Charlie Hunnam, 20 years ago, Who knew he had that staying power?

                          June 2002 By Philip Berk

He’s Brad Pitt with an English acting.

Charlie Hunnam, the name’s quintessentially English, but guess what, he thinks American and he prefers living in America.

The young actor — beautiful best describes him except that he’s defiantly masculine — didn’t make much of splash when he played a fifteen year old in a sexual relationship with a 29 year old gay man in the original Queer as Folk. (Charlie was eighteen at the time.)

But Hollywood took notice and quickly signed him to two TV series (Young Americans and Undeclared) and a major studio movie which like its name was ‘Abandon’ed in one week.

But now he’s the star of Nicholas Nickleby 

At his press conference in New York, he’s modest but self assured, funny but serious, earthy but articulate.

Expect big things of this young man who flew in from location shooting in Rumania where he’s part of the huge international cast of Anthony Minghella’s prestige picture, Cold Mountain.

His good looks may have got him in the door, but it’s his irrepressible personality that’s taken him thus far.

He may not like England but like another Brit, he’s been quickly married and divorced and proud of it. (The other guy of course is Colin Farrell.)

Charlie, however, had more class! His ex wife just happens to be the daughter of Hollywood’s most revered screenwriter Robert Towne, best known for having written Chinatown.

I can’t resist asking him about Queer as Folk.

How nervous was he accepting the role of Nathan, which even for England was groundbreaking television. Didn’t he think it might stigmatize him?

“All I remember is thinking, if I do a good job people are going to see past the character, and if I don’t, then I won’t work again. Basically that’s what I thought when the director gave me two hours to read all four scripts and make a decision. Two seconds later I had decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

Did he know what he was getting into?

“By the time I was sent the script, they had seen everybody for it, everyone in England from the top guys to scraping the bottom of the barrel. They hadn’t found anyone who could or would play it. A lot of people courted it but then pulled out at the last minute. So they were really in trouble when they agreed to do a meeting with me. They had seen me on a children’s show where I did three episodes. But I definitely wasn’t a big enough actor to be taken seriously for such a role. Luckily the director Charles McDougall and I just hit if off, and after I read the scene right away he made the offer.”

Wasn’t he apprehensive about doing the nudity and having to kiss men?

“Yeah there was a lot of nudity, but Charles was as sensitive as possible. He waited until we were well into the shoot — about six or seven weeks — before we did any of the sex scenes. And then we did them in one fell swoop. We took three days and got all the fucking out of the way. There was a lot of nudity, but thankfully because I play a fifteen year old, they couldn’t show any of my full frontal nudity; censorship wouldn’t allow it. So I got away with more pride in tact than the other guys who were older and had everything in full view.”

What does he think of the American version?

Humorously he replies, “I haven’t seen the American version. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it…”

One major difference between the two is his American counterpart is gay in real life and unmistakably so. When the series first aired in England, the director was criticized for casting straight actors in the roles. 

“Yeah, he was berated and ostracized for making the first really gritty gay drama and not hiring gay actors, but his response was. ‘I’m a film-maker. I choose the best people for the job.”

Speaking of the best people for the job, what is his relationship to his former father-in-law, and was that marriage to his daughter a serious marriage?

“It was a serious marriage. We got married on a whim. I’d known this fantastic girl, this beautiful amazing actress called Katherine Towne. We were together three weeks, and I was going back to England, and we feared, as things happen, that we might drift apart, lose touch, lose contact; so, we decided that it would be a good idea for us to go to Las Vegas and get married because then I’d have to come back and see her even if it was just to get a divorce. And we did get divorced last November, but it was fun while it lasted. We’re still good friends. She practically lives at my house. We’re very good friends but not good spouses.”

And Robert Towne, is he a friend?

“I’ll tell you a story. I was offered a film for much more than I usually get paid. They wanted me to dress up in a hairy suit and howl at the moon. It was one of the first things I’d been offered outright without having to audition or jump through hoops. Look guys, I told them, ‘I’m flattered, but I’m not interested.’ How about we pay you this much? Are you interested now? It was like eight times more than I’ve ever been paid for anything, so I called Robert and I said, I could pay off my mortgage outright and still have a million dollars in the bank and he said, ‘Don’t. You’re good. Don’t fuck with that.’ So when I have tough decisions to make I call him. We don’t talk about every script, but definitely he’s a mentor and a great friend.”

The mortgage he’s referring to is the house he bought in L.A. seven months ago. 

How much time does he spend there?

“I think I’ve slept there maybe fourteen times since I moved in. I’m ready to spend a little more time there now, so I’m looking for something Hollywood-based to do next, hopefully working with the same caliber of people and quality of material.” 

Most Brits prefer being based in England, but not Charlie.

How come?

“I love being in America. I mean, they pay you in America.” 

Then jokingly he adds,  “Although not on Nicholas Nickleby.”

Isn’t he proud to be English?

“I was never very comfortable in England. I was never comfortable with the English mentality towards life. I always felt suffocated by England. And the weather is terrible. I grew up watching American films and just craving America. I took to it like a fish to water once I was here. I felt this was the place where I’m going to be, and I really haven’t looked back. I really enjoy the pace, and I like the space in America, the freedom to be able to get in a car and drive. There’s not that sense of freedom in England even though there’s probably more freedom of the press and speech than there is here. But I always felt this would be my home, and as soon as I got here I knew I was right. It’s difficult to articulate. Growing up I didn’t go to school very much. I would stay home and watch films. My main heroes come from the States.”

Has he soured on marriage or like the Nicholas Nickleby, is he searching for a soulmate? 

“Absolutely. That’s definitely my quest in life. I crave finding a woman to spend my life with, have children with. I don’t want to have children just yet, maybe twenty years down the line, but definitely that’s the most important thing for me, to start my own family. Family I think is everyone’s backbone, and I feel that more and more. I’ve lived away from England for four years. I don’t get to see my family at all really, maybe once or twice a year. I definitely miss that, so I crave starting a family of my own.”

In the four years he’s been in Hollywood, he’s been steadily employed. Was that luck or perseverance?

“I’m attracted to good people, people whose work I’m familiar with, or I become familiar with when offered a project. Fortunately they were interested in me.”

Working on an American television series must have been a culture shock? 

“Surprisingly I had a whale of a time doing Undeclared. I wouldn’t want to do another American TV show right away because contractually it’s a huge obligation. You have to sign for seven years, which is too much. I enjoy the freedom I have to do films right now.”

So he wasn’t disappointed when it was canceled?

“I was disappointed because those guys I did the show with were the first group of friends I had in L.A., and they remain my best friends. I even did some writing on the show; in fact, we improvised seventy percent of it. So there were a lot of great things about it, but at the end of the day it was hard work. We did an episode every four and a half days which doesn’t allow you to do your best work. ”

How did he get the role in Nicholas Nickleby?

“I get sent a lot of scripts, maybe twenty a month of which only one will interest me. I thought this one was great. It was at the end of the casting process, and they still hadn’t found Nicholas, so the director asked me to fly to New York. I was in L.A. at the time. I paid for my own ticket and came here. Usually when you audition, you’re given twenty minutes to do the scene. You do it a couple of times. It’s a rather cold, sterile situation. But this was different. Doug(las McGrath) allocated two and a half hours for me. We talked about the scene, the script, about everything. We got to know each other, and then he brought in the producers, the casting directors, other people to help him make the decision. I thought it wonderful that he took the whole process so seriously.  After that, they offered it to someone else, and thankfully he declined. It came back to me again, and a week later I got the offer, and the next week I was in London.”

Does it scare him that he might be seduced by the trappings of Hollywood?

“No, because I stay away from that. I’ve lived there for four years, and I’ve been out night-clubbing maybe three times. I’ve been to four premieres. I just don’t get involved in any of that. I do my job, and I go home. I have dinner parties with my friends. I go to the beach, walk in the mountains.” 

Jokingly he adds, “I’m not Colin Farrell even though he makes his home in Ireland. I know him well enough to say that although he’d still have a pop at me the next time I see him.”

Then he continues, “I don’t indulge in it at all. Of course I have to jump through hoops to get work, kiss up to casting directors, but that’s my job, and it’s a great job.” 

Because he first gained attention for Queer as Folk, he gets a lot of attention from gay men. Does it bother him?

“Why should it? 

Does he enjoy it?

“I don’t not enjoy it. I mean, I get more attention from men than I do from women. I wish it were the reverse, but (jokingly he adds) it’s just a cross I have to bear.”

Was it easy affecting an upper-class accent and aristocratic bearing for Nickleby after being in America for four years?

“I do have a mid-Atlantic accent now, and even when I was in England I had a dirty accent, a very regional muddy thing. So I was never as well spoken as Nicholas and I’m ashamed to say I had to work with a dialect coach in England.”

And his bearing?

“That’s a sore point. Doug was always busting my balls about my posture. He was obsessed with the idea that I walk like a cowboy. Every time I walked into a scene he claimed I looked as if I was going through saloon doors, eager for a brawl. We’d watch playbacks on the set; so that wasn’t much fun, and then at the wrap party, he gave me a book of cowboy poses!”

So is he thinking of taking drama lessons now?

“I don’t do any of that. I won’t take any lessons. But that doesn’t mean I’m not serious. I think about it 24/7. For instance on Cold mountain, I play a very athletic man who does a back flip off a fence in one scene. The director intended to use a stunt double, but I thought, I’ve got seven weeks off in L.A. — they were shooting in South Carolina and I wasn’t involved —  why not pay for my own gymnastics classes and learn to do it, and we did it in one shot. It was amazing, but that’s my job, to learn how to do back flips”

But seriously he adds, “I’ve been given an opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do my whole life. And I’m not going to let it slip me by.”

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