting than the athletic rigors of his role, was the victim of a crucial misjudgment.
“We shot six or seven days in rivers, and during the last take of the first day, the assistant director didn’t check the water he poured into Channing’s wetsuit,” says Glasgow native Macdonald, 43, who previously directed “The Last King of Scotland.” “It was boiling. I heard Channing scream and dive into the river, and I thought he was messing around — he’s quite a practical joker, always pretending to break his leg or something like that. Ten minutes later, I found out he was seriously burned, particularly in the area known in England as the family jewels.”
Tatum was rushed to the hospital and administered morphine. Yet the pain did not dampen his enthusiasm.
A kung-fu student as a child and, like the 24-year-old Bell, a trained dancer, Tatum relished his character’s heroics on the battlefield, including scenes marked by dangerous swordplay. And growing up in Alabama, he had become a skilled enough equestrian to handle a horse galloping along sheer Scottish cliffs.
But as much as he enjoyed what he calls “the hardest shoot any of us had ever done,” he still shivers thinking of the isles’s bitter North Sea weather. “There’s no reason for anyone to live there in November, and few people do,” Tatum says. “Even the sheep are freezing, and they’re covered with wool.
“We dealt with the possibility of hypothermia every day. Jamie weighs, what, 100 pounds, with 1 percent body fat? His knees were giving out. And being burned was like nothing I’d ever felt. But I took some painkillers and went back to work. I think it even helped my performance.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong
Written by Jeremy Brock
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Running time 1 hour 54 minutes