When Charlie Hunnam was first offered the lead role in a new adaptation of Henri Charrière’s autobiography Papillón, he said no.
“I’d been actively pursuing working with Michael Noer for a while, but I just wasn’t sure the story needed another retelling,” Hunnam tells EW. But after a 12-hour “first date” with the Danish director, the King Arthur actor was persuaded to play the Parisian safecracker framed for murder who repeatedly tries to escape his life sentence in a French Guiana penal colony.
“I was in New York, so I decided I would sit down and chat with Michael,” Hunnam recalls. “He was only in the city for 14 hours, and 12 hours later we were still walking around and chatting and getting very excited. He nearly missed his flight home, so I rushed back to the hotel with him and we sort of had this awkward moment in the lobby where we were looking at each other, almost like when you don’t know if you’re going to make out at the end of the first date. And I said, ‘Ah, f— it. I’m in, let’s do it.’”
Noer adds with a laugh, “It was very fortunate — or very unfortunate — that both of us were in a relationship at the time, because we were very fond of each other.”
But it was the incorporation of social commentary on the state of the prison system today that really sold Hunnam during his early courting days with Noer. “That aspect of the film just made us feel justified doing this adaptation,” says Hunnam, who takes on the part made famous by Steve McQueen in the original 1973 version of the film. “In French Guiana, they created this prison colony exclusively to build the infrastructure and colonize that country properly. It was slave labor; people were being sent there because they had this instant demand for an enormous amount of man power, and the punishment for their crime completely outweighed what they deserved.”
Hunnam remembers being appalled years ago when someone suggested he buy stock in private prisons, as the value goes up with the occupancy rate. “When I learned that, it just f—ing blew my mind,” he says. “Ever since they privatized the majority of prisons in America, we’re in a situation where it’s monetarily motivated or beneficial to keep those prisons at capacity at all times. People’s lives are being bartered away for the shareholders’ profit.” Agrees Noer: “It gave us stamina — knowing that, even though this is a period movie, the privatization of prisons and violations against inmates is still relevant as ever. It kept us going knowing that we were doing something that was more important than just trying to make a good movie.”
Hunnam clung to that resolve when putting his body through a grueling 40-pound weight loss and confining himself to a cell for eight days of silence “to get a glimmer of what it was like” for Charrière, who spent more than a decade in silent, solitary confinement. “I kind of wanted to feel unwell,” he says. “I wanted to feel like I was suffering in some way, just to feel worthy of telling these guys’ stories because they had to endure so much. There were moments I wanted to scream. Forcing yourself to be quiet for long periods and eating nothing at all… I felt a little crazy. I was really struggling, but I’m well aware that it was pathetic attempt compared to what these guys were really dealing with.”
Feeling guilty about leaving his lead to suffer alone, Noer shacked up in a trailer just outside the cell: “I would’ve felt bad if I’d gone back to the hotel!” he says.
Luckily, like “Papi,” Hunnam had a “brother” in costar Rami Malek (who plays fellow convict Louis Dega) to keep him sane. “It really is just a love story between these two guys,” Hunnam says. “People need to be close to other human beings, and in an environment where you don’t have access to the opposite sex — like prison, or in the military — we sustain our sense of nourishment, our sense of touch and emotional connection through our relationships with our brothers.” Which is to say that finding the right person to play Dega was essential. “I had just mainlined the first season of Mr. Robot, and it was Rami or nothing for me,” says Hunnam.
Malek remembers watching the original movie with his dad when he was a kid. “It’s a pretty indelible film if you watch it at a young age, and it left quite the impact on me,” he says. Like Hunnam, he initially hesitated at the thought of remaking a classic but was ultimately wooed by the director’s vision for the project. “I thought it would really be worth taking the risk,” he says. “Michael and Charlie are just very, very talented, thoughtful artists who are just incredibly committed. It was really just a privilege to be surrounded by people who give so much and are so passionate day in and day out. That was one of my favorite aspects of this film, knowing that the three of us were going to push each other and carry each other every single day under some very, very harsh circumstances.”
Despite the hardship faced on set — or maybe because of it — it didn’t take long for the stars to grow as close as their characters. “We became pretty inseparable,” says Malek, who would lure Hunnam away from his cell and off set to socialize with him. “Saying goodbye was quite sad because the story really infiltrated our personalities. This movie’s all about human resilience and depending on someone in the most dire circumstance, and that’s a story worth telling.”
Papillón is in theaters Friday.