Charlie Hunnam Interview

Charlie Hunnam, star of Children of Men, Green Street hooligans and The Sons of Anarchy, poses for Twenty Seven and a Half Photography

Actor Charlie Hunnam knows what he wants and is doing his best to get it on his terms. Steering away from what he calls the ‘disposable shit’ and fighting for the projects that interest him, Hunnam’s already ahead of the normal Hollywood learning curve.

by Chris Neumer

Extra Information

CHRIS NEUMER: I was setting up some goals for this interview and I said, “All right, I don’t want to hear him talk about soccer, or the pouty pictures. ” I figured we’d bring it up, but there are so few interviews on you and the ones I saw were always like, what’s your favorite color, something about your baked beans, what else can’t you get in America that you can get over here?  So I said, “We’re going to refocus, I’m going to try not to use the word soccer in the interview. I’m going to call it football, and then we’re going to discuss what the appeal of this sport where you can’t use your hands is.  Personally, I don’t know.  Are you into football?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: No, not at all.

CHRIS NEUMER: Really?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: No, I’d never seen a game. The film only had like 19 minutes of a football game, plus, my dad always had sort of a disdain for it. He always thought, “Why sit around on Saturday watching a bunch of guys chasing a ball around when we could be out making money?

CHRIS NEUMER: What kind of money would you be making?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Big money, lots of money.

CHRIS NEUMER: Doing what, though, specifically?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: He’s a scrap metal merchant, or, was.

CHRIS NEUMER: So, it’s a situation where the more you work the more money you actually get?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, absolutely. But I think in most trades it’s like that. The more and harder you work, the more money you get.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, if you’re a publicist and you work 100 hours a week or 40 hours a week, it’s not as tangible, I guess.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, but if you get your workload done in 40 hours and you use the extra time to try to sign more clients.

CHRIS NEUMER: True, I suppose. But you weren’t into football at all?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: No. I never thought watching it was particularly necessary for the film, I always enjoy much more the preparation and pre-production part on the set, another fun way to go and try to access this character instead of going to a lot of football matches.

CHRIS NEUMER: I don’t know if you’re a method actor, but I was thinking about this in a sort of off-kilter way that, man, if you’re method acting in this one, I wonder what you’d have to do to get into character and prepare for this part of fighting, drinking, and carousing.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, I certainly am not a method actor, but I did go and get very involved. I met with some of the actual ICF boys, which is the Inner City Firm, which refers back to when all of the trains in England were run by a company called Inner City Firm. They were from West Town, and they were one of the first groups to travel all of England, and they would show up at all of the away-matches and show up to play the opposite clans.

CHRIS NEUMER: It was an interesting lifestyle, because there were apparently rules and regulations everyone involved knew about, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. It’s like, “Hey, I’m out, I’m out!” and someone would say, “Aw, man, well, we can’t do anything about that.”

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, I mean, basically the thing is you turn up, I guess is I guess the huge difference and people I’ve been talking to have been comparing them to gangs. They’re really not.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was comparing them to drug addicts, like the whole life. I put this next to something like Requiem for a Dream. You get in, and you have to do it, it’s like you have to go through twelve steps to get out, and I thought that was kind of intriguing.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, it’s certainly a comfortable lifestyle. The thing is, there’s really only activity on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons because that’s when the teams play. Most of the time, and these guys certainly hang out together, but there’s no violence, there’s no fighting to be had, that’s all in and around football grounds. So it’s more of a hobby than a lifestyle.

CHRIS NEUMER: Interesting hobby, I’ll give it that. So you’re not into football, and you see this, but you’re not into football. I find that surprising, because this seemed like something where you’d have to understand a little of the lifestyle before getting into it.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, I did, and that’s certainly my mission. I always liked the analogy of being an actor is sort of like being a prize fighter, you can live your life the way you want to, but once you know you have a fight coming up, your focus becomes absolutely singular, and you’re on task, and you learn as much as you can about your opponent, and you prepare yourself as thoroughly as possible, so that when you step into the ring you have all the tools at your disposal to get the job done. I like that aspect. For this job, I got on a plane, and instantly I’m living in Los Angeles, then to England for three months in which I’m just surrounding myself with this lifestyle, going around and drinking. I got access to this firm, and one guy in particular who’s life was eerily similar to the character I was supposed to be. This guy was amazing. First of all, just the access that being an actor provides you.

CHRIS NEUMER: Oh, yeah, I was thinking when you made your prize fighter analogy that maybe I picked the wrong road going into journalism; you get to do what you want, but of course, in a nice way.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, I would definitely envy myself if I wasn’t in my position. I mean, I hadn’t worked for 18 months before I started doing Hooligans.

CHRIS NEUMER: Steering you away from the pre-production for just a minute, I was looking at some of the stuff that you’d done, and I was thinking that in all the articles people have written about you, they talk about how you’re eye candy, or this gorgeous guy, and “He got the part of the delightfully cute Nathan on “Queer as Folk,” and you were declared the “It” guy, if you will. Does it get tiring trying to create a persona, and then keep it going? Or is this something that you’re even doing?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: No, it’s certainly not something I would try to perpetuate at all. This is obviously a part of my job, and interviews. I am aware of what people write about me just because people tell me, but it really has nothing to do with my life. I lead a very quiet, normal life.

CHRIS NEUMER: Yeah, I think somewhere you said that you never left the house, and at that point I thought, “Yeah, we could hang, if he’s really serious about never leaving the house.”

CHARLIE HUNNAM: I very, very rarely leave my house, but I have a great social life. I hang out with my friends, and I basically am very, very driven to work. I read everything that comes through the agency, like ten scripts a week.

CHRIS NEUMER: Which agency are you with?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: William Morris. I have a great agent, I’m sure you know an agent becomes a star when he finds an obscure actor and makes him a celebrity. I’m definitely one of the guys my agent is kind of banking his future on.

CHRIS NEUMER: No pressure though, no pressure.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Exactly. So we just kind of putter along at our own pace. I did some work at the beginning of my career that I don’t regret, but I became very aware that I needed to be more in control, particularly Nicholas Nickleby. I knew that my vision and the director’s vision were not unified, generally in our film making and specifically just on how that film should be made, and then even more specifically about how that character should be played.

CHRIS NEUMER: Anything specific that you can say? Specifically about the character or the process of film making?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: I just thought that it was a very flat, two-dimensional world that he wanted to bring to the screen, that I didn’t think had any relevance at this point. Obviously, it had just been seen a million times, and with him, the character of Nicholas Nickleby, you’ve seen a hundred times. I wanted to push the envelope a little bit. I felt constantly like I was just playing this approximation, this idea that he was the epitome of goodness, and this and that. I just felt very creatively castrated by that director. He came to work everyday with an absolutely specific, preconceived notion of how these scenes should play out, and as an actor you would like to have the opportunity to be able to show your interpretation of the scene, and meet halfway. It just became apparent that for all the actors he was just a very strict, micromanaging director.

CHRIS NEUMER: So working with someone like Robert Altman or someone like that would appeal to you because you can just go, and the project can breathe?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: I guess I’m getting off on a tangent, but more accurately, I got the script and wasn’t really excited about it, or playing this character, but yet, because of the cast he put together and the profile of the job, I just got talked into it against my will. And then I was going to try to negotiate my career with zero compromise, and do exactly the work that I want to do, and if I can’t get that work, then I’m just not going to work.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, that’s probably better in a silver-lining kind of way. It’s probably better that it happened to you early on than you get dragged into Catwoman or something. Or, Male Catwoman.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Sure, sure. No, absolutely. I’m definitely aware and fortunate that it did happen early on.

CHRIS NEUMER: So, what types of steps are you and your agent and possibly your manager taking to hone the persona as the leading man that you were describing earlier?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: None, really, it’s not as rigid as that. We’re just looking for anything. I just read everything, and A) look for a script I like, and B) if it’s one of the great directors we all know. They’re very easily identifiable.

CHRIS NEUMER: Like Joel Schumacher.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: [dead serious] Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: That was a joke by the way.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: [laughs] Yeah, I got it. I look to work with them, but the competition is fierce on those projects.

CHRIS NEUMER: Now, you say that, and I read somewhere that you would like to work with Mike Figgis and Mike Leigh, I don’t know if that’s still true.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, I mean that was more when I was seeing myself as an English actor, and had planned to go down that route. I had actually read Mike Figgis’s new script a little while ago and I’m really excited about it, and it’s certainly more of an American guy’s story.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m trying to think of some of the scripts of Michael Figgis’s last films, what was the one in the kitchen? With Saffron Burrows and I think Peter Mullan, it happened all in a kitchen?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Oh yeah, Being Julia, or wait, not Being Julia

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, you know the one I’m talking about?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m trying to imagine that as a script.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, I’m looking more for something like, the Loss of Sexual Innocence, Time Code. I’m trying to think of the last thing he did that was Time Code-esque.

CHRIS NEUMER: Hotel.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, Hotel.

CHRIS NEUMER: Now, that was during your “I want to be a British actor,” and now this has just kind of morphed into “I just want to be an actor?” What types of directors are you looking to work with now? Not names, specifically, but traits?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Sensible people, looking to make serious films with integrity, and looking to make great quality movies. You know as well as I do that…

CHRIS NEUMER: There are two people like that in Hollywood?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, the movie industry is just in a horrific state at the moment, and I just don’t want to be involved in making disposable shit, you know?

CHRIS NEUMER: Well clarified. Now, is there anything you do to try to avoid this? Or do you see disposable shit ahead of you?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Oh, yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: What are the red flags? What are the things to look for, like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they have a talking dog!” Anything like that?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: No, it’s just, you read scripts, and generally the great scripts and the great writers get picked up by great directors and it all happens very easily, and the way it’s supposed to, and then the trick for me, and the trouble for me is to just try and get involved in that. Obviously, at this stage in my career I don’t mean very much at the box office, and I don’t mean that much to financiers, so it becomes difficult for me to get that work. So what I also do is try to keep an eye on the up and coming guys, and the new guys who are making their debuts, or making their second or third films.

CHRIS NEUMER: As directors, or as actors?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: As directors. It’s exciting to find someone, like Lexi [Alexander, director of Green Street Hooligans], who has real talent and ambition, and formidable in the way that she’s not going to let anyone stop her from doing what she wants to achieve. On Hooligans I met her, I read the script and I was fascinated by the world. I thought that it was an incredible character, but I didn’t get too excited because I wanted to sit down with Lexi. I sat down with her and I got the sense that she really understood the way an actor worked, and was really excited at collaborating rather than just having control.

CHRIS NEUMER: So she listened to your ideas?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: She listened to my ideas and told me her ideas. She not only listened to my ideas, but she had very specific ideas of her own, which sounds almost retardedly simple, but it’s unfortunate how many people actually come into a meeting with a director and an actor and actually have anything to say about the project.

CHRIS NEUMER: I give you that. I’ve learned if anything sounds like common sense of logic in real life, it doesn’t translate very well to filmmaking.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Right.

CHRIS NEUMER: So I’m willing to give you that one just on spec. What was an idea, anything specific? Like, she said you’re going to be wearing a zip-up jacket the whole movie, anything like that?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: We talked a lot about the importance of going there as a group. She said, “I want the two of us to be a real partnership, and educate ourselves as much as possible, and really learn. Unless we’re making this with real authenticity, I’m not really interested in making it at all.” Just the way she was talking about approaching it, she wanted to get all the boys together three weeks beforehand and send us to football matches together, send us out drinking together, and then rehearse everyday.

CHRIS NEUMER: And you told her, “All right, twist my arm?”

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, it just seemed like a sensible way to go about making this, and she was just very, very interested in making this as real as possible, which is always what excites me about film.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s amazing when things like that translate to gritty honesty and realism on film, isn’t it? Shocking!

CHARLIE HUNNAM: [Laughs] Yeah, I know.

CHRIS NEUMER: Who could’ve guessed?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: And particularly in this film, I felt like the great function of film is to educate while entertaining, and I saw the potential. Even the commercial potential of it was interesting because I don’t think a film has ever been made to specifically educate an American audience as to what hooliganism is. I think there have been a few made to service the British interest in it, but this film is frankly better served to an American audience because it’s a little exposition heavy for a British audience because we already know everything this film has to say. Which, I don’t think nullifies the entertainment value of it, but I think where we go through the first twenty minutes and explain what Hooliganism is would be fairly redundant and not as entertaining.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, you also have an American lead who’s taking you into the world, he’s your tour guide.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, sure.

CHRIS NEUMER: Now, with your character, I don’t have the first idea of what you’re like off-camera, but I’m assuming just from the ten minutes we’ve spent here you’re pretty laid back, easy going. It seems like playing a character like this that’s kind of in your face, rugged and strong, it seems like there’s got to be a certain appeal to playing a character like that, where you can go and you can be violent, and you can get that look in your eye. Is there an appeal to that versus playing a meeker character?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, I think that there’s appeal to every character. What I find exciting about it, like we were discussing before, it’s anything that will allow an absolute departure from what I know about myself. To go and do all the things that would excite me in the world that I would never do myself. You get a chance to learn 20 or 30 percent of what it would actually be like. You get the flavor. And yeah, it’s always exciting to play a charismatic, rugged bad boy. It was really exciting pre-production time on this, three months. And this guy, these guys, would never, ever have ordinarily given me the time of day, and to be accepted into that group, and being allowed to go and observe them in their everyday lives, and especially being allowed to observe them in the realm of the football world, was fascinating. These guys, they always reminded me very much of that line in Goodfellas, something about, “Being movie stars with muscle, and nobody fucks with us. We were untouchable, we were like movie stars with muscle.” These guys are legend in their area. They go around, and they go into the local bars, and there’s handshakes and slaps on the back, they can’t buy themselves a drink, people hand them drinks all night long.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you find that in real life while you were doing prep work on this that they were anti-journalist?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: No, that’s just a functionary part of the film, of the character, to add a little drama. There are instances, certainly, of journalists infiltrating firms, more back in the end of the ’80′s, beginning of the ’90′s, one very famous journalist in England infiltrated the Chelsea Headhunters. They were notorious during the ’80′s because they had a tendency to cut you, to do signature cutting. They came up with something called the “Chelsea Smile,” which we touched on a little bit in the film. Whether it’s a sharpened down credit card, which is something they started to do towards the end, to avoid being arrested if the police searched them, because if they found a razor blade on someone at a football match the could put two and two together. But basically what they do is slit you on both sides of your mouth and then head butt you or hit you, do anything to make you scream, and then it would just rip your face.

CHRIS NEUMER: Lovely.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: So he infiltrated the Chelsea Headhunters, and due to that he got them all one tape, and they all were arrested and put in prison for a long time. So I’m sure there is, and has been, a very high level of suspicion, but I never heard any talk like, “Fuck the journalists.”

CHRIS NEUMER: I was just thinking about the contradiction of not liking journalists, and then allowing you to come in and figure out what it is and explain it to the world. So, you’re getting ready to shoot a scene where you have to be hardcore bad ass, something where you’re going to be throwing your weight around, what kind of things are you doing prior to the first take to get your head into that mindset? Or to get that look in your eye, anything special.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: First of all, we only had five weeks to shoot, and we had a lot of fight sequences, so we really had to cut down to three weeks to do all the emotional, the dramatic stuff. So we did everything in one take, two takes at the most. But basically, I always feel like, if I’m trying to muster or create anything on the set I’m fucked.  All of that stuff has to be done before we start shooting. I have access to rage within myself, I just choose to let it out through acting or other activities. But I definitely have a little anger in me. My dad is a very, very serious man. I didn’t grow up with him, I don’t particularly know him that well, but we have gotten to know each other a lot better the last couple of years. The scrap metal trade in England, it’s a self-policed trade because you can’t ever claim scrap metal as insurance because it’s such a liquid, intangible product. It’s kind of like it’s coming and going, it’s coming and going. The amount, how much waste there is once you strip it down the bare elements, how much metal you’re going to get as opposed to a big scrap like this, how much it’s worth, all of that stuff is very, very difficult to equate. There’s a lot of thievery in that trade, and no recourse once it’s been stolen in terms of insurance or police-follow up because it’s so hard to trace. Then you get into a certain situation of having to defend your own. Did you follow that?

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m with you, very much so.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: So my dad, from the little bits and pieces of knowing him and growing up with him, and just the nature/nurture argument, I definitely believe you either inherit an awful lot from your parents, even if you don’t have a lot of access to them in your childhood.  There’s an unmistakable part of my personality, even though I haven’t spent a lot of time with my father to pick them up from him, it’s definitely inherited stuff. I think more than the next guy, certainly in my game, have a real understanding of the ability to do dastardly deeds. I know that in myself. I grew up fighting and losing my temper, really kind of taking care of business. And I would always kind of regret what I did afterwards, and be troubled by it for ages. But actually in the heat of the moment, when the adrenaline is flowing, I can be very capable of doing many things. So I just think I had access to that anyway.

CHRIS NEUMER: I guess maybe the thing is, everyone has access to that, but to turn it on and off at will, that’s the part very few people have access to. Maybe everyone can turn it on, but very few people can turn it off. Your ability to tap into that and turn it on and off, I mean, forget acting, just from a human perspective, it’s rare.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: I think the tendency is, once you’ve kind of flipped in the past or you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re kind of scared and it became necessary to defend yourself — I saw in high school, the guys who started fights would fight a lot afterwards, they started to really enjoy the currency it gave them in the school playgrounds. Basically what happened to me, I came up from Newcastle, which is historically known as the hardest city in England, it’s I guess comparable to downtown Detroit in reputation, pretty hard place, very working class. The only trades there exclusively were mining and shipbuilding, both historically very hard trades. So I got moved when I was twelve from this place to a little country village with a very small town mentality, where again, there was a real currency being tough on the playground, so people started trying to prove their worth by fighting me on the playground to prove that they could have the Newcastle kid. So I ended up having a horrible childhood, a horrible time in school, having to really defend myself a lot. Which is so funny, because one of the things about doing press for this, is people have been so astounded that I was able to do this, whereas to me it was so astounding that I was actually able to pull off a Nicholas Nickleby.

CHRIS NEUMER: People are surprised that you’re able to do this over that?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, definitely.

CHRIS NEUMER: I would think the exact opposite, To me, that’s like Julia Roberts able to play an uptight, thirty-something actress.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, but I guess if you come from only knowing my work, I can see how you’d make that assumption, but me personally knowing myself it just seemed like it was so much of a stretch doing the other one.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s why you can tell them it’s called acting.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Right.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s the way I look at it. I don’t want to say that you’re pretending, but you’re stepping into another character’s shoes, it doesn’t matter if he’s some weird water farmer from Star Wars or just a hooligan from West Town, it’s another character, that’s what good actors can do.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Sure.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s like, “That’s amazing, we didn’t think you’d be able to do this,” wow. It seems almost cathartic for you to be able to get in this and think, look what I got out of this, I finally made something, and that’s a silver lining to it.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, it’s more than just creating.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, a last thing for you here, I know how American actors go about doing a British accent, but I never really had an opportunity to speak candidly to a British actor about doing an American accent, because whenever we get into it, it starts getting into a comparison of the black guys doing a white guy, where they pronounce every word, and I always thought, “Do we really sound like that?” So I thought I’d ask you, how do you get into your American accent?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: With a lot of hard work and frustration. If I knew a quick answer or any type of shorthand I’d be doing it, but really it’s just hours and hours of work with a great dialect coach.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are there any syllables or words that are harder for you to get to than others?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, what’s called the “dark R” in America, you really hit your R sounds in America. I mean, I have a lot of American friends who say whereas, and in England we say where as. It’s this hard R, which is easy to make the sound, it’s just difficult to make it sound effortless, and not labored. You can get into Jack Nicholson territory very easily, or when you sound like a bad John Wayne with an English accent. I think it’s all about achieving subtlety, and making it sound effortless. When it starts to sound labored it becomes very obvious that you are doing an accent.

More Like This

Chris Neumer's Twitter