Channing Tatum, who has the lead role in the new movie "Dear John," seems like an unlikely movie star.

He certainly didn't start out thinking of becoming an actor. As a kid in Alabama and later Mississippi and Florida, he was a jock, not a theater aficionado.

And when he graduated from high school, he got a football scholarship to a small college in West Virginia. "I played for a year, but decided school wasn't for me," he says during a telephone interview.

That's when he started bumming around, working odd jobs in construction and eventually becoming an exotic dancer, under the stage name "Chan Crawford," in South Florida.

But all of that came to a halt when a scout for a modeling agency saw him in Miami and asked him if he'd be interested in doing fashion shows. "I really got lucky, and I followed through on that luck," he says.

His first modeling gig was in 2000, and shortly afterward he landed his big break in Ricky Martin's video for "She Bangs."

This isn't, of course, the traditional path for future Laurence Oliviers. It's more like the career trajectory of Mark Wahlberg, who still struggles to be taken seriously (with good reason) after hovering sans shirt over Times Square in the famous Calvin Klein underwear billboard. And in fact, many people have raised the question of whether Tatum can really act.

His earlier roles in such movies as "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" and "Fighting" hardly provided the fodder for critical acclaim. Instead, those roles were more a display of pectoral prowess than acting.

But with "Dear John," he hopes the reception will be different.

"I knew of Nicholas Sparks, but I never really thought about doing a love story," he says. "But I read 'Dear John,' and it seemed to have a bit more bite than some of his other books."

So he signed on to play John Tyree, the soldier on leave who falls for a beautiful young college student during spring break on the Carolina beach.

"That was three to four years ago," he says. "I met with Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, the Temple Hill producers, and 'Step Up' had just come out and they thought I'd be good for the role," he says. "I wanted to do it in part because it's about the South, and I'm from the South. But it also had a relevance, a topicality because it occurs around Sept. 11, 2001."

It was also nothing like "G.I. Joe."

"Sitting on the beach and having a real conversation with someone. ... well that's an entirely different acting experience for me," he says.

He sees the character of John Tyree as "just a normal everyday guy from America. And I think that's what Sparks does well. He tells of everyday people falling in love. And it's the first time, and it's going to be hard to get right."

Tatum, however, doesn't see much of himself in John Tyree. "I didn't join the military," he says, "and I don't think I have their kind of courage and honor. I wish I could say I did."

Like Wahlberg, Tatum has managed to attract the attention of good directors, despite critics who question his acting ability.

One of his upcoming movies will be "Knockout," directed by the Oscar-

winning Steven Soderbergh, whose earlier efforts include "The Informant!," "Che" and "Erin Brockovich."

"It's starting production in a week or two," the 29-year-old Tatum says. "The star is Gina Carano, and she's kind of a female James Bond or Jason Bourne, and I have a really cool, fun part."

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931