Charlie Hunnam on The Lost City of Z: ‘I Cut Myself Off From My Whole Life’

The former Sons of Anarchy star on losing himself in the Amazon, stepping off Pacific Rim 2, taking up King Arthur’s sword and more.

Although Charlie Hunnam is best known for his acclaimed performance as the tormented biker Jax Teller on seven seasons of the FX series Sons of Anarchy, the British actor has also been building a film career with projects such as Children of Men, Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim (the latter two both with Guillermo del Toro) and Cold Mountain. His latest film, director James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, features Hunnam in perhaps his most complex big-screen lead to date: he plays Percy Fawcett, a real-life British soldier and explorer who was sent by the Royal Geographic Society to map the almost unknown contours of the Amazon in the early 20th century and ended up finding what he thought was evidence of a long-vanished and highly advanced civilization.

The journey of Fawcett, a family man who nevertheless was obsessed with his pursuit and returned eight times to the Amazon — the last time with his grown son Jack (Tom Holland) — was mirrored by the making of the film itself, which took Gray, Hunnam, and much of the cast and crew into the same vast (but now better known) wilderness that nearly drove Fawcett to madness. It’s a role any actor would want and it may very well be the high point of Hunnam’s career to date.

Den of Geek spoke with Hunnam recently in Los Angeles about making The Lost City of Z, walking away from the Pacific Rim sequel, doing his next film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, with director Guy Ritchie, and mounting a new version of Papillion, the 1973 true-life prison escape saga that originally starred the legendary Steve McQueen.

Den of Geek: How familiar were you with the story of Percy Fawcett? He was sort of a celebrity a century ago.

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Charlie Hunnam: Yeah. He really isn’t (now). I think he really captured the world’s imagination. He was widely credited as the inspiration for Indiana Jones. I wasn’t familiar with him at all, which is a real tragedy and I’m so glad that David Grann wrote this wonderful book, and we got to make the film and tell his story because he became very important to me, obviously, through the research. I felt an enormous sense of empathy and admiration for what he’d done in his life. I really was struck by the sacrifices he made, in the face of everybody telling him his conviction was incorrect, that his belief was incorrect. He managed to just remain tenacious and uncompromising in his pursuit of proving this theory that he had, and he would be rewarded for all of that sacrifice with failure time and time again. And yet he kept on going.

What mitigated that sense of tragedy for me was what I believe was more significant for him, which was filling up the great and terrible hole we all have in us of what does this all mean, and what is the purpose of it. I feel he was a man really ill at ease in pomp and circumstance of Victorian society, and the class that he’d been born into. I got this really acute sense from reading Exploration Fawcett, which was a really amazing book that his younger son compiled — Brian Fawcett — of excerpts of all of his journals, that really just being in that environment made him feel alive and vital and gave him a sense of purpose that quieted that terrible voice in his mind saying, “What does all this mean? What is the purpose of it?” I thought he was a really extraordinary man.

I read that you went to the Royal Geographic Society and you also visited a place where they’ve kept some of his artifacts. I’m also curious, are there any living descendants of his still around?

It’s so funny. My mom is actually friends with a Fawcett that is a direct descendant of his, and she came to the British premiere. I was actually really nervous for her to see the film. She had obviously never met Fawcett and didn’t really know a lot about him, but yeah, I was welcomed into the Royal Geographical, which was amazing to go and be able to spend four or five days down in their archives. There were some really thrilling moments.

There’s a wonderful scene in the film, which unfortunately James wasn’t able to put into the final cut, where Fawcett arrives at what he thinks might be the location of Z at the end of that first expedition and sends a telegram to his wife. I saw the actual telegram that she had received. So there were these moments that were just so thrilling, once we’d really gotten into the story we were telling, to see some of the stuff in black and white. It just created a much more tangible connection to the material.

James said that at some point making the movie became parallel to the story, in terms of being on this journey on this river. Did the line begin to blur for you between you and Fawcett, because you were essentially going through a lot of these same things he did?

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Yeah, and I tried to encourage that as much as possible, even from the outset. I cut myself off from my whole life and put down all technology so that I could feel that sense of a selfishness, but also loneliness and sacrifice. But, yeah, particularly once we got to the jungle, there was that real sense of getting infected by the adventure of it all. We started off going to these locations. We were very close to base camp, and by the end, we were having these hour and a half commutes to these locations that were great, although arguably we could’ve satisfied the same needs much closer.

But we got that sense of what’s over the next hill, and a little bit of the madness of it, between the heat and us starving ourselves. We didn’t have a lot of money, and because of the environment, there were no creature comforts. James was the only one on set who had a chair, James and the script supervisor, so we’re on our feet all day and they got a sense of it for sure.

I read that your ear had a very violent argument with a bug.

Yeah. That ironically just happened in my hotel room. There were other people having some pretty hairy interactions with the wildlife once we were actually out in the jungle, but yeah, I had this little bastard crawl into my ear. It’s quite a long bug, so once it got into my ear canal, it couldn’t get back out. It decided it was going to eat its way through and bit a pretty significant little hole in my ear drum.

Do you think that we still have that exploratory nature now in the present? Are people doing this kind of work that Fawcett did, whether it’s here or in the ocean or in space?

Yeah, I suppose in the ocean and space to a lesser degree. That period of time, the whole world was captivated by the sense of exploration. Royal Geographic were determined to map every square inch of the earth. There was a real interest, a universal interest. Even Fawcett, the last few expeditions he did, raised the money because through a consortium of newspapers that financed the trip in return for him chronicling the things for their readers. It’s hard to have that same sense of excitement and exploration because the whole world has been mapped now. There are very few hidden corners. I have the sense that I would prefer those whatever tiny hidden corners we have left to stay hidden.

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You also have King Arthur: Legend of the Sword coming out. This is a story that has been told many times. How did you and Guy Ritchie collaborate to make it different from what we’ve seen before?

I think it’s a more irreverent, young, hip, and ignoble. I suppose the ignoble element of it was what we were most excited about. Arthur has always been told as the noble man who goes on a noble quest to become the noble king. We said, let’s get as far away from that as possible, and also, one of the things that’s always been historically the real obstacle with telling elegantly the story of Arthur in film is that it’s such a sprawling mythology. It’s sort of a real odyssey-type story that goes on and on, and these wonderful, exciting, colorful characters come in and change Arthur’s trajectory. But it’s been impossible to distill that down to a two-hour segment.

We decided just to tell the origin story. Basically take Arthur from the streets of London where he’s sort of a little gangster with a heart of gold, and doing very well for himself. He has no real aspiration to do anything else than what he’s doing. He’s presented with this grand destiny, and then of course, true to the classic hero’s journey, he denies the call to duty and is convinced, of course, that our destiny’s not that easy to deny, and so the journey begins. We follow him on his difficult journey to taking his rightful place on the throne.

I think it’s a bit cheekier, younger, fresher. Potentially, hopefully, more exciting for a young audience. I got it right away. Guy Ritchie’s just got such a specific sensibility as a filmmaker. The Arthurian legend had always been something that really interested me, so I thought Guy Ritchie’s version of King Arthur, I just got it right away and thought this is going to be really fun and sensibility wise, a worthwhile endeavor because it’s going to be so different from the renderings of Arthur that we’ve seen before.

You announced early last year that you weren’t going to do Pacific Rim: Uprising due to scheduling conflicts. Looking back on that decision now, do you feel comfortable with it and also have you kept an eye on what they’re doing out there?

I haven’t. Listen, there was a huge scheduling conflict. I was already really, really invested in doing Papillion, and had spent an enormous amount of time developing the character and the world that we were doing with this director, Michael Noer, who I’d been a fan of for years. That was really the reason I wanted to do Papillion, because I was a bit unsure about the wisdom of remaking such a beloved film. We liberated ourselves of that, deciding that we just were going to ignore the first film because it’s a true story based on a wonderful piece of source material. We convinced ourselves with a really straight face and a lot of work to back it up that we were doing an independent adaptation.

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What happened was Legendary was sold to Wanda, which is the big Chinese corporation, and Pacific Rim, although it underperformed in other territories in the world, was an enormous success in China. All of a sudden, it became their primary focus to make this and they wanted to do it very, very rapidly…I think their schedule subsequently changed, and I might have been able to do both, but they were writing the script and they needed to know, was I in or was I out?

I have great relationships with everyone at Legendary, and they were incredibly generous to me and let me out of my contract. I had to do the film whether I liked it or not. When I spoke to (former Legendary chairman) Thomas Tull, who is a dear friend of mine, I said, “Listen, man. It’s not that my heart is not in this. I’m invested in this creatively, but my heart’s going to be broken because I already was going to do this other film.” He was like, “Dude, you were going to do that other film and that’s where your heart is. I don’t want you being on set if you’re not going to be happy, so go do the other film,” which was ludicrously generous of him. But that’s just the type of man he is.

The Lost City of Z is playing in New York and Los Angeles now and expands nationwide this Friday (April 21).