updated 02/26/2013 AT 8:25 AM ET
•originally published 02/26/2013 AT 8:35 AM ET
Together they wowed the Academy Awards on Sunday, performing a challenging ballroom dance in front of 40 million viewers – each counting on their background in dance to make up for a frightening lack of rehearsal time.
“They were going to cram and rehearse constantly over two days [right before the Oscars]. But then they both simultaneously got the flu,” producer Neil Meron tells PEOPLE.
“We were going, ‘Oh my God.’ Literally at the last minute they got to rehearse and miraculously got up there and they killed.”
It helped that both know a little something about dance.
Theron, 37, studied at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York before embarking on her Oscar-winning acting career. “We reached out to Charlize first, and there was no hesitation. She absolutely jumped on board,” says Meron.
Tatum, 32, was less sure of himself, despite loads of dance experience in movies like Step Up and Magic Mike, the latter loosely based on his own experiences as a male stripper.
“Chan said to us, ‘Look, I have danced in all these movies, but I have never really done honest-to-God choreography. I don’t know that I can do that,’ ” Meron says. “We told him, ‘We believe you are a great dancer, and that you will be able to do it.’ He said he would give it a try.”
In the end, they dazzled with a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers style number choreographed by Rob Ashford.
And Chan even kept his tux on.