It was an audition shrouded in secrecy, but that’s not what made it so strange. To land the role of one of the lovers in season 2 of FX’s American Horror Story, Jenna Dewan-Tatum had to jump through hoops. First, came a chemistry test with Adam Levine. Next, a casting director asked her to channel her own Janet Leigh. “They wanted me to come in the door, slam the door, and scream,” Dewan-Tatum, 31, says. “I remember getting it going, ‘Are we missing a page? I’m literally just screaming?’ And they said, ‘Yep.’ I came in, and I screamed, and that was that.”
She must have done a great job, because she landed the part. Dewan-Tatum’s character, Teresa, is a newlywed touring haunted houses on her honeymoon. The pilot opens with Teresa having sex with her new husband (Levine) on a rusty table. “I immediately called my family and I was like, ‘Nobody is watching the first episode!’” she says. “I’m not going to tell you when it airs.”
They weren’t the only ones kept in the dark. “I knew nothing about what was happening,” she says. “I still don’t know if I can talk about it.” Most of the scenes are set in a 1964 mental institution run by a creepy nun (Jessica Lange). The parallel story line, involving Teresa, is set in modern times. In this week’s episode (spoiler warning!), a masked maniac hacks up Levine’s character, but Dewan-Tatum says he survives. “I put that scream of mine to good use in the next couple of episodes,” she says.
Dewan-Tatum is now in Wilmington, N.C., where she’s filming a Lifetime pilot based on the novel The Witches of East End. Despite the Halloween theme to her recent work, she insists that she’s not a horror movie nut—she’s too spooked out by the Paranormal Activity films even to watch them. She grew up in Texas and Maryland, studying professional dance. “I was a diehard dancer,” she says. “That’s all I wanted to do.” She toured with Janet Jackson and ’N Sync, until a manager spotted her on the Grammys stage and encouraged her to act. Her breakout role, as the heroine of Step Up, was like this generation’s Dirty Dancing. She became the envy of most women (and some men) for marrying her leading man—a guy named Channing Tatum.
Director Anne Fletcher remembers being struck by Dewan-Tatum when she walked through the door to audition. “She’s gorgeous. And we have her dance, if memory serves me, and I said, ‘I’m done.’ Everybody—the studio, the producers—said, ‘We need to know if she can act.’ I said, ‘I don’t care! She’s my girl.’ Then it was a matter of let’s put her and Channing Tatum together. They got married, so you know they had chemistry.”
Dewan-Tatum recalls that first meeting with her future costar/husband. “I mean, obviously, he’s a drop-dead gorgeous man. He was so kind. He took me outside the studio and we ran lines together, to get comfortable. He’s still that giving and that humble and that nice of a guy. That struck me immediately.” He noticed something else about her that he still brings up from time to time. “He is like, ‘You had the worst breath. The worst.’ I’m like, ‘Thanks, babe.’”
She was nervous because so much was on the line. She compares her studio meetings for Step Up to the climax of Flashdance, where she had to impress a gaggle of suits. She did two dance auditions, three acting auditions, and changed the color of her hair twice to look more high-school-age appropriate. “I was very excited to get it, and I knew it was a coveted part,” she says. “They put me through the trenches to get that role. But we had no idea it would become a franchise or a hit. To this day, I still have people come up to me and say, ‘I watched Step Up six times today.’”
When she married Tatum in 2009, she decided to keep her last name but also take his. “I thought it sounded better,” she says. “That’s not a very mature reason.” The two are still partners in work. They started a production company, Iron Horse Entertainment, that made Magic Mike, based on Tatum’s days as a stripper in Florida. Dewan-Tatum says she’d visit the set and watch the steamy dance scenes as they were unraveling. “I really didn’t know how people were going to react to Magic Mike,” she says, “because there hasn’t been a movie like it.”
When the film opened over the summer, they snuck into a public screening at the Arclight Theatre in Los Angeles. “It was the most interactive movie experience I’ve ever seen,” she says. The women in the audience waved dollar bills in their hands and shrieked at her husband’s nude scenes. She says she’s not the jealous type, though. “Yeah, well, he’s got a good butt,” she says. “I would scream, too. He works out a lot.”
“I immediately called my family and I was like, ‘Nobody is watching the first episode.’”
Recently, Tatum started a news frenzy when he told a reporter that he’d only star in 50 Shades of Grey if his wife could play the romantic lead of Anastasia Steele. “I loved that he said that,” she says. “I don’t know if the public is as excited about watching a married couple play 50 Shades of Grey. I feel like that’s not as hot, for some reason.” The two played another onscreen couple in the little-seen comedy 10 Years, and they’d like to do it again. She suggests a musical (she can sing, too), and tells a story about how she taught Tatum how to tango in four days for a recent charity event at Carnegie Hall with Sting and Meryl Streep.
They live in their Los Angeles pad with their two dogs—Meeka, a miniature Japanese Spitz, and Lulu Bella, a pit bull. “When we got married around 27, it felt normal to find the person I’m meant to be with,” she says. “You don’t think, ‘Am I too young or too old?’ You think, ‘This is somebody I want to spend the rest of my life with.’”
The Tatums are clearly a Hollywood power couple, but it’s worth noting their different career trajectories after Step Up. He has gone on to become one of the biggest actors of his generation. Her roles have included TV shows like The Playboy Club and Melrose Place. Fletcher blames the industry for the disparity: “Jenna is so particularly kind and good in her spirit, and her spirit is so beautiful. I think people are confused by her abilities. You get that stamped on your head, ‘Pretty Girl.’ I think she’s capable of doing anything she’s asked to do. It’s just, are the opportunities there? I think she’s cursed by her beauty and sweetness.”
Dewan-Tatum says, if given the chance, she’d return for another season of American Horror Story. “I really like to act, and I really like to perform,” she says. “I enjoy producing as well. I’m open to whatever the universe wants to bring me.” After perfecting her scream, she deserves more screaming fans of her own.