King Arthur: Legend of the Sword–Interview with Star Charlie Hunnam, Part 1

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Charlie Hunnam, hits theaters May 12.

Working With Guy Ritchie

Charlie Hunnam: Any time you are going to retell a story that has been told many times before, you have to do something different and make it your own.  And one of the things that Guy had been very eager to do, which I thought was wise, was to make Arthur just an everyman.  You or I or anybody could just be going about their life and then all of a sudden have this grand destiny thrust upon them, and how would we react.  And in the classic hero journey, always this grand destiny is presented, and there’s a reluctance to the call.  And what Guy and I got most excited about in talking about this character, is where that reluctance came from.  And of course if comes down to fear, a sense of inadequacy, or not being able or having the requisite skill set or experience to be able to take on this lofty challenge.  That was something that was really interesting and relatable to everybody, and certainly something that I had spent a lot of time thinking about.  I have always truly believed that anybody is capable of doing anything, if they just cultivate a robust enough sense of self-belief and know that the journey is going to be difficult and there is going to be failure and you just have to endure that.  And rather than build a wall to protect yourself from the pain that comes with that, actually just say listen, I am going to feel the pain, I am going to learn the lesson and just keep on my journey and ultimately I will arrive at the goal.  So that was sort of an interesting and I think exciting reimagining of Arthur, because traditionally he has always been the noble man on a noble journey to become a noble king, which is great, but it is not that relatable and it doesn’t give the journey as much breadth.

In terms of the dialect and stuff, I always feel, if you are going to adhere to the strict rules of period, then you want period speak, but actually people are just people and if you don’t get too labored in trying to be true to a period, then again I think it’s just a bit more accessible.  And it’s also because Arthur is a bit more rough and ready and because Guy had made that choice to make him a regular man, then we needed that to be reflected in the dialect.

Guy is so infectious in his personality and he is so charismatic and I always feel that Guy’s films are deceptively personal and you wouldn’t necessarily think it because it’s not like he is exploring his deepest, innermost fears and sort of bleeding all over the screen in the way that some of those great directors do.

I got the sense, before I had ever met Guy, that I knew the characters in his films.  And then when I got to know him better, I recognized a lot of the traits of those favorite characters in his films had come directly from Guy. I realized in the early weeks of the film that I was actually just doing my best Guy Ritchie impersonation.  He really informs a lot of the sensibility of the characters that he brings to life.

Ritchie’s Personality and Humor

CH: He’s a rascal with a very robust sense of humor.  And that really informs the whole process.  I tend to have a good sense of humor and have a laugh in my real life, but I have had a tendency in the past to be very earnest and serious about my work and I think Guy recognized that.  He said, here’s the mandate for the film, you and I need to have fun everyday together, because this film needs to be fun and if you and I are making each other laugh and having fun, then that is going to reflect in the film and we are going to make the audience laugh and they are going to have fun.  That was liberating for me, and I must say it was wonderful.  I have had much more fun on this film than I have ever had on anything I have done before.  His humor defuses every tense situation on the set, it informs every decision..  Initially, his intention was to do something that was a bit of departure from his prior work, he wanted to be a bit more linear and classic and have a somber quality to this, but as soon as we started rehearsing, his creative truth took over and he realized that we needed more levity than he intended.

Love Triangle

With Guinevere, it’s a love triangle in the purest sense of the phrase.  It’s one of the most dynamic and exciting parts of the Arthurian legend. We hope that if, obviously the audience decides these things, but if there is an appetite for this film, we are certainly very excited about going on and making some more of them. But what is great about that is that Guinevere is the love of Arthur’s life, and he absolutely adores her, but Lancelot is the second love of his life, sort of the brother he never had and in a way maybe, elements of a father he never had.  Obviously the male dynamics to Arthur are very important.  And so these two people that he loves the most, obviously come together and betray him and obviously that presents the opportunity for great drama.

 Fame and How It Changed You?

CH: I was walking the streets with Guy, he, as I sort of anticipated and hoped, has become a very dear friend of mine and we love to hang out and spend time together.  It’s funny, I have been asked this a lot, it seems that there is some perception that this film is going to make me a much bigger star than I am already, but you know, I never ever personally think about my life and my work in that context.  Everybody has a different journey that leads them to becoming an actor and some people, and I have no judgment on this, some people are seeking fame and fortune, and that’s fine, as long as they back it up with a work ethic and also a desire to do the best work that they can do.  I have never cared about fame at all, I have been, my journey was being a lonely, existential kid who grew up in a very economically depressed place, where everybody was in survival mode, and I recognized the tragedy in that, that people didn’t have the opportunity to bring forth the intention that they had, or the hope that they had for their life.  And I always loved film.  And as a very young boy, preoccupied with this idea that time is so precious and that we only have one life and our only responsibility is to live it as full as we can.  And I identified film as the way that I wanted to spend my life.  I just feel incredibly grateful and lucky to be able to work with people like James Gray and Guy Ritchie and I arrived at a place in my career where I have the opportunity to do the type of movies and the caliber of work that I have always dreamed of.

I also have a whole other theory about having to stay humble and pure in the process, because energetically in the world, I feel like the stories that want to be told, and the universe decides who are going to be the vehicles to tell those stories, and if you stay pure and true, then once in a while the universe will say, alright, it’s your turn, you can go tell this story. But I think staying humble within that is very important. I read a book years ago called “The Five Rings” and it was about a samurai in the end of the samurai tradition in Japan, and he talked a lot about the relationship that a samurai had with his sword, and how a samurai had to sacrifice everything in his life through the sword, and in return, in the moments, that five minutes a year that he had to engage in combat, the sword would return all that sacrifice, and save his life and protect him.  There is something about that energetic relationship that you have to your calling in life that I think needs to remain very pure.  This sounds pretentious as fuck and I am sorry, but it’s my belief.

Filmmaking as Adventure and Journey

CH: I have been on this journey in my life and the beginning of my career in film I feel like started when I was six years old, seven years old, watching “Excalibur” over and over again.  It was the first time that I recognized that I saw the process beyond just being told the story and started to get interested in the logistics of filmmaking.  And I remember asking my mom, like what is the process and they find somebody that knows how to swordfight and ride horses, how do they hire actors?  And my mom sort of was baffled and said she had no idea.  But I assumed that they hired someone that has the aesthetic and the essence of the character, and then teach them all of those skills.  And imagine as a six year old kid, I thought wow that is actually a job, to learn how to swordfight and ride horses?  And it really was the moment where I said okay, I am going to spend my life trying to pursue being an actor.  And of course as I was so young, it also informed my play.  And I suppose the early rehearsals was being in the backyard and pretending I was Merlin or pretending I was Arthur.  And so it felt like, it certainly inspired a moment of reflection when I got this role, because I thought, how amazing for this journey to have started for me with King Arthur, and here I am, 30 years later, being hired by one of my favorite directors to play this role. So it certainly felt significant.  And then actually it was interesting to ask those two questions together, because an extension of that is that I have always felt so grateful being exposed to Aidan Gillen as a young man and really my first job was playing his lover in “Queer as Folk” and I worked very closely with him, literally.  (laughter) But being exposed to that level of integrity and discipline and vision for what one wants ones career to be and not compromise in pursuing that, that was the greatest impact on me, the biggest single impact of my career that I can identify, was working with Aidan.  So it was lovely, I was really excited when Guy told me he had hired him and I was going to get to work with him again and just spend time with him and be able to express that to him, this debt of gratitude that I felt to him, and I did explain it to him in probably rather earnest terms, (laughter) and he went yeah, alright.  (laughter) But I think he heard what I was saying.  I actually didn’t think he had heard what I was saying, but I did an interview the other day with The New York Times, and I was discussing this thing with the journalist and she had told me that she had actually called Aidan to get a couple of quotes to bolster the piece, and she said that he had told her of that conversation and that it had actually meant the world to him.  So it was very nice.

Training for Athletic Body

CH: was actually a kind of challenge for me, the physicality, because I was doing the last season of “Sons of Anarchy” when I got hired for this, which actually almost prevented me from getting hired because I don’t know how familiar any of you guys were with that show, but in the last season, the character that I was playing had just had to endure an enormous traumatic event in his life, where his wife had been brutally killed, and for some reason, Kurt didn’t really want to explore the direct aftermath of that, he wanted to cut into the next season like a month after the fact.  And so, emotionally there was no real way to explore the impact that that had had, because by the time we picked up the show, we were already into the narrative for that season.  So I sort of decided that the way that that would demonstrate the hell that he had been through in the month that you hadn’t seen him on screen, was that I would come back as physically wrought that I could, so I lost an enormous amount of weight.  And then, I went and auditioned for Guy halfway through that season and Guy wasn’t familiar with my work at all and in fact, he wasn’t interested in hiring me for this at all, and I had to fight to get in to see him, cause I just felt that he would like each other if we would give me the chance to meet with him.  But he was very concerned about the physicality because I had just showed up like a skeleton, and he said look, he kept saying man, you know, are you sure you can get big?  (laughter) And I literally tried to pull up photographs saying look, this is me, and he went okay, that might be CGI though.  (laughter) Maybe some shading went on there.  (laughter) So it was funny.  And at the moment I got the role, it came directly from that, because we were in the middle of an audition, and he is looking at me on camera and he is saying, are you sure you can put weight on, cause we need Arthur to be formidable.  And I sort of pretended to lose my temper and I said you know what pal?  You want to just cut the camera?  If you are so concerned about the physicality, because there were three or four other big movie stars that were also auditioning for this and I had seen them, the way you sort of awkwardly do, like milling around the corridors of this hotel, (laughter) and I said, why don’t you bring those chimpanzees in here and we will fight, and whoever walks out of this room, is going to get the role?  And I saw Guy with just a little glint in his eye and he thought, that’s the Arthur I am looking for.  And then he said, alright then tough guy, go back and read the scene again.  But that is really I think the moment that I got it.  But to actually answer your question and to not just talk randomly about nonsense, I had to work out very hard and it’s always about getting the right sort of physicality and the physicality itself is really boring, but the psychology that goes with physicality I always found quite interesting and I knew that Guy was going to surround me with formidable people and if you are supposed to be the most formidable in a group of formidable people, you have to be able to believe that psychology.  Because if you don’t believe it and you are acting those scenes, the other people are going to have to be acting, and rather than just believing it.  And so I, as well as lifting a lot of weights, did an enormous amount of fighting, because I wanted to be the tiger and to let everyone know that if it comes down to it, I would whip your ass any day of the week and twice on Sunday.  Very little carbs and no sugar and no dairy are the two big ones for me to put on a lot of muscle and stay lean.

Sexy Image
CH: I have no idea.  I don’t know.  It’s certainly not something that I ever think about or try to cultivate.  I was just born this way and people seem to think that, or certain people think that I am attractive and that’s fine, because it’s a visual medium and people, it’s a real asset, but I don’t put any stock in it.  What’s important to me is trying to be the best actor I can be and improve my skill set.  And my aspiration for my whole career is that every performance be better than the last and to learn everything I can, because acting is just a craft like anything else, like being a carpenter and I certainly, as you guys have seen, was not born the best actor in the world.  But, I am very, very committed to becoming hopefully one of the best actors around and so I really apply myself and try to learn and grow as much as I can.

Royal Quality

In this chapter of the story for Arthur, I wasn’t required to channel any inner King or any sense of nobility because it was the opposite and we were trying to show the everyman.  What’s going to be interesting obviously is if we are fortunate enough to continue making this series of films, that it will be interesting to see how the responsibility of being King affects Arthur and if he does end, obviously the saying is “heavy is the head that wears the crown” and I am sure and people have asked me a lot over the last couple of weeks as I have been doing Press would you like to be King, and absolutely not.  And I mean, it seems like a thankless job really and there is so much responsibility and so much constraint upon one’s life in royalty like that.  I have really empathized and felt the weight of responsibility of the two young princes in England and it seems like it’s really inhibited their ability just to be free and be kids and make mistakes, because they are under such microscopes.  So I don’t envy that at all.  But I am really excited to, I don’t really know what it would look like channeling the inner King, but I am excited to explore it, again, if we are lucky enough to get it, we are not sure, so I don’t want to get too invested in the hope that we will get to go and make more of these films because it’s up to the audience to decide that.  But, I really hope that we do.  And in terms of Steve McQueen, inevitably we are going to have to endure the weight of comparison, Henri Charriere was a real man and it’s a true story, just like the story of Jesus Christ or Alexander the Great or whatever.  And so we were able to completely liberate ourselves from any sense of this being a remake.  Now of course that is not the way it’s going to be perceived and I have got my eyes wide open, but in terms of the creative process, we felt like we were doing a completely different adaptation in the sensibility of the wonderful Danish filmmaker Michael Noer who directed the film, is so different.  He is a sort of documentary style, very raw sort of like real world filmmaker.  And so again, the sensibility of the film I hope is going to be so different that we can mitigate as much as possible, the endless comparisons, because no one wants to be in a position where they are being compared to Steve McQueen, (laughter) that doesn’t go well for anybody, least of all me.  So I hope that we can sidestep that as much as possible.

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