Universal Pictures/E! Illustration
Will the original Mr. Grey please stand up?
On this day in 2013, Fifty Shades of Grey fans were left in shock when Charlie Hunnam, who had been announced as their Christian Grey by the novel’s author E.L. James just one month earlier, abruptly dropped out of the movie. Hollywood was understandly rocked. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen, especially less than one month before production was set to begin.
“It was disappointing, but it is what it is,” the author told Entertainment Weekly at the time. “I wish him well.”
For six fleeting weeks, Hunnam was arguably the most famous actor in Hollywood, taking on the buzzed-about racy role that would require nudity, a few lessons about S&M and a whole lot of sex scenes with Dakota Johnson, who stayed in the role of Anastasia Steele even after her OG Mr. Grey bailed.
Let’s revisit that wild whirlwind of a few weeks when Hunnam, now 38, was Mr. Grey, shall we?
Universal Pictures/E! Illustration
“It’s incredibly exciting. He’s a very complex and fascinating character and I just feel really excited and delighted to be entrusted with the job of bringing him to life and it’s a big responsibility,” the rugged Brit told E! News of taking on the part at the Sons of Anarchy final season premiere party in September 2013.
And when asked how he felt about the erotic elements of the film, Hunnam just smiled and said, “I spent a lifetime preparing myself for that.”
Yeah, he was kind of perfect for the role, despite the initial fan backlash that included a petition started by Matt Bomer supporters. Which made his announcement that he as dropping out of the movie just one month after that cheeky answer all the more shocking.
He seemed totally down to, you know, get down. What the f—k happened?
“The filmmakers of Fifty Shades of Grey and Charlie Hunnam have agreed to find another male lead given Hunnam’s immersive TV schedule which is not allowing him time to adequately prepare for the role of Christian Grey,” Universal Pictures and Focus Features said in a joint statement.
Of course, there was more to the story, with rumors of Hunnam being unhappy with the script, and a source close to the actor telling E! News at the time, “The attention and the pressure was intense. More than anything he hates attention and being in Fifty Shades of Grey would force him to do lots of media. That’s really not his thing. Charlie doesn’t want to be massively famous. Plus, he hates conforming and being told what to do. This role would force him to have to be something he is not.”
Which is a movie star, it seems. Not to be confused with an actor.
“It was a very difficult position that I put myself in, and that I put the studio in, because of course, those type of things are like red rag to a bull to a lot of bloggers and reviewers,” Hunnam later told Entertainment Weekly of the media frenzy after his exit. “There was a whirlwind of speculation that went around it, and I just feel like I’m happy to do interviews to promote projects and to get the word out there and stuff, but I don’t feel as though I really owe anyone an explanation on the things I do. It’s very personal to me, and every decision I make comes from my heart.”
This all lines up with Hunnam’s complicated relationship with fame that he expressed in July 2013, before signing on for the role.
“I have no interest in fame at all,” he said at the time. “I feel like I act to keep the massive, perpetual existential crisis that I’m always on the brink of, away.”
After starring as the brooding biker Jax Teller on FX’s Sons of Anarchy for seven seasons, Hunnam, who has never been on social media and has never had a publicist, has established his own small but seriously passionate fanbase. 50 Shades of Grey, however, was a different kind of fandom.
Maybe he saw the level of uber-fame Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart hit when Twilight, which inspired James to write 50 Shades of Grey (it was originally fan-fic, in case you didn’t know), came out and got cold feet, knowing just how much his life would change and decided to bow out before it was too late?
But Hunnam himself didn’t fully break his silence on giving up Christian’s ties until 2015 in an interview with V Man.
“Oh, it was the worst professional experience of my life. It was the most emotionally destructive and difficult thing that I’ve ever had to deal with professionally,” Hunnam told the magazine of the ordeal. “It was heartbreaking.”
Hunnam went on to say he had given his word to friend Guillermo Del Toro that he would be in his movie Crimson Peak, and detailed calling 50 Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson personally to break the news.
“I called her and we both cried our eyes out on the phone for 20 minutes,” he said. “I needed to tell her that this was not going to work… There was a lot of personal stuff going on in my life that left me on real emotional shaky ground and mentally weak. I just got myself so f–king overwhelmed and I was sort of having panic attacks about the whole thing.”
But as more time has passed, Hunnam has slightly changed his tune when the topic of his exit (inevitably and undoubtedly) comes up.
“I had a slight worry that my aspiration for the role would be too much of an uphill struggle, that it should have existed more within the context of the book,” he admitted of his issues with the script in a 2017 interview with The L.A. Times. “I realized I was trying to reinvent Christian Grey a bit too much. So I stepped aside.”
Doane Gregory/Universal Pictures
After Hunnam dropped out, producers scrambled to find their new brooding leading man, with Alexander Skarsgard and Billy Magnussen reportedly considered as contenders before it was officially announced that Once Upon a Time‘s Jamie Dornan was taking over. The Irish actor was initially in consideration for the role, but wasn’t brought in for a proper screen test opposite Johnson until after Hunnam exited.
“When he dropped out, I didn’t instantly think, ‘Oh here we go, maybe I should cancel that holiday,’ but I did feel that maybe we’d revisit the idea of me,” Dornan told Entertainment Weekly.
50 Shades of Grey came out in February 2015 and made more than $569 million worldwide, meanwhile Crimson Peak, the gothic romance thriller Hunnam gave up the role for, only grossed $74 million worldwide after its September 2015 release.
Dornan went on to spend two sequels in the Red Room of Pain as part of the 50 Shades franchise (though Taylor-Johnson did not return to direct the two follow-ups, calling her experience “a struggle” and citing clashes with James), with the three films bringing in over $1 billion worldwide. (Still: It didn’t exactly receive rave reviews and its box office decreased with each release.)
But let’s get back to Hunnam.
After he dropped out of the movie, a source told us it wasn’t “a surprise because what he was taking on with this role was not what Charlie wants in his future career.”
So what did he want in his future career? Let’s look at the roles he took on…most of which are all the lead roles after being the fourth-billed star in Crimson Peak.
First up was 2016’s The Lost City of Z, with Hunnam playing a British explorer sent to Brazil to find a lost city. While it was beloved by critics, it failed to make an impression at the box office.
2017 saw the release of his highest profile role since saying goodbye to Christian Grey: King Arthur in Guy Ritchie‘s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. It had a reported budget of $175 million and was set to be the first film in a six-film franchise.
But then it premiered. Critics didn’t love it and only made $148 million worldwide. Plans for any follow-ups were promptly killed after the movie ended up losing Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures over $150 million. Yikes.
Finally, there’s Papillon, the biopic that finds Hunnam starring as French convict Henri Charrière opposite Mr. Robot‘s Rami Malek. After debuting at TIFF in 2017, it was quietly released in August 2018, grossing just over $3 million worldwide.
But how is this for full-circle five years later? Next up for Hunnam is a real team-up with Taylor-Johnson in her latest film A Million Little Pieces, which just premiered at TIFF.
After that, he’s got Triple Frontier in 2019, the movie that gave us those instantly iconic beach photos with Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac and Garrett Hedlund. So yeah, we already consider this one a success. 2019 will also see Hunnam star opposite Russell Crowe in The True History of the Kelly Gang and Junglehead, an indie drama.
But how does his resume stack up against Dornan’s post-Grey releases? It seems like Dornan’s time as Christian hasn’t really type-cast the former model.
His HBO movie My Dinner with Hervé is set to debut later this month, while Robin Hood, in which he stars opposite Taran Egerton and Jamie Foxx hits theaters in November, as does A Private War.
Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.
When it comes to the fan interactions he’s had because of his time as Christian Grey, he opened up a bit about his feelings on forever representing their male ideal when he visited The Ellen DeGeneres Show ahead of the release of the third and final film.
“I get a lot of fans talking to me as if I am Christian Grey. So, I’ll have a lot of that sort of thing. I’ll be in line at Starbucks or something and someone will be like, ‘Oh, Mr. Grey.’ I’m literally holding one of my children,” he said. “They’re so confused why they’re calling me that…I panic. I don’t know how to respond to it, because I’m not like him…They probably think I’m just really weird, which I’m fine with.”
While it seems like he doesn’t love the spotlight and attention that came with taking on the role, he also seems more at ease with it than Hunnam likely would’ve been.
And when it comes to the franchise’s legacy, Dornan, 36, seems to have a zero f—ks given attitude about how the movies are looked back on it 10 years. “I don’t really care what people say about the movies,” he told Refinery 29. “These movies are made for the fans, and hopefully they will be satisfied with what we’ve given them.”
As this tale of two Christian Greys comes to an end, it’s ironic that role has inadvertently ended up defining Hunnam’s career thus far despite his best efforts to keep that from happening.
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