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Charlie Hunnam thought he was preparing for his upcoming role in Triple Frontier on a private beach in Hawaii, where he was enjoying a little wrestling match with longtime friend Garrett Hedlund.
Instead, their horseplay was captured by the paparazzi and helped to reveal to the world that the long-gestating Triple Frontier was finally happening after years of directors and A-list talent coming and going. The entire cast was taking swimming lessons for insurance purposes, even though they knew how to swim.
“The sun was shining and we were in good spirits, so I just tackled him and had a little wrestle,” Hunnam tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But it was not intended to be photographed and documented for the world to see.”
Triple Frontier is the story of five special forces operatives who reunite in order to eliminate and heist a South American drug lord. What could go wrong? The film began its long road to the big screen in 2010 when director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal attached themselves to the project along with Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp. The film stalled until writer-director J.C. Chandor joined the mix in 2015. From there, the cast was a revolving door of names including Will Smith, Channing Tatum, Tom Hardy, Mahershala Ali, Casey Affleck and Mark Wahlberg.
In May 2017, Netflix acquired the project from Paramount, and Chandor assembled a cast that included Ben Affleck, Hunnam, Hedland, and Pedro Pascal, but soon the project would sustain more misfortune. Just before production in 2017, Affleck had to leave to attend to his personal health. However, Chandor was so committed to Affleck that he delayed the film another six months so his star could return. The delay also opened the door for Chandor’s A Most Violent Year lead, Oscar Isaac, to enlist as the final piece in the puzzle.
Hunnam is no stranger to stops and starts in Hollywood. In 2013, he famously exited the role of Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, a part that would have been his most high-profile role to date. (Hunnam recently made amends to Fifty Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson by way of her indie film A Million Little Pieces.) Triple Frontier is Hunnam’s first release since Papillon was met with mixed reviews and minimal box office returns in 2018.
“That film did not seem to go down too well, but Rami [Malek] and I really put our hearts into it,” says Hunnam. “I actually had dinner with him last night, and we were lamenting the failure of that film a little bit.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Hunnam also discussed his filmmaking aspirations, the influence of his former directors and his friendship with Sons of Anarchy co-star Ryan Hurst.
I’ve followed Triple Frontier’s developmental saga for many years. I finally learned it was nearing production thanks to a photograph of you tackling Garrett Hedlund on a Hawaiian beach. Can you provide some context to this team-building exercise of sorts?
(Laughs) Yeah, that was unfortunate. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have been very, very dear friends with Garrett for about 15 years. In this film, he plays an MMA fighter, and I am a jujitsu practitioner. So I was teaching him some jujitsu, and we were rolling a lot and fighting a lot. We just happened to be on the beach one day doing some swimming lessons, which were grossly unnecessary seeing as we’re not five years old, but I guess for some sort of insurance thing we had to do some swimming lessons. The sun was shining and we were in good spirits, so I just tackled him and had a little wrestle. But it was not intended to be photographed and documented for the world to see.
This film is about brotherhood, something you’re familiar with thanks to Sons of Anarchy, both on and off screen. Did part of you accept this project as a way to recapture an atmosphere that you clearly flourish under?
That’s a really interesting question, and multifaceted for me. I think that I do flourish in the company of men. I’ve come to realize that the sense of tribe or community that I have with my group of friends is one of the pillars of my life. For me to be at my best, I need a group of pals around me — my sort of extended family. In sort of exploring that, I think what J.C. Chandor was exploring in this film are two of the three pillars of self-determination theory — competence and autonomy — which can be bracketed under the banner of purpose and community. Sebastian Junger wrote a really interesting book about military life called Tribe, which is a book that I really admire and have read a couple of times, and had read just prior to reading this script. It really resonated that what Sebastian Junger is exploring in Tribe is basically the same thing that J.C. is exploring, which is fundamentally how we categorize or identify some sort of deep meaning for ourselves as individuals. The idea being that purpose and community are two of the central pillars for a successful, fulfilling life.
Because you’ve acted in ensembles with many big personalities in the past, were you able to adapt to this ensemble of movie stars with relative ease?
Invariably, the way a television show goes, it ends up being more of an ensemble experience. The thing with working in television a lot is you start to learn that there might be stretches of time where you don’t have much to do, and the experience can be a little bit of a drag. Showing up to work for a couple weeks, watching other people act and not having much to do — the breadth of the experience is reduced dramatically in the edit room, from a four-month experience to a two-hour experience. Within that, those two weeks where you didn’t have anything to do is really only going to be five minutes of screen time, and then you’ll be back in the mix to have your time and your moments. I suppose I came in with that knowledge, further heartened by knowing how J.C. had handled big ensembles in the past, particularly in Margin Call where everybody had very specific and dramatic moments, from the biggest characters to the smallest. So, I felt confident that J.C. was really going to honor all of our performances in the edit room, even though Garrett and I were accustomed to doing slightly bigger roles in our work than the supporting roles we played in this. I sort of mitigated the concern about that by just understanding how the process works from past experience.
The film begins with Ironhead describing the toll his military service has taken on his personal life and how he once choked someone at the grocery store. Do you channel moments of rage from your own life in order to feel what Ironhead might have been feeling, or do you trust the writing and your performance to elicit such feelings?
I think a little bit of both. As a hot-headed, red-blooded young man at one point in my life, I dealt with a lot of feelings of frustration and rage. I grew up fighting; I grew up in an environment where everybody fought. So I know I have that experience in my body and in my psychology to understand, at least, what he’s talking about. I don’t have to synthesize or adapt another experience to be able to understand it. So I think that’s really the key. Ironhead has moved on to a different part of his life; he’s talking about the place he was in, as opposed to the place he’s in now. In general, it’s always a bit of a mixture of both things. You have to be able to understand, whether it’s a literal application of something in your life or something that’s next door to it, that you can understand and elicit a close-enough emotional response. And then, on top of that, you have to trust the writing to a certain degree.
You’re wounded during a portion of the film. Are you conscious of this throughout every moment in every scene, or only when the director decides to call attention to it again?
It’s my job as the actor to carry those things day to day. It was a real question between J.C. and myself how much we wanted to play that and what the actual reality of a wound like that would be. We were fortunate enough to have some excellent military advisers with us the whole time. A couple of them had taken fire on missions like that and had completed long-duration missions with bullet wounds. So they were able to give us real insight and talk us through the process and vacillation of that being debilitating and not. Those types of wounds go as the adrenaline and shock takes hold, wanes and grows. The simple answer is: on any given day, I modulated the debilitating aspect of that wound to give J.C. options in the editing room. So he could play or not play as much as he chose to. I actually haven’t seen the film, so I don’t really know.
Are you able to watch your own work?
No, I don’t watch my work.
Because you’re no longer playing a Californian outlaw for half the year, is it more difficult to recall your American accent, or do you slide right into it still?
It’s certainly more difficult, because I’m going off and doing different things. I’ve been working in England a lot, which sort of complicates the process a little bit. I did some ADR on this film, and I certainly didn’t do quite as good a job as I have in the past with the accent. By virtue of that, and of itself, I definitely struggle more now that I don’t do it every day. I’m gonna address that next time out when playing an American. Actually, I’ve played two American roles since I finished this, and I’ve addressed that on both occasions. So hopefully I’m back to optimal levels of proficiency.
I thought you sounded like your old self.
Well, that’s great to hear. We may have fixed it in the editing room, because J.C. was very sensitive to that. He had a dialect coach come in, watch the film and identify any areas that she thought that I had slipped. And then we addressed it. So we may well have fixed all the mistakes, but prior to that, there were definitely some mistakes made.
I’m curious about the lasting influence of your former directors. When you’re challenged by a scene, or stuck in some way, do you ever think back to the advice of Guillermo del Toro, James Gray, Kurt Sutter or Alfonso Cuaron to solve the matter at hand?
Not consciously. I think I’ve learned more about acting from working with the actors that I’ve worked with than the directors that I’ve worked with. Most directors want you to show up and just deliver the goods. Most directors have got so much to do and are not that well-equipped at working with actors, funnily enough. Because the actor is front and center in the viewer’s eye in the experience of watching a film, it would seem as though that there’s a lot of focus from a director put on performance, but in my experience, that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s fairly rarely the case that you’ll get a pure, performance-driven director. They’re normally much more engaged in the visual storytelling of the film and rallying the troops and making sure they’re overviewing every department. Of course, they give some direction, and we’ll talk about performance a little bit, but I certainly have never felt like you can show up and rely on a director to help you out of a bad spot. You better show up knowing what you intend to do in a scene, at least to get you 80 percent of the way, and then if there needs to be some adjustment, you guys find something together on the day. I think about some of the really, really great actors that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, they are the people that I think I’ve learned the most from.
Some people may not know that you’re an aspiring filmmaker as you write and develop projects for yourself. In the last few years, one of your former scene partners, Taylor Sheridan, has been on quite a filmmaking tear of his own. When you see successful transitions like this among your acting peers, does your desire to produce your own material increase even more?
Yeah, of course. It fills me with jealousy and a sense that “Fuck, if they’re doing it, I should be doing it.” That’s been a consistent part of my experience right from the early days of working with Jason Segel and Seth Rogen, who I was really tight with back in the day. They were all taking the initiative and really getting it going. I have a somewhat successful sub-career as a filmmaker. I’ve sold four scripts and a couple of other projects that I went out and pitched to the studios and hired other writers. I just haven’t gotten anything across the finish line yet in terms of getting anything actually into production. I have a project now that I just set up at a studio, and I’m feeling like we’ve already built up a nice amount of inertia behind it. I’m hoping that this one will break the curse. Every project that I’ve ever developed, I’ve managed to sell to studios. So I have a pretty impressive track record of being able to set stuff up, but an appalling track record of being able to get it across the finish line. Part of that is because I find it very, very difficult to split my focus. I’ve been enjoying a really lovely tear as an actor right now; I made four films last year and spent 50 weeks of the year out of L.A. So it’s very difficult to continue producing, which really requires you to be in L.A., taking meetings and pushing the boulder up the mountain every day. It’s just very, very difficult for me to do that while I’m in Australia, Hawaii or all of the other places that I was working last year.
You made a film with Sam Taylor-Johnson called A Million Little Pieces, which recently premiered at TIFF. I noticed that a certain Ryan Hurst (Sons of Anarchy) was listed among the cast. Did you guys get the chance to reunite on screen?
Ryan is one of my best friends. There were a couple years where I didn’t spend much time with Ryan, and then I got into a yoga practice that he has really devoted himself to in a very significant way. So, we now see each other very, very frequently at this Kundalini yoga studio that we both go to. He’s one of my dear friends. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any screen time together. We both basically went in sort of as a favor to Sam, because we both really, really love Sam and Aaron [Taylor-Johnson]. I was only on that film for two days. I just went in to do a couple scenes with them, because they were putting that film together for absolutely no money at all. Aaron asked me to come in and play his big brother in it; I was obviously happy to do that. I had an unfortunate situation with Sam in the past where I really let her down by not honoring the agreement that I made to go and act for her in Fifty Shades of Grey. So I felt like it was nice to be able to do that for her and to sort of honor the intention that we had initially to work together creatively like that.
Last, I was impressed by your performance in Papillon.
I really appreciate that, thank you. You’re certainly in the minority I think. (Laughs) That film did not seem to go down too well, but Rami [Malek] and I really put our hearts into it. I actually had dinner with him last night, and we were lamenting the failure of that film a little bit. But it is what it is.
Triple Frontier is now playing in select theaters; it will be available on Netflix on March 13.
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