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Who's Ready for an Encore?

The guys who wowed audiences around the world in the rousing hit "Magic Mike" are back. This time, they're turning up the heat and taking it on the road - with a revealing new story, a fresh perspective on the future and a bigger, bolder set of some of the hottest and most exciting dance moves ever captured on the big screen.

Three years after Mike Lane quit the stripper spotlight for a different kind of life, he's come to realize he traded one grind for another. The business he launched isn't exactly crushing it, and the girl he thought was the one...wasn't. But it's more than that. Channing Tatum, who reprises the title role and again serves as a producer on "Magic Mike XXL," explains, "You definitely get the sense that something vital is missing. He's just not 'switched on' the way he was when he was dancing."

For Mike, it was never just about the money. Or the women, or the parties, or the fame. It was his passion. And the crew he left behind? They were the best friends he ever had.

Describing the new story, Tatum says, "The first movie was more about him rejecting that life because he feared maybe it was holding him back from seeing what else he could do. But now that he's stepped away and some time has passed, he remembers everything that was good and cool and fun about it and, most of all, about the guys who were on that wild adventure with him. It might not have been perfect and neither were they, but he loved those guys and they had some great times. Mike has been working very hard since the closing frame of the first movie, and we catch up with him at the point where he realizes he needs a little bit of that old mojo. He needs some of that crazy life to shake things up for him again."

It's time to get out there and have some fun, doing what he does best. So, when the former Kings of Tampa look him up on their way to the stripper convention in Myrtle Beach - an event that is every bit as outrageous as it sounds - Magic Mike can't resist. He's in.

"Magic Mike XXL" director Gregory Jacobs echoes the sentiments of moviegoers around the world when he says, "I wanted to know what happened to these guys. I love these characters, and the possibility of following their story was something that really intrigued me, plus the aspect of Mike reclaiming his bond and his friendship with them, his realizing that he missed them and that they missed him, too. I felt it would be great to get the band back together and make a road trip movie."

Though purely fictional, some of the elements and atmosphere of Mike's world are inspired by Tatum's own experiences from his early days as a dancer, and not all of it could be contained in one telling. "One of the things Channing originally brought up was his trip to a stripper convention back in the day," says screenwriter Reid Carolin, who, along with Nick Wechsler, Jacobs and Tatum, also returns as a producer on the sequel. "We tried to work it into the first movie, but it's such a big set piece that it was a story unto itself."

As happy as the characters were to get the show on the road, so were the actors who portray them. "There was never a dull moment," states Joe Manganiello, reprising his role as Big Dick Richie (BDR), alongside Matt Bomer as the picture-perfect Ken, Adam Rodriguez as Latin sensation Tito, Kevin Nash as wild-man Tarzan, and Gabriel Iglesias as their freewheeling MC, Tobias. "When we were cast in the first movie, none of us had a clue we would have this kind of chemistry, but it didn't take long. There was some kind of providence in assembling this group. It just works. Greg has a great heart and I think that sensibility really lent itself to this script, which is essentially about bros bringing out the best in each other and having a good time."

Longtime producing team Tatum and Carolin, who have lived with some of these ideas germinating for years, long before the first film was even conceived, would concur. "Greg was so focused and yet so open to us as creative partners from the very beginning," says Tatum. "There were countless hours spent turning over ideas and bringing this thing together. He completely understood that what would keep this story going was these guys, these characters we created but had really only scratched the surface of who they were."

Consequently, while showcasing the tight group dynamic, "Magic Mike XXL" also plays up their individual personalities and talents to a greater extent. The cast also got the opportunity to demonstrate their comic timing, as the story takes them from a rowdy reunion in Tampa to some hilariously bumpy but rewarding detours through Savannah on their way to the big event.

Says Jacobs, "It's Mike's journey but it's also a journey for all of them. We spent a lot of time fine-tuning and weaving each one into the story because it was important to all of us that the other characters were well developed and that everybody had his moment to break out and shine."

"Everyone took the letters XXL to heart," says Bomer, who additionally makes his big-screen singing debut in the film. "We put everything into our performances because so much of what this movie is about is the culmination of this one last ride these guys want to share. They want to go out with a bang so that, whatever happens after this, they can say, 'We closed that chapter on a high note.'"

The filmmakers also amped up the volume with new characters that introduce unexpected challenges and directions. Amber Heard is the elusive Zoe, a photographer who catches Mike's eye; Andie MacDowell is Nancy, an uninhibited Southern Belle who might have something BDR had given up hope of ever finding; Elizabeth Banks is Paris, who must be convinced to allow them a place on the convention bill; and Jada Pinkett Smith is Rome, a woman from Mike's past.

Rome is now the impresario of a one-of-a-kind exotic entertainment palace, which takes them down a rabbit hole of possibilities that are nothing short of inspiring and brings a fresh focus to their performances. Likewise, Pinkett Smith, who had never been to a strip club before, says, "When I saw how exhilarating it was to be with other women in that environment and see how much joy they were getting from celebrating these beautiful men and really exploring that primal nature within us, it was an eye-opening experience for me."

"Rome's club is so far removed from anything they know, they come away from it realizing that they all have something unique to offer," adds Adam Rodriguez.

Rome's stable of talent includes Donald Glover as the romantic charmer Andre, with a gift for song; NFL Super Bowl Champ-turned-entertainer Michael Strahan as Augustus, who infuses raw athleticism into his act; and dancing phenom Stephen 'tWitch' Boss as Malik, who displays his virtuosity in a solo before later joining Mike in a show-stopping performance that takes it to a whole new level. "This is three years later so you can't go backwards," tWitch emphasizes. "You can't stay in the same place. You have to do more, and do it better, and every single guy in this movie committed to that and went for it."

"Although it's a sequel, 'Magic Mike XXL' stands on its own as a road trip and a dance experience that I believe will surprise and entertain at every turn," offers producer Wechsler.

Knowing they'd have to seriously step it up on every number while retaining what audiences loved about "Magic Mike," the filmmakers welcomed back premiere choreographer Alison Faulk. Also returning were production designer Howard Cummings and costume designer Christopher Peterson, who advanced and enhanced the venues and wardrobe palette to accommodate the three-years-later time frame in a way that didn't forget who these guys are and where they came from.

Steven Soderbergh, director of the first film and the executive producer of "Magic Mike XXL," once again fulfilled the dual creative roles of cinematographer and editor.

Opting overall toward naturalism and practical light, Jacobs says, "Because there was a palette established on the first movie, I didn't want to deviate from it too much but still wanted to give this one a different feel and mix it up visually. For one thing, the camera moves more, so there is an evolution in the style, especially at the convention."

Such was the camaraderie on set that actors who had wrapped their day often stayed on late into the night to watch and encourage others through their numbers. Says Wechsler, "It was like coming back to summer camp and seeing all your friends; everyone wanted to do that," "They responded to the story and, once on board, their bond ensured they would work hard to be the best dancers they could be. The fun you see these guys having on screen is authentic. They just dig each other."

Bringing all that natural energy, kinship and excitement to the screen, Jacobs concurs, "It really was a locker room on wheels."

Welcome back, Brother

Production began in Savannah, Georgia, and included locations in and around Savannah and Tybee Island, Georgia, as well as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for a taut 30-day schedule of principal photography. But preparation began months prior to that, as the principals worked on their stamina, strength, timing and dance moves, whipping already toned bodies into possibly the best shape of their lives.

It was vital that the dance routines were not only original, sexy and breathtakingly intense, but integral to the story and the characters. Jacobs affirms, "We wanted the dances to connect thematically to each of the guys and reflect some kind of character development with a big payoff at the end; they couldn't just be spectacular moments that didn't relate to anything."

Alison Faulk and assistant choreographer Teresa Espinosa factored in thoughts from the director, Tatum, Carolin and the cast, as well as music coordinator Season Kent, to tailor every sequence, beat by beat, to each actor's role and skill-set. "Channing, honestly, has the most incredible ideas; he's so instinctual and a lot of it comes from him," Faulk says. Offering a couple of examples, "Adam plays on the machismo element and he's athletic, so we challenged him with some hip-hop moves and a kip-up, which is a kind of full-body rising movement from the floor that requires a lot of abdominal strength. Kevin's strength is his theatrics so we showed that off - along with his legs. His muscle definition goes all the way up his thighs so our costume designer, Chris, put him in a cape and really short shorts."

Faulk's scripted direction was often quite specific. But not always, as she laughingly recounts, "Reid would sometimes write a description of what a dance entailed, for example, Joe's scene in the mini-mart would read, 'Then he pours water on himself and rips his shirt off.' But for Channing's big number, it was more like, 'And then the most insane routine in the history of cinema occurs.'"

Carolin responds, "We'd all go over the broad strokes together, and then, when we went into the dance studio later, 90 percent of what we saw would be exactly the fantasy of what we had hoped it would be. The other 10 percent would present possibilities of another way to go, and that might send me back to retool a scene. It was a collaborative process because these routines are such an important part of the story."

Tatum lent his expertise, working closely with Faulk and Jacobs to craft the most powerful dance performances, not only for himself but for all the roles - a process that could have been far more awkward if not for the fact that he and the choreographer share a longtime association. "We spent hours in a room, trying to figure out the right dance moves," he says. "We were saying things like, 'Don't put your crotch here; put it more over here.' It was ridiculous."

Their dedication was evident throughout, starting with the first beats of Tatum's opening number, a stirring freestyle solo that Mike executes in the garage where he makes furniture, triggered by Ginuwine's "Pony" on the radio. As Magic Mike, it was his signature song, and hearing it still sets his body irresistibly in motion. Alone, he moves seemingly for the pure pleasure of it, ingeniously incorporating the drills and sanders of his trade while gliding across workbenches and spinning off chairs as the music guides him - perhaps reminding himself that dancing is still a part of who he is.

Not that there was any doubt. "Channing's performance is unbelievable," Jacobs states. "It's really impossible to take your eyes off him when he starts to move. And it's there, in that first dance, when he hears that song and the call of this trip is so strong that he can't pass it up."

The guys then officially kick things off with a visit to drag-queen night at the fictional Mad Mary's in Jacksonville, featuring real-life drag performer Vicky Vox as Miss Tori Snatch. It's a riotous free-for-all that sweeps everyone onto the stage in a voguing wave - including Tobias, in platform heels, ruffled sleeves and a fruit-laden headdress that would have done Carmen Miranda proud. "The deal is, they're going to dish out some money to the winner, so Tobias gets inspired," comedian Gabriel Iglesias sets the scene. "After the first film, I told them, 'Hey, whatever you want me to do in this one, just let me long as I can have a fig leaf or something.' We need to keep certain things a secret."

Production designer Howard Cummings used an existing strip club whose owner didn't want to close during peak hours. So they converted it into the anything-goes Mad Mary's during the day for rehearsals and shooting, and relinquished it to the locals at night.

As the festivities spill over into a beach party, illuminated mainly by car headlights, Mike has his first of several chance meetings with Amber Heard's Zoe. An intriguing young woman with a flair for candid photography, Zoe is someone he'd like to learn more about, but, for the moment, she gives him only a smile and something to think about. "What I like about the way these two interact is that they don't follow a traditional trajectory of 'boy meets girl, boy chases girl,'" Heard observes of their keep-'em-guessing interplay. "It's not about that. We get the impression that they have something to impart to each other which is not possible in their first meeting, though they're drawn to each other."

The night also brings an unspoken friction between Mike and the usually laid-back Ken to a flashpoint, prompting Kevin Nash to quip on screen, "It's always the pretty ones" - one of many ad-libs the actor deftly landed, to the delight of his comrades. "I couldn't stand next to him because he'd chime in with something like that off the top of his head and make me laugh," Bomer admits. "It was the combination of the Tarzan character with Kevin's deadpan delivery and his sheer size that just cracked us up."

The cast credits director Jacobs for fostering an atmosphere that encouraged banter, as well as allowing them to help develop characters who were introduced in the first film, and who we are getting to know a little better this time. "Looking back, you can see the growth of the group," says Nash. "At the same time, when we're in our comfort zone, it's like we're back at camp and everyone wants to party with their buddies for as long as possible."

But as much as they have changed, Mike points out that those changes have not found their way into the act, which, as good as it is, features choreography imposed on them years ago by their former manager. Why not create something new? If this is their blow-out performance, why not embrace the risk and the adrenalin and do it on their own terms?

It's Big Dick Richie who takes the plunge first, with a dance that will likely impact how audiences feel about gas station mini-marts forever, not to mention chips and water bottles.

Making use of the non-traditional setting and props for an immediate, organic feel, Faulk focused on Joe Manganiello's many strengths. "Joe is full-out," she remarks. "No matter what he's doing, he's doing it completely, and he moves fast. He's all about power and strength and precision, and striking beautiful shapes with his body, and he got really good at sliding and body rolls. He came to us during rehearsal and said he'd been practicing a dolphin dive, and wanted to work it into the act."

Manganiello also injected a fair amount of humor into the playful scene.

The way Jacobs staged the sequence, BDR's buddies eagerly follow the action from outside the store windows while he puts on a one-man show for perhaps the luckiest clerk who ever stepped behind a counter, a decision that reaped rewards beyond what the director expected. "I knew I wanted to have the guys outside cheering him on but didn't realize how important it was going to be to cut to their reactions as he got into it, and how much it would come alive in the moment, because they were genuinely overjoyed watching him do that," he says.

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