BostonHerald.com — Filmed with a hefty solidity that befits an epic tale of survival and escape, the new PAPILLON (BUTTERFLY) starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek is an engrossing adventure story, set in the 1920s French colony of Guiana and adapted from the bestselling memoirs of Devil’s Island prisoner and escapee Henri Charriere. A 1973 version of the story with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman at the height of their stardom was a massive success. Hunnam put himself thru personal hell, losing 40 pounds to better convey Charriere’s ordeal in solitary confinement — where he spent 8 days in silence. The British actor remains best known probably for the SONS OF ANARCHY series. Thoughtful, perceptive about the business and the art of what he does, Hunnam, on the phone from LA’s Four Seasons Hotel, is also able to view Hollywood’s premature aging process with a sense of humor.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about why you think now is an ideal time for PAPILLON to come back?
Charlie Hunnam: I don’t know if there is necessarily an ideal time specifically, or if it was about it being an ideal time to tackle this material again. I think there was just a creative aspiration from the filmmaker to tell the story again. That’s really I think the key ingredient to making something interesting, is just having a director with a really clear vision who is excited and passionate about telling the story, and then assembles his team of like-minded people.
One of the things that we had discussed a little bit that makes it a little bit relevant to this time is wanting to explore the modern state of the American prison system and how it’s all been privatized and monetized over the last 20 years. Obviously French Guiana was, although not a privatized prison system, they had specifically sent those people out there to create an infrastructure in French Guiana to be able to make that place desirable for mass migration and immigration to that part of the world from mainland France. We thought that was something interesting that made it particularly culturally relevant right now, at least to an American audience.
Q: It’s slave labor, basically, right?
CH: Yeah, exactly. It’s slave labor.
Q: The workers have no choice. They’re sent there and they’re building this infrastructure without getting paid.
CH: Yeah, and they needed an enormous workforce in order to achieve the plan that they had and the timeframe that they had set out. So just like the privatization and the building of these massive prisons, there’s a direct correlation in America to a big prison being built in an area and then just this clampdown on all crime in a hyper-vigilant way, in order to satisfy the demand of the cost of that prison to be run. Sort of the same thing was happening in France. They needed more workers than they had available through this avenue of enrollment, if you’d say, and got very, very fast and loose with giving out large sentences that would qualify for the mandate of what it would take to send these prisoners out to French Guiana. There’s definitely some similarities between those systems.
Q: How would you say specifically this film is different from the PAPILLON that Franklin J. Schaffner made in what was it, 1973?
CH: Again, I look at filmmaking acutely as a director’s medium. So the biggest single difference for me is a difference in sensibility of the filmmakers. Michael [Noer from Denmark] has a very modern sensibility. He comes from a documentary background and he has that hyper-real approach to filmmaking. His sensibility is very, very grounded and sort of true-life based. I think that’s the most singular difference for me. When I spoke to Michael Noer, I came into this project as a big fan of his, and that was the thing that got me most excited about the idea of working with him was the way he was talking about tackling the process. It was very free form. With no rehearsal. Just trying to create an environment that feels as authentic as possible. Obviously it’s always a challenge with projects like PAPILLON just to figure out how to at least synthesize or approximate the experience that these men went through in a safe way that would inform us at least a little bit. It’s always going to be incredibly superficial compared to obviously what these men had to endure in reality. But the few things that we had discussed in terms of his process approach were quite exciting and got me really excited about working with him.
Q: That’s amazing. I had no idea that he was somebody who liked to say, “O.k. guys, let’s shoot and see what we come up with now”, rather than painstaking rehearsals.
CH: I think he went into his first couple of feature films with no script at all. He’s kind of like Mike Leigh in that way. When he did his film NORTHWEST, which for me is his best film (at least maybe prior to this one), he had this idea of a story about two brothers in Copenhagen that had aspirations to create a little criminal empire. He hired two brothers from the neighborhood that they were shooting in, and shot in their house and hired their mom to play their mom. That was definitely his approach. Now he had to broaden it a little bit for this, because it was a much, much bigger scope and there’s a certain responsibility when you get entrusted with a much bigger budget like that, where the process can’t be quite as free form and fluid as you can be when you don’t have to answer to anybody. But he still applies as much as that sort of renegade spirit as he could.
Q: Do you feel you accessed more information about Henri Charriere, who wrote his memoirs in two books, than you could put in this movie?
CH: The book that I referenced and kept going back to over and over was actually neither of the Henri Charriere PAPILLON books. I was much more interested in a book called THE DRY GUILLOTINE by Rene Belbenoit, which is an amazing account of another Henri man who was in the French Guiana prison system. He was a journalist, so he had a much more analytical and journalistic approach to documenting his time and so for us to really understand — I mean PAPILLON is a wonderful narrative and beautifully written and really fun to read, but it’s an action adventure. THE DRY GUILLOTINE is a much more academic piece. Within that, you get a much more visceral experience through his writing of what it must have been like to be in French Guiana. That to me was the heat of it, just to try to create some sense of transportation into this environment. That’s I think what I got so excited about working with Michael Noer on this, because for him, it was all about trying to create an environment and trying to create an experience that would feel quite visceral for the audience.
Q: I know it’s hard, but I talked to you last year for KING ARTHUR and that movie landed with a thud, basically.
CH: Yeah. I noticed.
Q: How do you recover from something like that? Things had been so good and then there was this big speed bump in the road, you might say.
CH: Yeah. I mean it’s inevitable. I’ve certainly had to endure more failure in my career than I’ve enjoyed success. One develops something of a thick skin. Ultimately to me, I feel incredibly fortunate to do what I love, which is making films. But I’m a film process orientated guy. But the time a film is actually coming out, I really feel very, very little identification or I really don’t have much of a stake in it anymore. To me the process is sacred and beautiful and where I spend all of my energy is in actually exploring the idea and trying to find some truth in it and enjoy the process of actually making films. Through the editing and all of the press and stuff there becomes a big distance for me between it. So I’m just a particularly results-orientated person. When something comes out and everybody hates it and it does no business, I mean it’s certainly a bummer, but it really actually doesn’t have that great of an affect. The only real affect that I had in that situation was, I’d had to do so much press that I’d been on the road for six weeks. I was sort of immersed in the experience of trying to sell that film. That certainly builds up a sort of expectation for when it will come out to see what it does. But it’s a funny thing. It’s a hard thing really to explain, but I don’t feel a deep connection with an end result of a film. I don’t watch films once they’re finished, actually. I just am 99% focused on the process of actually making the film.
Q: Usually when a film fails like that, a big budget studio film, the director, in this case Guy Ritchie, would be the one who’s held responsible. I’ve heard about people going to ‘director’s jail,’ that they can’t get hired for movies after having a flop or two flops. I wonder if it is the same for the stars, the leading men of these projects. Did you feel there was a chill?
CH: I mean, I’m doing five movies this year, so I haven’t really experienced that.
Q: So it had no affect.
CH: It certainly doesn’t help.! I mean, obviously. It’s business. Like anything else, you lose a company an enormous amount of money, then it only diminishes people’s excitement about potentially hiring you again. But ultimately that’s mitigated in our business, because it’s also a creative business. Still a business, but the creative element and one would hope after 20 or 30 years that a body of work, the sum total of a body of work is greater than its individual parts. Certainly, like I said, it was not particularly helpful, but it also certainly didn’t feel like the end of my career or anything like that.
Q: What do you have coming up now, of your five movies?
CH: I just did a film with J.C. Chandor [TRIPLE FRONTIER with Ben Affleck], who’s a really wonderful director. Then I just wrapped a movie with Justin Kurzel [THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG], which was a real career highlight for me because he’s one of my favorite directors. Tomorrow I’m going to Boston to start shooting another film and then …
Q: Is that the Mark Wahlberg/Peter Berg movie?
CH: No. Nothing to do with Peter Berg.
Q: Is it a period film in Boston? You’re talking to The Boston Herald here.
CH: No, it’s not a period film. We’re actually not shooting in Boston. That’s where I’m flying into. We’re shooting in a place called Fall River, which I’m sure you know. It’s about an hour outside of Boston. It’s a contemporary film.
Q: Is it a drama? Do you play somebody like a wrongly accused man or a cop?
CH: No. Why? Are they the quintessential Boston narratives?
Q: I don’t know, but they seem to have a lot of gangster movies out of there. Law men, both crooked and noble.
CH: No, there’s certainly a little bit of a tough guy element to the film, but it’s more based in the world of boxing. It’s like a fighting film.
Q: You’re really in your prime, at this point. You look terrific in PAPILLON. Do you have a different approach for each role in terms of the physicality, the way you train or the way you want to look?
CH: It’s mainly about how I want to feel, but I mean, yeah. Whatever I think is required. I had to lose a lot of weight for PAPILLON. I didn’t have to but I thought it was important. Seeing as Michael had made the decision that he was going to try to shoot the film as sequentially as possible, I thought it lent itself to a nice opportunity to lose some weight on camera, through the journey of the film. I did that twice in a row, which was unfortunate, ’cause I did that on THE LOST CITY OF Z too, and not that it really shows an enormous amount on camera, but I actually lost 40 pounds through the course of shooting THE LOST CITY OF Z and I think I did very close to losing 40 pounds again through the course of this film. So whatever is required. The last film that I did, with the J. C. Chandor film that I did, I had to put on a lot of weight because I was playing a soldier and it was appropriate that I be a little bigger. Then the last two films, both me and the directors decided that it would be better for me to have a smaller frame and so I immediately lost that weight again. I’m a little bit fatigued with the constant fluctuation of weight, but it’s just part of the job.
It’s never really about how one looks, though. It’s about a general sense of what a shape feels like and looks like and what it says in film language. But it’s also for me personally just how I feel.
Q: I just think losing 40 pounds over the course of PAPILLON means that you’re not eating a lot and yet you’re working these 12, 14 hour days in what looks like incredible heat and humidity. How do you keep up your strength?
CH: I mean mental strength. Yeah, it’s definitely fatiguing. I was very, very, very tired by the end of PAPILLON. I really didn’t feel very well at all. I mean we shot the solitary confinement stuff last and I didn’t eat anything at all for those five days. I had very, very little water and didn’t speak to anyone. So that felt a bit mad by the end of it. But yeah, I felt very weak by the end of the shoot.
Q: For this Boston movie with boxing in it, are you actually boxing? Have you been taking boxing lessons for it?
CH: No. It’s funny. I’m transitioning. I’m at a certain age where I don’t get hired to play the fighter anymore. I get hired to play the coach. So no. I’ve been training a little bit, but it’s required a different type of work for me. It’s been much more research orientated, the work I’ve been doing for this film.
Q: You’re only 38, right?
Q: It guess they want somebody 21 or 22 for the boxer, then?
CH: Yeah, of course. 38 is the age where you start playing the boxer’s dad. It’s a f–king sobering moment in a man’s life when a guy like Tom Holland [SPIDEY!] is all of a sudden playing your son. You realize, you can’t keep on moisturizing and eating avocados, but at a certain point, you’re going to get those roles to play the father and not the young hero anymore.
Q: Well, the camera I guess doesn’t lie and it’s merciless. I hope next time we can do this in person, again.
CH: Yeah, that would be lovely.