Charlie Hunnam: Peak Season

Charlie Hunnam: Peak Season

Charlie Hunnam: Peak Season

From anarchy to the monarchy— Charlie Hunnam has emerged as the heir in line to hollywood's leading man throne. As his dazzling new horror film, crimson peak, hits theaters, the brit reflects on his TV reign, passing on Fifty Shades, and the hero's journey that led him to the center of King Arthur's court.

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From anarchy to the monarchy— Charlie Hunnam has emerged as the heir in line to hollywood's leading man throne. As his dazzling new horror film, crimson peak, hits theaters, the brit reflects on his TV reign, passing on Fifty Shades, and the hero's journey that led him to the center of King Arthur's court.

See all that VMAN 34 has to offer when you order your copy now

Photography: Tim Walker

Styling: Jacob K

Text: Paul Flynn

Before filming the final season of his compelling biker saga Sons of Anarchy, Charlie Hunnam shot his second film under the direction of the bespectacled Mexican film genius Guillermo del Toro. Hunnam and del Toro had earlier formed a significant bond on the set of the breathtaking apocalyptic blockbuster Pacific Rim, a highly charged fantasy piece that performed particularly well at the increasingly pivotal Chinese box office, turning Hunnam into a very twenty-first-century sort of star.

Crimson Peak is another beast entirely, more reminiscent of the twisted noir that cemented del Toro’s reputation on the world stage, Pan’s Labyrinth. The riveting tale of a British brother and sister who tour the world in an attempt to keep their heads above water by hook or (mostly) by crook, it opens a specific, spooky, and ferociously well-observed psychological valve. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are a formidable sparring double act, redolent of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, with Hunnam and Tom Hiddleston the chief rivals for Wasikowska’s affections. It’s a marvellous piece of work.

I’d expected Hunnam to explain how that happened but, alas, he hasn’t seen a finished version of it yet. “I saw a very, very early cut. Is it good?” It’s very good. “Good. It’s the first time I’ve really talked about it. I’m so far out of that. But yeah, it was a very, very different direction to go in and I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to and whether it was the right shade of different direction.”

This is not quite how these encounters should pan out, with the interviewer persuading the star how great his work is. But then, just as Crimson Peak is not quite the film it at first suggests, Charlie Hunnam is not the marquee name film star he initially appears to be. He has more than enough layers of personal complexity to validate del Toro’s interest being piqued by him in the first place. Beneath his eye-catching exterior, a serious heart beats.

It was on downtime between shooting parts one and two of season seven of Sons that Charlie Hunnam received a call from Guy Ritchie, another director hero. Ritchie had handpicked a select band of young Hollywood heavyweights to screen test for the role of King Arthur in his forthcoming Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur. Hunnam made the cut.

There was a type of cocky British youth that was hit hard by the Guy Ritchie stick in the late ’90s. The director accessed the storytelling wing of a slumbering national machismo poked back into life by the testosterone shot of Britpop. Just out of school in the North of England and beginning his acting life, Hunnam was that youth. He was 17 when Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels swaggered onto the screen. Snatch, he reckons, is one of the few films he’s ever made repeat visits to the cinema to see.

The King Arthur audition comprised two rounds, the first a sit-down chat with Ritchie. The actor and director held a gentlemanly 90-minute conversation about how the medical marijuana system works in California. “I said, about 60 minutes in,” Hunnam remembers, “‘This is not the conversation I had anticipated having with you.’” They got on famously. Charlie mentioned that the John Boorman film Excalibur had been a major childhood acting epiphany. “He said, ‘Man, I really fucking dig you, bro. I hope you act as well as you talk and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.’”

When it came to round two, it became clear to Hunnam that something about his physique was bothering Ritchie. In a clever actor’s shortcut for grief, he had lost 20 pounds for his curtain call playing Jax Teller, the gangland boss who is the anchor of Sons of Anarchy. At the demise of season six, Jax’s wife Tara is bumped off with sensationally bloody, Freudian gore by his mother, Gemma. “I thought one of the interesting ways to tell that story was to come in just looking gaunt, so you know straight away that’s been a brutal fucking month,” says Hunnam. “He hasn’t eaten. He’s been on benders. He’s fucked up. And I sustained it through the season. So I came to meet Guy and I was incredibly skinny.”

This was not the vision for King Arthur in the eyes of a director who has a specially preserved authorial hold on masculinity. “He brought it up about four times. ‘So, how heavy have you been?’ The fourth time he brought it up was in the audition.” Hunnam was getting restless. By now, the role was in his sight. “I said, ‘Look, dude, you keep bringing this thing up, the physicality. It’s obviously your primary concern so if you want to do away with all of this auditioning bollocks, I’ll fucking fight those other two dudes who are out there shooting. I know who they are. You can bring them both in here. I’ll fight them both. The one who walks out the door gets the job.’” Ritchie was temporarily silenced. “Then he said, ‘Look, get back in there and read the scene, you cunt.’”

A week later, Charlie Hunnam received his second call from Ritchie’s office. The part was his.

It doesn’t take long in a conversation with Hunnam for the B word to sneak in. When we first met, it was in 1998 on Canal Street, Manchester, when he was an 18-year-old with a noticeable Newcastle accent, filming his breakout role on Queer as Folk, the exceptional British rites-of-passage TV drama set in the city’s rapidly blossoming gay village. That night, a crew member caught a glimpse of Hunnam’s profile lighting up the director’s monitor and noted, “He’s got the look of a young Brad Pitt.” Pitt’s luminescent shadow and glittering career have hung over the 35-year-old since. Since he first appeared on-screen it has been speculated that if there is a natural successor to that incredible CV, it’s Hunnam. “That I’m the chap?” he asks back. “Well, that’s nice.”

Hunnam moved to Los Angeles a year after QAF aired in the UK and shot him to an unforeseen level of homespun screen notoriety, partly due to his stepping into untested sexual waters for British TV. The role was a perfect storm of naivety, bravery, beauty, curiosity, and balls—the screen skill sets Hunnam has maximized in the intervening years, climaxing (for now at least) in the troubled, charismatic frame of Jax Teller. The years betweenQAF and Sons, two explorations of strangely concentric male subcultures, were not all golden. A string of film roles with blue-chip credentials (including Nicholas Nickleby with Christopher Plummer and Jamie Bell and Cold Mountain alongside Jude Law and Nicole Kidman) failed to capitalize on his captivating early screen presence. When he was initially cast in Sons of Anarchy, he had spent the previous 18 months in isolation, trying to write a script with his cat, George, perched on his lap. He had not earned a cent from acting in the time frame.

The second time I met Hunnam was at the close of Sons season five in an unfancy neighborhood café in West Hollywood. His transformation from boy to man was winning, not just in the hefty, streamlined musculature he now wore or a change of accent hovering somewhere over the mid-Atlantic. Mostly it was in the sizeable but likeable confidence he’d clearly inherited from playing Jax Teller. He looked every inch the indigenous L.A. movie star, arrived on his motorbike wearing plaid and denim. He spoke fluently in the rhapsodic voodoo of the Californian elite. His spirits were riding high, too. He’d just scored the lead role in Pacific Rim.

This, our third time sitting down together, is at a Lebanese corner café in Marylebone, the ritzy district of Central London that during daylight most resembles the set of a Richard Curtis movie and by night has become a paparazzi hotbed as home to Andre Balazs’s first UK outpost, the Chiltern Firehouse. Nominally, we are here to talk about Crimson Peak. A born storyteller and an intense, engaged talker, Hunnam seems initially reticent to share thoughts on the film. He is smoking a shisha pipe, drinking mint tea, and wearing a pinstripe gray/white oxford shirt, chinos, and box-fresh Air Max sneakers. All vestiges of his rogue biker years look to be packed away. He has been in Britain for six months to film King Arthur, his longest stay since leaving for Hollywood 17 years ago. He is blond, buff, slicked, and still possessed of that look of the man you would pick out as Pitt the Second.

“We have the same manager, you know?” he asks. I did. Cynthia Pett-Dante picked Hunnam up as a client in 2003. “It’s funny. I definitely always really, really admired Brad’s career.” (Which young actor of Hunnam’s age didn’t?) “And I do a lot of projects with his production company. There are two projects that I’ve developed as a writer and as a producer and then they just actually hired me to star in their next film.” Five weeks after he wrapsKing Arthur, he will begin shooting The Lost City of Z, the biopic of Percy Fawcett, the geographer, explorer, and purported inspiration for the titular character in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones. The role of Percy Fawcett was originally developed for Pitt. “So obviously, with a manager who’s represented Brad for over 20 years and has represented me for 12 years there’s always been that sort of running joke and dialogue within our little circle. I’m coming for you, Brad.” He laughs. “I think he’s just fine for another couple of years.”

Hunnam has not seen the film he is supposed to be talking about, Crimson Peak. “I want to be completely candid,” he says, “which I believe you should be. Whenever I read articles with actors or businesspeople or musicians, which is very, very rare, I always feel like candor is very tangible when it’s there. It’s sort of pointless spending the time doing it and then reading the interview if it isn’t honest.” The actor shook hands with del Toro, agreeing to act in the project after the director handed him a working script just after they’d wrapped Pacific Rim. “So I suppose, in all candor, externally I was on a real roll when I got offered Crimson Peak. I’d just finishedPacific Rim, Sons was absolutely killing it, and we were just going back to do the sixth season.” Regardless, he received advice that taking the fourth lead in an ensemble piece beside Chastain, Wasikowska, and Hiddleston would not be a wise career move. “Externally, the reservation was that it just wasn’t smart to take a smaller role when I was out playing leads, and had been playing leads some time. I mean, [Dr. Alan McMichael] is a lead character, but like you say, it’s really the girls’ film and Tom is essentially the romantic lead.”

The waters of this confusing period of his career were further muddied by initial meetings to take the marquee role in Fifty Shades of Grey. After initially signing up for the role of Christian Grey, he had to back out due to scheduling deadlines. “Oh,” he says, looking deflated, “it was the worst professional experience of my life. It was the most emotionally destructive and difficult thing that I’ve ever had to deal with professionally. It was heartbreaking.”

When Hunnam talks about work he addresses it mostly in the language of high-stakes romance. When he meets a director and likes them, he says, it is akin to falling “madly in love.” He has felt the breath of failure too closely at his neck to be dismissive about this grand passion. “There is a sort of schizophrenia to it and a craziness to it,” he says of acting, “and there’s a craziness to the effect that the pressure has on you. It’s a very brutal business. You can be working nonstop and then if you turn in a couple of mediocre performances or things just don’t perform for whatever reason, work can dry up very quickly. All actors constantly live with that fear.”

There is a tangibly uncomfortable undercurrent to our conversation that he may have made the wrong decision prioritizing Crimson Peak over Fifty Shades. “I’d given Guillermo my word, over a year before, that I was going to do this film. People were saying, ‘Are you crazy? Guillermo still has got four months to recast, it’s the fourth lead, you can go and do this [instead].’ I said, ‘I can’t. He’s my friend, I’ve done a film with him, I gave him my word.’ I’m pretty mercurial and a very difficult, longwinded decision-maker at the best of times. It was deeply unpleasant and challenging emotionally. I really, really pride myself on being a professional and a man of keeping my word. It means a lot to me, truly.”

This professional dilemma was complicated by how attached he had become to the character of Christian Grey and the film’s storyline. “[E. L. James] created two amazing characters and a really compelling narrative between them,” he says of the source text. “But I think the real genius of that book is that she, in a very accessible way, introduced some conversations to people that were very sophisticated about some of the darker elements of the human condition. It’s difficult to make that stuff palatable for a lot of people. It’s just an amazing achievement, and I’m sure the amazing achievement of the film and what drew me to it. That’s some pretty heavy shit.” Furthermore, Hunnam felt a connection with the film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson (“I fell in love with that character and I fell in love with the director—I loved her”), and the leading actress (“I’ve got to say, I got to do a reading with Dakota and it was one of those experiences—I did terrific work and he came to life in a really exciting way for me, and then I had to surrender him”).

It hurt him that the gossip mill suggested he might have shied away from contentious sexual material. “I was excited about that element of it.” Hunnam is a deeply physical performer. “The outside perception of that was that I got really cold feet and got scared of the explicit nature of the sexuality of the piece. When I was 18 I was getting fucked in the ass, completely naked on national TV, y’know?”

He told Taylor-Johnson that he could not commit to the project straight away. The call to tell her he was opting out was not an easy one to make. “I called her and we both cried our eyes out on the phone for 20 minutes,” he says. “I needed to tell her that this was not going to work. I was going to finish Sons, shoot the whole sequence where Tara was brutally murdered, fly to Vancouver the next day, have ten days of rehearsal, and then start shooting. Then I was going to have three days after that and I’d have to start shooting Crimson Peak and then I’d have two days to travel and go back into season seven of Sons. There was a lot of personal stuff going on in my life that left me on real emotional shaky ground and mentally weak. I just got myself so fucking overwhelmed and I was sort of having panic attacks about the whole thing. I just didn’t know what to do.”

Given the level of Hunnam’s commitment to Crimson Peak, it’s strange that he’s opted out of seeing the finished cut. “I saw an interesting TED talk recently,” he says, not unrelatedly, “about decision-making. About choice being the route of all unhappiness. There’s some very compelling studies that have been done that really make you think, a lot, that really articulate the idea of choice and just how corruptive it can be.” This is not, he says, about ego. “I feel like the size of the role doesn’t matter and it’s just about whether you can make an impact.”

Hunnam hasn’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey, either. “You know, I didn’t for a couple of reasons. I didn’t watch it because I thought it was going to be very painful for me. I also, frankly, didn’t want to have an opinion about it. By the way, I don’t say that assuming that I was not going to like the film. But it would be horrible if I didn’t. I hear Sam did a beautiful job.”

It’s tempting to join the dots between his Fifty Shades experience and Charlie Hunnam’s urgency for the role of King Arthur. Underneath both is a man of character and nerve, who takes his life and work extremely seriously. There is a further reading of his story, though, that perhaps Charlie Hunnam was not ready to ascend to films with the blessing of tent-pole budgets and the scent of Brad-scale stardom until he had made his peace with the end of Jax.

“I took the business of killing Jax Teller pretty seriously,” he says. “It was really personal.” In December 2014,Sons of Anarchy wrapped. Its star could not deny himself a return to the set to visit the place where he learned how to command a cast and crew—the place where he had earned his stripes as a leading man. “The security guards who’d worked there for years were like, ‘You’re back?’ I said I forgot something and they knew that was bullshit. That I needed to be there. I smoked a few joints and sat on the back lots and cried a bunch and said good-bye to him. It was beautiful and it was the right thing to do. I took my rings, my bike, my jacket, my knife—fucking a lot. Anything that wasn’t nailed down, I took.”

He arrived in Britain to start filming King Arthur on January 2. In an act of physical exorcism it is impossible not to see as symbolic, his home in L.A. was wiped out within a week of his arriving in Marylebone. Some repair work on the roof uncovered a mold problem in the house he shared with his girlfriend. “There’d been a leak in the pipes and water had gotten saturated in the house and mold had grown up from the side of the walls and into the ceiling. It was toxic black mold. We lost the house. And all of our shit, you know? The spores become airborne and get into everything. Once you take anything out—a sofa, a painting, a book—you can cross-contaminate everything in the next place. And believe me, once you’ve been bitten by the mold problem you don’t rush into it again. So that was a fucking serious kick in the balls.”

But Hunnam is strangely sanguine about the problem. Perhaps it was time to let go of the past and move on, after all. “There was something really, not liberating, but to look for the silver lining in everything there was a really interesting lesson in impermanence and relinquishing your grasp on the material.”

He’s enjoyed shooting with Ritchie as much as he thought he would. “More,” he says. The pair have become friends through the process. “Yes. First and foremost. I’d say friends before colleagues.” He likens the experience of working with the director to that of being under the charge of Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter. “It took time with Kurt, though. We were very much employer/employee for the first five seasons and for the last two we were partners and friends. It was lovely. It was the way it had to be. People that are real leaders have such a gentle approach to leadership. I mean, Guy is unquestionably, undeniably, 100 percent the boss. He’s very human, incredibly honest, not particularly coddling, he really expects people to show up and do the job that they’ve been hired to do and doesn’t expect to have to babysit people. There’s an alchemy to filmmaking. It’s never been more obvious to me than watching Guy’s process. There’s magic to it.”

For his King Arthur, Hunnam has been watching closely the work of Ultimate Fighting Championship Irish featherweight Conor McGregor. “I’ve spent a lot of time looking at his interviews and his fights on YouTube,” he says. “We thought he’d be an interesting guy to look at for Arthur.” The film was pitched to him on that first phone call as Lord of the Rings meets Snatch. “That’s a film I want to see,” Hunnam says.

Hunnam is not a fighter by instinct, though he’s learned to be good at it. “I mean, technically. I can move. I’m strong. I don’t really spar or fight on the street.”

He didn’t fight as a kid. “Only if I had to,” he says. “No. I got into fights growing up because where I grew up you didn’t really have any choice. I avoided it at all costs. I was terrified of fighting. I don’t have a flight instinct, though. I have a fight instinct. It’s a hard-won instinct. I get very scared and have a fear of combat, which I think is a sensible thing to feel. You know, I used to walk around a lot feeling nervous at night in Newcastle, when people were rowdy. And I don’t really feel too nervous anymore.” He laughs. “All right, man, I don’t want to be in this situation but if we have to do it, I’m ready.”

On the set of Arthur, Hunnam was reunited on film for the first time in 15 years with his old Queer as Folk costar Aidan Gillen. “He was probably the most instrumental person in shaping my perception and process of the film business. He’s got such integrity and he’s so singular and uncompromising about what he wants his career to be and in pursuing that. To be exposed to that in my first-ever job, in my introduction to the business of film, was a really handy thing. Learning that lesson from him prevented me from having to learn it from my mistakes.”

Gillen sent him an email after they finished filming. “It was lovely actually,” he says. “Just saying, ‘It’s been really wonderful to be on set and watch you do your thing. You’ve grown up so much and been leading on set.’”

Hunnam has reconciled himself to the sometimes tricky turns his career has taken. “I think one of the most important lessons that’s been really hard learnt for me is that notion that there never is just one right. That you bring yourself in the environment, you learn as much as you can, you try and leave your ego at the door, and on the day you try to bring it to life.”

Guy Ritchie was right all along. After almost two decades on-screen, Charlie Hunnam is finally ready to be king.

Crimson Peak is in theaters October 16





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