CHAR­LIE HUN­NAM

The out­law biker from Sons of Anar­chy is now a king. As in King Arthur – Char­lie Hun­nam’s role in a new USD100 mil­lion ac­tion movie. Here’s how he rules his own world

Men's Health (Malaysia) - - Cover Stories -

How to be as fit as King Arthur... no Ex­cal­ibur nec­es­sary.

You recog­nise him as Jax, the badass biker from Sons of Anar­chy. He played the gang­banger on TV for seven years. “You ex­cited to do this?” he asks. “It’s not like I know that much jiu-jitsu, but damn, let’s start.” The 36-year-old Brit has been train­ing in Brazil­ian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) for more than a year. He got hooked watch­ing UFC bouts, and wrestling in his back­yard. In a few months, he’ll test for a white belt. Hun­nam stands at around 183cm and is a ripped 75kg. I’m slightly smaller and earned a black belt in Muay Thai years ago. I’m cu­ri­ous to see whether Hun­nam can re­ally fight or it was all an act. We start a 30-minute warm-up with some easy run­ning, but soon we’re do­ing high-knees, butt kicks, and jump­ing jacks. Next we’re on the mat do­ing crunches, side-to-sides, leg raises, push-ups, and pull-ups. Hun­nam hops on the mon­key bars and swings to the end. Sweat spat­ters

on the mat. He does an­other round of bars, and then an­other. Later, I learn that part of his reg­u­lar rou­tine in­cludes run­ning 8km and do­ing 300 push-ups and 100 pull-ups. He’s ready for Amer­i­can Ninja War­rior. This train­ing ses­sion will be in­tense.

That Hun­nam is fas­tid­i­ous about fit­ness is no sur­prise. He has to be fit to meet the phys­i­cal de­mands of the roles he’s drawn to – “mus­cu­lar male nar­ra­tives”. Fresh off Sons of Anar­chy, he switched fo­cus to the big screen, work­ing back-to-back on three movies dur­ing the past two years. The big­gest of them is King Arthur: Leg­end of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie (opens on 11 May). He also stars in The Lost City of Z, about an ex­plorer who dis­ap­peared in the Ama­zon in 1925; and Papil­lon, a re­make of the 1973 Steve McQueen flick (later this year).

But there’s more to his mo­ti­va­tion to ex­er­cise than the de­sire to look good. “I’m in­ter­ested in hav­ing a high fit­ness level across the board,” he says. “Run­ning, swim­ming, jump­ing rope, hik­ing, jiu-jitsu – I try to do it all. I also try to make love as of­ten as I can. That’s an im­por­tant part of fit­ness. There’s no rea­son you can’t be ac­tive at 70. I want to run up moun­tains at that age.” The learn­ing curve in our jiu-jitsu class is steep. In the first seg­ment, the sen­sei teaches new moves, start­ing with arm bars and mov­ing on to choke holds. I’m kneel­ing on the mat and Hun­nam’s arm is wrapped around my throat. The pres­sure on my neck is firm, but I feel strangely safe with him. He’s strong but dis­plays pre­cise con­trol and even a light­ness of touch. Al­though bru­tal, there is an art to cut­ting off some­one’s air sup­ply. I dou­ble-tap his arm to sig­nal sub­mis­sion. The sen­sei, Ri­gan Machado, an eighth-de­gree black belt mem­ber of Brazil­ian jiu-jitsu’s found­ing Gra­cie fam­ily, says Hun­nam is a per­fec­tion­ist – some­thing I ex­pe­ri­ence first­hand as we prac­tise again and again and Hun­nam fine-tunes his chokes. Noth­ing grounds you in the present more than be­ing un­able to breathe. Jiu-jitsu train­ing de­mands fo­cus and dis­ci­pline.

That for­ti­tude was tested dur­ing King Arthur. To pre­pare, Hun­nam “worked out like a moth­erf**ker.” He packed on 10kg of mus­cle by strength train­ing and spent hours learn­ing sword fight­ing and boxing. The movie’s five-minute fi­nal fight scene took five days to shoot, film­ing from 7am to 6pm. “It’s not even as much the phys­i­cal ben­e­fit of train­ing; it’s the men­tal,” he says. “When you’re train­ing every day in a com­bat dis­ci­pline, it just gives you that eye of the tiger. Then if some­one acts ag­gres­sively to­ward you, I can run all the sce­nar­ios through my head – you know, like I’m go­ing to step to the side and put an el­bow through your face.”

Hun­nam sought to reimag­ine the no­ble ac­tion hero with Ritchie, him­self a black belt in BJJ. “We wanted to do some­thing a lit­tle rougher around the edges, while still deal­ing with the rich Arthurian mythol­ogy,” Hun­nam says.

Af­ter King Arthur, Hun­nam had 10 days off. Then he lost nearly 20kg in eight weeks play­ing his next role – Colonel Percy Fawcett, an ob­ses­sive Bri­tish ex­plorer, in The Lost City of Z. Hun­nam elim­i­nated dairy, carbs and sugar. Then he went ve­gan. The shoot was in hu­mid 40-de­gree weather off the grid in the Colom­bian jun­gle. Hun­nam says the big­gest hard­ship was the iso­la­tion. He talked to no one off the set, not even his girl­friend, for four months.

“Peo­ple are all like, ‘That’s so Method of you.’ Maybe it is, but I was wor­ried about the emo­tional breadth of what I had to por­tray. I had to ac­cess that on a day-to-day ba­sis, so I put my­self in the po­si­tion of liv­ing it. I felt the fear, the lone­li­ness.” In­sects at­tacked con­stantly; one even bur­rowed in his ear. A light­ning strike knocked Hun­nam off his feet. The movie was shot in se­quence, and by the end ev­ery­one was a lit­tle crazy, says James Gray, the film’s direc­tor. “Char­lie was starv­ing and un­happy. You can see the hope­less­ness in his eyes. But he never missed a beat. He lis­tens, acts and then reacts.”

The body trans­for­ma­tions con­tin­ued with Papil­lon, the most re­cent movie he filmed. He’d re­gained some weight and had to lose 15kg. “My body was re­luc­tant to drop the weight again,” he says. He used the same ve­gan diet and stole a vice from his char­ac­ter, a felon­turned-prison-es­capee: cig­a­rettes. Hun­nam puffed “like a madman” and sus­tained him­self on cof­fee and nico­tine for three months. “My body was a mess,” he says. “It’s not easy to quit smok­ing.” He’s cur­rently us­ing e-cig­a­rettes to tran­si­tion off.

One vice he did quit was smok­ing weed. He would burn through an ounce a week, but stopped in his early 30s. “In those stupid ways that we iden­tify with our­selves, I felt like I was a Rasta,” he says. “I was sort of proud at my enor­mous abil­ity to smoke pot and func­tion. But I re­alised I didn’t want to spend my life stoned.” Right now, Hun­nam is clear-headed and en­er­getic. We’re prac­tis­ing moves he knows. We stand on the mats, and he teaches me how to do a two-legged takedown. “If you find your­self on the street and some­one wants to take you on, you come in and take them off guard,” he says. “So if I throw a punch at you, you dodge it. The minute you feel them stalling, step in, put your shoul­der into it, and sweep the legs!” We shadow-box for a mo­ment, and then I plunge in. My head and shoul­der are pressed against his hip, my arms clenched around his torso. His feet go up in the air, and in one swoop, I knock him hard to the mat. “Ni­i­i­ice! Just give me a lit­tle bit more push!” he yells. I try again and slam him roughly down – seven more times. “You got it. Oh­hhh, now I’m in trou­ble!” He seems to gen­uinely love prac­tice and learn­ing.

Af­ter class we re­lo­cate to a restau­rant, but the fo­cus stays on fight­ing and learn­ing. Hun­nam tells me about his child­hood near New­cas­tle, in north­ern Eng­land. “It’s a vi­o­lent place. Kids messed each other up pretty good. I was able-bod­ied and a tar­get and was al­ways hav­ing to fight,” he says. He liked paint­ing, photography, play­ing rugby, and had a lot of friends.

When he was 12, his mother moved him and his brother to a small town in Wales. (His par­ents had di­vorced when he was 2.) Hun­nam felt like an out­cast. He spent all his time alone and had a “f**k it” men­tal­ity, watch­ing movies like John Boor­man’s Ex­cal­ibur over and over. His fa­ther, a scrap me­tal dealer with whom he’d stayed close, passed away four years ago. But he be­lieves he’s still with his dad in spirit. “My dad was one of the tough­est sav­age dudes I ever met. In a way, I feel like I have been play­ing my fa­ther a lot in my ca­reer,” he says.

Hun­nam ar­rived in Los An­ge­les at 18 “with no ed­u­ca­tion and noth­ing but an ab­stract dream and stead­fast de­ter­mi­na­tion to be­come an ac­tor.” He scored TV and mod­el­ing gigs that led to Sons of Anar­chy, which he de­scribes as his Ivy League ed­u­ca­tion. “You work so rapidly and have to solve prob­lems on a daily ba­sis, which sharp­ens your emo­tional tool­box.” The grind strength­ened his self-be­lief, and he em­braces it in other ways too. He wants to be flu­ent in Span­ish, so he’s tak­ing lessons. He’s an avid cook and watches tu­to­ri­als. And he’s de­ter­mined to earn a black belt in BJJ by the time he is 45 years old.

But Hun­nam says he doesn’t want a fancy life­style (he drove the same beat-up Cadil­lac for 14 years) and isn’t fu­eled by fame (“It was Socrates or one of those old bas­tards who said, ‘Fame is the per­fume of heroic deeds.’ It means noth­ing”). He says he dreams of wan­der­ing the wilder­ness and liv­ing off the land with his girl­friend of 11 years. When she was cy­ber­bul­lied last year, he re­leased a video telling the per­pe­tra­tors to knock it off. “The way I grew up, if you want to talk shit, talk shit to some­one’s face and be pre­pared to fight.” He sees so­cial me­dia di­vid­ing so­ci­ety, and he de­spairs. Some­times af­ter a shoot, he re-en­ters the world dis­con­nected and feel­ing low.

He com­bats those feel­ings with ex­er­cise. “We are sup­posed to be very ac­tive an­i­mals. It’s our DNA.” Hun­nam de­rives emo­tional sta­bil­ity and clar­ity from his fit­ness. “Sweat­ing is how I change my oil every day. I just feel hap­pier, more pos­i­tive, en­er­gised, and dis­ci­plined if I work out.” Ul­ti­mately, he says, “I train a lot every day be­cause I’m f**king crazy.”

To go from anar­chy (a biker) to monar­chy (King Arthur), Hun­nam worked on slay­ing his per­sonal demons.

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