Charlie Hunnam likes to live in the moment. In preparation for his role in James Gray’s Lost City of Z as explorer Percy Fawcett, who charged into the Amazon jungle in the early 20th century in pursuit of a forgotten civilization, the British actor supposedly stopped using modern technology for several months. During that time, he also didn’t speak to his long-term girlfriend. If you know the golden-haired and roguish actor from Sons of Anarchy and Pacific Rim, then you understand his attraction to daredevil characters whose lives bear little resemblance to our humdrum own.
On the eve of The Lost City of Z’s stateside theatrical release, I spoke to Hunnam about his attraction to historical adventures (next up for him is Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, out next month), the reasons behind his trying to avoid Robert Pattinson on the set of Gray’s film, and what he has in common with the daring and tragic Percy Fawcett.
You filmed half of The Lost City of Z in the Colombian jungle, where you dealt with elements like extreme heat and horrifying bugs. How did acting on location—as opposed to in front of a green screen or on a set—change or enhance your performance?
It’s great being on location—anytime you can interact with the environment or have it do some of the work for you. We were hot and fatigued and starving ourselves, and once you start to feel a little sunstroke and dehydration, it just cuts down on the amount of acting required. All of a sudden you start to feel as if you’re existing within the narrative, rather than trying to approximate it. One of the wonderful things about being an actor is getting to have these grand adventures and go to these incredible places you probably wouldn’t go to in your regular life. If was a very dramatic example of how wonderful the adventure of making films can be. That sense of adventure infected all of us. We kept going further and further. When the film started, we’d be quite close to base camp shooting these sequences, and as we went on and on, we kept going further. That sense of “what’s over the next hill” set in.
You’ve chosen several projects with intense elements of history and exploration. You have Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur coming out next, another historical adventure tale, in which you play Arthur himself. Why are you drawn to roles like this?
I suppose it goes back to my early life. For some reason, I’ve never been that interested in regular life—those rhythms and problems of love interests and teenage angst and going into early adult angst. All of those relatable, contemporary narratives haven’t interested me much. I’m more interested in regular people who somehow find themselves in extraordinary situations. I don’t know what the origin of that is, but from a very young age, it’s what I’ve been drawn to.
You and Robert Pattinson didn’t speak on set, as I understand you both wanted to meet on screen as your characters without distraction and “go method.” How would interacting with him off set during filming have detracted from your performance?
I’m not sure if it would’ve detracted, but I was always, long before I was involved with this project, interested in the idea that a relationship could exist exclusively between “action” and “cut,” and how that would be as an acting process. It was something I wanted to explore, and with this film, because the requirements were so extreme anyway, and it was in a lot of ways the best opportunity I’d ever been given, I was determined to do everything I could to make the most of it. To honor the gift. Then specifically with Rob, these two characters meet on screen, they don’t know each other prior to the beginning of the story. We shot the film almost sequentially, so it lent itself in an easy way to doing this acting experiment. Rob is really serious about what he does, and I think he also felt the weight of the opportunity. We were excited to do something a little unorthodox and see what would happen. If it wasn’t working, I think we would’ve reevaluated.
Percy Fawcett was a man who attempted to balance his familial duties with a slightly selfish thirst for excitement and knowledge. Did you ultimately find him a sympathetic character?
I did. I understood the origin of that selfishness and drive, which I think was his need to fill up this terrible hole he felt inside of him. I can relate. I know how powerful that can be. I was interested in the relationship between ambition and hunger. I’ve always felt like hunger for success brings with it an equivalent amount of suffering. My perception is that the sacrifices he made weren’t really negotiable—like he had to do this to exist. And yet, I think it probably caused him an enormous amount of pain, to neglect his family the way he did, to bring forth this intention he had for his life.
Speaking of ambition, you’ve written several screenplays and have possible plans to direct, plus you got a film degree in college. Have you always wanted to get behind the camera?
In my teenage years, my dream was to be a film director, not necessarily an actor. When I started to get more and more invested in storytelling in general, not just from an actor’s point of view, the idea of directing came into clear focus. And when I was going to college, the choice was to study acting or film theory, so I opted to study film. But then I had an opportunity to do an acting role in my late teens—I think I was about to turn 19—so I left film school. I actually didn’t get a degree. I was only there for the first year. I realized I was learning so much as an actor on set, it didn’t make sense to go back to college at that point. Life just took on its own rhythm, and I fell in love with acting. But there’s always been a hope in the back of my mind that I could write and direct a couple of films.
I look forward to seeing how that turns out.
[laughs] Me too.
Is it all still in the planning stages?
Yeah. It’s a long and laborious process. Sometimes I get dismayed, then I’m encouraged by talking to my friends. Particularly, I have a very close relationship with Jeremy Kleiner at Plan B, who’s been enjoying an enormous amount of success over the last four years. He’s been nominated a consecutive four times for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I’ve developed a few projects with him, and I sometimes get disheartened with how long it takes, like if I’m not doing a good enough job, but I think that’s unfortunately just the rhythm of developing material. I have three projects I’m working on right now. Hopefully one of them will go into production soon.