Call it destiny that Charlie Hunnam won the title role in Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”
While Hunnam’s name came up during the search for the lead in the fantasy epic, Ritchie wasn’t that familiar with the actor, the star of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” for seven seasons and more recently the lead in the film “The Lost City of Z.”
So Ritchie brought him in for a screen test.
“Charlie made up his mind he was going to be in this movie, and he was so adamant I had little choice but to cast him,” says the director of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and the “Sherlock Holmes” films. “Now looking back, it couldn’t have been anyone else.”
One of the reasons why Hunnam, 37, was so intent on getting the part was that the British actor has been infatuated with the Arthurian legend since he was a kid. Another was simply the idea of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. “I thought, ‘That’s a film I want to see.’ ”
The actor has been a fan of the filmmaker since Ritchie’s early films, such as “Lock, Stockand Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.”
“I may have seen ‘Snatch’ more than any other film than ‘The Godfather 2,’ ” says Hunnam. “I watch it anytime it comes on television. It’s so accessible and fun.”
Fun and accessible are pretty much the operative words in Ritchie’s approach to the Arthurian legend.
“My job is to try and make it fresh, and Charlie dialed in very quickly to the Arthur I wanted, and it was off to the races,” the filmmaker says.
While both he and Hunnam were interested in exploring the esoteric aspects of Arthur’s journey to becoming king, the filmmaker wanted to make sure the movie was “a rather good jolly” so you would care about the character.
It was important that this was an “Arthur” for contemporary audiences, which meant taking advantage of the new technologies. This is Ritchie’s biggest special-effects film so far, but up next is the live-action version of “Aladdin” for Disney. The filmmaker says he’s looking forward to the challenge of doing a musical laden with technical wizardry.
While special effects were an important aspect for “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” perhaps the bigger challenge was telling a story that has been told countless times before.
“I found that the film became more energized the more that I concentrated on the narrative,” he says.
That meant pretty much jettisoning iconic characters like Guinevere and Merlin to streamline the plot. (If the film is successful, they appear in sequels.)
However, Merlin’s magical world led Ritchie to the more fantastic elements of the new film. Instead of dragons, though, the filmmaker opted for football-field-size elephants and snakes as big as subway trains.
Even set against this fantasy world, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” gives audiences a grittier version of the legend, including the once-and-future king being raised in a brothel.
So Hunnam’s character is very street-smart and wears clothes that wouldn’t seem out of place on one of the colorfully shady characters in Ritchie’s “Snatch.”
Though a skilled fighter, this Arthur is not eager to pull the sword from the stone or be anyone’s hero. Nor is he anxious to go up against Vortigern — played by Jude Law — the ironhanded tyrant who ascended to the throne with the aid of sorcery.
As it happened, Hunnam made “The Lost City of Z” and “King Arthur” — both physically demanding roles — back to back. “Well, I did get eight full days off,” he says, to keep the record straight.
In “City of Z,” which was shot in the hot jungles of Colombia, he played English explorer Percy Fawcett, who made expeditions into the Amazon to search for an unknown civilization before he vanished in 1925.
The actor says he always “hopes to find some deep connection with the characters I play,” and what he found in Fawcett was someone who was trying to negotiate what he saw as his personal destiny while honoring all the responsibilities in his life.
The explorer had a wife and children whom he neglected in his pursuit.
“When I took that role, it was right when I had finished doing “Sons of Anarchy,” and I had been through a lot with the series trying to do the best job,” says Hunnam.
“It obviously was a transitional point in my life, and I realized that I had seriously neglected my personal life in this uncompromising approach to my work,” says the actor, who is in a relationship with Morgana McNelis, a jewelry designer. “So I started to try and be much better in finding the balance between the two.”
Hunnam first came to Hollywood almost two decades ago, with one of his early roles being on Judd Apatow’s fondly remembered college drama “Undeclared.”
“When you look back upon that show and all the people who got to start there — Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel — it’s pretty amazing,” he notes.
Though he had a key role in Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” and starred in the title role in the 2002 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby,” most people know Hunnam as Jax, the hunky outlaw biker on “Sons.”
He recently completed a new version of “Papillon” for Danish director Michael Noer and co-starring Rami Malek.
Hunnam says they weren’t trying to do a remake of the 1973 Franklin J. Schaffner film, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Instead they relied on the autobiography by the French convict Henri Charrière, who escaped from the remote penal colony known as Devil’s Island.
“I went into that with my eyes wide open,” he says. “I know inevitably there’ll be relentless comparisons to Steve McQueen, and I have no doubt that I will lose that competition because Steve McQueen is pretty much the coolest movie star of all time.”
Meanwhile, the actor is working on developing his own projects and hopes to have some of them off the ground within the year. He certainly sounds determined as he was to get the role of Arthur.
“I believe if you identify the goal and cultivate a sense of self-belief and go about it with vigor and positivity, you can achieve it,” he says.
On the other hand, he admits that he tends to be “a little overly serious and earnest in my approach to the job.”
Ritchie told him that was all well and good but also gave him a specific mandate: “to have fun every day.”
“Guy said, ‘I want you to concentrate on both because those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive,’ “ says Hunnam, who describes the filmmaker “as very engaging and accessible.”
“Life’s too short,” explains Ritchie about his directive.
The idea also goes to the director’s creative process.
“It’s good to have a childlike approach to filmmaking because you’re given lots of incredible toys,” he says, “but you still have to be responsible like an adult and not go over budget.”
Still, Ritchie says if he’s going to be on a project for up to three years, he wants it to be an enjoyable experience.
“I’m always amazed by people who don’t have as much fun as they can while making these things,” he says.