In the nine years since he first appeared on FX’s cult hit Sons of Anarchy, Hunnam, who turns 37 this month, has become a full-fledged Hollywood hunk. He has scruffy blond hair, pale blue eyes and abs that look like they were drawn on by somebody at Marvel Comics. But he doesn’t talk like that. “I’m not interested in what anyone had for breakfast or what they think of these shoes they’re wearing or where they’re on vacation,” he says, continuing the social media theme. “This instant ability to like, dislike and cast immediate snap judgments on things—and being encouraged to do so—proliferates into our everyday existence.”
We’re here to discuss Hunnam’s new movie, The Lost City of Z (April 14), from We Own the Night writer-director James Gray. In the film, he portrays Colonel Percy Fawcett, the real-life British explorer who ventured into the Brazilian jungle in the 1920s in search of a lost civilization. Next month, he’ll play the lead role in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. It seems that Hunnam is not just an unusually well-spoken actor, but an unusually hardworking one. He shot both films within a few weeks of each other, an arduous schedule that cut him off from the outside world—including his partner, jewelry designer Morgana McNelis. During the four months he spent filming Lost City in Colombia and Ireland, he didn’t even call her on the phone—all the better to immerse himself in the role.
“I have an incredible girlfriend. We’ve been together 11 years, and she’s incredibly understanding of my obsession,” he says. “There is an enormous amount of compromise that we’ve both made. We’re not married. We don’t have kids. That’s exclusively because of my obsession to fulfill this sense of personal destiny.”
Personal destiny is an idea that’s generally applied to mythical figures—like, say, King Arthur—rather than film stars. But Hunnam has deliberately placed himself on the margins of the Hollywood scene. You won’t see tabloid reports of him partying at local hot spots. He likes to spend his time cooking, he says, watching movies or exploring nature. Even for Hunnam, though, sequestering himself in the South American jungle for months on end seemed a little extreme.
“I wasn’t trying to be overly bullish or anything,” he says, adding that the Percy Fawcett role “just took on an enormous amount of importance for me, in terms of proving to myself what I was capable of. It was an opportunity to go as deeply into the work as I’d always craved. I was not going to let anything prevent that opportunity from manifesting and being as full as it could possibly be.”
Hunnam may be even more amped up about his role in King Arthur, which ties into a childhood fantasy. As a boy, one of his favorite films was John Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur. “I just watched that over and over,” he says. “I was always whittling sticks into swords and trying to engage my big brother in sword fights and stuff like that.” Ritchie’s version is an origin story, inflected with the snappy banter and visual trickery of his early gangster flicks Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. “I was really interested in King Arthur and what Guy was doing with it,” Hunnam says. “It felt like an observation or an exploration of the ego and how we tell ourselves terrible things and create demons within ourselves.” He describes working with Ritchie as “a very visceral, immediate experience.”
At times, talking to Hunnam can feel like being in a particularly challenging game of Scrabble—even the most casual query invites a flurry of words like “abstemious” and “cognizant.” His upbringing, though, was anything but elevated. He was born the younger of two boys in Newcastle upon Tyne, a hardscrabble city in the northeast of England, to parents who split while he was a toddler. His father, who died a few years ago, was a scrap metal merchant, but there have been intimations of shadier dealings. Hunnam says his father was “a really colorful character” and “a very, very tough” man. “I was always—I still am, really—in awe of him.” His mother, whom he describes as warm and kind, did odd jobs and flipped houses to support her sons. He attended the Cumbria College of Art and Design as a young man, but he credits his parents as being his inspiration. “I always say my mum taught me to love, my dad taught me to fight. They were both equally important.”
His route to film stardom, meanwhile, was circuitous. He was discovered at age 17, dancing drunkenly in a Newcastle shoe store on Christmas Eve, which led to him getting a role on the original British version of the TV series Queer as Folk. The show garnered equal amounts of acclaim and controversy in the U.K., and Hunnam caught the attention of Hollywood producers, who, at around the time he was turning 20, lured him to L.A.
Several film and television roles followed, but it was Sons of Anarchy that made Hunnam famous. He spent seven seasons playing motorcycle gang leader Jax Teller, and may have still been doing it if the show hadn’t ended in 2014. “That was an incredible training ground,” he says. “Not only were we shooting 10 scenes a day in incredibly difficult physical conditions, and having to do two or three big fight scenes a week, but we’d always have the next script breathing down our neck.” Along with the 105-hour work weeks, he also put a lot of extracurricular effort into the role. “I was on a bike. I was hanging out with tough groups of people.”
Hunnam has since embarked on a remarkably varied film career, with some of the biggest directors around. His roles so far have included a sadistic albino in Anthony Minghella’s Civil War drama Cold Mountain; a human rights activist in Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi tale Children of Men; and an unassuming doctor in Guillermo del Toro’s gothic thriller Crimson Peak. He also starred in del Toro’s monster romp Pacific Rim, a rare sortie into the conventional action hero role that, given his rugged good looks, could so easily have been his bread and butter.
When asked about the actor who has most inspired him during his career, Hunnam says Daniel Day-Lewis. But his ambitions are broadening. Recently, he has paid close attention to films like Moonlight, the Oscar-winning drama about a young, closeted black man in Miami, as well as Casey Affleck’s Oscar-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea. He wants to turn his hand to writing, directing and producing, so he can make “intelligent, adult” dramas of his own.
“I’m attracted to stories that are male-driven,” he says. “I’m developing vehicles for me to star in, stories about men who are a bit on the outside, trying to make sense of the human condition and how to live in a modern, ever-changing world—with a sense of how one deals with existentialism, or the extraordinary lengths that people go to, to fill up the void, if they’re cognizant or conscious of the grand and terrible hole that we have in our souls.”
So, having entered what he describes as a “period of self-exploration,” Hunnam is putting his acting career on hold. “I’m sort of pausing,” he says. “I’ve turned down all of the work that I’ve been offered, and I’m taking a moment to try to take stock and find balance.” He insists that he won’t miss being in the spotlight, but also admits that a lot of people are skeptical about that claim. “The idea of saying to somebody with a straight face that I want to be a storyteller and an actor—but I don’t want to be famous—seems to be met with ridicule, suspicion and blatant disbelief,” he says with a grin. “You get a lot of ‘Yeaaaah, right.’”
Ultimately, Hunnam says as the interview winds down, he would like to write and direct a film about his father—though he doesn’t want to rush into this. “If I’m going to finally tell my dad’s story,” he says, “I want to have the skill-set to really be able to honor him.” A little later, when the check arrives, he pulls out a wad of bills wrapped in a red rubber band. The waiter takes the money and Hunnam smiles, and you cannot help but notice how ridiculously handsome he is.
With this thought comes another: It must be hard to get people to take you seriously when you look like this. Maybe this fact explains Hunnam’s decision to step off the Hollywood gravy train—and his rather bookish conversational style. Earlier, discussing his aversion to social media, the actor had said, “I think it’s incredibly corruptive of our ability to just live without judgment, which is clearly the path to happiness.” Pick that sentence apart—live without judgment, path to happiness—and maybe it says it all.
Charlie Hunnam has learned from some of the best directors in the business
Hunnam had a crucial supporting role in the directorial debut of Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic. He plays a wealthy college student whose mysterious disappearance triggers an investigation.
Cold Mountain (2003)
One of the last films from the late, great Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) featured a breakout, villainous performance from Hunnam. He portrayed a sadistic albino named Boise.
Children of Men (2006)
In this acclaimed dystopian thriller from the Gravity and Y Tu Mamá También director, Hunnam plays a member of a militant immigrant rights group in a futuristic society where women have lost the ability to reproduce.
Guillermo del Toro
Pacific Rim (2013)
Del Toro, the mastermind behind the Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth, directed Hunnam in the lead role as a former pilot who must commandeer a massive robot to fight off an onslaught of monstrous sea creatures.