When he first started reading the book seven years ago, British actor Charlie Hunnam wasn’t fully aware of the ongoing odyssey to bring Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram to the big screen.
The rights to the 2003 best-seller had been owned for many years by Warner Bros. and Johnny Depp was tipped to star as the robber Lin Ford, who escapes from an Australian prison and finds himself reborn personally and spiritually in a Bombay slum after he befriends a hustling tour guide.
As Lin seeks to rebuild his life, he becomes entangled with the city’s seedy underbelly and is drawn into a romance with a mysterious woman named Karla. His long road to redemption is complicated by this unexpected love and the parts of his past that he can’t leave behind.
Set in the 1980s, it was the kind of sprawling narrative that proved to be an instant hit with readers. As Depp’s popularity skyrocketed in the mid-2000s, he took on other roles and the film adaptation languished in development hell.
The Pirates of the Caribbean star tried to jump-start another movie iteration with Joel Edgerton in the lead. But the journey that Lin goes on during the course of Roberts’ epic 980-page book proved too hard to distil into a two-hour movie.
Suddenly, Hunnam — who ended a seven-season run as Jax Teller on FX’s Sons of Anarchy in 2014 before going on to star in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, a King Arthur movie directed by Guy Ritchie and a remake of Papillon with Rami Malek — saw an opportunity to bring the book’s layered plot line to the small screen.
“For many years, you had a real who’s who of talented writers and directors trying to crack the code of this adaptation,” Hunnam, 42, said during a recent interview in Toronto. “It seemed so evident to me that the way to tackle this was to be in long-form storytelling. Telling this over 40 or 50 hours as opposed to a two-hour movie.”
Now after nearly 20 years, Hunnam is producing and starring as Lin in a new Apple TV+ series, with his producer pal Eric Singer billed as a co-creator alongside Steve Lightfoot (The Punisher).
A lot of other projects came over my desk, but none resonated as much as what I thought Shantaram could be.
Charlie Hunnam says his new series Shantaram is a dream come true
The ensemble drama also features Shubham Saraf, Antonia Desplat, Elektra Kilbey, and Alexander Siddig.
“The novel is extraordinary in terms of the journey Lin goes on … it’s just a great adventure,” Hunnam said. “But layered throughout it all is questions about the nature of God, the meaning of life and what lies at the centre of a life well-lived. Those are the things Greg was digging into that we are able to explore through the show.”
Hunnam says the 12-episode series sets up subsequent seasons that can further delve into the spiritual questioning he finds himself pondering in his real life.
“I’m very interested in theology and the nature of God and, you know, what it all means,” he said.
On a recent Monday morning, back in the city where he filmed Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, Hunnam talked about drawing meaning from the journey of Lin Ford and opened up about a possible return to the world of Sons of Anarchy later on down the line.
“That’s not a fully baked cake yet,” he cautioned with a smile. “I shouldn’t be talking about it.”
Shantaram has been something that’s been in development for years. What was it about the story of Lin Ford that clicked with you?
“He’s an incredible character. Lin’s smart, he’s interested in life and he’s conflicted. Greg takes him from being this fairly innocent young man who made a mistake all the way to finding himself in these extraordinary circumstances … It’s really meaty stuff fuelled by the human condition writ large.”
You’re forever going to be associated with Sons of Anarchy and the character of Jax Teller. Was there any trepidation in returning to television after that show wrapped in 2014?
“No … Sons of Anarchy remains one of the deepest and most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my career. I really love long-form storytelling, both in the (acting) process and also as an audience member. I find myself watching far more television than I do films these days. So I desperately wanted to get back to that. After I read it, this novel became an obsession. A lot of other projects came over my desk, but none resonated as much as what I thought Shantaram could be. I just sort of stuck with this, and it’s taken me seven years from me initially reading the book to talking to you about it.”
Shantaram had some dark elements. But the thing that I really found myself gravitating toward was the notion of how Lin is changed spiritually by his experience in India. Did you connect with that search for meaning?
“Definitely the search for meaning in life. You know, this idea that a human being is an entity that is a realm of pure potential … I’ve been really taken by that concept in the last 15 years of my life. I’m not manifesting the life or the ideal for myself that I would like to, but I’m aware of it and my life’s journey is moving towards that greater meaning. Just generally, I’m interested in the meaning of life and the question of: ‘How do you suck all the juice out of the lemon in this little piece of time that we have?’”
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This is a big book — there is a sequel as well — have you thought about future seasons?
“Very much so. Apple owns the rights to Shantaram and The Mountain Shadow so we have thousands of pages of source material from which to mine. Our focus was on the first book, but we only told about a third of the book. So we’re hopeful and bullish that we will be able to come back and continue telling this. I always thought you needed 30 to 40 hours to tell this story and do it justice. It’s my hope there’s more.”
Last month, you set the internet ablaze with your comments that there could be more Sons of Anarchy in your future somehow. Why do you think that show and the character of Jax has endured for so long?
“I think there was something quintessentially American about what we were exploring in terms of autonomy. There was something in the Zeitgeist at that moment that felt like we were satisfying some sense of wish fulfilment or nostalgia for a simpler time. But in the decade since that show has been out, the type of maleness we embodied on the series has gone out of fashion and then some, which makes it still feel relevant.
“In terms of the teasing of something, I’m pivoting into writing and producing. I spend more of my time now as a full-time writer and producer and there’s an idea that is next door to (Sons of Anarchy). It’s by no means directly correlated to the show. But it’s an opportunity to go back 10 years later and explore some of the bigger themes … It’s a concept that I’m interested in, but it’s still in its infancy. We’ll see where it leads.”
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