Photographed by: Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times
Neither director wanted him, but then they took a look at him, and then he opened his mouth.
He was hungry, and pushy, and the director Guy Ritchie liked that. He was gorgeous, and charmed women and children, and the director James Gray liked that, too.
Charlie Hunnam is not exactly a household name in the United States, at least not just yet.
He is known in some quarters as the guy who backed out of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” He is known in others as the conflicted capo of a California motorcycle gang in the FX series “Sons of Anarchy.” Four years ago, he starred in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” and a decade before that played a menacing albino Confederate in Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain.” Across the pond, in his native England, he rose to fame as a teen, playing a coltish gay youngster in the breakout series “Queer as Folk.”
But all those parts did not make a breakout star of Mr. Hunnam, 37, not least because he has been enormously picky about roles. He once spent a few lean years living off an organic marijuana crop he cultivated in his Los Angeles home, he said, rather than taking jobs that left him cold.
“I can’t even believe I’m being this candid,” Mr. Hunnam said as he revealed his pot-growing days — they’re behind him now, he swears — over a lunch of seared halibut and spring peas at the Four Seasons in Lower Manhattan a few weeks ago.
Tall and V-shaped, blond and chiseled, Mr. Hunnam has been likened to Brad Pitt and Channing Tatum. Yet he didn’t carry the “here we go again” ennui or whiff of wariness that often permeates the air around celebrities. This despite the fact that he was in the thick of the press tour for “King Arthur,” the $102 million film Mr. Ritchie directed and helped write, in theaters Friday, May 12, with Mr. Hunnam as its star.
Scant weeks before, he had out been promoting Mr. Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” which he starred in, too. By every appearance, the lean years are no more. Yet both films nearly eluded him.
Mr. Ritchie flatly refused to consider Mr. Hunnam for Arthur at first, not least because he envisioned a king with an action-figure physique. “There’s more fat in a chip than there is on Charlie,” Mr. Ritchie said in an interview. “I just didn’t think he was robust enough.”
Infuriated, Mr. Hunnam flew to London from Los Angeles to force a meeting that Mr. Ritchie couldn’t say no to because Mr. Hunnam’s manager is his close friend. Looking back, Mr. Hunnam said he was not sure how much he wanted the role; he just wanted to be seen. Yet within five minutes, Mr. Ritchie said, “I knew I loved him.”
The director continued, “When someone’s hungry and pushy and they can back it up with something, then it’s a wonderful conspiracy.” Mr. Hunnam was smart, meticulous and dived deep. He also hit the gym like a madman and, soon enough, looked like He-Man.
This in turn dismayed Mr. Gray, when, eight days after wrapping “King Arthur,” Mr. Hunnam showed up for a costume fitting for “Z.” The film is about Percy Fawcett, a real-life British explorer who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 while searching for signs of an ancient civilization.
Mr. Hunnam recalled that the “Z” director “looked in abject horror at my body and said, ‘This is a disaster, this is nowhere close to the physicality that we need for Fawcett.’” Mr. Hunnam added: “I just looked like a superhero, you know? Stupid.”
All of which he managed to blame on Mr. Pitt. When he took his shirt off in “Fight Club” and “Snatch,” Mr. Hunnam said, he created “a new expectation of what a man should be.”
That said, Mr. Pitt was the one who got Mr. Hunnam the part of Fawcett. Mr. Pitt’s production company, Plan B, had tapped Mr. Gray, whose previous films include “The Yards” and “We Own the Night,” to write and direct the picture.
Mr. Pitt was to star but dropped out because of scheduling conflicts; then the lead was to be Benedict Cumberbatch, but his wife was about to give birth. Plan B suggested Mr. Hunnam, at which point Mr. Gray balked.
“I thought he was a Hells Angels kind of guy, which makes me feel like an absolute fool beyond comprehension,” Mr. Gray said, in a phone chat.
After learning Mr. Hunnam was British, Mr. Gray invited him over for dinner, making spaghetti and meatballs, which Mr. Hunnam dutifully ate even though, as Mr. Gray later learned, he avoids carbs.
“He was so warm and funny. My wife thought he was handsomest man in the world, and my son was obsessed with him,” Mr. Gray said. “‘Lost City of Z’ is all about feelings of inadequacy about class. He understood all that stuff, and spoke to it directly.”
For Mr. Gray, that was key. Like his character in the film, Mr. Hunnam burned with the need to prove himself.
Mr. Hunnam grew up in a struggling former coal-mining hub, Newcastle upon Tyne, in Northeast England, which makes him a Geordie, the nickname for people from that region and their dialect — “dead” sounds like “deed,” “crown” like “croon.” His parents split when he was 2, and though Charlie and his older brother lived with their mother, his father loomed large. Respected and feared, Billy Hunnam was a sharp-dressing scrap-metal dealer who, his son said, largely operated outside the law, and left young Charlie in awe. “He was a titan amongst men in that town,” Mr. Hunnam said.
Yet while his father had off-the-books wealth, he gave little money to Charlie, his brother or their mother, something Mr. Hunnam bears no animus about.
In his immortal words,” Mr. Hunnam recalled, “he said to my mum, ‘Look, if I’m not going to be there to teach my sons to be men, then poverty will teach them to be men.’”
Whatever ambition poverty might have fueled in Mr. Hunnam was boosted by his angelic looks. After being spotted in a shop, he was cast in a television series, and then later, when he was 18, as a 15-year-old seduced by Aidan Gillen, then 30, in the British series “Queer as Folk,” which ignited controversy for its racy gay sex scenes (and predated the American version).
“It was obvious to me he was going to wait for interesting roles to come along, and you can be waiting for a long time,” said Mr. Gillen, who plays Littlefinger in “Game of Thrones” and who also stars in “King Arthur.” “He hasn’t made it particularly easy for himself.”
At 18, he entered a short marriage to the actress Katharine Towne, and then moved to California, where he developed a much discussed hybridized accent. He was offered a few good roles and plenty of terrible ones, and turned to writing screenplays — selling one, about Vlad the Impaler, to Summit Entertainment and Plan B — and the aforementioned pot, which he sold to a medical dispensary.
Then “Sons of Anarchy” came along. Kurt Sutter, who created the series, said he saw a movie star in Mr. Hunnam, one who grasped outlaw culture (his father Billy’s doing) and who was also hypercritical of himself (Mr. Hunnam later said he’s hypercritical of everything). “It’s the kind of insane unobtainable need for perfection,” Mr. Sutter said. “His methodical ascension wasn’t an overnight pretty-boy success. It was mounting a body of work for the right reasons.”
“Sons” ran from 2008 to 2014, and its final season broke rating records for FX. In 2013 he was cast as the kinky heartthrob in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Having hit it off with the film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, he envisioned Christian Grey as an Elon Musk-type laser-focused on amassing power. But he bowed out of the project: His father had died just months earlier — “life caught up with him” Mr. Hunnam said — and he was about to appear in Mr. del Toro’s film “Crimson Peak.”
While Mr. Hunnam publicly claimed exhaustion, he said in the interview he also realized the studio did not share his vision. “I thought, ‘I’m just not going to have the time or the energy to fight the fight to get this thing what I want it to be,’” he said. He would later hear about the highly publicized strife that emerged on set. “I’m glad that I wasn’t stuck in the middle of a conflict like that,” he said. “There’s no regrets.”
Mr. Hunnam has since added yet another feather to his cap; he starred, with Rami Malek, in the remake of “Papillon,” which wrapped production this past December.
But he can’t, or won’t, breathe easy yet.
First, with the “King Arthur” tour’s end in sight, he feels himself staring into an abyss. He’s long grappled with existentialism and, left to his own devices, can get overwhelmed, depressed. And he also struggles with reintegrating into off-set life, which includes his long-term relationship with the jewelry designer Morgana McNelis.
“On set is the only time life fully makes sense, that I feel connected to the rhythm of my life and what it all means,” he said. Once that’s over, he added: “That thing that was filling me up is gone. And so in its wake is a giant hole that screams out every day ‘please fill me.’”
He also knows his time at the summit might be fleeting.
“The fear of ‘Is it going to happen?’ just immediately gets replaced with ‘Is it going to be temporary?’” he said.
By all indications, his boomlet has not gone to his head. One recent night in New York, Mr. Ritchie invited Mr. Hunnam to join a bunch of friends for a nice dinner. Mr. Hunnam replied thanks, but he was already eating dinner, by himself, in a sushi joint a few blocks away