Collider.com — From director Michael Noer and based on the international best-selling autobiographical books from Henri Charrière, the prison drama Papillon follows the epic and harrowing tale of a safecracker from the Parisian underworld, known as Papillon (Charlie Hunnam, in a compelling stand-out performance), who is framed for murder and condemned to life in prison on Devil’s Island. Unbreakably determined to regain his freedom by escaping, Papillon forms an unlikely bond with convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek, in an equally compelling performance), who agrees to finance what will inevitably be a harrowing escape, in exchange for his own protection.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actor Charlie Hunnam, who talked about partnering with Michael Noer and Rami Malek to tell this story, why he initially turned this role down, how he’s glad that he finally decided to go all in, and the part he played in getting Tommy Flanagan (Sons of Anarchy) into the film. He also talked about which of his own movies he was able to watch and enjoy, after shooting it, wanting to become more proactive by reaching out to directors that he’d like to work with, not succumbing to the gravitational pull to the culture of Hollywood, the Ned Kelly movie he recently shot with director Justin Kurzel, why it’s been such a long journey to getting some of his own material into production, and signing on to do Jungleland with director Max Winkler.
Collider: Really tremendous work in this! This seems like one of those projects where you really have to go all in, and there’s just no half-way.
CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah, I think that’s right. Even just the logistics of making this film required such a consistent commitment. We shot six-day weeks, and long hours. Michael and I, and Rami [Malek], too, worked very, very closely on shaping the material, so we would get together on our seventh day, for hours and hours, and figure out what we were going to do, the following week. That required a lot of rewriting, and stuff like that. It was like a fever dream experience. We just literally did nothing but work and sleep, for about ten weeks, but I had great partners. I really just came to really love Rami and Michael, so it was pretty great to have that experience with them.
With everything you went through to do this, is it something where you can look back and go, “I’m really glad I had that experience,” or do you go, “What on Earth was I thinking?”
HUNNAM: No, I’m really glad. To me, it’s just all about the process, about how I spend my time, and if I feel nourished, day-to-day. I was born a bit of an existential fuck, so I think, as we all do, that there’s an enormous amount of suffering involved in the human experience. You’ve got to figure out a way to balance the scale. When I’m working on something that I’m really excited and passionate about, I just feel deeply fulfilled. It’s why I don’t ever really like to watch a film after. I like the experience to exist in a pure way, in my mind. Watching a film breaks that spell because I look at it from the outside, as opposed to having the experience of it from the inside.
Is there anything of yours that you’ve watched, where you’ve enjoyed the experience of watching something you were in?
HUNNAM: Only ever once, and that was The Lost City of Z. I really enjoyed that. I watched it twice, [which was a mistake]. I got greedy. I had such a lovely time when I watched it the first time, and then I watched it the second time, and it was the wrong environment. I know that this is a discussed phenomenon, but I had never experienced it as acutely, how different a film can play in different environments with different audiences. It’s extraordinary. My first time seeing it, I watched it in an environment, where it was a very small group of filmmakers, and I really, really, really loved it. I got transported, and I really forgot about myself. I was just in the film. And then, I watched it again in England at a premiere at the Natural History Museum with the upper class, snobby elite of London society, and it was just an excruciating experience. It was so weird.
I know that you hesitated before signing on for this. What caused that hesitation, and what got you past that hesitation?
HUNNAM: It’s funny, it was multi-dimensional, my hesitation. There’s a long process to get a film across the line, to actually get it into production. More and more, I’ve found that since I’ve become an element that can help the financing, I see scripts in an earlier stage, and it’s always a crap shoot whether the work is going to actually be done because it’s an inexact science. There were some fundamental problems with the script, so I had misgivings about being able to fix it. That was compounded by the fact that we were putting ourselves up in a very precarious situation, remaking such a beloved film. Once a film is made, it’s just the nature of our culture that the book is irrelevant, to a certain degree. The reality lives much more weighted towards the film. You can make the very compelling argument that this isn’t a remake, he was a real man, and this is an independent adaptation of the source material, but the world is just not going to view it that way. The tricky thing for me was that I just really loved Michael [Noer]’s work, but I did initially turn it down, and another actor that I really respect took the role. It was one of the few times where I’ve really regretted turning something down. And then, it didn’t work out with that actor, and they came back to me and I ended up finding a path into it.
Do you think you would have gone to see the movie, if that other actor had stayed in it and you hadn’t done it?
HUNNAM: Yeah, I think I probably would have. I am genuinely an enormous fan of Michael’s, predating this. It’s been four or five years of very closely watching what he was doing, since his debut film came out and I saw it in the theater in London. So, yeah, I probably would have.
Had you reached out to Michael Noer, at all, to try to find something to do together, before this?
HUNNAM: No, I never had reached out. I had never been that proactive. When I worked with Guy Ritchie (on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), he said that it had made an enormous impact on him when actors had reached out to him before. It started a relationship that had then been creatively fruitful, so he had implored me to start doing that. I only got as far reaching out to the number one on my list. I reached out to Justin Kurzel, and we ended up having a cup of coffee and really, really liked each other. I just got back, a few days ago, from Australia, wrapping a film with him. So, I’ve got to do that more often, I guess.
What is that movie?
HUNNAM: It’s a story of Ned Kelly (The True History of the Kelly Gang). It’s too early to talk about, but I think Justin is extraordinary. Snowtown is a bonafide masterpiece of filmmaking. He’s extraordinary. And honestly, that film that I just wrapped is just the best experience I’ve ever had making a film. I have high hopes that we did something special. I’m a relatively small, but significant part of it.
It sounds like you’re doing work that really does matter and mean something to you.
HUNNAM: I’m trying to. The work has always mattered to me. The opportunity to work in things of substance either weren’t afforded to me, or I was succumbing to the gravitational pull to the culture of Hollywood. I was trying to do the work that I thought would make me viable, to be able to do the work that I wanted to do, and I realized that’s just a fucking fool’s path. Come rain or shine, you’ve got to just do the work that speaks to you. So, I’ve been really vigilant about that, turning down everything and am significantly poorer, as a consequence, but much more creatively fulfilled.
What was it that really woke you up to that? Did you notice that you were doing some things that you just didn’t want to be doing?
HUNNAM: I was never asleep to it. It just took me a few experiences of it to realize it just really wasn’t good for me, on a deep level. I want to spend my life doing this. This is literally my life. And so, the experience, day-to-day of making these things is the experience of my life. Finding myself in situations, in hotel rooms, in bigger films for six or seven weeks, desperately trying to seem sincere and feel some sincerity, talking about something that I really couldn’t give a shit about, is just soul destroying. After a couple of experiences of it, I just said, “I can’t ever find myself in this position again.”
Did that lead to you wanting to work on your own stuff, as a writer, producer and director, or is that something you always had the idea that you wanted to do?
HUNNAM: Yeah. I went to film school and left, after the first year, because I got an opportunity to start acting and thought I would learn more, as an actor on a set, than I had in a year of film school. And then, I continued pursuing that and got busy doing it. I had so much to learn, so I committed to being an actor, but the quiet aspiration in the back of my mind was always stirred to tell stories, myself. It just takes a lot of time to do that, and I haven’t been particularly good at that. I’ve been very good, in fits and bursts, between being an actor, to dedicate myself completely to that, but it just takes a long time to get those things going and a lot of consistency. I’d get some inertia built up, and then go away and do a film and lose it, and have to start again. I’ve had a very expensive experience at being a producer, so far. I certainly have spent a lot more money than I’ve made, but that’s okay.
How are the projects coming, that you’re working on? Do you have things that you’re writing, that you hope you could do something with soon?
HUNNAM: Yeah. I have a couple of projects, one of which I’ve done 90% of the work on. I’ve done three drafts, and I just need to do a final draft to polish it up. Then, hopefully, at the end of this year, I’ll send it out and find a new home for it. Where I made a bit of a mistake was I was so busy for several years, and I had a few projects that I developed that were really important to me, and I’d set them up at studios, but I just wasn’t able to carve out the time to write them myself, so I collaborated with other writers. That’s where I spent money. I had a couple of misstarts. I was doing this cartel film, and we hired a writer with the producer paying for them, but they wanted to go to Mexico. I had done a lot of research and ingratiated myself, at a very, very high level, with one of the Mexican cartels, through doing research, and he wanted to go and have that experience. We couldn’t tell the studio that we were doing that because they’d say, “We absolutely fucking forbid you to go to Mexico to meet with these people,” so I paid for it, myself. We took him down to Mexico and paid for a hotel and our flights, all out of my own pocket, and then the script just didn’t materialize in the way we had hoped. That was very tricky for me. It’s a weird culture, working with writers that are writers for hire. You realize that there are two levels with these guys. There are their passion projects, and then there are the projects that, no matter how valid a project is, everybody is overworked and there’s not enough time. It takes a lot of time to figure out a project and all of the angles. To be given ten weeks to write a script by an expected delivery time, the system is just not designed for success, in that way.How are the projects coming, that you’re working on? Do you have things that you’re writing, that you hope you could do something with soon?
Are you responsible for Tommy Flanagan being in Papillon?
HUNNAM: I think in part, yes. The idea was brought up to me, and then I got it over the line. I just wanted to work with Tommy, time and time again. I’ve always said the film that I want to write, which I haven’t written yet because it’s been a long incubation period, but it’s a project that I would love to do, there’s just been no money, is a tiny little love story, set in the north of England and I’ve always dreamt that Tommy would star in, if I ever got my act together to direct that film. That’s always been the dream. He’s definitely one of the tribe members of my little creative team.
Did you guys meet on Sons of Anarchy?
HUNNAM: No, we met before Sons. I did a film, years ago, called Green Street Hooligans, with Elijah Wood, and I convinced the director (Lexi Alexander) to hire him. He didn’t read the script, so I went to a bar, seven days in a row, where I knew he drank and had seen him once before, with the script. I went and had a few pints, every night, waiting for him to show up. I totally stalked him. I just have always really admired him and think he’s such an interesting actor. Once we actually met and became friends, it sealed our fate. He’s like my brother.
I can’t imagine what you had to put yourself through, physically and emotionally, for Papillon, but you did such tremendous work in the film that it really paid off. Was it even more challenging, having just done it prior, for The Lost City of Z?
HUNNAM: Yeah. It was literally consecutively, losing all that weight. I had just put a bunch of weight back on, after not being able to put weight on, for a long time. And now, I’m doing it again for this film that I’m about to go and do. It’s the third time, getting down to 140 pounds. I’m just never going to do it again. I’m almost 40 now. It’s just not fun to put my body through this type of trauma. I’m hungry all the time, but it’s okay.
What is the movie you’re doing next?
HUNNAM: It’s set in the fight scene, and it’s a film (called Jungleland) with Jack O’Connell and Max Winkler, who is Henry Winkler’s son, directing He made the movie Flower. This script that he wrote for this movie that we’re doing is really, really, really good.
He has an interesting point of view, as a filmmaker.
HUNNAM: Yeah, he does. I think he’s the real deal. He’s in his infancy, as a director, but I get the sense that he’s going to grow into something really significant. I believe in him. So, we’ll see.