Jenna Dewan Tatum
Jenna Dewan Tatum

Jenna Dewan Tatum will star as sultry Bunny Janie in NBC’s new controversial and sexy drama, The Playboy Club, airing Monday nights (series premiere, September 19th 10/9c). Based on the original 1960s Playboy Club in Chicago, the television series will allow viewers to escape into the world of glamour, sexual liberation, and social upheaval that embodied the 1960s. The Playboy Club will also feature plenty of musical performances reminiscent of that burgeoning, artistically prolific decade. And it goes without saying that the show will feature beautiful Playboy bunnies with their signature bustier, rabbit ears and fluffy tales intact.

But not everyone is amused by the campy and sexy Playboy bunny image. Before The Playboy Club has even had the chance to unveil its first episode to the public, the new NBC series has already come under plenty of fire. Outspoken feminist Gloria Steinem has gone so far as to assert that the television show The Playboy Club “normalizes prostitution and male dominance.” When NBC executives called their new show, “empowering to women,” it drew even more ire from Steinem as well as from various parents’ groups and religious groups.

Though the NBC series, The Playboy Club, is merely depicting a piece of societal history, and all things Playboy have continued to capture the public’s imagination since Hugh Hefner launched Playboy Magazine in 1953, just the word “Playboy” inspires some serious and heated debate.

One thing about The Playboy Club series that certainly transcends debate is that actress Jenna Dewan Tatum (married to actor Channing Tatum) is breathtaking to watch as Playboy bunny Janie. Dewan’s character will be a mixed bag of sex appeal, sass and some scandalous secrets that will come to light as her storyline progresses throughout the show’s first season.

Jenna and I had a frank discussion about the controversy swirling around The Playboy Club, her thoughts on Hugh Hefner’s legacy, the state of modern feminism and how Dewan feels every time she slips on that famous Playboy bunny costume. (Allison Kugel): The Playboy Club is certainly getting a lot of publicity, and all of your naysayers and foils are actually fueling the publicity train for the show.

Jenna Dewan Tatum: It’s sort of backfiring on them, truly. I noticed that your profile picture on Twitter is of you posing in the Playboy bunny outfit. How do you feel about the Playboy bunny costume and what it represents?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: Like it or hate it, the Playboy bunny is iconic. I think it’s a beautiful, sexy, womanly outfit. I also believe that by today’s standards, we are wearing a lot more clothing [on the show] than most bathing suits and bikinis out there (laughs). What I love so much about the Playboy bunny costume is that it creates this hourglass figure when you wear it. For somebody like me who has to work hard to have my curves it’s nice to wear something that helps me out a little bit, gives me that corset and gives me those hips. As soon as you put it on you feel empowered, you feel sexy and you feel womanly. There are very few things I’ve worn in my life that I can say make me feel more like a woman. Is it because it has that retro vibe and it’s very reminiscent of a time back when ladies were ladies and men were men, that kind of overall feeling?

Jenna Dewan Tatum in The Playboy Club
Jenna Dewan Tatum in The Playboy Club

Jenna Dewan Tatum: Yes, absolutely! I think there is something to say about women being women, and just really embodying that energy. This outfit really does that. It’s about honoring your femininity. We are fully feminine characters in this show and I think that’s really fun to play. What attracted you to the role of Bunny Janie?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: I read it and I was cracking up. I thought, “This could not be a more fun character to play for a couple of years on a TV show.” She’s going to get herself in trouble. She’s definitely hiding something massive, which I didn’t know at that point in time, and she is the life of the party. She is so free and so free spirited. It was exciting for me to bring forward that part of myself that is Janie, more to the forefront of my own personality. Hugh Hefner is an executive producer on The Playboy Club. From a historically accurate standpoint, how much input has Mr. Hefner had?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: I heard that he had a lot of input. We [also] have Jason Burns, who is one of the Playboy executives. [Jason] is at the show each and every day, overseeing the whole thing. If you watch the Hef documentary, he is a really smart and progressive man who has been very involved in the Playboy brand from day one, and he’s never going to give up that control. It’s his baby, it’s his brand. He wants to make sure we are representing it well, and in the most truthful and right way in which it was in the 1960s. I met [Hef] and he told me that he was very happy with it. And the costumes are, to the stitch, exactly how they were in the 1960s. I mean every boning, every tie, how high the cups of the bust go up… everything is, to a tee, exactly how it was back in the 1960s, even the shoes. We wear all vintage clothing. [Hef] really wants it to be authentic and about these bunnies and their stories with each other. Did you and the other female cast members have to actually go through Playboy bunny training and learn the famous Playboy dip?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: Oh yes I did (laughs)! We had Pat Lacey, who is an ex-Playboy bunny and still works with Hef, come in, and we had a day of bunny training. You get that memo from your agent and you’re like, “Ok. Maybe it’s just to talk research about what it was like being a bunny.” We got there and it was strict! There’s a certain way the drinks are placed on the tray. There’s a certain way you have to place them on the table. The bunny dip, the bunny stance, the bunny perch… there were so many technical things to being a bunny. I left that day having a whole newfound respect for the Playboy bunnies and what they did for 12 hours a day. Playboy Magazine and the Playboy Clubs in Chicago and in New York were the manifestation of Hugh Hefner’s fantasy, of how he envisioned the world. Some people would say that Hef’s fantasy was to create a sexually liberated society for both men and women, where people could enjoy more freedom to express themselves. Others would say that Hef’s vision was self-serving and sexist. What are your thoughts on that ongoing debate?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: I can see both sides. I personally believe that he had a vision of creating a sexually liberated society, for men and women, not just men. These women who worked at these clubs, they were empowered, and they were absolutely sexy and using their sexuality to make money. I don’t really understand why that’s such a problem for people. They weren’t prostitutes, they weren’t having sex. They were trying to buy houses and go to college, and make money for themselves and pay for their kids and their families. This was a very important job for them and an important time period. This was when women didn’t have choices. Hef created opportunities for these women to have choices to make great lives for themselves, and to make a lot of money. I believe that Hef, as a whole, was very progressive. He was one of the first people to put African American performers in his club, and to allow African American [patrons] into his club, and have African American bunnies. This was a time when this kind of [integration] was looked down upon.

Jenna Dewan Tatum & the Cast of The Playboy Club
Jenna Dewan Tatum & the Cast of The Playboy Club Will The Playboy Club have storylines that will depict some of the civil rights issues that were going on at that time, particularly as it pertained to African Americans?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: It will. Naturi Naughton (who plays Brenda), who is obviously African American, she has her own storyline with this. We met an ex-Playboy bunny recently who was telling us her story. She’s African American and she said, “My family was very Catholic and very much opposed to what I was doing, but I was one of the first black women to work in a club and make this much money, and to be respected.” I believe that Hef can be deemed to be very superficial, and on the other hand he was a very deep person who wanted to effect change in the world… which he did both (laughs). Women are sexy and we are sexual beings. Why should that be looked down upon, you know? I struggle with the dichotomy, myself. The women from the Playboy Clubs that you’re portraying on the show, yes they were making a lot of money, but at the same time they were a little bit vulnerable because they were dressed provocatively to titillate the male club patrons. I wonder if at times it put them in compromising positions.

Jenna Dewan Tatum: I will say that, and it’s funny because I’ve thought about this a lot too, but every single person I have spoken to who was an ex-Playboy bunny, and I’ve spoken to a lot of them, not one woman said to me, “I felt vulnerable or like I was taken advantage of.” Every one of them said, “No, no, no. It was like playing a role. You put on that suit and you walked out, and you were on stage. It was theatre. You were playing a role and you were empowered. We were in control of these men.” And not only were they having fun and interacting with some of the brightest people of that time, but they were in control of the situation. For most of these women, this job went on to fuel the rest of their careers. Many of them went into show business and received acting jobs by being a bunny. A lot of them went on to become real estate moguls and start their own companies, and these were ambitious women. You don’t just become a bunny for no reason. So you’re saying it was their seed money, it was an avenue for them…

Jenna Dewan Tatum: Basically, and I asked if there was ever a time when they felt taken advantage of or overly sexualized by doing this, and they said, “Absolutely not. We felt empowered and we felt sexy, and we felt like we were in control.” In the sixties that was a rare thing. Most of the time, [women] were subservient housewives to the men that were in control. This was a switch in power that must have been fun for them. There’s one promotional clip from the show where you’re waiting on a man and he essentially asks you if you’re for sale. Your character responds by saying, “If it’s not on the menu, then it’s not for sale.” How did these bunnies handle those kinds of propositions when they were working?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: Exactly how I did in the scene. They would say, “No.” And in their own way of putting it “Back off!” In the sixties, and it was a sign of the times, it was not a popular thing for women to put men in their place. And these bunnies did. If anyone got touchy feely or said sarcastic things to them, they were the first ones to put them in their place. If it escalated, the men would get thrown out. I find it really fun to play, and I also find it really interesting that nowadays we take that for granted. What do you think of Gloria Steinem and her view of the world?

Jenna Dewan Tatum in The Playboy Club
Jenna Dewan Tatum in The Playboy Club

Jenna Dewan Tatum: I always like to say to all of the feminists like Gloria Steinem and all of those people who are saying all of this stuff, I mean, see our show first. None of these people have even seen the show. They’re going off of what they believe and what they perceive the [Playboy] Club was like, and what they perceive Playboy to be like. But the Playboy Clubs were very different from the [rest of] the Playboy brand. I personally don’t agree with what she is saying. I can see where she thinks that, and why people feel that way, but from my experience speaking to these bunnies, and from my experience playing one, it could not be farther from the truth. I haven’t heard one negative experience from one person. And it’s not just people that I’m meeting through the show. I have reached out on my own and I‘ve had women come up to me and say, “Oh My Gosh, you’re doing [the show] The Playboy Club? I was a bunny and I was at the New York club.” And I would say, “Talk to me about this because I want to know what your story is like.” And they were like, “It was the best time, it furthered me, I had all of these amazing opportunities and it enabled me to have an amazing career afterwards…” My experience has not been what Gloria Steinem is saying. So the feminist groups, the parents’ groups, the religious groups, none of them have actually screened an episode of The Playboy Club.

Jenna Dewan Tatum: No. No one has seen it. It’s sort of like me talking badly about a movie and someone asking me, “Have you seen it yet?” And I say, “No, I haven’t seen it, but this is what I think.” (Laughs). Would you ever pose nude in Playboy?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: No. I’m not looking to pose nude in anything. What do you think of the prevalence of female nudity in cable television and in film?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: I believe that it’s overused. I think there are a few times in movies and maybe a few TV shows, where scenes do call for it and there is a certain sense of realism. But you can tell when a girl didn’t want to show nudity, and it’s pretty obvious. A lot of times nudity sort of takes me out of the scene and takes me out of the movie, because immediately I’m going, “Oh, that’s somebody’s breast,” and I’m not thinking about what the scene is. So that’s my own personal argument against doing nudity. I never say never because in my life I’ve learned that you say one thing and then later on something makes sense. But thus far in my career I have said no to nudity for that reason. I want people to be invested in the story and invested in the character before they’re just looking at my boobs. Let’s talk about some of the guest stars on the show. I know that there are going to be a lot of famous musicians playing iconic musicians from back in the sixties. Tell me about some of the guest stars?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: Yesterday we had Raphael Saadiq on the show who I am such a huge fan of. I basically geeked out in front of him (laughs). I was like, “I looove your music!” When I used to dance for Janet Jackson he was one of our opening acts, so I remember him from years ago. He was on [our show] playing Sam Cooke and the transformation of his character was really great. We also had Colbie Caillat, which was really fun to watch as well. I believe that every couple of episodes we’re going to have another musical guest doing different songs. I think it adds to the excitement and it adds to the musical element of our show. It also depicts what was happening. In the early sixties in Chicago they had these amazing [artists] come in and do these performances. The [real] Playboy bunnies always talk about that being some of their highlights of being a bunny. Where else in the world could you have made that kind of money and also be sitting there watching these incredible performers on stage? You’re going to have someone portraying Sammy Davis, Jr. and someone else portraying Frank Sinatra at some point during the first season, correct?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: We are. Those are the two I hear. And I heard Etta James. I’m hoping for that to happen because I love her music. Everyday something changes, but those are the three names I hear most often.

Jenna Dewan Tatum
Jenna Dewan Tatum So The Playboy Club will offer viewers a historical experience as well as a musical experience back in time…

Jenna Dewan Tatum: That’s when it’s the best, I think. There’s a big musical element. We just did an episode with Kenny Ortega directing which we kind of keep joking around about Glee episodes because we all sing, we all dance, and I get to do some dancing again, which I hadn’t done in awhile. Every single episode there’s a musical number. I think it will be really fun to see, and I think that also separates us from a lot of other shows. Is Eddie Cibrian portraying a Hugh Hefner-esque character modeled after Hef, or did they completely fictionalize who owns the Playboy Club on the television series?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: It’s totally fictionalized. All of our characters are fiction, based on stories that they’ve heard, and they kind of take a little bit from here and a little bit from there. Nick Dalton (played by Eddie Cibrian) is more like a [prototype] of all of the playboy men out there (laughs). Is there anything you can share about the premiere episode?

Jenna Dewan Tatum: Oooh, it’s a fun one! Sometimes I want to come home, I want to sit down on my couch with a glass of wine and some food, and I want to watch a show that is sexy, fun, exciting escapism and pure joy, and just sort of release my day. I believe that’s what this show will be for Monday night. It is a character drama and there are really great storylines and really great interactions between characters. I think this first episode will be a taste of what’s to come. You do learn about all of the different characters but you don’t get too involved. [The first episode] is more like, come and experience the sixties and the Playboy Club.

“The Playboy Club” series premiere September 19th Mondays at 10/9c on NBC.

Follow Jenna Dewan Tatum on Twitter @jennadewan.