Press/Interview: Charlie Hunnam Talks ‘Shantaram’ Finale, Leaning Into Writing, and ‘Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller
Collider.com — During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, which was conducted prior to the official cancellation of the series, Hunnam talked about only telling one third of the story of Lin Ford, having the ability to be completely objective about his own performance, why he feels like a filmmaker trapped in an actor’s career, wanting to be challenged with his work, what he most enjoyed about working with this cast, and his desire to focus more of his time on writing. He also talked about how the music of Tom Waits has made it onto a few of his writing playlists, and what the deal is with that project he previously alluded to, in connection with Jax Teller.
Collider: I recently read that you’re a fan of Tom Waits and you said that he excites your imagination more than most other artists do. Being an enormous fan of Tom Waits myself, and his ability to get me to visualize whatever story he’s telling in any song of his, I’m curious whether you’ve ever used his music to inspire you for a role, or for any of the writing you do. Do you ever use his art as inspiration for your own art, in any way?
CHARLIE HUNNAM: Oh, Tom Waits has definitely appeared on a few writing playlists that I have. In particular, I’ve been working on something recently, and I was listening a lot to “Cold Water” from Mule Variations. It’s definitely in the top 20 of my favorite songs. Maybe not necessarily top five. But it was just a vibe that I was looking for. I would say that my introduction to great music was through Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. They’ve both always been very, very important to me.
Ending the season of Shantaram with “To Be Continued” is certainly a bold move, especially when there are no guarantees in television. What led to that decision?
HUNNAM: Yeah. I can’t take any credit or blame for that. It was not my choice, nor my conviction, to do that. That was probably (showrunner) Steve Lightfoot. I’m not sure. I would think that was more Steve Lightfoot than our colleagues at Apple.
Listen, by virtue of the fact that this is an adaptation of a novel, and we’ve only told, at a maximum, one third of the story, our hope that this would be continued is somewhat self-evident, for those who actually know the novel and know that this isn’t where the story ends. When we get to the end of the season, I also don’t think it feels like the story’s over. I’m not so sure if we needed to put it in black and white, “to be continued,” but I think that the idea was that we would leave with a sense of unfinished business. Sometimes people worry that the devil might not actually be in the details, and that you need to put things in black and white to really punctuate the point.
As a producer on this, and just generally when you’re a producer on a project that you’re hoping will continue on, are you able to be objective in watching your own performance and figuring out what you might want to shift or change, from season to season? How do you handle that? Are you someone who can get out of your own head enough to think about it, and see what’s best for the show and for your own performance?
HUNNAM: Yes, I am. I definitely have the ability to be completely objective. I have a very clear view, or at least my own perspective and opinion, of what we did well and what we could do significantly better, as a show, at large, and that’s also true with my work. It’s a funny thing, within the hierarchy of television production, the people who are paying for it, get to make a lot of the decisions. And then, of course, the creator gets to make a lot of the decisions. By the time it gets to my position, even being a producing asset, most of the decisions have already been made. My experience is that I can have some latitude to be able to affect the small decisions, but the big stuff is way above my pay grade, unfortunately. I would love to be right in the kitchen, designing the menu, but I’m much more of a sous-chef, being told what to do.
I appreciate that metaphor, so thank you for that.
HUNNAM: There you go. I was wondering if it was a bit too rich.
No, it was good. It feels like, when you go into a project, you like to be more than just an actor filling a role, and you like to be a collaborator. It seems like you seek out that relationship with your director, or your showrunner. Is that something that you’ve always wanted? Is that something that’s developed, the more you’ve done this?
HUNNAM: No. I’m a filmmaker trapped in an actor’s career. I’m pretty smart. One of the main streams of my bow is that I understand storytelling. I’m a much better writer and storyteller than I am an actor, and I just need to stop wasting mine and everyone else’s time, and actually make the commitment to pivot into doing what I can offer the most value through, which is actually being a storyteller. I’m very committed to making that pivot. I’ve been very excited and grateful for my career, to date, but you get to a certain point in one’s life when one should lean into the things one does best. I don’t say that as though I’m the greatest storyteller in the world, but if I weigh up, objectively, my skill set as a storyteller, as opposed to an actor, it’s objectively clear that I’m a better storyteller. At some point, I’ll hopefully have the conviction to actually really make that pivot and stop fucking around, as the kids say.
How did this character really most stretch you and push you, and challenge you as an actor, and how rewarding did you find that?
HUNNAM: It absolutely did. I want to climb mountains. I want to be really challenged. With this, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do with this role, both for the benefit of the role and the show, but also for the benefit of myself. I wanted to up my game and to try to make Lin as honest and authentic and relatable as possible, and not an archetype, but a real human being, and that requires taking off some of the armor and not relying on some of the tricks that I know, as an actor, and forcing myself out of patterns that maybe I had gotten too settled in. I was very clear about what I was trying to do, for myself.
Acting is an interpretive art form, opposed to writing, which is a primary art form. I feel like the definition of art is following the impulses that compel you, at any set time, or the elements of life that are challenging, or worthy of exploration. Sometimes we get into patterns of exploring the same thing, over and over, because work begets work, and we demonstrate a certain skill set, or an ability to play a tough guy, or whatever. You get past points where that’s interesting to explore anymore. That’s always the challenge, for an actor, to actually find a story or a character who’s also exploring the things that, at any given time in one’s life, one is interested in exploring or is compelled to explore.
In any given scene or episode or season of Shantaram, and whether it was on the page or not, and often it was, I was determined to terraform it into what I was wanting to explore. And so, when I talked in the past about having a very strong conviction that Lin was a regular human being, and not a criminal or a gangster, at the beginning of this show, that was a conviction of a storyteller, but it also was bolstered by a conviction as an actor, where I refused to go and do that again because I’ve just done it enough that it no longer compels me anymore.
You mentioned in a previous interview that you have an idea that’s in its infancy, that could bring you back to playing Jax Teller again. What brought that about? What even led you to going down that path?
HUNNAM: Well, you know, I’ve got a big fucking mouth and I really shouldn’t have said that, but I did, and now I’ve gotta answer for it. All I’ll say is, you can’t think about that in any sort of linear way. There’s nothing to do with Jax Teller in what I was talking about, and I’ll leave it at that. I’m not leaving it at that, apparently, but it’s a much more abstract, non-linear interpretation than one might jump to the conclusion of. I’ve had to answer a billion questions from people coming up to me in the world, at the grocery store and at Comic-Con events, and everywhere I go, who go, “Oh, shit, he didn’t die.” And I say, “No, he died.” And they say, “So then, what is this thing?” And I go, “I’m not fucking telling you.” So, that’s how that goes.
When it comes to producing and the production side of things, have you noticed that you’re more interested in any specific aspects of production that you hadn’t really thought about or considered, when you were just focused on acting?
HUNNAM: I wouldn’t say so, no. Every time I sit down to write, I feel a sense of my own little world being more in order than it is, at any other time. It’s more of a confirmation of a conviction that already existed, rather than being illuminated, in any way. I just love writing. My feeling is that my experience of it is much more satisfying than my experience of being an actor has ever been. I have a writer friend who says that, while he’s writing, he’s terrified, and when he’s finished, he’s arrogant. I would say that when I’m acting, I’m terrified, and when I’m finished, I’m ashamed. When I’m writing, I’m inspired, and when I’m finished, I’m wildly arrogant. The experience, for me, is much more positive and exciting than acting has ever been. I feel deeply compelled to act. I don’t wanna finish my career, as an actor. I don’t wanna declare, right now, that I’m retiring, or anything silly. I get so much joy and satisfaction and pride out of my ability to write that I just would like to make more time for that and prioritize it a little bit more.
What did you most enjoy about working with the cast of Shantaram? This is such an interesting international group of talent that’s involved with this, and there were so many actors in this that I hadn’t seen before, that I just thought were really compelling. What did you most enjoy about working with this group of actors?
HUNNAM: That’s one part of being a producer on this that I actually was very involved in. I made myself available to read with all the actors in the room and was involved in the casting process in a way that I’d never been before, and that was really exciting. Shubham [Saraf], who plays Prabhu, was the shining light of that. I thought he was incredible. When we started to work, I thought he was just sensationally talented and this beacon of light. He was effortless, in a way, and just truly gifted. Now that the show’s come out, I’ve had a huge degree of satisfaction and big brotherly pride that his work has been so well-received and celebrated and recognized. That was beautiful, but they were all beautiful. It was a really lovely cast of actors.
With me now being a fairly old bastard myself, I was excited to see these young whipper-snappers coming up and getting their big first opportunity, and how hard they worked and how passionate they were, and now the world seems to be stoked about the work they did. Particularly with Shubham, he just seems to be getting wildly praised for his excellent work, which I’m very stoked about.
Shantaram is available to stream at Apple TV+.