When Charlie Hunnam opens the door to his suite at the opulent Heathman Hotel in downtown Portland, it's with a cheery greeting that belies his bleary-eyed, hung-over state. Soon enough, though, the British actor, who's in town to promote his role in Anthony Minghella's star-studded new epic Cold Mountain, is effusively recounting the heavy night before, which ended only a few hours earlier, at 5 am. "I never go out [at home], so when I come to a place like Portland, I'm all over it," explains the actor. "I go out and get well smashed!"
Tall but slight, the boyish Hunnam is best known as the eponymous hero of last year's Nicholas Nickleby, and for a breakout performance in the popular British TV series Queer as Folk. He speaks with a curious Midlantic accent, punctuated with 'like's and 'y'know's and honed in L.A., which became home nearly five years ago. Before that, Hunnam grew up in Newcastle, a proud beer-and-football town in the Northeast of England.
Obviously keen to be taken seriously as an actor, Hunnam talks eloquently and sincerely of his distaste for celebrity and the brainless McMovies that have turned the art of filmmaking into another commodity to be exploited. The heroes he aspires to emulate, he says, are Daniel Day Lewis and Sean Penn. Avoiding the vacuous, fame-hungry L.A. scene is part of that: "You either really pursue that stuff or you don't, and it's easy not to. I mean, you get invited to all the premieres and all the parties, and you just say 'no.' And I try to keep as quiet a life as possible."
These noble aims make Hunnam noticeably uncomfortable with the work he has done so far. Despite the film's moderate success, he has little affection for his biggest role to date. "I didn't really want to do Nicholas Nickleby," he says frankly. "I just did it because it was an amazing cast and I would have been a moron to turn it down at that point in my career." It's easy to agree with him. The lead role over Nickleby's stellar cast, which included Juliet Stevenson, Nathan Lane and Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, was a move into the premier league for an actor of Hunnam's experience.
Unfortunately, the results were disappointing. Writer-director Douglas McGrath's anemic adaptation of the Dickens classic lacked the wit and verve that the cast and material deserved. Fortunately for McGrath, most critics showed their usual hesitancy to get the knives out for a lavish period piece. The same can't be said of the refreshingly candid Hunnam. "I feel like that guy [McGrath] missed the boat by about 50 years in his style of directing. It's the least dynamic film I've ever seen. Amazing cast but just completely misused, y'know? I can't watch that film. He cut my balls off with that film, and I didn't get anything."
Working with McGrath might not have been Hunnam's cup of tea, but the experience taught the actor some valuable lessons. "I realized that it's always going to make me endlessly sad and depressed to do projects I don't believe in and to try to play characters that I don't feel comfortable in their shoes. I swore to myself that I was going to do it right from here on out, and after the opportunity of working with Minghella, I got spoiled."
British filmmaker Minghella is a critic's darling, having collected a slew of awards and praise for both The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley. His credibility allows him to make the films he wants, with the actors he wants, for as long as he wants. Such was the case with Cold Mountain, his latest literary adaptation, for which many sought-after actors like Nicole Kidman and Rene Zellweger willingly took a pay cut to endure an arduous six-month shoot in rural Transylvania. The eager Charlie Hunnam was along for the ride.
"I had read Cold Mountain when it came out in '97, and I thought it was a piece of genius. When I heard that Anthony was attached to direct, I just called my agent to say, 'I've got to at least sit down with him.' Obviously, I knew I wasn't going to get an Inman role," says Hunnam, referring to the lead character portrayed by Jude Law. "But I thought anywhere they could fit me in, I'd like to do something."
Minghella cast Hunnam in the role of Bosie, Cold Mountain's most malevolent villain, sidekick to the predatory Marshall Teague (Ray Winstone) and member of Cold Mountain's rapacious Home Guard. Admittedly, Hunnam's is a small part. But at the same time, Bosie is a memorable character, a striking albino lacking humanity but with a flair for acrobatics, gunplay and killing, straight out of a comic book.
Hunnam's role, like the film, underwent several incarnations before coming to the screen. Originally Bosie, loosely based on the character Birch in Charles Frazier's novel, only appears at the very end of the story, sparsely described as a sickly, fair boy. In his film version, Minghella expanded the character, concerned that audiences would be confused by his unexplained arrival in the climactic third reel. For Hunnam, a few weeks shooting became many months spent with Cold Mountain's star names on location. The character of Bosie grew as Minghella attempted to create a backstory for this eager killer.
However, there was a problem. Minghella, enjoying his creative freedom, shot much more material than the moviegoing palate could possibly accommodate at a single sitting. With the first cut of Cold Mountain reportedly clocking in at over five hours, much of the film had to be cut to accommodate a more reasonable running time. And while the kid stayed in the picture, swaths of footage were cut. "You see a final cut and you're 'Oh, wow, I'm not in this film very much anymore,' which is heartbreaking," says Hunnam, explaining how he felt when he saw the final version of Minghella's film. "It's doubly heartbreaking because this is the first time I've actually been proud to be associated with a film, the first one where I actually tell people, 'I'm an actor, go see this,' y'know?"
When the Oscar contenders are announced in February 2004, it is likely Cold Mountain will garner several nominations. And though it's doubtful Hunnam will be in the running, his future in the film industry still holds unlimited promise. Upcoming projects include Hooligans, a film about violent football fans, which begins production in the United Kingdom in March. Following that will be Ask the Dust, based on John Fante's novel, adapted by Hunnam's ex-father-in-law, legendary screenwriter Robert Towne.
At only 23, Charlie Hunnam has tasted fame and infamy as a TV actor, married, divorced, and embarked on a potentially successful career in film. If life experience is what gives an actor his range, he has given himself a head start. "My plan is just to plug away and get as good as I can possibly be and do little parts and hopefully good stuff," he says, explaining his long-term goals. "And then when I get to 30, that's when I can play the really juicy roles and, hopefully, I'll have enough experience that I'll be as good as I want to be."