As I awkwardly shambled into a fancy London hotel room to interview Charlie Hunnam, I had no clue what to expect from the man. The British born actor has played hard nuts on several occasions, across projects such as Green Street and Sons Of Anarchy. His latest role, a rough and ready rendition of King Arthur for Snatch’s Guy Ritchie, seems to fit in with that lot.
But Hunnam has also worked with indie darlings like Guillermo del Toro and James Gray. As well as pulling swords from stones, murdering motorbike enthusiasts and scrapping on the streets of London, he’s battled kaiju, explored strange new worlds, dabbled in period pieces, and much more. It all adds up to a very diverse CV, and a tough actor to pin down.
It turns out that Mr Hunnam is a very polite and well-spoken chap, with a knack for detailed and thoughtful answers. He was also incredibly dapper, upstaging my boots, jeans and crumpled shirt combo with a pristine and very sharp suit.
We spent fifteen minutes chatting about his career so far and the aforementioned Arthurian action movie, King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword. We also touched upon the state of the film industry and the scripts he’s written. In truth, I could’ve kept talking to him for hours.
Alas, that’s not how these things work. I was ushered out, with a headful of unasked follow-up questions, after my allocated quarter of an hour. Here’s how it went…
We’re here to talk about this cinematic origin story for King Arthur, which got me wondering about your origin story as an actor. Is it true that you were discovered in a shoe shop, and that lead to your first gig, on Byker Grove?
Yeah, I was. I had already, for many years, identified that I wanted to work in film. And at that point in my life I had left school and was at a college in Carlisle –Cumbria College Of Art And Design – studying film. And just by luck of the devil, I was approached by a lady called Elizabeth Binns and asked if I’d ever though about acting. I said “well, a career in film is all I’ve ever thought about” and so through that I did a few episodes and was able to get an agent and start working.
And who were your early supporters who encouraged you to get going for it?
My mum has always been my greatest supporter, and instilled in me a belief that, really anybody is capable of doing anything as long as you march in the direction of your dreams, and understand that it’s gonna be a lot of hardship and failure along the way. The key to reaching your destination is knowing that and having the conviction and strength to pick yourself up every time you fail and dust off and try again.
Since then, you’ve been in so many great things. Queer As Folk here in the UK, Sons Of Anarchy, working twice with Guillermo del Toro, and now this with Guy Ritchie, to name just a few. Was there a point in amongst it all when you felt like you’d made it, when you knew that you could do this forever?
No, certainly, there’s never been a sense of that. There’s a been a sense of, err, momentary relief and gratitude for being in a position, in the moment, of doing the type of work that I’d always aspired to do. I mean, particularly, you know, the year when I got to work with James Gray [on The Lost City Of Z] and Guy Ritchie back to back. That year, which was 2015, felt like an example of what I’d always hoped my career could be.
But I think, all creative people live in constant fear that suddenly the penny will drop, and you will not have the opportunity to keep doing the work. Particularly in the film industry, where we’re so dependant on enormous amounts of money being financed in to facilitate the making of a film. And such fierce competition. And because they’re so expensive to make, films, the unfortunate reality is that, in order to be desirable in the marketplace, the films you do have to make lots and lots of money, you know? To perpetuate the cycle.
So, I think, I, along with everybody else, just live in constant fear of, at some point, that career drying up.
And do you ever dwell much on the things that you go for that you don’t end up doing? Like, much was made of Fifty Shades, which you were meant to be in, but then scheduling meant you couldn’t be. Do you ever think of things that could’ve been, or is it not really worth it?
Well… ultimately it’s not really worth it. I think that, more in terms of the things that I regret or dwell on – not that I really dwell on, but that haunt me from time to time – are some of the things I did that didn’t quite turn out the way I’d hoped them to. And I knew, ultimately, if was being honest with myself, that I shouldn’t have been there. And I’ve done some, accepted the roles with some strategy for forward momentum as opposed to real creative draw. They’re the only real regrets I have, is that, you know, I should’ve…
But, with every regret or every failure, comes an equivalent seed of potential success. And so, what we just have to do, which sort of speaks to what we’re talking about in the greater journey of it, is just learn from those mistakes, and glean whatever wisdom one can from failure and try not to repeat it again.
I’ve read that you’ve become quite picky with the things you want to go in for, and the things you want to do. And it sounds like ‘Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur’, that four-word pitch, is all you really needed to hear for this one?
What was your reaction when you first heard this was in the works?
Well, It’s great stuff, the Arthurian legend. It’s really swinging for the fences, in terms of exploring and reconciling what this whole mad journey, which we’re all on, is about. And, you know, particularly at the centre of it, something that I’ve always been fascinated by, which is the relationship between fear and faith, which are obviously just two sides of the same coin.
And I’m a big big fan of Guy Ritchie, so I kind of just felt that it was going to be an exciting and original, sort of cool, sexy way to explore some pretty substantive things. And that, I understood right away, or was told right away, that scale with which they wanted to make this film. And so I thought it would be a nice marriage of giant world creation and the requisite level of spectacle that these type of films demand. But also, when you’re tackling the Arthurian legend, there is such substance and meat on the bone that I thought it would be a nice marriage of the two.
And sometimes on these big scale movies, they sort of lack substance, so I was really excited to sit down and talk to Guy for the first time, and not only see that he was interested in some of the things that I was interested in exploring, but actually that he was far more well versed in those subjects. He has a real, pretty impressive knowledge of the human condition and particularly he’s very well versed in dialect about the ego, so I learnt a lot from him. And obviously you can see a lot of that wisdom, that he’s spent years gleaning, in the film.
I know that Guy Ritchie wanted to make as much of this film as possible in a practical way, on a sound stage. How useful was that for you, as an actor?
Well, you know, he went out of his way to create a real world environment. It would be very easy just to rely on CGI in a film like this, and I think probably the studio would’ve been happy to do that, because it becomes incredibly expensive to build real sets. But we shot almost everything, although we were on a stage, everything was practically built, but in a controlled environment.
I mean, for instance, shooting on location can be very very difficult and provide a lot of challenges. We built a set for Sons Of Anarchy that was right next to Burbank airport, and so – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that show – but we spent a lot of time on the back lot of our stage that was our sort of base for operations as the club. And every single line of dialogue that was shot, for 13 episodes a season, for seven seasons, had to be ADR-ed [recorded again afterwards and dubbed over the footage]. Because there was never a time, between sunrise and sunset, where there weren’t planes flying overhead.
So, you think ‘goodness, is this going to be stifling, just to shoot on a stage?’ But actually, the benefit is that you can really control that environment and, you know, have peace and quiet to actually be able to think.
Guy Ritchie, famously, likes to go off-script when you’re on set and develop different ideas as you’re going. Was that something that you had done much of before, or did you have to get used to the Guy Ritchie style of doing things?
No, really, it took me a couple of weeks to get used to that. Um, but it was an interesting period of revelation, I think for all of us. There’s something that happened on this film – which is always true, but it was very dramatic on this film – which is that the film itself becomes a significant collaborator, and kind of dictates what it wants to be to be, to the filmmaking community.
And we went in to this with a blueprint, and it became abundantly clear, in the first few days of filming, that it was just a blueprint. We were going to be working in real time, and it was going to evolve very rapidly. But I think, even Guy was surprised by the dramatic evolution on the day, and that the film itself was telling us that it didn’t want, tonally, to be what we wanted it to be or perceived that it should be. Which was much more sort of classic, and linear, and sombre, you know?
Guy wanted, I think his initial intention was to do something that was quite a grand departure from anything he’d done before. And then we got onto set, and a combination of whether it was his artistic true north manifesting in the shape of the film’s own voice, or how you could reconcile or understand it, but all of suddenly we found ourselves in a different place than we thought we were gonna be. And it was quite exciting. Once we surrendered to it, we all started to have a really lovely time. But until that inevitable surrender happened, we all felt like we were in a bit of trouble.
One thing I heard that changed was that the Mage character was originally meant to be Guinevere. At what point did that change, and did you have to alter your performance much to compensate for it?
It’s a big question, and quite tricky. Um, there was initially an intention for, yeah, that to be something different. That was partly the film, and partly the actor dictating that is was going to be something different, and Guy having the confidence and versatility to just roll with it and realise that what he intended wasn’t going to work, and him recognising the value of that being something else.
And I think that maybe it was, you know, you want to try and throw as many ingredients into the stew as possible, particularly when there’s an aspiration for this to be the genesis of something could grow into potentially several movies. And, you know, maybe it was right, maybe we were trying to force the hand, in some sense, that the stew would have more calories if there was a significant love story at the centre of it.
But, actually, I think there was a purity about this just being an origin story, and [there’s] something more interesting in that character not just being a love interest. Actually she’s a much more robust and exciting character if she’s not told through the context of Arthur, that she kind of stands on her own two feet. So, I think we were all quite excited with the direction it evolved into, not least of all Astrid [Bergès-Frisbey, who plays the role of the Mage, which was formerly intended to be Guinevere].
Astrid was very instrumental in terraforming that into what it became, as opposed to what it was on the page. Which, you know, for me, playing against it was a bit disconcerting to begin with. She was very uncompromising in the way she saw that character, and it was a bit more aggressive than it had been on the page. And I thought, this is going to be interesting, to see how this works, in the long form of the film.
And then, Guy was very very sensitive, and like I said. Sensitive not only to the way was evolving, but just in general, to the film itself having a voice in that evolution. So, you know, he just said “okay, we’re going to work with this in real time, and let’s recalibrate our expectations”.
It’s interesting. I’ve never been, not even close, involved in something where that initial aspiration was so significantly different from the end result. You know, it’s quite weird and wonderful, the journey of that, but hopefully dig what the end result is.
[At this point I get the ‘last question’ signal. Sob.]
I know that you’ve got a lot of things in the pipeline. I’m very interested in the scripts that you’ve written yourself: the Vlad the Impaler one, the American Druglord one, and the one about gypsy culture in Britain. What kind of timeline have you got for those being made, do you know?
I certainly did… [Laughs] have a timeline in mind when I started. It’s been quite a humbling and dramatic learning curve. It’s very very difficult to develop material to the point where, you know, it’s ready to go into production. And also, the film business evolving so rapidly.
I mean, we were talking about this the other night, Guy and I: the films that we felt very confident we’d be able to get made three or four years ago now feel impossible. And actually, the tent pole films now represent 98% of the revenue generated by the whole film industry, which is a perverse statistic, but unfortunately the reality.
I say that, being a guy who has starred in tent pole films, but the type of films – at least as a producer and potentially a director – that I’m really drawn to seem to be, literally, day by day, more and more difficult to get made. So, ultimately, I don’t know. I feel a little bit like I’m on a fool’s errand, you know?
But I still have the desire to fight the good fight, because I think you and me and Guy and everybody is drawn to this business because of the films that we grew up on from the 70s, you know, the golden age of cinema, where they were telling – fearlessly telling – original adult stories, and that’s just not the culture of filmmaking right now, but you’ve got to fight against the dying of the light, right? So, I don’t know where it will all stand. I know that, like I said, day by day it gets increasingly more difficult, so…
See, but there’s still people out there, you know? I met the other day with Justin Kurzel, who’s just one of my absolute favourites, from Snowtown and Macbeth…
And Assassin’s Creed, as well.
Yeah, yeah, you know, obviously that was… it had sort of lukewarm reviews, but I thought there was some really great stuff in there. And I was interested to talk to him, about his perception of what that film was. And he seemed… he didn’t seem as enthusiastic as he was in the rest of our dialogue about his other films.
I think the lesson he had learned there was a lesson that we’ve all had to learn very painfully, which is, you cannot go into production until you have a story that works. You know? And if you do, it’s going to be a rather brutal process. I just, I recently had an experience like that, although I hope that the end result is going to be very positive. You know, when you’re trying to figure out the story you’re telling in real time, it can be rather laboursome. But, that’s the game… yeah.
Well, I wish you best of luck with it all.
Thank you, I appreciate that.
Charlie Hunnam, thank you very much!
King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword reaches UK cinemas today.