The legend of King Arthur has always been somewhat malleable. Through medieval histories, romances, and poems, the Historia Regum Britanniae, Chrétien de Troyes, La Morte D’Arthur, up through contemporary incarnations like Excalibur and T.H. White‘s definitive The Once and Future King, Arthur’s tale has shifted and evolved over time, allowing for new characters, new quests, and new fables to emerge for the ancient myth. The one thing that has almost always remained the same is Arthur himself, the noble commoner-turned king who is so thoroughly good and pure of heart.
With King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. director Guy Ritchie is looking to shake things up with an updated approach to the mythology. A broad-scale fantasy epic filled with magic and Ritchie’s trademark machismo, Legend of the Sword paints Arthur, not as a paragon of virtue, but an average dude with an underprivileged upbringing who struggles with his destiny.
For his gritty, modernized, hyper-masculine spin on the classic tales of knighthood and chivalry, Ritchie turned to Sons of Anarchy and Pacific Rim star Charlie Hunnam as his titular hero. Hunnam, whose career has found him pitched somewhere between the archetypes of bad boy and leading man, brings an easy swagger to the reinvented literary and historical figure, giving him the air of a casual and relatable everyman with just a bit more edge. In Hunnam’s words, he’s also a bit of a “fuck-up,” and a clear divergence from his traditional characterization as the penultimate knight and ruler, the consummate good guy and bastion of morality. Hunnam’s Arthur has plenty of room to grow.
At his side is his loyal right-hand man (Lancelot isn’t a key player in this movie), Sir Bedivere, one of Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable. A loyalist to Arthur’s father Uther (Eric Bana), Bedivere waited 25 years after his king’s murder for the true heir to return, and once he pulls the sword from the stone, or rather, his father’s calcified body as it is in the film’s mythology, the Knight is eager to join in service to the rightful king. As Bedivere, Gladiator and The Legend of Tarzan star Djimon Hounsou has an easy chemistry with Hunnam, an easy going rapport of shared affability and mutual respect.
During my time on set, I joined a small group of reporters to chat with the amiable pair about their respective roles in the new fantasy epic. While they couldn’t give away many details about the film’s story, Hunnam and Honsou had plenty to say about how King Arthur revamps and reinvigorates the ancient tale, the challenge of pulling off their intensive action set-pieces, which bear Ritchie’s signature kinetically bracing style, and working with a director who is never afraid to go off-script and find the scene as it’s happening. Check out the full interview below.
How did you come to work together?
DJIMON HOUNSOU:: The call came in, and my agent said, “Charlie Hunnam,” “The guy from the biker show?” “Yeah,” my agents said. “He’s nice. He’s really cool. You’ll like him!” That was it. I came and met Charlie and it was a great rapport. Some people you just meet and have an affinity for. [There’s] no ego. It was a nice rapport.
CHARLIE HUNNAM: We did something strange and wonderful. I didn’t think it was gonna work at all, but it did. Guy had this wacky idea that he wanted to take an afternoon before we started working and shoot the whole film in four hours on two or three cameras and in a room all in black. We shot the whole film, and that’s where we met. That’s where most of the cast met. It was a baptism of fire. It was such a high-energy, sort of anxiety-inducing experience.
HOUNSOU:: I landed the night before and I got here and met quickly for wardrobe, and I [heard] we had a video shoot the next morning. So I was highly stressed to say the least.
HUNNAM: But we came down really well right away. As soon as I came up and shook your hand I was like, “Ah, this motherfucker’s cool.” [Laughs.]
We’ve seen many versions of the King Arthur story. This one has a contemporary sensibility. Can you talk about what we’ll be seeing that we haven’t seen before?
HOUNSOU:: The one obvious thing that you’ll see more of in this story is that it’s really about the Knights of the Round Table. How all of those knights came to make the king who he is.
HUNNAM: : As you would imagine, it’s the origin story. It’s the sort of Arthur origin story, of his rise to the throne. So it’s a reinvention certainly of the periods between him being estranged from his family and reuniting with his destiny, with sort of the royal lineage. It’s a very different sort of rendering. Much grimmer and grittier, and in a certain way probably much more modern. The camaraderie feels sort of modern and easily recognizable as boys’ banter, the sort of stuff Guy does very well. But I feel like the world and the pace of the whole thing feels very period. I don’t think it feels like an uber modern rendering of it.
Was it intimidating to take on a role that has such a history to it?
HUNNAM: No, if you think about that stuff you’ll completely get head-fucked. So I just don’t think about that at all. I just try to get to know the character on my own terms. Guy and I discussed a great deal who he was and what sort of version we found, between the two of us, most exciting. But I’m very familiar with Arthurian legend. In fact, my girlfriend is called Morgana, and one of my favorite films, that actually led me to want to become an actor, was Excalibur. I watched Excalibur ad nauseum as a child. So I’m very familiar with the world. But I just decided not to go back. I’d read The Once and Future King years ago, and I’ve always loved this world. But I decided to just try to forget everything I’d ever seen, and just come in with it fresh, and not feel that pressure of having to do justice to this beloved story. It just felt like it was much healthier and more fun and more exciting and more free just to approach it as though it was a completely original story and a completely original character; and not feel beholden to any of the shit you’d seen before, you know?