Interview: Director Guy Ritchie and star Charlie Hunnam on ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’

Guy Ritchie’s spent his career playing in the sandpit with quintessentially English characters of both his own design and, more recently, those of others (Sherlock Holmes, and yes, we’re going to half-count The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as it’s one big Bond riff). Hearing Ritchie was tackling a new King Arthur film was therefore hardly surprising, not to mention that his Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) was going to be a bit of a street-smart larrikin. Flicks’ Matt Glasby joined the director and his leading man around an English round table to find out more about their partnership and bringing this English legend to life in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

FLICKS: So Charlie, how did you beef up to play King Arthur after losing all that weight for ‘Sons Of Anarchy’? Did Guy want you really muscly?

CHARLIE HUNNAM: Yeah he likes them muscly does Guy [laughs]. Just the traditional way of going to the gym and doing lots of manly things like lifting weights and doing pull-ups. Same old, you know, there’s nothing really exciting to the process…

What’s your vision of the character? Your King Arthur is a hustler from the streets, who’s brought up in a brothel… not the character we’re used to seeing.

He’s a guy who just found himself in a certain environment and is cracking on and making the best of it, you know, he’s had a level of ambition to live the best he could in the environment that he’s in. Like [Jude Law’s villain] Vortigen says, “What would you have become had you been born into all the opportunity of your family?” There was a determination in him to live a certain quality of life, and to be somebody. It just so happens that because he found himself in a pretty gritty environment, it manifested in a certain direction instead of the way he would have gone if he’d been born within the lineage he was supposed to be born into.

All the same, you must be the first King Arthur to call anyone “honey tits”.

[Laughs] Yeah channeling a bit of Mel Gibson… I think that was “sugar tits” though, right, the Mel Gibson thing?

But you can also hear some of Guy’s trademark dialogue coming through, which isn’t what you’d expect from King Arthur.

If you’re going to tackle a story that’s been told many times you have to figure out a way to make it more relevant. I think Guy was definitely the man for the job to give a gritty, contemporary edge.

Guy, did you have a fondness for the Arthurian legend before this, or was this a new thing for you?

GUY RITCHIE: I think I was affected, like most Englishmen, unconsciously by the myth and John Boorman’s movie [Excalibur], which affected me back in the 1980s. I liked that a lot. I was interested in the challenge of trying to make it contemporary; a lot of it was to do with the challenge: how do you make that genre, which I hadn’t gone near before, how do you make that relevant? What was the essence of the mythology, and to capture that essence? How to make a good guy an interesting guy? How to make a king an interesting king, one you actually care about? And how does he relate to you as an average man? There were a million different reasons that I was attracted to the legend, but you are trying to capture the essence of evolution. That’s really what I think the story’s about…

To make this story contemporary means you have to keep pace with the Marvel superheroes and all that. How did that affect you in trying to find a mix between the old King Arthur and the new King Arthur?

RITCHIE: I think this brings up a bigger question: the polarisation of TV and cinema. To a degree cinema has become a sensational format, so you have to respect the rules of contemporary cinema. Because why do you go the cinema now, when TV can give you so much? You do need more from cinema than you used to. It needs to be an event of sorts just because television has become so interesting. There seems to be a polarisation between what cinema needs to do now and what TV needs to do. So I’m aware of the rules of contemporary cinema but it does need to be an experience, otherwise there’s no point, you’re just making TV…

Why did you choose Charlie?

RITCHIE: Well actually Charlie chose me. I’ll let Charlie tell you [laughs].

HUNNAM: I heard that Guy was doing this and I thought, “Woo King Arthur with Guy Ritchie, that sounds like a terribly good idea!” So I threw my name in the hat and it got thrown back out! I just so happened to be free the week he was reading actors in England, so I used all of my weight in the team that I have to help me navigate this career and got them to convince Guy it would be a good idea to let me fly over and at least sit down with him. So I went to Guy’s house and sat down for an hour and didn’t talk about the script at all, but life and things that we were interested in, and we found ourselves having a lovely time and so, he invited me to come and read a couple of days later and I guess I did a good job.

Is it correct that you threatened to punch the other three actors?

HUNNAM: Yeah that’s true. I was very very skinny, I’d done the last season of Sons Of Anarchy, and the character had gone through a very dramatic emotional trauma and so I’d lost a lot of weight, so I showed up very skinny and not looking particularly heroic or formidable, and this was something that Guy asked me about several times. After the fourth time he asked me, “Are you sure you can put on weight, do you always look this skinny and feeble?” I said, “I’ll tell you what, let’s forget about all this auditioning bollocks. I know you’ve got three other guys outside reading for this role, just put us all in a room and whoever comes out gets the role.” He said, “Alright, calm down!”

RITCHIE: So he came out, the others are still in there [laughs]!

How did you make the subject your own?

RITCHIE: Actually the idea for this film, the adjective to describe it, at the beginning which I did not succeed in at all, was solemn… [laughs]. I wanted to make a solemn film [laughs] and somewhere along the way it became something else. But that was my plan, because to me the films that usually work in this genre are solemn, so that was my objective, but as each scene comes along you think “well, actually I’m feeling more of this“. If you look at a genre you can be too intimidated, particularly if you’re used to doing a certain thing, you go “I’m not going to bother”. I’m not like that anymore. When Sherlock Holmes came along, I thought “what am I going to do with a 19th-century England costume drama”, then I went, “Oh fuck it I’ll have a go anyway…” Then you have a go, and the different components that were exotic and intimidating become challenging and exciting, and this genre is no exception. It’s a tricky genre…

You say a movie should be an event, and this is certainly larger than life, how far is too far that people won’t believe it?

RITCHIE: Well, you have to remember we have 300-foot elephants, so we’ve already taken a sojourn into the fantastic anyway, but I suppose that’s why filmmaking’s interesting because you don’t really have to stick to the rules. Yet somehow within that there are rules of credibility that you’ll follow, the narrative and the essence of the film, and at a certain point you’ll go, “Oh that’s too much for me.” And I don’t know, you have to feel, the actor has to feel, the director has to feel that sensibility all the way through… although you’ve got 300-foot elephants.

HUNNAM: It has to be grounded in an emotional, relatable journey. You can have a really fantastical world, but if you have a journey at the centre of it that hopefully is emotionally resonant and speaks to an audience’s understanding and appreciation of the journey of life… I think there’s a lot of things that Arthur in particular is struggling with that we can all really relate to, and that’s ultimately why this mythology is vital, it’s about overcoming our internal demons, the idea that a challenge on the outside that seems insurmountable will always be insurmountable if you haven’t looked to the inside, but looking inside is the greatest challenge and if you conquer your internal demons, then you’ll have the strength to conquer any eternal challenge and that’s obviously the journey that Arthur goes on. I think that’s really relatable for everybody.

One of the things the film does differently is to bring London street life into the story. For a moment there it’s like you’ve transposed a typical Guy Ritchie London crime caper into Arthurian times… Was that always the intention?

RITCHIE: No [laughs]. Not when I had the word “solemn” as the adjective for the film. But what I found was it was just very long-winded, the beginning, and I wanted to get on with the narrative, so we just condensed 20 minutes of information into 1.5 minutes… It just became that way, I intended to make something different. But then inevitably we found ourselves going, “Fucking hell, how are we going to make this move?” That’s how we made it move.

How did you manage to combine all these different ideas?

RITCHIE: That’s the curious thing about film-making. I’d be very cautious about giving advice because I don’t really understand how the process works myself. As far as I’m aware, there are a lot of happy accidents that take place – and some unhappy ones too. There’s your mission, there’s your end goal, it’s over there somewhere, and it’s really a question of building bridges to get to that destination, and I’m not intimidated by the journey. I’m challenged by the journey. Initially at some point, I’m scared by it, but I just go, OK, do each day as it comes, build those bridges to get to that destination, and you just throw as much instinct as you can at certain things and you worry about it later. And intuitively you start to feel your way, and it all takes place in the cauldron of your mind. There isn’t really an intellectual process that takes place, it’s more of a visceral intuitive process.

There’s a lot of magic in the film. Guy what is the meaning of magic for you?

RITCHIE: That’s an interesting question. I could go on a while [laughs]. There was an interesting thing I read the other day about luck, that there’s really no such thing as luck, it’s just our inability to fill in the space between cause and effect because of our finite minds. We go, “Oh it’s just luck,” and it’s a convenient alibi or answer. And one could say the same thing about magic. Is there really such a thing as magic? Or is it our inability to understand the fabric of reality? Does that fall under the category of luck, miracles or magic, or is magic really a shorthand way to describe natural law? So I subscribe to the idea of magic, but probably under the understanding that it’s probably not as magical as our minds are making it. But there’s rather a wonderful feeling you get from not understanding the laws of nature, you get this sensation that children seem to have, of magic. But I suspect that’s correlating to something that’s deeper and more intuitive.

HUNNAM: Good answer!

What are your favourite memories from the set?

HUNNAM: The behind-the-scenes process was really wonderful for me on this film. We spent three weeks in Wales shooting and Guy had set it up really perfectly. It was the first experience for me of filmmaking as I’d always dreamed of it, which is a real family union, all day everyday was about the process. We camped together by this little lake so we would get up in the morning, and Ivan, Guy’s right-hand man, and I would get up and have the “plunge of death” in this freezing cold lake in the morning, then we’d start a fire, warm ourselves up. It’s all on film somewhere, they certainly documented the plunge of death.

Was this a naked “plunge of death”?

HUNNAM: It was not a naked plunge of death. It was too cold for that. I’ve got my reputation to worry about [laughs].

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens May 18