Who is Charlie Hunnam?
There are two ways of asking this question. One, you might literally not know who Charlie Hunnam is, in which case, if he and Hollywood get their way, you should know the answer by the end of the month, since he’ll have just starred in two movies in wide release: Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z.
The other sense of the question is a little more complicated. Apart from a role in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, these two movies are Hunnam’s biggest parts since Sons of Anarchy wrapped up in 2014, and they hint at two interesting paths forward for the actor. In Z, Hunnam gives a nuanced and immersive performance for a visionary director that required him to spend months in the jungle, cut off from his the world and his loved ones. In King Arthur, he plays the lead in a studio tentpole, kicking ass and cracking wise, trying to appeal to audiences here and overseas as the kind of larger-than-life hero we’ve grown used to on the big screen. Both are legitimate careers for an actor in 2017. But can Hunnam do both? And if not, which direction should he take going forward?
For Ritchie, the answer’s simple. In King Arthur, which should not be confused with the Clive Owen–Antoine Fuqua version that came out in 2004, Hunnam gets two shirtless scenes before he has a line of dialogue. In one, the camera lingers on the muscles of his back with remarkable interest and intensity; it’s the kind of worshipful shot reserved for gigantic movie stars. In fact, apart from skyscraper-sized elephants, zoom lenses, and Jude Law’s face, the actor’s screen presence is the foundation of Ritchie’s film, the engine that makes the whole thing go.
Hunnam, of course, made his name with Sons of Anarchy, in which the English actor played an American biker for 92 episodes over seven years. In the era of prestige TV, that’s not a bad way to make your name, and it landed Hunnam at #69 on Vulture’s 2015 Most Valuable Stars list. But King Arthur is really his first attempt to capitalize on that show. And on paper, it looks good: While Ritchie’s last film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., underperformed at the box office, it’s developed a cult following since its release, and the director has a long track record of showing actors like Jason Statham and Robert Downey Jr. in their best light.
But the film also shows the dangers of movie stardom in the IP-heavy, tentpole world. This Arthur’s motivations are stock stuff, of the unwilling-hero, dead-parents variety; instead of getting to drive the story forward, he mostly responds to the provocations of Law’s villain and the encouragement of the rebels who adopt him. And there’s a strange, optimistic assumption that audiences know and love the character of Arthur and the world he inhabits in the same way that we’re familiar with, say, Captain America or Batman. If you don’t have a solid grounding in Britannic myth, you might find yourself wondering what the hell’s going on.
As a result of these issues, Hunnam doesn’t have much to do. He gets to mean-mug his way through some CGI-heavy fight scenes, and he handles the medieval version of Ritchie’s trademark patter with aplomb, but he never really interacts with any other characters. If Hunnam manages to rise above the material in any way, it’s in his rangy physicality, which resembles a boxer’s more than the linebacker-size of American tastes, and his wit, which is on display even underneath the heavy blockbuster-with-a-capital-B trappings.
All of this is to say that Hunnam doesn’t deserve the blame for King Arthur’s almost certain bombing, which, considering its $175 million price tag, was likely even before it started tracking for a $25 million opening. (For comparison, even The Legend of Tarzan managed $38.5 million last year.) I can’t think of an already-minted A-lister who would’ve fared better in the role; just last year, Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed and Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven proved there are some movies even a star’s charm can’t save. For Hunnam to attain the kind of career those men enjoy, he’ll need to find a role that expands his appeal to women, a demographic that, even in the best case scenario for King Arthur, he still won’t have quite reached. Had it turned out better, Crimson Peak might’ve helped with that; his co-star in that film, Tom Hiddleston, is an interesting example of an actor whose path Hunnam could emulate if he found the right Loki-style part. And who knows what would have happened to Hunnam’s career had he stayed in the part of Christian Grey in 50 Shades instead of handing it over to Jamie Dornan.
Even as Arthur looks to skid, however, Hunnam just made huge strides, but in a very different type of movie. The Lost City of Z is one of the year’s best films, and it’s in no small part thanks to Hunnam’s revelatory portrayal of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer whose obsession with a city he believes exists deep within the heart of the Amazonian jungles eventually leads him to his doom. In Z, Hunnam takes on the role of a buttoned-up aristocrat trying to make up for the shame brought to his family by his father; at the same time, he gradually neglects, and then condemns, his own family. Hunnam nails both Fawcett’s mannered stoicism and his strange, visionary charisma. It’s a subtle role, and in the hands of too showy or ostentatious an actor, it could’ve become confused or absurd, but Hunnam keeps the character grounded as he slides further and further off the grid.
Taken together, Z and King Arthur present an interesting dilemma. It’s easy to watch Hunnam in Z and see a versatile actor with leading-man abilities, and it’s easy to watch him in King Arthur and wonder what the most natural fit for him would be in the mainstream studio circuit. It’s a problem that many actors face now. Some, like Jake Gyllenhaal, have made their home in prestige and independent film after flirtations with blockbuster stardom; some, like Robert Pattinson and Daniel Radcliffe, have done the same after making their careers in that sphere; and others, like Fassbender, Hiddleston, and Chris Pine, who turned in a hugely impressive performance in last year’s Hell or High Water, are trying to find that balance.
When I talked to Hunnam shortly before the release of Z, he seemed like he’d put a great deal of thought into the kind of performer he hoped to be. When I asked what fellow actor’s career he’d like to have, he knew his answer immediately.
“I am by no means comparing myself to him, but I take great inspiration from Daniel Day-Lewis, as every actor does. I’ve really studied his career: There was a time in my life where I actually sat down and watched every one of his films in chronological order over the course of a week,” Hunnam said, vaping. “I’ve really studied his career, and been so impressed consistently with his integrity — how singular he is in being a pure actor, and not falling into any of the trappings of celebrity or fame or anything like that.”
“It’s funny: I was both intimidated and overjoyed at the opportunity to play [Percy Fawcett],” he continued. “But as I read the script for the first time, I found myself thinking, Well, I’m glad that I’ve been given this opportunity, but they probably should’ve offered this to Daniel Day-Lewis.”
Were Day-Lewis to come of age now, even he would be debating whether to headline blockbusters. With Z, Hunnam proved that he had chops; now, it’s up to Hollywood to figure out how to put him to good use.