GQ.com — It’s startling how often Charlie Hunnam’s character loses in his new movie, Jungleland. Hunnam’s breakthrough role was in Sons of Anarchy, where he played a charming rogue who was often two steps ahead of everyone else. Since then, Hunnam mostly hasn’t strayed far from Jax Teller types—some have been more heroic, like his leading man turn in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, and others more homicidal, like this year’s Guy Ritchie gangster-fest The Gentlemen. But he’s never been quite as desperate as he is here playing Stanley, a perennially struggling hustler who hides behind a veneer of optimism and bets his entire future on his boxing younger brother, Jack.
Jungleland chronicles the brothers’ cross-country journey to an underground boxing tournament and the tests their relationship faces on the way, with a few crime bosses (Jonathan Majors, John Cullum) thrown in for good measure. Ten years ago, Hunnam would have likely played the sensitive brother with fists of fury, but he says that expectation is exactly what drove him towards the hapless manager instead. Hunnam wants to push into a new phase of his career: He turned 40 in April, and that milestone in combination with quarantine has reoriented his actor’s goals and priorities, and as he talked about them, his excitement was palpable.
When you look at the logline and see ‘Charlie Hunnam boxing movie,’ the immediate expectation is that you’re throwing the punches, not playing a guy who gets knocked out by a civilian dad in a pizzeria. This role is really unlike any I’ve seen you in before. I’m used to you playing characters who are more in control.
Yeah. I mean, you reach a certain age—I’m 40 years old. You stop playing the boxer and you start playing the manager. It’s just the natural cycle of life. I think that there are rhythms in one’s life and career, and things in my late twenties and early thirties that I was working through, certain aspects of my personality that I was interested in exploring through work. And I think [you’re] right. Growing up feeling like I didn’t have a lot of control and —I was a sensitive guy in a really tough environment. And so that created a bit of trauma and a little bit of self-loathing and I wanted to explore that and work through it in some of the characters that I was playing. But, thankfully I’ve worked through that and those types of character are just not quite as interesting to me anymore.
So what interested you about Stanley?
The environment that we were living in at the time that [Jungleland] got offered to me, where there was a lot of emphasis being put on toxic masculinity, I thought that there was just something really beautiful to explore about the genesis of where that comes from, men’s inability to be vulnerable with each other or to express love. Really, this whole film is about these two guys who desperately love each other. And, that gets expressed in wrong, inelegant ways.
There were several different elements of it. First and foremost, it’s always just the quality of the writing. [Stanley is] a character that I hadn’t seen very much and I thought it really just felt fresh and exciting. And then, there was something really beautiful and tender about their relationship and the clear love that these two men had for each other. Obviously there’s a lovely, traditional love story between the Jessica Barden and Jack O’Connell characters. But to me when I read it, I felt like the most central love story was really between these two brothers.
And to go back to what we were saying: Maybe I’ve been wearing a mask a little bit in some of the characters that I’ve been playing in my twenties and early thirties and there was just something very tragic and vulnerable about this family that I was really attracted to. It felt like there was more opportunity to just be a little bit more vulnerable, a little bit more raw.
Vulnerability and toxic masculinity are definitely more prevalent in this movie, but I feel like a lot of your past roles, even the action stuff like Sons of Anarchy, always made time to engage with those things.
I’m a relatively sensitive guy and take storytelling very seriously. I’m always looking for the opportunity in my work to try to find some truth. And that is really where acting gets exciting. I mean, with Sons of Anarchy, that was a guy who, had he been born into a different environment, would have had the potential to be a doctor, a photographer or a writer. There was something sensitive and very present about him and his own emotional awareness.
To a certain degree you have these aspirations to imbue characters with certain traits. But the material dictates it. And so sometimes in a show like Sons, you have to fight against the tides to try to get those moments in. That’s not exactly true because Kurt [Sutter] is a sensitive guy too and he was looking for those moments. But, you have to make a character as well-rounded as possible, so that he feels like a human being, even in a heightened environment like Sons.
What was your mindset going into this new chapter of your life, as you turn 40? How are you making choices now?
Well, one of the main things that I’m doing in my career right now is transitioning much more into writing and producing, which has been an aspiration of mine for many years. And I’ve been trying to do that in a very concentrated way, in the last five years. But there’s only so many hours in the day. And I realized that with all of the good intentions, there was just a reality to the bandwidth that I have on any given day.
In terms of specifically the things I want to explore, it’s really, really varied. And it’s often sort of story-specific. But just generally I’m very, very excited about writing. I’ve spent these last six to eight months writing five hours a week. I wrote a screenplay and I wrote a television show, a six-part television show. And right now I’m in the middle of writing a miniseries.
I’m creating opportunities for myself to act within that, but it’s funny—you get on this trajectory and one gets known for one’s work and it’s very easy for people to just say, ‘okay, we need a tough guy who can also be sensitive. Let’s see if Hunnam is interested.’ And it does take a very concentrated effort to recognize that and try to break out of it. So the joy of writing is that I know what’s in my heart and I also have a sense of what I will be able to do as an actor. I’ve not really been writing myself any tough guys and [instead] writing characters that are, I suppose, reflective of where I am in my life. They’re in that midpoint of life and career and wondering, ‘is this manifesting in exactly the way I hoped? And if not, what steps can be taken to course-correct and to arrive at the promised land?’
Is your writing inspired at all by being disappointed with some of the scripts you were being given?
No. As part of the process of filmmaking as an actor, I realized there’s only so much input that you’re ever going to be able to have. Even at the very, very—not that I am there—top echelon, you really are the facility to somebody else’s vision and story. I’ve had several films in the can that are really radical departures from the type of work that I had been doing before. So I was actually getting a lot of opportunities to spread my wings and explore different avenues creatively through acting. But I was really just hitting a wall of really wanting to tell my own stories.
I wrote my first screenplay when I was 15. And then I got to the top three of a screenwriting competition. My project wasn’t chosen, but out of seven and a half thousand entries, I was in the top three. From the success of that, I was accepted into film school two years younger than most people. And so I’ve been very, very furiously wanting to be a filmmaker since I was 15. I’ve sold four screenplays to major studios over the last 15 years, none of which have been made. And the problem is that it takes a Herculean effort to shepherd something through to actual production.
When I spend 50 weeks of the year traveling and concentrating on acting work, even if I make time in the evenings to write these screenplays, It’s very, very hard to have the bandwidth to be able to get them across the finish line and into production. I’m really realizing that there’s going to have to be a certain amount of sacrifice required in order to get this second career to the place where my scripts are actually made.
Has quarantine and sheltering in place helped you stay focused on writing?
It’s giving me the time. I’ve had very, very good friends’ parents die and other people be affected by [the virus]. I’d be really reticent to paint any sort of positivity coming out of this period. But it has given me the isolation and the time to sit down and to write every day, which has been a really positive thing.
My partner has underlying respiratory issues, so we’ve had to be very, very vigilant about this from the beginning. I’ve very seldom left my house in seven months. But because I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling alone, and I’m kind of a germaphobe, I’m qualified to deal with this in that regard. I’ve had to spend most of my adult life in cities where I didn’t know anybody, spending all of my weekends alone in a hotel room waiting to go back to work on Monday morning. So I was fairly well versed in dealing with the challenges of that isolation aspect of it.
I’ve been writing a lot about the Second World War and endlessly reading about it and [this year] was an interesting environment to be spending a lot of time immersed in that era. I don’t think the challenges have been as significant for the day-to-day experience of regular people as it was in the Second World War [but] I do think you can draw some parallels. I would say globally, it’s certainly been the most difficult year for humanity since then. And I really worry going into this winter period about social isolation fatigue. Because I think, unfortunately we’re nowhere near through this thing yet. And if we’re not careful, we may very well be entering the darkest winter in 75 years.
Towards the top of the pandemic I watched Lost City of Z for the first time, and I saw several people doing the same. A lot of people say it’s underrated.
You know, it’s one of the great tragedies of the filmmaking community. I think James Gray is one of the most talented filmmakers out and yet, somehow his films just seem to always fall under the radar. But we had high hopes for that film. I think it’s a really well-made film. In a lot of ways, it’s the most complex and probably my favorite performance that I’ve ever given. Both James and I had both hoped that it would find a bigger audience, but ultimately it’s the process that matters and we had a deeply satisfying experience making that film together, so that’s all you can hope for. I’ve had to get okay with people not seeing my films because I’ve made far more films that have been giant flops than successes and some of them unfairly so—there’s some that were actually fairly good, but people still didn’t see.
We’re coming up on the anniversary of the Sons series finale. That was such a big part of your life, how are you feeling about the way it concluded these days?
That was such a wonderful, expansive experience for me. I learned so much from that show and I really loved that group of people. And I grew to really love playing that character. But at the same time I did it for so long that by the time we finished, it felt like it was time to move on. It’s funny, I don’t know if it’s a negative or a positive, but I really don’t spend any time ever looking back. I’m only ever looking forward. I feel in a lot of ways that my career is just starting now, like I’ve been in college for many years and had the opportunity to do a lot of different courses, flunked out of a few of them, got good grades in some.
And now that I finally graduated, it’s time to start doing the serious work. And so that’s one of the things about writing—I don’t know if you can relate or if this will make sense. But, I just feel when I sit down and write that I’m doing my work. There’s some energetic harmony to me in writing as opposed to going out and trying to become malleable [in someone else’s] process.
I studied screenwriting at film school myself, and it’s inspiring to hear you talk about getting back into it.
You know, it’s funny. I was watching a Joe Rogan thing earlier this year. I was doing a TV show and I realized that I wasn’t going to go back to work as quickly as I thought. And I was just about to turn 40. And carrying around these stories, it was starting to get really heavy, they felt like they wanted me to tell them. They had been sort of given to me like gifts.
And I wasn’t honoring the gifts. It was really energetically heavy for me. And Joe Rogan, it was this very simple thing, but he just said, ‘live your life like you’re the hero of your own movie.’ If you can define the characteristics and behavioral patents, that will make you feel like the hero of your own life, do those fucking things. And so I started to get up at four AM every day. would go for a little hike while the world was quiet and I didn’t feel like I was going to bring any viruses back to my partner. I’d be back home and showered, and have had breakfast by six AM.
Then I’d sit down and write from six till seven, every day. I mean, that’s 13 hours. And I just started to get this really now feeling of life. Like there’s nothing else in the world that would be better for me than what I’m doing right now. And the result of it was more positive than anything I’ve ever done in my career. People read the work and were like, ‘Holy fuck, you’re actually like a real writer.’ And it’s become clear to me that I’ve worked really, really hard. I wasn’t innately hugely confident at the beginning of my career. And I’ve worked really, really hard to cultivate this gift and be proud of the work that I’m able to do now. But part of me feels like it’s an uphill struggle.
But when I write, I feel as though I’m honoring the innate gifts that God gave me. I feel like I really can do the shit at a high level. And that’s a feeling that I’ve never had in my life before, in any regards. I feel like we all have one or two innate talents, and a task of life is to identify those and then do that as much as you possibly can. Because that’s where the joy and the presence is going to come from. That’s where the grace is going to come from.