Charlie Hunnam had some ancient armour to fill when he took on the titular role in upcoming fantasy drama King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
The two-hour epic repackages the age-old medieval tale of Arthur Pendragon and churns out a dark, gritty, rock ‘n’ roll adventure through the distinctly aggressive directorial lens of Guy Ritchie.
Here, Arthur is an estranged king. Street smart, muscled and oozing machismo, with virtually no desire to find his way back to the throne. He faces off with King Vortigen (Jude Law), his opposite in nearly every way, while Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) serves as a father figure who looms large in the background.
For Hunnam, it was a familiar story.
“King Arthur is the same as Beowulf, it’s the same as Star Wars. Arthur’s journey is exactly the same as Luke Skywalker’s,” he told Gulf News tabloid! over the phone last month.
“When you get really savvy in understanding what storytelling is, you realise there’s only three or four stories that we keep telling over and over again. We just dress them up differently,” he added.
This particular tale is all about the ascension of self. Arthur, like Beowulf and Skywalker and Hunnam, must first cultivate a robust sense of who he is and what he’s capable of before he can overcome whatever seemingly insurmountable challenges he’s faced with.
And Arthur, like Beowulf and Skywalker and Hunnam, must learn how to wield his weapon of choice — in this case Excalibur, a powerful blade that responds only to his touch.
“It was arduous, day in and day out,” recalled Hunnam. The cast would shoot strenuous sword-fighting sequences, and would be on set for up to 16 hours a day, sometimes five or six days consecutively, trying their best not to become injured.
“The film business is an exacting mistress,” said Hunnam. “It doesn’t stop for anyone. You go to work every day, injured or not, and you have to do your job, injured or not — that was something I was very eager to avoid.”
Off set, the 37-year-old British actor has had his fair share of seemingly insurmountable obstacles to grapple with. He grew up in the small city of Newcastle in North East England, where there was no tradition of acting, filmmaking or storytelling. When he decided to dedicate his life to the craft, people told him he was crazy. Then there was Arthur. As a young man, Hunnam had a “real love affair” with the fable, and with John Boorman’s Excalibur (he would have been a toddler when it came out in ‘81).
“I watched that film over and over again. It was instrumental in crystallising this idea of becoming an actor and working in the film business. To cut to 30 years later and be offered the role, in my own tiny little life, it felt very significant,” said Hunnam.
Hunnam has since become known for one thing he did and one thing he didn’t do. He did perform brilliantly in his breakout role as Jax in Sons of Anarchy. He didn’t play Christian Grey in the 50 Shades of Grey franchise, which he’d originally signed onto. Hunnam, with his attraction to “male-orientated stories”, has cobbled up a decent amount of fame and admiration in Hollywood. He readily related to his character in Legend of the Sword — equally drawn and averse to the newfound power thrust upon him.
“The trappings that come with being king, you could make comparisons to the trappings and pitfalls and difficulties of being an actor and living in the public eye,” said Hunnam. “There’s some people in this industry that are clearly motivated by fame and money. I can really say hand on heart, I don’t mind the money, but the fame aspect is just a really inconvenient by-product of getting to be able to be a storyteller.”
Another by-product of being a cog in the Hollywood machine: Tom Hardy comparisons. Loads of them. Hunnam, who is two years younger than Hardy, has a similar build, beard and mannerism, though he possesses a softer edge onscreen. The actors, both English, are enticed by similar roles (“I suppose that I’m interested in the narratives about ordinary men that are called to do extraordinary things,” said Hunnam) and appeal to a similar fan base.
“It’s flattering. I like Tom a lot — I don’t know him well, but I’ve known him a little bit back in the day. Comparisons are comparisons. It’s really nice to be compared to people that I have a lot of respect and admiration for, as opposed to people that I don’t, but ultimately it doesn’t really mean anything to me,” said Hunnam.
What really sold him on the role of Arthur, aside from relating to it and a childhood link, was Guy Ritchie. Ritchie, the man behind Snatch, RocknRolla and Sherlock Holmes, has been known to have a fantastical vision, and early trailers made it clear that Legend of the Sword, with its muted palette, edgy soundtrack and dark tone, would be a grand visual affair.
“As soon as I heard the one-line pitch, which was simply ‘Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur’, I immediately said, ‘Oof.’ I love Arthur and I love Guy Ritchie and I would love to see that incarnation. I knew Guy’s version would be so different,” recalled Hunnam.
Djimon Honsou, who plays the level-headed Bedivere, had a similar experience. He had met Ritchie more than 20 years prior in London and has wanted to work with him ever since.
“The fact that he was making it a multi-racial casting, I thought that would’ve been a very powerful tale of King Arthur. And a more, I would say, cosmopolitan approach — an ethnic, diverse [telling] that speaks of today’s date,” said Honsou.
A Bedivere of African descent held historical significance, too, because “back then, in the West, you had a lot of Moors, and the Moors were very interactive in the western political arena. There were a lot of Moors we don’t speak of that made a tremendous social impact in the West,” said Honsou.
This could be the beginning of a franchise for Honsou, Hunnam and Ritchie, who is currently directing Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin. Legend of the Sword served as an origin story, a first chapter, and it could easily demand a sequel.
“We’re very much hoping that it will,” said Hunnam. “One of the problems with Arthurian legend and telling the story in a film lens increment, is that it’s so sprawling. It’s really an odyssey style story. It’s very difficult to distil that down to two hours.”
Hunnam hopes the initial instalment will shed light on an area of the human condition. He quotes philosopher Henry David Thoreau: “There’s no more reassuring a fact than man’s unquestionable ability to raise his position in life to conscious endeavour.” Then he remembers when his little brother graduated university with phenomenal results in genetics. He called to congratulate him.
“He was very dismissive. He said, ‘Yeah, no, maybe now I’ll be able to get a job at McDonald’s.’ It sort of broke my heart how pessimistic his view of life and his potential options and opportunities are,” said Hunnam.
So this film, he hoped, would provide two hours of great entertainment. But beyond that, it would deliver a message to today’s generation, who are grappling with unemployment.
“Which is basically, whether it’s the king of England or the head barista at Coffee Bean, whatever your aspiration is, it’s attainable. If you are brave enough to see it, and speak it, and pursue it, then it will manifest,” said Hunnam.