Heir to the crownCharlie Hunnam is more scholar than warrior, blending über-masculinity with introverted fragility. This is no coincidence: Few other action heroes have dug so deeply into their soul. We caught up with the King Arthur: Legend of the Sword star.
THE RED BULLETIN: Charlie, you play King Arthur in the new film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. What exactly does it take to become king?
CHARLIE HUNNAM: In Arthur’s case, he comes from nothing and is suddenly presented with a destiny he never intended for himself. He’s terrified of this responsibility, because no external challenge can prepare you for that.
What is the challenge?
You have to conquer the demons within to be strong enough. While I was playing Arthur, I thought an enormous amount about Conor McGregor, the reigning lightweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. His attitude is: “There is no opponent. I am fighting myself in the octagon. It’s only me and my own fears and the execution of my own ability that is going to win or lose a fight for me.”
Even though you’re neither king nor champion, do you have inner demons to conquer?
Yeah. When you get to your mid-30s, you realize that, for better or worse, you’re a product of the social and environmental influences you were exposed to as a child. So over the last four or five years I’ve been digging deep, trying to identify what’s helpful and good and healthy and what are just hangovers from disappointments or traumas I experienced in my childhood.
Are you doing this by yourself or do you have your own personal Merlin to help you?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had several mentors, one of them being Guy Ritchie. He turned me on to a book by Napoleon Hill, titled Outwitting the Devil: The Secret to Freedom and Success. It’s a 350-page interview between the writer and the devil. What you realize is that the devil represents our own struggle with ourselves. You have to break down your innermost fears into digestible portions, then you can understand and overcome them. I must admit it’s not a particularly fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it’s incredibly valuable in the long run.
What kind of traumas have you suffered from?
As a kid, I got picked on. I got into a lot of fights, losing some and getting severely beaten a few times. When that happens to you, you just feel like, “I’m going to do everything in my power to never be in a situation like this again.” Hence you go out and learn how to fight.
Sounds like a reasonable reaction …
I still do martial arts training and I’m eager to never let that happen again. But then I developed this tendency to carry [that belligerence] into every room. I wanted people to know, “Look, if you’re going to fuck with me, it’s going to go badly for you.” But then you realize you’ve become a slave to the thing you’re afraid of. In a lot of ways, I started channeling my father.
A father who, according to interviews with you, was something of a hard man in your hometown of Newcastle.
He was a formidable guy, and when I was younger I was actively playing the role of my father, especially in my film work. A lot of people who have come into contact with violence and felt victimized in their childhood will grow into a person who perpetuates that cycle and themselves become a bully. What I did was play a lot of really hard characters. I felt that I exorcized those fears by being a macho dude on screen. But that also bled into my perception of myself in real life — it’s not that I was a bully, but I identified with having the respect of the men in any circle I was a part of. Now I realize that’s just a bunch of nonsense, because I know who I really am.
What’s the best technique for getting to know oneself?
First of all, you have to be aware of the social and economic responsibility that we all get weighed down with. It can often prevent us from allowing ourselves to come forth with our essence and intentions. Look back at your childhood and think, “What were my intentions in life? What were my hopes and dreams?”
But aren’t those childhood aspirations, well, childish?
Fuck it. What you want from life is the right to pursue it as a living human being. Unfortunately, too often people get discouraged or caught up in what is expected of them and forget what they really want. I’m an enormous fan of Joseph Campbell, the legendary American mythologist. He spent his entire life ultimately trying to understand the meaning of our existence and the human journey. A short time before his death, he gave a couple of wonderful TV interviews in which he tried to get everything off his chest. His motto was: “Follow your bliss.” He believed that the one thing you can do for yourself, as difficult as it is, is just carve out an hour a day where you don’t do anything you have to do. Forget your bills, forget your work, forget your kids. Spend an hour living inside your own mind and body and bring forth that intention. You can write a poem, you can go for a walk or listen to some music, but do something for yourself every day. You might initially find that nothing happens in that hour. But if you stay dedicated to it, after enough time your true self will start coming forth.
Now that you’ve found your true self, what’s next?
As a kid, I spent an enormous amount of time reading the American philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau. He wrote: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” If you just throw yourself wholeheartedly into your pursuits and the desire to manifest your intention in life, the universe will conspire to help you.
From your lips to God’s ears …
My life is the best example. I completely fucked up my education, because I was obsessed with becoming a member of the filmmaking community. Initially my interest was in becoming a writer and director, and then that evolved into being more interested in acting. I left school with very poor grades and no prospects, and I enrolled in a film course. I began to apply myself in a way I never had in my life before. I started writing letters to acting agents all over the country and really campaigning to get some momentum going in this field of acting. And at the end of a really, really focused year of trying to manifest this perception of what I wanted my future to be, things started to happen on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve?
Yeah. I always left my Christmas shopping until 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. I was in the pub at 11 a.m., feeling pretty jolly by about 2 p.m., and then I thought, “Oh, time to go Christmas shopping.” So I went to a shoe store to buy some trainers for my brother. I was dancing and clowning around with a pal of mine when I saw a lady looking at me. I blew her a kiss and she came over and talked to me. It turned out she was the production manager for [U.K. children’s TV series] Byker Grove, which was the only show shot in the town where I lived [Newcastle]. She said, “You’re great. Have you ever thought about acting?” I did my whole spiel: “That’s all I’ve ever thought about.” She gave me three episodes on the show [in 1998]. Since I was a pretty savvy 17-year-old, I went to this one acting agency I wanted to be represented by. I said, “I’ve written you a bunch of letters. You’ve not responded. I’ve gone out and gotten myself a job. You have no real claim to the commission. But I’ll let you have a commission if you agree to represent me.” They agreed and sent me out to auditions. The first audition they sent me out for was [U.K. TV drama] Queer As Folk. I got the role and …
You met with a success unexpected in common hours?
Exactly. It was similar to King Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone. Which was followed by a period of prolonged failure. But now I’m on another wave of success, I hope.
And the ultimate goal of the quest?
To get closer to my truth.