Hollywood Blonde

Charlie Hunnam has the face of an angel and the work ethic of a Puritan. The combination is paying off - Ridley Scott is courting him and Elijah Wood is starring alongside him. Charlie's in charge, says Annabel Rivkin

Photographs by Amelia Troubridge
Styled by Poppy Edmonds

 

Charlie Hunnam is full-on heart-throb material. A raving beauty with bruised lips, Californian tan and baby-blue eyes, he has all the genetic qualifications of the movie star pin-up. But my, is he serious. The British actor, first made famous by his role as Nathan Maloney, the decreasingly innocent schoolboy in Channel 4's ground-breaking drama Queer As Folk, has been living in Los Angeles for seven years and has acquired the transatlantic rhythms and relentless sincerity of the world's film capital.

At 25, he gives a committed impersonation of a veteran, which only makes him come across as younger, like an angry teenager. I don't know if he's had too much therapy or just too much time alone - he moved to the States by himself at 18 and was a self-confessed loner long before that - but he might try lightening up because, under­neath it all, I suspect he's a total peach.

`I think that the film industry right now is in an appalling state,' is his opening gambit. `There's so much absolute disposable bollocks. I'm in this situation where I can work all the time if I want to, but it's about working with the right people and I haven't got enough juice studio-wise to work with the greats - the Ridley Scotts of this world, the Scorseses and all the guys who really know what they're doing. Instead I try to look for people who are tomorrow's creme de la creme.

As a result, he's crouching in an armchair in The Dorchester to talk about Green Street, his latest film, directed by Lexi Alexander. `I found Lexi,' he says grandly `She's a formidably talented woman.'

Green Street looks at organised football violence among the notorious West Ham fans. Charlie's character is head of the `firm' and initiates an American newcomer - Elijah Wood - into the ways of their manor. `He learns about love and loss and being a man and the importance of loyalty and honour while he's also learning to fight,' says Charlie who, prior to shooting, spent every day for two months with the hardest of the West Ham fans.

'F***ing frightening bunch,' he says. 'It was amazing. You get born into it or you go drinking with the right guys and they invite you to come along to a game. It's very evolved from the hooliganism of the Eighties; they've simplified things significantly in terms of style of warfare, so it's just fists now - no more Chelsea smiles, hopefully. But on the other hand, it's got much more sophisticated with the evolution of text messaging and c-mail. Charlie himself is not a football fan. `I'm a film fan. Why would I spend 90 minutes watching some guys kick a ball around a field when I could watch a film?'

He's more than a film fan; he's a film anorak. `By the time I was 12, 1 already had a relatively encyclopaedic knowledge of film,' he says. `I'm still learning and I'm still far away from knowing what a lot of people in LA know because it's such a film-savvy place.' Which is one of the reasons he's so happy there - far happier and more comfortable than he ever was in England. This may be why he has succumbed to both the language and accent of America.

Charlie was born in Newcastle, the younger of two brothers. His father, a recently retired scrap­metal worker, left when he was two and money was tight. `I helped subsidise the household all the way through my childhood,' he says. `I was a waiter-cum-kitchen assistant, a carpenter's assistant, I picked blackberries. Mum wasn't with anybody and because she wanted to be accessible to me and my brother, she would flip houses - buy them, do them up and sell them. Until the family moved to the Lake District when he was 12, life ticked by and his blond beauty ensured a healthy popularity. `I remember the last day I had in Newcastle was Valentine's Day and I was given 13 cards by 13 different girls,' he says, smiling for the first time. `One girl gave me a watch, another gave me a Walkman - I was definitely one of the popular kids. And then I moved and I had a mullet haircut and probably a bad attitude because I resented my mum a lot for moving.' The relocation happened because Charlie's mother had met the man who is now his stepfather. She runs a gift shop which also shows local artists and has two more sons, aged 12 and ten. But as her life got more gentle, Charlie's worsened. He describes his teens as `brutal'.

The good-looking ladies' boy became a teenage outcast; bullied or ignored by his peers. `I didn't help myself,' he admits, 'because I remem­ber what I thought about them back then and it must have been pretty obvious. These guys all thought they knew it all and toughness was such a currency. I thought they were f***ing idiots just so caught up in the minutiae of everyday life. Having said that, had that not happened to me, I think I would still have been as ambitious but I may not have been as disciplined and driven as I am now.

`So, from an early age I was like, "I am getting out of here and I am going to attempt to live some kind of destiny."' He makes it sound like a Barbara Cartland novel but it also comes across as rather lonely. `I met another outcast called Rupert who was smoking pot at a very early age. Rupert had been in a lawnmower accident when he was two, so instead of allying himself with the leaders of the pack, Charlie hung around town getting stoned and causing mischief with his one-armed, two-fingered friend. They have since lost touch. At 16, he went to college to study performing arts but, before he graduated, he was spotted in a local sports shop by one of the casting directors of Byker Grove, the Geordie kid soap that gave us Donna Air and Ant and Dec. He did one episode that got him an agent who persuaded him to go up for some modelling work. `I did one job and hated it,' he says. `I asked them to send me up for some auditions as that was really my passion. Queer As Folk was my first audition.'

The series was about the gay scene in Manchester and Charlie, at 18 playing a 15-year-old schoolboy, was part of the most explicit gay sex scene ever aired on British TV `I wasn't bothered about the gay element,' he says, even though people would shout `f***ing faggot' at him in the street. School had inured him to abuse. `I had insults hurled at me a couple of times, which wasn't the most pleasant experience, but I'm pretty thick-skinned and I already wanted to get out of England. I felt like I belonged in America.'

He moved to Los Angeles, bought a house and began a new life. `Remember the film Stand By Me?' he asks, referring to the teen hit star­ring River Phoenix about a tight-knit band of boys. `I was ruined by that film. I felt I'd missed out on so much because I didn't have that experience of friendship as a child. I remember being devastated by it. Now I have that - a very small social group and it's really thrilling and fulfilling. He felt he could breathe easy for the first time and he started to absorb the culture of his new home. He also fell in love.

He met the actress Katharine Towne (daughter of legendary scriptwriter Robert) on the set of the American TV series Undeclared. Three weeks later, he married her. 'It was lust a bit of fun and mischief really,' he says, even though to me it reeks of a young loner attaching himself to someone to eliminate risk and to try and grow some new roots. `We didn't really do it intentionally to stay married for the rest of our lives. We did it in Vegas, at three in the morning, larking around. It was really very romantic at the time. If there was any logic to it, it was that we wanted to create a reason to see each other again because I had to leave for three months to work and she had to stay and we thought we might forget how much we liked each other. It was definitely the first time I had been in love.'

It may have been impulsive, but it wasn't a Britney-style disaster.'Oh no; two and a half years, he says. 'We were in love, you know. But it became evident that we couldn't spend the rest of our lives together - or really another five minutes.' They divorced in 2000 and are now friends. He even went out with one of Katharine's best friends, costume designer Stella Parker. `I saw a couple of people here and there and I saw Stella, which wasn't a particularly deep or fulfilling relation­ship,' he says in a way that suggests one of them behaved rather badly. 'Now I'm having my first real, sensible relationship with a girl. We're just right for each other; we don't argue, it's very easy. We've been together for 18 months and we're crazy about each other. She's a producer and she lives in England so the time we do spend together is pretty special. I've proved to myself time and time again that I'm very monogamous so she doesn't have anything to worry about.' After Queer As Folk, his next big break was supposed to be the title role in 2002's Nicholas Nickleby. It starred such talents as Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson, and was directed by Douglas McGrath, whose credits include Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma and Bullets over Broadway. However, critically, it was not a success, but more than that, it convinced Charlie that he would have to take only the jobs that he was passionate about. 'Nicholas Nickleby pushed me ever the edge in terms of a policy of zero compromise,' he says. 'I didn't particularly want to do it, I didn't feel I had much to offer it and I wasn't titillated by the character. And I don't share Douglas's view of what film-making should be. I found his version to he derivative, slightly sac­charine and sugar-coated. I was micro-managed.'

His next role was small but pedigree, as a gun-toting albino vigilante in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain. 'But between Cold Mountain and Green Street I didn't do anything for 18 months and it's been another 18 months since I made this film, which obviously entails a lot of downtime. But recently Ridley Scott has called. He's been sending bottles of wine and asking me to do a screen test for him. So my plan is starting to pay off because the people who I want to take me seriously are starting to.' It's a risky business. Daniel Day-Lewis springs to mind as a British actor who's managed to combine Hollywood with a career of integrity but I can't immediately think of any others.

Charlie has just turned down $8 million to do a trilogy of films. `I can't really afford to pay my mortgage right now,' he says. `I need to have my head checked. I just have a ridiculous amount of pride. The money will come. As long as the work is good, the money will come. I know already that the right people want to work with me, so it's just a question of persuading the marketing people and the ones who sign the cheques that I'm the right one to back.'

You can't help but admire his principles, enjoy his looks, and worry a little about his choices.

Green Street is released on 9 September

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