It’s not that “Pacific Rim” star Charlie Hunnam hasn’t had a chance at a breakout movie role. The English actor was nearly cast as Thor and turned down Russell Brand’s part in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which Jason Segel originally wrote for Hunnam.
Yet only now, in Guillermo del Toro’s fantastic monsters-versus-robots epic “Pacific Rim,” has he found a big part that synced up with the interests of both the filmmaker and Hunnam, who always “had a really, really specific idea of the type of work that I wanted to do.”
In the film, opening July 12, the 33-year-old actor plays Raleigh, a former pilot pulled out of retirement in 2025. He’s needed to command one of the remaining Jaegers—giant, mechanical robots that people created to defend the planet against massive monsters known as “Kaijus” that have destroyed cities worldwide for more than a decade.
Hunnam, best known for the TV series “Sons of Anarchy” and Judd Apatow’s cult favorite “Undeclared,” talked by phone from San Francisco about preparing for monstrous battle, the most “brutal” experience of his life and his advice for the (apparently) approaching apocalypse.
To play an ex-boxer in “Deadfall” you trained like a boxer. For “Pacific Rim,” what monsters did you fight to prepare?
[Laughs.] You know, I just argued with my girlfriend a little bit. That was enough. [Laughs.] She’ll kill me for saying that. It took a lot of training for this film. I had to train for the actual replication of what it would be like to pilot one of these machines. There were a couple of really in-depth fights that I did, too. A martial arts fight and a hand bow—a stick-fighting sequence. It was a lot of training.
When someone argues with their significant other, how often does that seem to them like they’re battling with a giant monster?
It depends how formidable their significant other is. Mine is pretty formidable. [Laughs.] I don’t know if I would rank her quite as Kaiju-esque, but she’s maybe a baby Kaiju.
How do you prepare to have 250 gallons of water dumped on you every minute for a week?
I thought I was prepared. I just did a lot of physical training and a little bit of meditating and really trying to get my mental and physical strength to as strong as it could be. I was actually one of the last people to go in the [control] pod. I was going to be in there for a much, much longer time than anyone else, so they got everyone else in it first.
And all these guys that consider themselves such tough dudes were all crying like little girls about how brutal the [control] pod was. And I thought, “You know what? I’m going to show them how a real man handles a situation like this.” By the end of the third day, I too was crying like a girl. But I was in there for 27 days.
All joking aside, it actually was the most brutal, physical experience of my life. We were essentially on an elliptical machine at high resistance for 14 hours a day wearing a suit that weighed approximately 30 pounds dry. But then, as you said, they would pour 250 gallons of water a minute onto my head, so then .. it was probably closer to 50 pounds. Movement was completely restricted because you were strapped into the machine. So it’s not like between takes we could get out of it.
We were standing on this elliptical machine for seven hours and then a half-hour lunch and then another seven hours. I had to really dig deep and take all of my strength to find some kind of calm place. Otherwise, I felt like I was going to lose my mind in there.
For a while I’ve been bringing get-ups like that to the gym’s elliptical machine so I can be prepared if any situations like this come up.
God bless you. If the Kaiju come, you’re one of the few that’s going to be ready.
It seems like they are coming. In the movie, the year 2020 is Year 7 of the war, so I think we better start getting prepared.
Oh, we better get prepared. One way or another, we better get prepared. The Kaiju are a beautiful allegory for what we’re actually facing. [The film is] a big, spectacular action romp, but at the center of it is a really beautiful human story. It’s about people facing potentially the impending apocalypse and putting their petty differences aside and coming together to try to figure out a solution. I think that’s a really nice, potent message because I am one of the people out there that truly believe that the apocalypse is nigh. [Laughs.] With the population spinning out of control and global warming and the myriad of problems that we’re facing as mankind, we better drop our petty differences pretty quick and figure out how we’re going to deal with this.
When you say “nigh,” is that like two weeks? Six months? I just want to mark my calendar.
I think we’re going to be in the next 50-75 years dealing with some seriously, seriously big problems. But, you know, party on for the next 20 years. [Laughs.]
Will that be from a human incident or monster attack?
[Laughs.] I think human incident, but I’m not ruling anything out.
How would Jax from “Sons of Anarchy” handle battling the Kaiju?
I think Jax Teller would wreak havoc with the Kaiju. I think he would do just fine strapped into a Jaeger. Maybe with Opie as his co-pilot. They would go and kick some serious [Kaiju] ass.
You talked about not being considered for tough roles early in your career. Now, how much trouble do you think you’d have being considered for non-tough roles, since you’re obviously such a badass?
[Laughs.] That’s good. It’s funny; I grew up so rough and tumble and fighting and playing rugby and stuff, and then I got to Hollywood and everybody wanted me to play these pretty boy roles. In the beginning of one’s career, you just have to do the work that you can get to establish yourself to a certain degree. I was always choosy, but you have to take the opportunities that are presented. I got to the point where I felt like I have to break out of this, and I got some badass in me that I have to let out. Now I seem to have been playing a string of badasses.
It’s funny; I’m going to go and do another movie with Guillermo this spring. It came out of knowing Guillermo and him seeing all of my different sides as a human being. I’m going to play for the first time in my career this quiet, stolid, contained, learned man who doesn’t get the girl, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s swashbuckling ladies’ man. So I’m really excited about that.
After seeing how “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” turned out, did you have any regrets?
No. You know what? I did have some regrets. Because after that period, after I turned that down, I still had another whole year of complete unemployment. They went off and made this movie and had a wonderful experience and everyone got paid a lot of money. They had offered me a [bleep]-load of money that would have been life-changing for me at that point, but I just couldn’t do it. I toiled with myself for that whole year, like, “Why? Why am I so cerebral? Why didn’t I just go and have a good time with my friends and go and do this thing and what the hell is the matter with me?” All those type of thoughts.
And then it’s funny; I couldn’t see the movie for a while because I was a bit tortured by it. And then I went and did some projects—I got “Sons of Anarchy” and I made a couple movies that I was really excited about. Then I saw it right after I had seen Russell Brand do some stand-up on TV. It just seemed to me that it had all gone exactly the way it was supposed to go.
Russell Brand did a so much better job than I would have done in the movie. He was so much more equipped for that role. The role was different; he wasn’t a rock star. He was a young actor in the version that I was going to do. And there was actually a very, very funny reveal where I had this really big Texas twang for the first half of the movie and then I get into an argument with Sarah Marshall and she goes, “Can you stop doing that goddamn accent?!” And then I’d say (in English accent), “But honey, how am I ever going to get work in America if I don’t practice my accent?” And then there’s the big reveal that I was actually English. We had a lot of laughs in the read-through, but like I said, it was bad timing for me.
On Chicago: “I did Chicago royal, actually. I came as the guest of the Pritzkers. I did a film for OddLot Entertainment of which Gigi Pritzker owns and they came out and we did a premiere in Chicago. It was nice. They took good care of us, and I got to spend a couple days in the city. It’s a beautiful city. It was called ‘Green Street Hooligans.’ It was a film set in England about soccer hooligans."
On Segel writing a part in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for him: “It was in a really difficult time in my career where a lot of directors that I really loved and respected wanted to hire me, but then they would go with the idea to the studio and the studio would say, ‘Listen, we think he’s great. He’s just not a big enough star for us to justify gambling this big of an investment on. So you can’t hire him.’ And I had my heart broken time and time again. Like we kind of discussed a little earlier, I had a really, really specific idea of the type of work that I wanted to do. And it was much more dramatically based. And I just felt at that point I was really, really primed to go and do something that I needed to do that was going to be a catharsis for this massive amount of period of time that I’d been out of work and struggling. So when that came along it just felt like the wrong thing for me to do at that time. So I did the read-through, and it went really well and everything, and they made the financial offer and I just said, ‘Listen, guys. I’m so sorry. I really, really appreciate the opportunity …’ [Jason] was one of my best friends. I said, ‘Thank you so much. I know this is going to be kind of a blow for you, but I just can’t go and do this movie right now.’ Judd was pretty pissed off about it. He didn’t fully understand where I was coming from, but hopefully now that he’s seen me stick to my guns and go and do the type of work that I do want to do that in hindsight he may understand the reasoning behind it.”
On “Thor”: “I thought the pedigree was wonderful. Obviously Kenneth Branagh is a badass, and I thought he would do a great job. But I went into the process somewhat reluctantly just ‘cause I didn’t really see myself as Thor. I’m not a small guy, but I’m not a demigod by any means. [Laughs.] So I went through this process, and we got deeper and deeper and deeper into it, and I had ended up meeting with Kenneth seven times, and it was kind of the 11th hour but I feel like he felt like he was settling. He really respected me as an actor, and a lot of the stuff we were doing in these rehearsal periods together was really, really good. But he felt it and I felt it that I just wasn’t quite Thor. And then out of the blue, Chris Hemsworth came along who is just a magnificent Thor. He’s six-foot-six or whatever, six-foot-four. Has that deep, baritone voice and is easily 80 pounds, 100 pounds heavier than me. Well, maybe not 100 pounds, but you know what I mean. He’s 60 pounds heavier than me. And Branagh just breathed a sigh of relief and felt like he had finally found his Thor, and frankly I breathed a sigh of relief too because I just wasn’t feeling it in my gut. So that was a big one. That wasn’t one that I really, really wanted, but it was certainly one that I had almost done, and again I just feel like the right guy ended up doing the role and it all worked out for the best.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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