Tall, blonde, handsome and incredibly broad-shouldered Charlie Hunnam has a surprisingly gentle voice and demeanour that would allow him to be a perfect romantic leading man. The characters the 37 year-old British actor has played thus far have been tough, rough around-the-edges men, though he would argue that women have always been in the picture. He says this is truer now with his portrayal of early 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett, who was devoted to his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) even if he was obsessed with finding the lost city of Z in the Amazon, and on several occasions left his wife behind to raise their kids. If Hunnam had played Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey he would of course had the romantic role he is now keen to play.
A slow, deliberate talker with a distinctive Geordie accent belying his Newcastle origins, the actor who recently appeared in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword after seven seasons on the series Sons of Anarchy, explains how the Fawcett role in James Gray’s film has been the most important of his career. He is also coming in a remake of 1973’s Papillon which starred Steve McQueen (the new film world premieres at the Toronto Festival) and he is set to appear in Triple Frontier directed by J.C. Chandor.
Based on David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, The Lost City of Z was produced in part by Brad Pitt's company Plan B and filmed in Colombia. Pitt was initially to star, then Benedict Cumberbatch dropped out at the last minute as his wife was pregnant and the film would have taken him away for too long. Shooting in the jungle is not for the faint-hearted and troubles have famously beset some of the best filmmakers, like Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now (there was a typhoon and star Martin Sheen had a heart attack) and Werner Herzog with Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo (where the original star Jason Robards bailed after contracting amoebic dysentery and Herzog had to start again.) In the Lost City of Z one crew member was bitten by a viper, another got malaria, and two people in the AD department got dengue fever.
HB: You’re less lean than you were at the end of the film.
CH: I was 25 pounds (11.3 kilos) lighter. All of that sacrifice and discipline! It paid off because it informed me emotionally every day. It’s interesting losing that much weight. I came to the film only ten days after finishing King Arthur and I could see James’s abject panic because I showed up like a muscle man and it
wasn't going to be appropriate for Percy. So I got down to a weight that would be appropriate to the period and then I also felt these guys would go on these trips and wreak havoc with their bodies. I ultimately fell in love with who Percy was, what he stood for, his level of discipline and the hardships he would endure to fulfil his sense of personal obligation.
HB: James Gray was insisting on authenticity. Did filming in the jungle in Colombia give you a sense of what it was like?
CH: Absolutely. I decided I was going to completely distance myself from my day-to-day life, from the creature comforts. I didn't speak to anybody back home (including his girlfriend of 11 years, jewellery designer Morgana McNeils) for the duration of the shoot. I didn't go on the internet or email and I didn’t have a phone for the four months. That sense of isolation was really helpful, that sense of sacrifice.
HB: When I lived in the Daintree Rainforest during the Daintree Blockade it was so moist that fellow protestors had tropical ulcers, and almost everyone felt the urge to smoke to dry out. How did you cope?
CH: I smoked a lot of cigarettes, more than I ever had before in my life! But I loved it there; I felt the forest’s draw--despite the hardship. I was grateful for it because I wanted to feel Fawcett’s journey as acutely as I could. The more difficult it got the happier I got.
HB: You famously had a beetle burrow into your ear.
CH: Yes and that happened when I was asleep in the hotel room! I was in a sort of a cabin in the middle of the jungle. I woke up at three in morning to what sounded like a pneumatic drill in my ear. I had a sinus irrigation pot and filled it up with water and blasted it into my ear. I knew what to do because I had a girlfriend many years before who had a moth burrow into her ear and she was having a very excited reaction to the whole thing. So I ended up having to pin her down and got some tweezers and I pulled it out. I’d had this sort of experience before so I didn't panic.
HB: You ended up going to a hospital.
CH: That was quite a harrowing experience because the reception was just milk crates and when I went into the room to be examined there was blood on the floor. I thought, ‘Maybe we’ll go to a different hospital’. It was funny more than anything else in the end.
HB: In these days of Google Maps venturing into the jungle has been made a lot easier.
CH: But I think the film still speaks to our instinct that's been there for thousands of years to get out and explore the unknown. We are in this period of time when we have all the answers at our fingertips, but that historical DNA is still in us. I certainly have a great interest in the unknown, whether it be the oceans or space or the few tiny corners of the world that haven’t yet been explored. More than anything why I find this film appealing, is not only can we step back to the exploration of a purer time, but it’s also a purer expression of filmmaking. We shot this film without any CGI, we just went to the environment and we shot on film and we went on the journey. In this current environment of grand spectacles it’s a return to this very basic classic storytelling. I find it really appealing.
HB: Did this film change you?
CH: It did. When I read the script initially it really felt like the opportunity I’d been waiting for my whole life, to get closer to the level of work that I’d always aspired to do and which I felt I was capable of in the right environment and with the right director. And I had a much more fulfilling experience than I ever had before making this film.
HB: Are you happy not to have done Fifty Shades of Gray?
CH: I find there are so many fucking decisions to make in life and I am very laboured in my career about making them. That decision was an incredibly long and brutal process for me, because I fell creatively madly in love with the director (Sam Taylor-Johnson) and I desperately wanted to have that experience of making that movie with her. But once the decision was made that I was going to move on, I’ve never thought about that again. I haven’t even seen those films.
HB: You haven’t played romantic leads in big studio movies.
CH: No I haven’t. For some reason I am not drawn to those narratives. I would love to do a romantic movie and some of my best and most fulfilling experiences have been working with actresses on the romantic elements of the movies I do. I absolutely adored Sienna and loved the experience of working with her. I think for me it was one of the most fulfilling elements of making this film. It just has to be the right thing. I’m developing four movies now and the central narrative in all of them is the love story. With Sons of Anarchy everyone talks about the camaraderie and love amongst those guys, but to me that central storyline was always between Jax and Tara. But I couldn't image being part of the romcom world. I read those scripts and I’m not drawn them and I see those films and turn them off halfway through.
HB: Which filmmakers would you like to work with?
CH: The classic established guys, James Gray being one of them. He’s someone I’ve always admired and wanted to work with. But I also get excited by the up-and-coming guys, the new visceral gutsy daring voices of young filmmakers. The last film I did was an adaptation of Papillon with a Danish filmmaker Michael Noer and he was the reason I did that film. I had been actively pursuing him, though I initially turned the film down as I couldn't wrap my head around the comparison that would be inevitable with the original and Steve McQueen. But after talking with Michael and identifying the things that made us excited about telling that story, I slowly but surely felt that we were going to be able to stand on our own two feet.
HB: Now that you have this affinity with rainforests will you come for a holiday to the Daintree?
CH: Anytime, I love that environment. It really is so alive. Anytime for me to be out in the natural world I’m at my happiest.
Watch 'The Lost City of Z'
Sunday 31 October, 1:15am on SBS / Streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand
UK, USA, 2017
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Director: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen