Hunnam's raunchy turn

Ever since the movie rights to the best- selling erotic book Fifty Shades Of Grey were sold last March, there had been continual speculation about who would play the novel's two lovers.

This week, author E.L. James finally put an end to all the rumours by confirming that Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson will play the troubled billionaire Christian Grey and virginal student Anastasia Steele, whose kinky sexual exploits underpinned her three- book literary sensation, which started in 2011 and includes Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

When Life! met Hunnam in Los Angeles this year to talk about the film Pacific Rim, his biggest project to date, the 33-year-old Briton brimmed with a confidence and ambition that seemed to dwarf what had been a steady but not quite spectacular career.

"In this period of my life, I've been getting to do the work that I feel is right for me and that I've always wanted to do," says the Newcastle-born actor, who has lived in the United States for 15 years and now speaks with a constantly shape-shifting accent. "Because in the beginning of my career, I was cast as a lot of pretty boys and I hated that. So I made an active decision to try and find coarser, harder characters to play, and that's worked out well.

"In the future, I want to try and be a bit more diverse, and not just playing hard guys all the time."

Whether or not he knew then that it was on the cards, the part of Grey - a billionaire industrialist with a thing for bondage and sadomasochism - would certainly be a departure for the actor.

He already has the body for any potential sex scenes though - the by-product of being a fitness freak and of playing Jax Teller, the hard-as-nails lead character on Sons Of Anarchy, a TV crime drama about a motorcycle gang in a small California town that enters its sixth season this month.

Moreover, Hunnam's first major acting job - the British television drama Queer As Folk, for which he filmed explicit gay sex scenes at the age of 18 - proved that he could handle getting raunchy for the cameras.

Soon after it ended, the actor, who has been dating jewellery designer Morgana McNelis for six years, moved to the US, where the "pretty boy" typecasting continued for a while before he began seeking out more rough-and-tough characters, including a football hooligan in the British indie film Green Street (2005) and an ex-convict in the crime drama Deadfall (2012).

Hunnam says that his working-class upbringing in the north-east of England prepared him well for these roles. "In Newcastle, men are still men in a way that died out in most places in the 1960s. No one in my neighbourhood ever called the police. If you had a problem, you dealt with it yourself."

One of his biggest influences was his father, whom he describes, without elaborating, as having been "an outsider and a career-long criminal, a very hard and respected man".

And although it "totally blows my dad's mind" that one of his two sons is now a Hollywood actor, "to me, it makes all the sense in the world because Hollywood is obsessed with crime".

"About one-third of all movies made are about criminals. So if you have a guy who came from that environment and understands it, I think that's a lot of what I have to offer."

Now he has a lot more to offer, of course, given his rapidly expanding resume.

Pacific Rim, this year's robots-versus-monsters blockbuster by Guillermo del Toro, has done well internationally after underperforming in the US, meaning that a sequel could be in the works.

The director, who is known to rehire his favourite actors time and again, has already recruited Hunnam for his 2015 horror film, Crimson Peak.

And of course, Fifty Shades Of Grey could turn into a big franchise too. With more than 70 million copies of the book and its two sequels sold, adding US$95 million (S$121.2 million) to James' bank account, there are high hopes on this front.

Which is why all eyes are now on Hunnam and Johnson, 23, the daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. Many are also counting on director Sam Taylor-Johnson, the British independent film-maker behind Nowhere Boy (2009), to elevate the movie beyond soft-core pornography.

If it does well, it would be a big boost for the actors, especially Johnson, who has had only small roles in movies such as The Social Network (2010) and The Five Year Engagement (2012). But even if it does become a profitable franchise, acting is just one feather in Hunnam's cap.

The actor has written and sold a screenplay about Vlad the Impaler, the 15th-century figure who inspired the Dracula myth, which a production company owned by actor Brad Pitt is set to film. He is now also working on another movie script about the Mexican drug war, based on the true story of American-born Edgar Valdez, who rose through the ranks of the cartel. As he talks about it, his eyes light up. His goal is to eventually write and direct his own low-budget independent films. And that is the whole point of taking on roles in big films with big pay cheques.

"My taste leans more towards dramatic material and smaller film-making. But one of the things that is potentially so exciting for me about being part of a big film is that it makes it a lot more viable to be engaged in small films.

"Some of the small film-makers I love struggle to get their movies made, and having somebody who has a little bit of weight behind them... knock on wood, if Pacific Rim does well, I could potentially be in a position to make it easier for people to get their films made.

"Which is sweet because it means they'd hire me, you know," he says with a smile.

Hunnam would even dip into his own pocket to make this dream come true. "I'm really frugal in my life and I think I'm a good businessman. I'm really careful and keep track of where everything is and what everything is doing.

"But I'd be willing to fly completely in the face of that and do the stupidest thing you can do and actually finance my own movie. Because I know that I can make the movie I want, a well-rounded movie, for about US$500,000."

Till then, he wants to take on as broad a range of work as he can, to stretch himself as an actor and build up the bank. Just do not expect to see him in a romantic comedy any time soon. "No, no, no, no, no," he says, laughing. "I like diversity, but that's maybe a little too diverse for me."

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