Adventures Along the Amazon

Published April 12, 2017

ROBERT PATTINSON (LEFT) AND CHARLIE HUNNAM IN THE LOST CITY OF Z. AN AMAZON STUDIOS AND BLEECKER STREET RELEASE. PHOTO: AIDAN MONAGHAN. COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS & BLEECKER STREET.

Before his mysterious disappearance in 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett spent nearly 20 years searching for an ancient, advanced civilization in the Amazon. To film The Lost City of Z, a biopic of Fawcett based on the book of the same name by David Grann, writer-director James Gray, actor Charlie Hunnam, and the rest of the cast and crew ventured into the jungle of Santa Marta, Colombia, where such shoots rarely happen without a hitch. Hunnam, who stars as Fawcett, received his fair share of punishment from the environment: “A bug crawled into my ear and got stuck. It bit a hole in my eardrum. That was a little bit unpleasant,” the Newcastle, England-born actor says over the phone.

Now 37, Hunnam began his career at age 18 on the cult Channel 4 drama Queer as Folk, co-starred in Judd Apatow’s short-lived Undeclared, and became a household name playing the charismatic biker Jax Teller in Kurt Sutter‘s Hamlet-inspired Sons of Anarchy. Next month, he’ll appear in movie theaters around the world as King Arthur in Guy Ritchie’s upcoming blockbuster. For The Lost City of Z, the actor embraced the experience of the jungle, and the result is effective: Fawcett’s obsessive drive is on full display throughout the film.

We caught up with Hunnam last week to discuss the tragedy of the British explorer’s life, reckoning with existence, and almost getting struck by lightning.

ETHAN SAPIENZA: What drew you to this role? Is there something specific you look for in all the projects you agree to do?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: I’ll answer those in reverse, since the second half is easier. I seem to be drawn to stories about ordinary, relatable men that find themselves driven to do extraordinary things. I think mainly the narrative that seems to come up time and time again for me is the desire to answer the grand, terrible question of, “What does it all mean?” Even if you look at Sons of Anarchy, Jax is trying to figure out what it all meant—what is the meaning and purpose of all of this?

With Fawcett, what really, really struck me—what I loved about him and what I found tragic—was the fact that he was so tenacious and unrelenting in his pursuit of his beliefs. He made such tremendous sacrifices and endured such hardship and was rewarded time and time again with failure. He never allowed it to deter him. I think that’s something that’s always impressed me with life, and in my own little way I can relate: You get knocked down and the only thing is to get back up and keep on going.

I think the work is always going to be much better when it’s important and personal to you. In this case, [I related] to manifesting that sense of personal exploration or personal destiny, and the conflict that it creates with having to sacrifice and neglect other aspects of one’s life. In Percy’s case, [it was] his wife and his family. That was something I know James had a very strong connection to, and I had reached a point in my life where I realized my pursuit of doing the work I wanted to do had forced me to neglect serious areas of my personal life.

SAPIENZA: Your point on trying to reckon with existence is really interesting, especially since the last time Interview spoke with James Gray he said his favorite movies were non-escapist and really focused on what it means to be a person. Was that something that was clear in his direction?

HUNNAM: Yeah. It was the reason I think he felt comfortable giving me this job. I identified that and it was very personal to me. In our initial conversation, that was the majority of what we talked about. He was really encouraged that that was what I was interested in exploring in the film too. If you look at the things we just talked about, all the sacrifice and the hardship and resulting failure, it creates the perception that Fawcett was such a tragic figure. What mitigates that significantly is the understanding—or at least my interpretation of it—that he was actually rewarded with such a strong sense of purpose and a sense of being alive and vital. That grand and terrible question was silenced when he was on those expeditions.

SAPIENZA: What was the shoot like? I understand you were in Colombia. Was it really intense or draining?

HUNNAM: I think for some people it was. I think for the crew it was difficult. Since they didn’t have the benefit of that experience helping their work, it just made it more difficult for them. For me, obviously anything that reduces the amount of acting required and makes the process more of an experience, rather than having to synthesize, is incredibly helpful. There were definitely some hardships and some challenges, but eventually all of those hardships and challenges had a positive effect on the work.

SAPIENZA: Were there any specific instances that were really challenging?

HUNNAM: We had a couple of situations. Everybody had their experience of hardship during the shoot. One experience was when we were very, very far from base camp. The sense of exploration and adventure really affected all of us, James included. We found ourselves going further and further from camp, probably further than we needed to to shoot some of these sequences. It was this sense of [finding out] what’s over the next hill. It captivated all of us.

So one day, we found ourselves very far from base camp in a torrential thunderstorm. We were on a river; there was a lot of water around. It was very dangerous. Lightning was cracking all around us, and I was just so filled up with the experience and thought it was so extraordinary and exciting. I said, “This is what we’re here for. This is why we’re here. Let’s keep shooting.” The producers had decided we very rapidly needed to evacuate, since they were worried about flash floods or someone getting hit by lightning. I was saying, “Fuck that! Roll the camera! Let’s just shoot anything.” Everyone was getting in the boats and I was standing on the shore refusing to get in a boat, screaming at James, “Dude, we’re fucking this! We’re blowing this opportunity!” And then a lightning bolt hit a tree about fifteen feet away from me, and the force of it knocked me over. Then I said, “Okay, maybe we should go!” [laughs]

SAPIENZA: Well that’s not fun.

HUNNAM: But again, it was all in that sense of adventure that was so awesome.

SAPIENZA: Do you feel like you need to be immersed in the material in order to get a good performance?

HUNNAM: Yeah, I do. I’m learning that more and more. I’m on a journey and I’m obviously aware I’m doing much better work now than I was at the beginning of my career. I hope to continue that trend and to continue to dig deeper. As you asked me that, it made me think of an interview I read years and years ago with Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s very candid about the process and sheepish about the method of what he does. He said, “Listen, I don’t do all of this as an indulgence. I do it because I’m not a good enough actor to not do it.” I think that’s probably rather humble of him. [laughs] I think that’s probably more true with me! I find the deeper I get into the work and the more difficult the process—for whatever reason—the better result.

SAPIENZA: I understand you and Robert Pattinson didn’t talk much on set. Do you feel that affected your on screen chemistry at all?

HUNNAM: Yeah, it really did in a very positive way. There was nothing contentious about us not talking. I really, really admire and like Robert a lot. I had always been interested in the idea that a relationship could exist exclusively between action and cut. I wanted to explore that. For years I’d been thinking of that as a process. This just lent itself to very readily exploring that because Fawcett and [Henry] Costin—our characters—don’t know each other prior to the story. They meet on screen. We shot for the most part sequentially, so it just lent itself for the opportunity. Robert’s a really a smart and thoughtful actor, and a very process-oriented actor too. I decided to try to implement this to see if it was going to work, and I think he immediately understood what I was doing and was happy to go along with it. I really do think it made the experience very exciting—I don’t know how it plays for an audience. I felt like I didn’t know this guy and I never knew how he was going to react, and there were never any conversations about our intentions for the scenes. They’d just call action and I would do what I was going to do and he would do what he was going to do. There was a truth and immediacy in the way we were working together that I hope translated to the screen.

THE LOST CITY OF Z COMES OUT TOMORROW, APRIL 14, 2017.