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?’