LOS ANGELES — The waxing, the thongs, the perils of topless typecasting: Playing strippers taught the men of "Magic Mike" something about women.
Matthew McConaughey, Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Joe Manganiello and Matt Bomer play firemen, cops and other exaggerated versions of hyper-masculine characters in the Steven Soderbergh film, and they say preparing for their parts and performing nearly nude for the dozens of female extras who populated the fake Club Xquisite gave them insight into women's grooming, undergarments and approach to carnal fantasy.
"Magic Mike" delves into the male exotic-dancing world in Tampa, Fla., where Mike (Tatum) is a star performer who sees potential in a young newbie (Pettyfer) he calls The Kid. As The Kid becomes enamored of his new lifestyle and the access to drugs, money and women it provides, Mike thinks about escaping the debaucherous environs and making good on his entrepreneurial dreams outside the club. Meanwhile, there are several silly, sexy, scantily clad dance routines that showcase the actors', um, assets.
Soderbergh says the film is "just F for fun," but he and his cast found making it illuminating. For one, they discovered that "the role of fantasy for men and women is different," the director said.
"If men have a fantasy, they spend more time thinking about how to make it happen than women do," he said. "Women come to the (strip) club, they do their two-hour thing and then they drop it. Men are not like that. There's something behind it for them that they have to keep thinking about."
Women go with their friends, where men often go alone. Men dream of having some kind of relationship with the stripper, Soderbergh said, "but I don't think any of (the women at clubs) look at these guys and go, 'I'll throw it all away for this person.'"
Soderbergh was drawn to the male-strippers story because it explored a world he hadn't seen before, and its inherent music and dancing made it "a good movie idea." Tatum, who really was a stripper when he was 18 and inspired the film's concept, said he and screenwriter Reid Carolin wanted to put a cinematic spin on the weird world he worked in and point an objectifying lens at men, for once.
"In movies, generally if there's a female role in it, generally, a large part of the time, her power comes from her sexuality, and that has done something weird in society where women think their power is their sex, that their sexuality that is empowering them to be strong women, and that a complete falsity," Tatum said.
"For this (film), the women are the ones that are smart and have careers and are making good decisions for themselves, and the guys are the ones that are objectified and deriving power from sexuality," Carolin said. "That makes them behave very flamboyantly and confidently, but they don't have any real fulfillment out of that, and there's this struggle to feel like they're worth something outside of that."
Still, Tatum, 32, acknowledges that showing flesh for his roles in "Magic Mike" and other movies "probably helped my career more than hurt my career at this point."
Dealing with the waxing the part required, however, was a real challenge.
"I don't know what movie could make me do that again," Tatum said.
"One time is enough for me," echoed McConaughey.
Pettyfer didn't have to wax, but he did have to shave, and does so on screen with a pink razor.
"Oh my god, I don't know how women shave," he said, adding that his skin was irritated for weeks. He also had some trouble with his wardrobe.
"I don't know how you wear a thong," the 22-year-old Brit said. "It's one of the most uncomfortable things in the world."
McConaughey said performing in the revealing garment took hours of acclimation.
"You first get a thong on and your posture's different," said the actor, who would walk around in his costume and make small talk to get comfortable before his scenes.
"Anything a man does in a thong is funny," Manganiello said. And though he's often topless on TV's "True Blood" and shirtless in both of his movies this summer ("Magic Mike" and "What to Expect When You're Expecting"), the 35-year-old actor doesn't fear being typecast as a half-naked hunk.
"There's no male objectification," he said. "I just don't think it exists. Men, what do we care?"
Submitting to body waxes and butt-bearing underwear, though, is another story.