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Holiday Sneaks

An impetuous Brit's lessons in privacy, gunslinging and love

Charlie Hunnam, 22, seen in 'Undeclared' and 'Queer as Folk,' now gets bigger roles, eschews fame and has mixed spontaneity and romance.

November 03, 2002|Peter McQuaid | Special to The Times

Charlie Hunnam, 22, is trying to adjust to celebrity. "We were on location making 'Nicholas Nickleby' in Yorkshire for two weeks, and I have this issue with my privacy and people going through my stuff. So we check into this hotel, and the next day, I'm going off to work, and I put all my stuff in my bag and I shove the bag under the desk.

"I get home that night and I have a shower and go to my bag to get some clothes, and someone has been through my clothes," he says, and, worse, his bottled water "is standing up in my bag with no cap on, and I'm freaked, and furious."

As for possible motivations of the perpetrator, he inventories a few creepy-to-contemplate scenarios that are probably numbingly familiar to any actor who looks like him, not to mention one whose first big career boost happened to be playing a sexually precocious teenager with lots of sex scenes on a landmark British TV series charting the life of several gay men.

"So I tear the room apart" to see if anything important is missing and "looking for the cap for the bottle and it's nowhere to be found and now I'm completely furious, and I go downstairs and complain to the management," whose only response was to offer to clean his clothes. Hunnam demurred, instead referring them to his lawyer.

Well.

"You really opened a Pandora's box with that one!" he says, laughing. The precipitating question: Are you adjusting to celebrity?

Sitting in the garden of a West Hollywood tea emporium, Hunnam, despite his tale of temper, comes across as exceedingly affable, although if you were expecting Hugh Grant, be advised.... He drives an enormous, jacked-up Chevy SUV. He pulls U-turns in the middle of Melrose Avenue. Today, his hair is a blond bird's nest under a navy watch cap, his exquisitely boned face partially obscured by blond scrub, his tatty jeans riding somewhere just north of his knees, waistline holding on for dear life thanks to a belt and an enormous T-shirt. It is clear this is one Brit who has gone completely native. This is also one of those young men who has absolutely no need to spend even a minute on his appearance. He's that good looking.

The only hint that this d-u-u-de gives of his European breeding is an exquisitely tailored navy blazer over this very SoCal act -- or ensemble.

Considering his career trajectory, Hunnam has every reason to be affable. His first "real job," at 17, was in the original British production of "Queer as Folk," in which he played the aforementioned teen in an affair with a 29-year-old. After that came British indies and then, at 18, Hunnam decided to try his luck in Hollywood.

It was tough, he says. "I had a BMX push-bike to get around. That, and the bus, and a lot of walking."

Yet it wasn't long before he was cast as a British lady killer in last year's critically acclaimed Fox network series "Undeclared," set on a college campus.

Unfortunately, the series lasted only one season, which may have had something to do with why he married Katharine Towne after knowing her for only three weeks. "We were all friends on 'Undeclared' and I was going back to England and my wife and I were afraid we'd lose touch, and we got married as something of a lark -- well, no, I don't think marriage is a lark, but we figured that way we wouldn't lose touch and we'd definitely have to see each other if for no other reason than to get divorced at some point."

He tries to weigh his words carefully, describing an incredibly impetuous act that maybe didn't feel that impetuous at the time, and, well, it just seems like hindsight is the only vision that's guaranteed 20/20. Especially when you're only 22.

While his divorce is pending, he and his wife are really good friends, he says, and get together about once a week. "It's very amicable."

Once his stint with "Undeclared" came to an end, Hunnam landed a role as a blue-blooded American fink in the psychological thriller "Abandon," with Katie Holmes and Benjamin Bratt. It's quite a contrast to the kindhearted Nicholas Nickleby, and Hunnam admits he found it somewhat difficult to play the unbelievably magnanimous Dickensian hero. "I was hired to give the character something of a modern flair," he explains. And he does.

The production, a lush, though somewhat truncated, version of Dickens' epic tale of pluck and decency triumphing over power and money, is a warmhearted "Perils of Pauline," with a cast including Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming and Barry Humphries, a.k.a. Dame Edna. Scripted and directed by Douglas McGrath, the film features the most villainous villains, the most theatrical theatricals, the most heroic heroes; in other words, it's utter holiday fare.

The next day, Hunnam is off to Transylvania for six months, where director Anthony Minghella has re-created a Civil War-era Carolina village for "Cold Mountain." Again, Hunnam finds himself in the company of serious heavyweights, among them Nicole Kidman, Giovanni Ribisi and Renee Zellweger.

"It's about the people who were left behind in the villages during the Civil War and how they coped," he explains. "I play an albino gunfighter who everyone is afraid of a bit but who they won't let fight in the war. So it became our job to safeguard the women and property and also to kill any deserters who came along."

For this, he has not only been studying gunslinging (and growing an extremely long pinky nail "for snuff"), he also has been studying gymnastics. "I had to learn how to do back flips and all that," he explains -- no small feat for someone nearly 6 feet tall. Hunnam, who has never formally studied acting, credits his instructor, Michael Cates of Broadway Gymnastics in Venice, for showing him -- "Just do this, and then this, and it will be fine."

"And it was!" exclaims the actor, somewhat incredulously, of the flip he executed on his first try.

Why are we not surprised?

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