Charlie Hunnam is a movie star you’ve definitely seen; he’s been in a long and diverse selection of films. These include Children of Men, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Furthermore, he was also the lead in the hit show Sons of Anarchy. Before any of that, though, he was a teen heartthrob in his native country – and he looked quite different back then.
Hunnam was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in northern England in 1980. And he’s proven himself to be a talented performer; for Sons of Anarchy, he was twice nominated for a Best Actor in a Drama Series Critics’ Choice Television Award. Furthermore, he’s made some smart decisions regarding Hollywood.
Hunnam may not be an A-lister yet, but he knows how to pick good projects. Even early on he was in critically lauded films, such as Nicholas Nickleby alongside Anne Hathaway and Cold Mountain with Jude Law, Nichole Kidman and Renée Zellweger. So having demonstrated his skills in both dramas and high-grossing blockbusters, clearly Hunnam is much more than just a pretty face.
Hunnam was only 17 when he was “discovered” buying shoes in a JD Sports shop in Newcastle. He was later then cast as a character called Jason for three episodes of the British children’s TV show Byker Grove. And at around the same time he started work as a model, but he soon realized that it wasn’t what he wanted to do.
Elsewhere, in 2016 GQ magazine published an interview with Hunnam. He said, “When I was a kid, probably 16 or 17, I got spotted by a model scout that wanted to represent me, and they sent me one modeling job, for Wall’s ice cream. I did one job for them, and then a catwalk shoot for Kangol caps, and decided modeling was not for me.”
Then when he was 18 years old, Hunnam was cast in the 1999 drama show Queer As Folk, and that brought him to wider attention in Britain. The series was about the lives of gay men in Manchester, England, and it was quite controversial at the time. These days it’s considered a groundbreaking and hugely important show.
Hunnam talked to The Independent about that experience in 2010. He said, “I was just thrown into this world and it was all so exciting, and I didn’t really have any gauge of what was a normal day on a set and what wasn’t. But I was a pretty fearless kid. I was just amazed that I’d been given this opportunity. I jumped in head first.”
And “fearless kid” is about right; Hunnam’s youth set him up well for his later roles in Sons of Anarchy and other gritty tales. His father Billy was an alleged gangster, a man who Hunnam described to the Daily Mirror in 2017 as “the toughest, most savage dude I’ve ever met.” And Hunnam has apparently met plenty of people like that.
In 2012 Hunnam told the website Shock Ya! that he had “a lot of friends who are criminals.” He went on, “A friend of mine robbed 32 banks and ended up [getting] caught, did his time, and is out now, and that’s behind him. But he targeted institutions that he didn’t think were righteous – big banks that are not being very nice to their customers.”
Hunnam has played a few variations of that kind of criminal; he went through various “bad-boy” roles, such as Cold Mountain’s Bosie, in the early stages of his career. In 2005 he played a London football hooligan in the film Green Street – but his Cockney accent was widely mocked.
But even though Green Street received poor reviews, it ended up changing Hunnam’s life. Writer Kurt Sutter happened to see him in the movie and decided he would be perfect for the lead in his new TV show, Sons of Anarchy. And it was a huge hit; Hunnam played the role of Jax Teller from 2008 till 2014.
In 2013 Hunnam told the website Showbiz Junkies, “I really love the schedule of television, working that quickly and having to solve the problems. It creates an energy to it, working that quickly.” The interviewer asked Hunnam about his youth and the actor revealed, “I think about my dad a tremendous amount while filming Jax.”
That year, while Hunnam was still on Sons of Anarchy, he starred in the blockbuster Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro, the director of that film, has a longstanding friendship with Hunnam’s Sons of Anarchy co-star Ron Perlman. Initially, del Toro had asked Hunnam to audition for a different film of his.
In 2013 Hunnam told GQ, “I’d met with Guillermo for Hellboy 2, and spent some time with him, done a prosthetics test, and then an audition. He decided I wasn’t quite right for that role but he expressed an interest with working with me at some point in the future. So I went about my way, hoping that would come about.”
Hunnam had to get into peak physical shape for Pacific Rim, he told GQ. Two weeks before shooting on the movie began del Toro informed him, “My friend, I need you to show up looking like a man capable of saving the world!” so Hunnam began going to the gym after 14-15 hour workdays on Sons of Anarchy – and it paid off.
In the same GQ interview Hunnam talked about Crimson Peak, the next film he was doing with del Toro. The former said, “I was really flattered and happy when I got the call right after finishing Pacific Rim. So we’re going to do that, which is really exciting because I’ve always dreamt of those kind of collaborations between directors and actors. I always felt very envious of that… and now I appear to be embarking on one.”
Then, not long after Pacific Rim was released, an exciting announcement was made. Hunnam was going to take the lead role in the film adaptation of the popular and controversial novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Book author E.L. James tweeted in September 2013, “The gorgeous and talented Charlie Hunnam will be Christian Grey in the film adaptation.”
Commentators wondered if Fifty Shades of Grey, considered a not particularly good book, was a wise choice for Hunnam. Hollywood.com mused that year, “If he were just another well-sculpted frontman whose career had promise only to marshal action-heavy blockbusters and sultry romances, then we might not even bother with the question of whether or not this is the right time for Hunnam to sign onto Fifty Shades. But the man has talent, and fandom to boot.”
But as it turned out, the world never got to see what Hunnam would be like as Christian Grey. In October 2013 he dropped out of the movie. Universal announced in a statement, “The filmmakers of Fifty Shades of Grey and Charlie Hunnam have agreed to find another male lead given [his] immersive TV schedule which is not allowing him time to adequately prepare for the role of Christian Grey.”
A year later, in September 2014, Hunnam explained to Moviefone what had happened. He had really wanted to play Christian Grey, he said, adding, “I fell in love with the character and started seeing him and becoming intoxicated, which is the way I work: I find a character I love and I start thinking about it all the time.”
But an extremely heavy workload ended up taking Hunnam out. He continued, “I was going to finish Sons at like 11 p.m. Friday night, get on the plane Saturday morning to Vancouver for Fifty, missing the whole first week of rehearsal and start shooting Monday morning. And I was going to shoot that film, wrap that on the Wednesday and the following Monday I was going to start shooting Crimson Peak in Toronto. I just had like… frankly, something of a nervous breakdown.”
In 2015 Hunnam talked to GQ about his time on Sons of Anarchy, which had ended the previous year. He said, “I put everything I had into that show. I lived it as much as I could. I never got in a car the whole seven years. I was only on my bike and rolling around with a bunch of real bikers and occasionally acting like a maniac. Finishing the show felt like a real celebration – we finished at the right time.”
But, Hunnam added, it was hard saying goodbye to Jax. He continued, “As stupid as it sounds, it really felt like a genuine bereavement, because he was this guy that I loved and hung out with constantly for seven years. It was a lot of tears for, like, two or three weeks, every time I thought about it. Then one day, I woke up and was like, ‘Okay, it’s time to move on.’”
Crimson Peak came out in September 2015, and both the movie and Hunnam’s performance got good reviews. The Telegraph said that the actor “provides some much-needed warmth in a supporting role as an amateur sleuth.” Elsewhere, the website Irish Film Critic noted, “Charlie Hunnam surprises in a more subtle role than we’re used to seeing in him and he performs admirably.”
Hunnam’s changed physique for the movie also drew some comment, something which Crimson Peak’s costume designer Kate Hawley spoke to InStyle about in October 2015. She said, “Men of that era [the 1880s] are slimmer and less built up than men today so he had to reshape his body slightly to make it more authentic to the period.”
Hawley explained that Hunnam had to change his normal exercise routine to play the role of Alan McMichael. The former continued, “He wasn’t doing modern workouts with a lot of heavy weightlifting. [Hunnam] did different physical moves to reshape himself so he didn’t come in with that V-shape torso.”
Also in September 2015 Hunnam spoke again about turning down Fifty Shades of Grey. Though the movie was a critical failure, it was a box-office success, as were its sequels. Hunnam told the magazine V Man that dropping out “was the most emotionally destructive and difficult thing that I’ve ever had to deal with professionally.”
Hunnam then explained that his loyalty to Guillermo del Toro and Crimson Peak won out. He said, “I’d given Guillermo my word, over a year before, that I was going to do this film. People were saying, ‘Are you crazy? Guillermo still has got four months to recast, it’s the fourth lead, you can go and do this [instead].’ I said, ‘I can’t. He’s my friend.’”
In 2016 Hunnam did the film The Lost City of Z, which didn’t make a lot of money but won rave reviews from critics. In The Hollywood Reporter Todd McCarthy wrote that the movie was “a rare piece of contemporary classical cinema,” and that Hunnam’s performance “ripens and matures as the character does.”
Hunnam lost weight for The Lost City of Z, and then he had to put it all on again for his next film, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. In 2017 he told Entertainment Tonight, “… I showed up very, very skinny, and [Ritchie] wanted someone who was sort of physically imposing for the role.”
Hunnam would be playing King Arthur himself, and for that coveted role he put on 20 pounds worth of muscle. He told ET, “The hardest part is always maintaining the diet, because you just do not get to eat all of the fun things you want to eat. And [I was] also eating an enormous amount because this is not my neutral body size.”
Hunnam revealed, “I was probably 20 pounds heavier than my body naturally wants to be, so it is a full-time job to keep that muscle on.” But he was thrilled about the prospect of playing King Arthur, and told ET that he had signed on for three movies in all. Alas, they never happened; Legend of the Sword was a flop.
After Legend of the Sword came Papillon, in which Hunnam played real-life French prisoner Henri Charrière. And in order to play someone locked up in a nightmarish jail, he had to lose weight once again. However, he did this so effectively that his co-star Rami Malek was actually worried about him.
In 2018 Malek told ET, “Filmmaking, and this one especially, it’s not the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. We weren’t out there going back to our trailers every two seconds. It’s just out there sitting in the mud and hanging out and watching [Hunnam] starve. So, I was a bit concerned, but he’s alright.”
Then in 2019 Hunnam did the Netflix film Triple Frontier alongside Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Pedro Pascal and Garrett Hedlund. He played an ex-Delta Force soldier – another role that the actor had to go “tough guy” for. Hunnam then spoke to Men’s Health magazine that year about changing his body shape once again.
Men’s Health asked Hunnam what his “relationship with [his] abs” was like. The actor answered, “I’m in good shape. I started, about two and a half or three years ago, doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which requires a lot of core strength. In spite of prior declarations, I’m probably in better shape than I’ve ever been in.”
Later on in the interview, Hunnam considered, “Unintentionally, there seems to be a pattern of having to fluctuate a lot in my weight. With this project, Triple Frontier, I had not too long before just wrapped Papillion, where I had to lose an enormous amount of weight. I got it down – for the second time in about five years, which is really uncomfortable to do – but I got down to 145 pounds, from 185.”
Triple Frontier did well; it got generally good reviews from critics. The website Rotten Tomatoes summarized it as, “An outstanding cast and ambitious story help Triple Frontier overcome an uneven narrative – and elevate the end result above a crowded field of grim and gritty heist thrillers.”
Hunnam’s most recent film is the drama Jungleland, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019. To promote the movie, Hunnam spoke to Hello! Canada and reflected on his early years. He said, “I’m a really gentle, soft sort of person, who had a lot of issues from my childhood that I had to work through. That was reflected in the work that I did from the age of 25 to 35.”
Hunnam went on, “I’ve worked through that – I’m not compelled by it anymore, and I’m not particularly interested in that any more. It was a phase in my life. I had a realization about that around a year ago, which made me feel that, for the first time in my career, I was actually really doing what I was supposed to be doing, and not just being a fake.” Not that he ever was, though.