Charlie Hunnam & Djimon Hounsou on ‘King Arthur’s Epic Action and Guy Ritchie’s Directorial Idiosyncrasies

How did you come to work together?

DJIMON HOUNSOU: The call came in, and my agent said, “Charlie Hunnam,” “The guy from the biker show?” “Yeah,” my agents said. “He’s nice. He’s really cool. You’ll like him!” That was it. I came and met Charlie and it was a great rapport. Some people you just meet and have an affinity for. [There’s] no ego. It was a nice rapport.

CHARLIE HUNNAM: We did something strange and wonderful. I didn’t think it was gonna work at all, but it did. Guy had this wacky idea that he wanted to take an afternoon before we started working and shoot the whole film in four hours on two or three cameras and in a room all in black. We shot the whole film, and that’s where we met. That’s where most of the cast met. It was a baptism of fire. It was such a high-energy, sort of anxiety-inducing experience.

HOUNSOU: I landed the night before and I got here and met quickly for wardrobe, and I [heard] we had a video shoot the next morning. So I was highly stressed to say the least.

HUNNAM: But we came down really well right away. As soon as I came up and shook your hand I was like, “Ah, this motherfucker’s cool.” [Laughs.]

We’ve seen many versions of the King Arthur story. This one has a contemporary sensibility. Can you talk about what we’ll be seeing that we haven’t seen before?

HOUNSOU: The one obvious thing that you’ll see more of in this story is that it’s really about the Knights of the Round Table. How all of those knights came to make the king who he is.

HUNNAM: : As you would imagine, it’s the origin story. It’s the sort of Arthur origin story, of his rise to the throne. So it’s a reinvention certainly of the periods between him being estranged from his family and reuniting with his destiny, with sort of the royal lineage. It’s a very different sort of rendering. Much grimmer and grittier, and in a certain way probably much more modern. The camaraderie feels sort of modern and easily recognizable as boys’ banter, the sort of stuff Guy does very well. But I feel like the world and the pace of the whole thing feels very period. I don’t think it feels like an uber modern rendering of it.

Was it intimidating to take on a role that has such a history to it?

HUNNAM: No, if you think about that stuff you’ll completely get head-fucked. So I just don’t think about that at all. I just try to get to know the character on my own terms. Guy and I discussed a great deal who he was and what sort of version we found, between the two of us, most exciting. But I’m very familiar with Arthurian legend. In fact, my girlfriend is called Morgana, and one of my favorite films, that actually led me to want to become an actor, was Excalibur. I watched Excalibur ad nauseum as a child. So I’m very familiar with the world. But I just decided not to go back. I’d read The Once and Future King years ago, and I’ve always loved this world. But I decided to just try to forget everything I’d ever seen, and just come in with it fresh, and not feel that pressure of having to do justice to this beloved story. It just felt like it was much healthier and more fun and more exciting and more free just to approach it as though it was a completely original story and a completely original character; and not feel beholden to any of the shit you’d seen before, you know?

Can you elaborate on Guy shooting the whole film in four hours on a stage?

HUNNAM: I think there were several elements as to why it was useful to him. First and foremost it was sort of like a table read, but where he could actually see everything edited. Sort of like an elevated table read. Just to see the pace and the tone and a little bit of the dynamics between the characters. So that was the pre-production benefit of it. As we’ve gone on and they’ve been assembling different sequences that we’ve been shooting, we’ve been able to fill in the gaps with that stuff. So from about halfway into the filming they’ve had the whole film sort of edited with those sections that we hadn’t shot yet filled in with that four-hour thing. Which has been really interesting and helpful to Guy. He’s been going back and rewatching the film quite a lot. I’m sure if you talk to him there would have been other benefits too. But they were the obvious big ones.

I presume that session was totally in the script?

HUNNAM: No, it actually wasn’t. It was more on script than the process of actually shooting the film has been. It’s very interesting. I mean, directing is always alchemy to a certain degree. There’s not a hard and fast way to do it. It’s a mystical, weird, wonderful process, and it’s so different. What’s exciting about being an actor and coming to work with different great directors is how different the process can be. It can be very difficult and challenging to begin with until you get into the zone, you know? Into the rhythm of someone’s process.

But Guy has a sort of inability to fully visualize or understand or even allow himself to get excited about a scene before we’re actually on the day, on the set, in costume doing it. So it’s all just sort of framework. So even in that four-hour get-down that we did, he would come in and be like, “That’s shit. That dynamic’s not working. Let’s say this. You say that.” It’s a very freeing process. It sort of threw me a little bit for the first couple of weeks, because it’s very dramatic. We’ll sometimes go to the opposite end of the spectrum from what was on the page. But it’s really freeing, you know? For me, after working in TV for so long, where it’s so rigid, it was sort of terrifying to begin with. But I found it really freeing and fun and exciting. There’s tons and tons of room for us to come in and add our own shit. It’s very collaborative in that way.

We were watching you on the monitor doing push-ups, running in place, and punching the air between takes. What’s that about?

HUNNAM: Well, this comes at the end of a very long, lone-survivor-esque/survival sequence, where we’re getting chased and smashed and falling off of buildings. People are getting fucking mauled and punched in the face. I split my eyebrow open while we were doing this sequence. So I feel like anything that reduces the necessity to act… So if you have to be out of breath, just make yourself out of breath. Then that’s one less thing to worry about while the camera’s rolling. It’s as simple as that.

We live in this time when anti-heroes are all the rage. Are these guys proper heroes, good guys, or do they veer into the darkness?

HUNNAM: I think they’re real guys. They’re real men. They’re certainly not antiheroes, but they’re not squeaky clean heroes either. They’re not Superman. They’re of that world that Guy Ritchie plays in. Which is sort of men’s men, that are not afraid of a fight, but are more often than not gonna do the right thing.

Can you describe the relationship between your characters. We’ve heard Arthur’s lost his family and it looks like he’s creating a new family. In that sense, are your characters brothers?

HOUNSOU: My character waited twenty-five years to see the legitimate son appear again and inherit the throne. So the minute he hears somebody pulled the sword [from the stone] he immediately goes looking for him. Our collaboration starts from that point on.

HUNNAM: I’m sort of a fuck-up. Everybody’s been waiting for the true king to emerge. And when he emerges he’s somewhat selfish and a bit coarse and a bit less sophisticated than this lot was hoping he would be. But Djimon’s character, Bedivere… [To Hounsou] I just realized we never actually make the connection between you and my father, we should talk about that. We never articulate that, which would be a really interesting beat. He’s loyal to my father and had a great relationship with my father. Then it all goes wrong in the way that it does in the legend — his son disappears, and they’ve been sort of waiting and hoping for the true king to materialize.

We should give you a few more questions since we’ve horribly answered the questions so far. [Laughs.] We’re a little tired. We’ve been working six-day weeks and we’ve been doing this action sequence all week. So you’re probably catching us at our least articulate right now.

How long does a sequence like this take?

HUNNAM: All in all, I think we have eight shooting days to do the whole thing. But right now we’ve gotten to the part of the film… It’s the final month, and because of the timing and logistics of getting all of these sets built, it’s just sort of fallen in this way that the end of the shoot is very action heavy. So I have now three weeks of solid action every day. There’s only one dialogue scene as scripted right now, but this whole sequence didn’t have any dialogue scripted in it. I’m sure there will be some words to be said, but as of now it’s looking like three solid weeks of action. It’s good though. We’re getting a bit old for all this action, aren’t we? [Laughs.] I speak for myself.

HOUNSOU: Yeah, speak for yourself. [Laughs.]

What was the trickiest action scene for each of you? Did it occur when you cut your eyebrow?

HUNNAM: No, there’s been some very, very tricky pieces because of the process. There’s a bit of different-speed stuff going on, slow motion and real time happening simultaneously on screen. Which I don’t know has really been done before, certainly not the way we’re doing it or the way that Guy’s doing it. So those sequences have to be shot separately and laid over each other. So I had a lot of sequences where there was very intricate swordplay. But I was fighting imaginary foes that couldn’t be anybody because I was moving at a different speed. So that was a very tricky sequence to shoot — fighting, being in the right position, and having the right placement to fight eight or nine people in a row when there was nobody there. So that was a real challenge.

Was Pacific Rim good training for imagining giant foes that aren’t there?

HUNNAM: Uh, yup. I suppose it was. [Laughs.] Yeah. We were hyperaware of the CG element of Pac Rim every day. That was something that needed to be negotiated around. This is much more story and character-driven than Pac Rim. This is really kind of a straight, grand drama that has, as Guy puts it, “a liberal sprinkling of fuck dust over the top.” It’s got all of that grand spectacle, but at the heart of it, and our experience of it every day, has been straight character-driven drama. So we haven’t felt a huge amount of that. In fight sequences, because of the process of trying to achieve that effect, there’s been occasions of it.

But on Pac Rim we were just on an empty stage the whole entire time surrounded by green. If you look at these sets, as much as possible we’ll do in real time, and there’s real stunts going on. I think there’s a creative texture to it, because you can do everything CG now. But fuck, why?! Why do that when you can do it for real, you know? Because I always think it’s gonna be better. I think the human brain is so sophisticated, and we live in reality and are pretty fucking hip to the way reality works. As great as CG can be, my mind doesn’t believe it. Anytime it goes out of the realm of what’s possible, my brain doesn’t believe it. No matter how fucking realistic it is.

Do you think having the physical sets not only helps your performance but actually changes the way you perform?

HOUNSOU: Oh, I’m sure. Yeah. There’s a greater element that helps you perform better. I mean, just like putting an outfit on. Just having this medieval style of clothing. It’s just gonna put you in a certain mood. I think all of that helps.

HUNNAM: Also, I think it informs your relationship with your surroundings if you actually have surroundings. [Laughs.] Especially in environments that you’re supposed to be familiar with, I always like to come in and walk around and get a bit familiar. So when there’s a lull, there’s some activity to be done, because you’re interacting with the environment as opposed to saying, “Can I stand here or is this a fucking robot?”

Thank you very much.

HUNNAM: Hopefully that was not the worst interview you’ve ever done. [Laughs.] Thanks, guys. Nice to meet you all.