Charlie Hunnam: The geezer who would be king

The King Arthur actor discusses why he won't be making a claim to be king of the Geordies any time soon, and how his bromance with Guy Ritchie set the pace for the ‘Lads of the Round Table’

Get set for glottal stops. Guy Ritchie's King Arthur casts Charlie Hunnam as the titular sword-puller, a cheeky monarch from the same lineage as Ray Winstone's Henry VIII and (we're guessing) whatever royal that Who Do You Think You Are? found among Danny Dyer's ancestors.

History purists may whine that Richie's bantz-tastic Arfur flick is not unlike tagging along with ArsenalFanTV's finest. (The same history purists might also more usefully question a chronicle that, to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, accords supreme power because "some watery tart threw a sword".)

Certainly, one does occasionally wonder when the Knights, or more accurately, Lads of the Round Table – say hello to Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Back Lack (Neil Maskell), Chinese George (Tom Wu) and Bill (Aiden Gillen) – are going to descend upon old Londinium’s finest Nandos.

But the same director raked in more than a $1 billion at the box office by giving Sherlock Holmes a geezer-friendly makeover. And, as Hunnam notes, his character wasn’t initially written as the total ledge we find in the finished film.

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“Actually the style of storytelling we ended up with evolved in the editing room,” says the actor. “I think the original idea was a lot more sombre and classic and a lot less Guy Ritchie. But when his first cut was close to four hours, he decided that what we had shot didn’t have pace or vitality he wanted. So he cut it to be faster and fresher and more relevant for contemporary audiences. And you know Guy is such a strong directorial presence. His nature and instincts as an artist were always going to come through.”

Ritchie initially wanted either Henry Cavill or Michael Fassbender for the role and said, blankly, that he had no interest in even meeting Hunnam. Undeterred, Hunnam got on a plane to meet Richie regardless, and offered to beat up the competition. A bromance between director and actor soon blossomed.

“When you’re telling a story that has been told as many times as this one, you need a special talent attached,” says Hunnam. “We’ve seen so many different incarnations of this mythology. But we’ve never seen it with that quintessential Guy Ritchie laddish element.”

Macho stock

The Newcastle-born Hunnam speaks almost as softly and unassumingly as his unexpected King Arthur co-star David Beckham. Yet he comes from macho stock and has, to the delight of many news outlets, twice chased burglars from the LA home he shares with his partner Morgana McNelis, brandishing a baseball bat the first time and a machete on the second occasion. His late father, Billy, worked in scrap metal and the shipyards, and was, by Charlie's account "one tough dude".

Interestingly, despite being born in prime Toon Army territory, neither father nor son watched a football match until Charlie was cast as a West Ham firm hooligan in the 2005 drama Green Street.

“I think football usually comes from family,” says Hunnam. “But my dad’s identity and loyalty was to the pound note. He was much more interested in building that kind of empire than he was in following a football team. So football just wasn’t something that I grew up with. I never really followed any sports at all until the past few years when I started following UFC pretty closely.

"I also worked very hard as a child. I always had jobs at the weekend and on holidays, primarily to fund my library of films; I had thousands of VHS tapes. Whenever I had 90 minutes to spare, I watched a movie, not a match.”

Hunnam relocated to Cumbria at age 12, when his mother Jane remarried. By the time he emerged from the University of Cumbria with a degree in film theory and history, he had already made his screen debut in Newcastle TV classic Byker Grove, and landed a lead role in Russell T Davies's Channel 4 drama Queer as Folk. Aged 19, he was working in the US on Dawson's Creek spin-off Young Americans.

He accordingly speaks with an accent that falls somewhere between California, received pronunciation and the English northeast. Does he still consider himself a Geordie?

“I think technically I lost rights to being a Geordie when we moved from Newcastle. But my father remained there. So even after I left I spent a lot of time there. I have a faint claim, I think. I know there is an enormous amount of identity attached to precise geography.

"And there is also a trend among British expats to become more British than they ever were at home. But regional identity, for me, is insignificant. Personal identity is so much more interesting.”

Household name

Hunnam's film career – a roll-call that includes such varied projects as Cold Mountain, Children of Men and Pacific Rim – has been interesting to date, yet it is his recurring role as Jax Teller in TV's Sons of Anarchy that has made him a household name in the US. The series finished in 2014 after seven seasons.

“I had a very luxurious time of it,” he recalls. “I was working from home, which is such an anomaly these days for an actor. These days, Los Angeles-based actors are often living out of a suitcase for most of the year. A situation that certainly presents challenges. There was a period of mourning of having to let that and him go. I really loved the experience of playing him. He’s been in my heart and my mind for many, many years. So it was a painful process having to say goodbye. But after eight years it felt like the right time to move on to other things.”

Those other things include Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak and James Gray's The Lost City of Z. There has been much chatter about Hunnam's revelation that Robert Pattinson didn't talk to him on The Lost City of Z set, though the pair has subsequently shared red-carpet hugs at various premieres and, as Hunnam notes, those awkward silences created the "right dynamic on screen".

“I think it worked out for the best,” says the 36-year-old. “I feel this might be James Gray’s best film to date and he’s already a pretty extraordinary talent, a modern master. I went into that experience being an enormous fan of his so it was incredibly exciting to be there.”

The Lost City of Z might not have happened had Hunnam not said "no" elsewhere.

In 2013, he was cast as billionaire domestic abuser Christian Grey in Sam Taylor Johnson's Fifty Shades of Grey. Fans of EL James bestselling erotic sequence were ecstatic, but the actor soon left the project, making way for Belfast's Jamie Dornan. At the time, Hunnam insisted that his decision was determined by scheduling conflicts.

But industry websites, including Variety and Deadline, suggested that Hunnam had developed "cold feet" and was overwhelmed by all the attention. Other sources speculated that the actor quit after his demands for creative input and script approval eventually caused a rift with producers.

“In any life, there are always big decisions to make,” says the actor, diplomatically. “The film business is no different. It was, in this case, an overly prolonged and anxious process. I had to figure out what was the right thing for me. But hey, once the decision was made, I never looked back.”

He laughs. “Except during interviews of course, because I still get asked about it.”

  • King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is out now on general release