Michael Noer’s escape movie biopic Papillon is based on author Henri Charrière’s memoirs of the years he spent living in the South American penal colony of French Guiana after being convicted of a murder he denied committing. During the time he served — before he escaped and took up residence in Venezuela — Charrière, nicknamed “Papillon” because of his butterfly tattoo, experienced all kinds of horrors perpetrated upon him and his fellow incarcerated men, which he unflinchingly recounts in his work.
Charlie Hunnam — probably best known for portraying “Jax” on Sons of Anarchy — plays Charrière in the new film, and he recently talked to Uproxx about bringing those horrors to life, collaborating with his favorite directors, why he keeps going back to the jungle, and why he doesn’t regret losing out on a boatload of money to star in 50 Shades of Grey.
What got you interested in this story in the first place?
For me, as I’ve gone through my career, it’s now become all about the director. I mean, exclusively, 100% about the director. You know, it’s such a director’s medium, and a great story or a great character is really irrelevant if you don’t have an amazing director at the center of it. I’m such a huge fan of Michael Noer’s work, I saw R, his first film, which is also a prison film, in the cinema when it came out, and I bought it on DVD and showed it to a couple of my friends. And I was absolutely blown away by his follow-up film, Northwest, so I already came into this with an existing hope to work with him at some point. But I had to hear what the vision was, because I have no issue with retelling a story that’s already been told — because that’s just what we do, time and time again, so the nature of storytelling is to retell the same the ten archetypal stories or whatever —but I was curious to understand what his vision was. So, we met in New York, and we were supposed to have a 2-hour meeting together, and then we realized we’d been walking the streets for 8 hours and he was about to miss his flight, so we rushed back to his hotel so he could pick up his bag and had a very quick farewell and just said, fuck it, let’s do this movie together.
You can really get lost talking about this stuff.
Particularly in New York, when its two people not necessarily from New York, and it was summer and it wasn’t too hot, it was a nice balmy day, and we just walked and walked and walked.
I kept thinking about The Lost City of Z while watching this. Is there something that interests you in these period piece biopics about these complicated historical adventurers?
Again, there has to be something in the character that speaks to me, or gives the potential to explore something that I’m interested in. But with both of these pieces, it was a desire to work with the director, backed up by a really exciting and wonderful character. I suppose there are certain traits or similarities or themes that I find myself drawn to explore; you know, the nature of personal responsibility and sacrifice, and what it requires to find some sort of balance in life. If you have somewhat of an existential viewpoint, or at least the viewpoint that all of life is suffering, as just an axiomatic rule of life, then, where do you go from there? And I find myself interested in exploring that question in my life, and I find it interesting exploring it in my work. Some of the work I’ve done recently has maybe had a consistency in exploring that question.
What did Noer say to you to convince you to do Papillon? What was the one thing where you were like, “Yes, I’m into this.”
I think it was talking about process, about the way in which he goes about it. He comes from a documentary background, and you could feel that experience acutely in his film work. He has an incredible, visceral immediacy to his work. And that’s what we got really, really excited about on that initial day, was just talking about the process. Within the process, it became clear that the sensibility of the film was going to be so different from its predecessor [the 1973 Papillon starring Steve McQueen], that I felt liberated of any sense that this was going to be a remake. I felt that it was going to stand on its own two feet as an independent adaptation, albeit with some similarities.
Is it based on more Henri Charrière’s memoirs or on the previous movie?
I would love to say that it was based more on his memoir, in terms of the architecture of the written word, but I do think [Noer] borrowed very, very heavily from the first adaptation, I think it’s unavoidable to say that. But our adaptation actually borrowed, more than either of those projects, from a completely different entity, which is another true account called Dry Guillotine, by a man named René Belbenoit, who had also spent — I forget exactly — maybe 15 or 20 years incarcerated in French Guiana. This guy was a journalist and a writer prior to his incarceration, so he had a much more academic approach to chronicling his experience of being within this prison system day to day. So that was an incredible resource for us that we drew on in terms of just trying to understand and create an authentic visceral experience of what that prison life was like.
A lot of upsetting stuff goes down in this movie. Was there anything crazy or shocking that you learned while researching?
I’ve been interested in prison narrative, so I’ve visited prisons. I had a really acute experience years ago when I went to visit a supermax prison in Arizona called Eyman, an incredibly big facility that houses an enormous, enormous amount of people. They have the death sentence in Arizona, so there’s the death house there and there’s the death row. I spent a day there, talking with inmates and being given what I considered to be a fairly shocking, maybe unprecedented, level of access to this prison. That was the thing that I drew on in terms of the atmosphere and the feel of those guys in there. Of just total desperation and hopelessness, and yet finding hope in how they were gonna spend their time day-to-day to get through that ordeal.
And there’s that scene in Papillon where your character’s immersed in full darkness in solitary confinement for years, and then he comes out of it and everybody assumes he’s nuts now.
Yeah, it’s rough. I mean, there’s no preparing for that in any way that feels adequate. It’s all so superficial. Whatever one could do, when you think about the reality of what these guys endured, you have to have faith and try to synthesize some basic replication of it, to try to create something of an environment for oneself to at least feel something. There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief that has to go on in the process because it’s such a superficial thing compared to the reality of it.
I did a bit of research before I watched the movie, and I learned that after the memoirs [Papillon and its companion Banco] came out, and after they became bestsellers, people were like, parts of this are not true, he stole stories from other inmates that he met. And then the final line of this movie is your character saying, “This is about a lot of men.” Was that a reference to that factual questionability?
Yeah. One of the things we had to wrap our heads around was that there is a — and I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way — but there’s a larger-than-life quality to what Henri Charrière does in Papillon. But he did spend time there and was involved in that and had a deep connection to the rest of these men. So, I suppose wrapping our heads around the hyperbole or the exaggeration of this narrative started to feel as though there could have been an element of him trying to honor his brothers. He’s telling it in the first person because it was the most narratively exciting way to tell that story, but maybe the aspiration was to tell the story of the experience of being there, whether it happened to him or not. It’s sort of like the criticism of the Bible. You can take the Bible very, very literally, and the story of Cain and Abel and Adam and Eve and stuff, or you can look at it metaphorically and understand the message of those stories. For me, dissecting and unraveling the message of any story is the point of storytelling, not necessarily the story itself. I think we were very excited, Michael and I, when we came up with that concept of “it’s the story of a lot of men.” That wasn’t originally in the script, but it was our way of handling that in the way that we felt most respectful to Papi.
I like that way of thinking about it, that he was telling stories that couldn’t be told by other people.
Right, and honoring his fallen brothers who didn’t get out. You gotta imagine that the joy that he encountered when finally liberating himself from this hell must have been dwarfed by the guilt that he left, a sort of survivor syndrome. That he got out, his best friends didn’t get out. He was the only one.
A colleague and I were talking about this before, and we really want to know how do you think your career would be different if you hadn’t dropped out of 50 Shades of Grey?
Well, I’d be a lot wealthier. I’d be a lot wealthier. I was gonna get paid a fortune. [Laughs] So much. You know, I intentionally don’t look at my career from an outside perspective. My career and my life are not mutually exclusive. They’re intrinsically linked. I’m really interested in the idea, which I think we explore in Papillon, of just accepting that life is suffering and your obligation is to learn something about yourself through this journey, and to figure out a way to use your time, if you’re lucky enough to do it, in a way that seems substantial enough that it evens out the balance a little bit. If I’m involved in a project that I feel excited about and it gives me a sense of purpose and it gives me a sense of creative fulfillment, that is deep fulfillment to me, and it evens out the balance for me in my own journey. My success, for me, is about getting to continue to work on things that make me excited. And I don’t know if that would have created more or less opportunity. I just don’t know. I seem to have gotten a lot of kudos in a way for not doing it, but again that’s sort of an outside perspective. I don’t necessarily feel that way.
That’s a very zen way of looking at life. We’re glad that you’re here doing this stuff.
It’s very exciting. I just came off a really wonderful experience where I got to work with Justin Kurzel, who’s another one of my favorite filmmakers. I’ve just gotten to the point in my career where I’m getting the opportunity to consistently work with filmmakers that I really, really admire. And it doesn’t get any better than that. There have been smaller projects, but that only stands to improve the caliber of the experience, because the less money there is, the more control a director has and the more singular the experience can be. It’s pretty rad.
‘Papillion’ opens in select cities on Friday, August 22.