Back when Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak was filming in Toronto, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. While I’ve been lucky enough to visit a number of movies during production and have seen some pretty incredible things up close, what I saw on the set of Crimson Peak was near the top of the list.
Some movies cheat a scene by only building part of a room and using CGI to fill in the blanks, but del Toro and his team practically built the house you’ll see in the movie. This means that visiting the set of Crimson Peak was like being inside the movie. I walked the steps of the house, got to step inside the elevator (which really worked), and was escorted around the top floors by del Toro as he explained his vision of the film and why building the house was so important. Trust me, the production design and costumes on Crimson Peak are incredible and Universal should absolutely be pushing it for Academy Awards.
During a break in filming we got to sit down with Charlie Hunnam for an extended interview. He talked about getting to work with del Toro again, the detailed backstories that were created for all the actors, why he wanted the role, pulling from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, researching the time period when the film takes place, the incredible production design and costumes, and so much more. Here’s what he had to say:
Question: We were in the trailer with Jessica [Chastain] and she shared a little bit of her character’s biography with us, the non-spoiler stuff. Guillermo [Del Toro] mentioned that you had worked on your biography personally and I was wondering if you could share some things from your character’s bio with us as well.
CHARLIE HUNNAM: I don’t know what would be particularly interesting. The kind of first step for me of exploring who a character is to just go back in a fun way to get to know a character is to go and imagine his past and I did that in conjunction with doing a lot of reading about the time period and some research as to who was a significant voice of that time. It’s pretty benign stuff just really exploring his childhood and I thought a lot about the relationship that he and Edith had had, and thought back to some similar relationships that I had had and my life with people and like that and inform how I imagined how their relationship had evolved because it’s one of those things that deserves a real closeness between these characters at the beginning of the film, but the nature of their history isn’t really explored. I felt like I needed to know that for myself, and you know I went back and decided which authors that he would’ve been interested in and through those conversations, some of it actually made it to the script. Guillermo and I discussed a lot of his fascination with [Arthur] Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes and I felt like the way I saw him, I felt that [Henry David] Thoreau was probably somebody he would’ve been really interested in so I went back and read Walden again, so just fun stuff. Nothing really particularly exciting, just general exploration of a character’s history.
Jessica said that she learned to play the piano for this, and in fact she played piano for us.
HUNNAM: Did she? What a show-off.
[Laughs] Did you bring a piano with you?
HUNNAM: I did not bring a piano with me [laughs].
Did you add any strings to your bow this time, anything you didn’t know how to do before you started this movie?
HUNNAM: Not really. I reminded myself how to shave. I explored a little bit of the opthamalogical sciences. I am a doctor who studies in ophthalmology, so I kind of explored the nature of that and I was really more interested in why he would’ve chosen that as a profession. So Guillermo and I discussed a little bit of that and the idea of the eyes being the windows to the soul and in particular that was one of the things that kind of grew out of the bio that I had written for myself that I wanted to be a community man of science rather than in research because Guillermo and I discussed a lot my notion of who my father was in this world and that he was kind of a taciturn removed man who was research orientated and saw that that had not brought him a lot of happiness being removed. I thought that was something very important to me was that he was a guy that was really engaged in helping people and directly involved in the community and working with people and to help them as much as possible. And of course it’s a very exciting time to be in the 1900s for medical innovation and I think he was part of that explosion of ideas.
Guillermo said that he offered you a role during Pacific Rim. He said you were the first person here. When was making Pacific Rim with you he said that as far as he was concerned you were going to work on every single one of his movies moving forward.
HUNNAM: Yeah, that’s what he told me. It’s very exciting.
What was it that clicked? What is it that really works with the two of you?
HUNNAM: I don’t know, it’s always difficult to really sum up exactly why a relationship works, but we just like each other and respect each other and we have a lot of fun and make each other laugh and there’s just an ease about our process. I think we just trust each other and feel really comfortable. And I do as I’m told [laughs], I try not to cause him any problems and just help as much as I can and be available. I don’t know, it was a really beautiful thing and such a huge compliment to be invited back to the party, and he said that to me at the end of Pacific Rim. He just took me aside and said that the experience of working with me had been one of the fondest he’d had with working with an actor and that he hoped that we would continue this collaboration and that he was going to put me in all of his English films and that if I wanted to learn Spanish, I could be in the Spanish ones too. And it was just a lovely compliment, and true to his words is when he decided he was going to make this, he called me up and he said ‘let’s do it’.
Just to follow up, is there like a shorthand you have? Because he said that for everybody else he had written their bio, you were the only one who could come with your own bio, so is there sort of a shorthand to the relationship and the way that you guys work that you’ve crafted?
HUNNAM: I suppose so, but I think that the reason he didn’t write my bio was through the development of the script and things would come and go, with every draft I would write him an email, pal to pal, just a little bit of a commentary, and why I thought things. We had been kind of on the same page, and he had been intuiting my line of thought, and I had been probably more accurately intuiting his line of thought with changes that he’d made and then also things that had gone on that I had really missed and explained why. We started discussing this bio that I had written for myself which was always just been part of my process. I’m sure not every actor does that but I’ve always just found that it was very helpful to me. So I think he just thought it wasn’t necessary to write a bio for me because I had already written my own.
How far back does that date in your process?
HUNNAM: I think the first time I had done that was probably for Green Street Hooligans, so for the last eight or nine projects I’ve done.
Was it something that you had seen other people do and you thought that was a good way in, or was it something else?
HUNNAM: No, it was something I had developed through writing screenplays. That I needed to know these characters very well to be able to write them naturally. It was kind of an obvious thing to then apply to acting once I’d started doing that.
Talk a little bit about the relationship with the characters. Like why Alan doesn’t step up.
HUNNAM: Or Dr. McMichael, if you choose.
Yes, Dr. McMichael. He doesn’t make himself as a suitor for her. What’s his deal?
HUNNAM: He certainly has aspirations to be in her life romantically and tries to articulate that a little bit to her but he’s a shy guy and it’s that kind of awkward transition. They’ve been friends for their whole lives so it’s always somewhat awkward to try to articulate that one’s feelings have evolved into something else, and so he wants to do it slowly and subtly and tactfully and then this other guy kind of swoops in. And he makes a gallant effort, one last stab at it to try to make his case, but by then she’s already got eyes for another guy.
How involved is he in the dreadful goings on at the house? Does he crop up later on?
HUNNAM: Yes. He arrives and does what he can [laughs].
Does his skill as a doctor have anything to do with that?
HUNNAM: You know it’s funny, this idea of his interest in Conan Doyle really informed the character a lot for Guillermo and I. And I actually hadn’t read a huge amount of Conan Doyle, I mean I had read [The] Hound of the Baskervilles and maybe a couple of the short stories but then now I’m about halfway through plowing through the great number of short stories. There are only four novels but there is a huge catalog of short stories. So I’m about twenty-five short stories in and two novels into reading the complete works of the complete [The] Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and you can’t read that stuff without starting to fancy yourself a bit of an amateur detective. And I think it’s more that part of his personality that comes into play during the second half of the film.
Conan Doyle also was a spiritualist, very involved in ghosts stuff.
HUNNAM: Yeah, he was one of the founders of the London Ghost Society, which is still up and running. We allude to that in the film. I talk about meeting Conan Doyle and engaging in a conversation about spiritualism, so that certainly is something that we had discussed. And I think that just in general at the beginning of the twentieth century, spiritualism was a concept that a lot of people were discussing and becoming interested in.
And there was this idea that science and spiritualism could perhaps compliment each other at this point. Explainable phenomena.
HUNNAM: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s certainly an area that Dr. McMichael is very engaged in and interested in.
Can you talk a little bit about the reaction when you first walked on the sound stage and saw what the hell he built?
HUNNAM: Yeah it was very exciting. He’s obviously a master of every element of filmmaking but his production design is incredible, but we didn’t get to enjoy as much of that on Pacific Rim because so much of it was gonna be CGI, so it was really breathtaking to go onto those sets and see the level of the detail. Even just the details in the wallpaper which more than likely people will never pick up on but the minute detail and thought that’s gone into all of it is really exciting and pretty incredible to see.
Can you see fear in the wallpaper or is it like magic eye; some people can and can’t?
HUNNAM: No, you can see it pretty clearly [laughs].
From when you guys were working on the script together to what you’re filming, has it dramatically changed? Has it just been tweaked?
HUNNAM: Mainly just tweaks, some structural stuff has just gotten a little tighter, but mainly just character has gotten richer and more clearly defined. This was a project that Guillermo had wanted to make several years ago and had spent quite a bit of time developing, so there have been many drafts over the course of the last year, but the script was already in really wonderful shape. But Guillermo right up to the day it’s just part of his process, I think he just constantly questions and explores and decides he’s gonna try something new and then after a couple of days he’ll decide he likes the old version better. It’s just a constant process for him of rewriting and exploring, right up until the point where it’s shot.
I know there were a few big stunts today but does your character get to get his hands dirty and do a few stunts?
HUNNAM: Thankfully this is much more of an intellectual exercise for me. It’s probably the least physical role I’ve ever done. I had to do a little bit of a stumble. I went to a stunt rehearsal for this and I said ‘this is ridiculous guys, you’ve worked with me before. I got out of bed for this?’ Literally the rehearsal was three and a half minutes, so I made it through [laughs].
What does being in 1900s Buffalo affect your performance and the accent that your character has?
HUNNAM: It’s interesting; it originally was Boston. I went down an extraordinary path of learning the Boston Brahmin, which is a really detailed and colorful accent, but I was starting to get very nervous about it because if everybody wasn’t doing it, even if everyone was doing it, it’s such an extreme accent that I thought there was real potential for it to sound pretty ridiculous. I don’t know exactly why the change came. I don’t know if it was just that we were shooting in Toronto and it was going to be easier to make Buffalo work in terms of exteriors shooting here or what the genesis of the change was, but when we changed it to Buffalo, it was a relief because it was a much more simple accent. And the thing is there’s English and American so I think that Guillermo really didn’t want to go too specific. He just wanted the American to sound more kind of fresh and modern and like a representation of the new world as opposed to the very clear and precise sound of the English. Jim Beaver is the only American in the inner circle of the Americans in the film, so Guillermo just had Jim Beaver record some Edgar Allen Poe and we’ve been using that as the template of the sound.
It’s a Jim Beaver accent.
HUNNAM: Yeah, we’re doing Beaver in the film.
We saw some of the costumes in the costume department.
HUNNAM: They’re fucking incredible, right?
I was going to say fucking incredible. What do you get to wear in the movie? Did you have any input on that?
HUNNAM: No, that’s the one area where I had little input, and nor should I have because I don’t know anything about twentieth century wear like that but Kate [Hawley], who also did Pacific Rim is a real master. We just really showed up and got to try the stuff on and have a little say in what we liked and what we didn’t but because it was all being hand-made and they were prepping it in Toronto, there’s just a reality to filmmaking that you have to do this at a budget so they couldn’t keep flying people back and forth. I did a fitting in LA where they took three hundred measurements so that they could have all of the clothes hand-made in England, and shoes and Italy and stuff. She went really for it. And the stuff looks absolutely beautiful but it wasn’t like it was a big collaborative process involving us. It was just between Kate and Guillermo.
Was this always the role that Guillermo had in mind for you when he gave the script?
HUNNAM: Yes. And it’s lovely, it’s a role that came out of friendship and really knowing each other that I think he saw that I would have it in me to play a role like this. Because of a lot of the work that I’ve done, I wouldn’t be an obvious choice for a kind of quiet, shy, stolid, tacit type of doctor who doesn’t get the girl. I’m usually the guy who knocks everyone out in order to get the girl, so it really touched me and it was a lovely vote of confidence that Guillermo wanted me to play something so different.
Guillermo has mentioned several times that this film is quite kinky in some places. I’m guessing you’re not part of that kinkiness.
HUNNAM: No [laughs]. We’ll see if any rewrites come in but right now I’m not wearing any chaps or anything.
Guillermo said that you wanted your character to have a pipe and you lost that argument. Can you go into that at all and what that was about?
HUNNAM: I was starting to second-guess the pipe when the Conan Doyle influence started to be heavily discussed because I just didn’t wanna go down a Sherlock Holmes path. But there’s not too many opportunities to get to smoke a pipe in films these days. Playing a doctor circa 1901 seemed like a good opportunity, but everyone’s so uptight, as I suppose they should be about smoking these days that he had a few battles that he needed to fight in order to get some of the kinkiness and some of the murder and mayhem to be okayed by the studio and they’re really uptight about smoking so he just said that was not one of the fights he’s going to add to his roster.
You don’t have to smoke. You can just put the pipe in your mouth and you look more intelligent. That’s what pipes do.
HUNNAM: Right, right. No, I went and I taught myself to smoke. One talent I can add to the roster would be pipe smoking from this film. It is a talent, it’s hard to smoke a pipe, and it’s actually kind of brutal. It burns your mouth and your throat, and to keep it lit.
So Jessica will always be able to play piano for future roles and you will always be able to smoke a pipe.
HUNNAM: That’s right, that’s right. Is she good?
She’s really good. She pulled it off.
Apparently, we’re going to get Tom [Hiddleston] Obviously, you do research in everything you do. The film takes place in 1900 and 1901. Did you do any research about that time period and where the film takes place, outside of just for your character?
HUNNAM: I did. It was interesting for me but I don’t know how much ultimately it will form anything. But you have to start somewhere, and being able to sit in a chair and read a book is always a nice starting place. I read a really great book, it’s actually called America 1900, which is an exploration of everything from the type of foods to the political environment to the rapidly changing face of medicine and it covered all aspects. That was a really concise great find to find that book and gave a really clear overview of what was going on. But one of the things that I was struck over and over and over by was the sense of foreboding that was felt at the beginning of the twentieth century that society was moving in the wrong direction and that evolution was happening too quickly and the result of the industrial and agricultural revolutions were going to create an unsustainable way of life that I was surprised by. It was so prophetic, I found myself wishing that people had heeded those feelings of foreboding a little bit more.
And then of course here we are, 114 years later, and we’re still having those grave misgivings and still not really heeding them the way we should be. I get really bummed out about the state of how all of it’s working and evolving. If you look at just the basic statistics that America alone uses two and a half million plastic bottles an hour, you just think ‘how the fuck are we gonna keep going?’ Nobody gives a shit about anything, we just consume, consume, consume, consume, you know? And with medical innovation and everybody’s fighting to live as long as possible and exercising their right to procreate and I feel like we’re in a bad way. I kept reading these articles and the more I would find an author that had that voice the more I would go in and look at more essays that he had written, and it was amazing to see that that sentiment was so strongly felt a hundred years ago.
It is interesting though that we are still here one hundred and fourteen years later.
HUNNAM: With massive destruction as a consequence.
The environmental issues are crazy. What’s your scale of scary for this movie? How would you describe the scare factor?
HUNNAM: I think it’s really terrifying, but more in a psychological tense drama than a shock factor horror film. I think it’s more of a gothic romance with a supernatural element that does get very, very tense, and because of that, there’s a lot of suspense in it. But it’s not kind of like a shock and gore type of horror film by any means. I would say it’s much closer to The Shining than A Nightmare on Elm Street.
How is it for you creating that feeling? It’s hard because it’s not scary on set, it’s scary when it’s cut together with music. How do you get yourself in that place?
HUNNAM: I just try to play the character as I see him and try to find the honesty of what’s going on in his situation and trust that Guillermo is going to create the atmosphere and handle that side of it. I don’t really go outside of the process in terms of thinking about those things. I’m just really in my own little bubble of living in McMichael’s reality, so that’s more the director’s world than mine I think.
You were saying how beautiful Guillermo’s production design is and being a doctor in this time period, do you get to play with a lot cool, old doctor gadgets?
HUNNAM: Yeah, and apparently he’s built some stuff that I haven’t seen yet because we haven’t gotten into shooting any of that stuff yet. But apparently, yeah, there’s some Guillermo ophthalmological instruments that I’m gonna have to wrangle.
Anything up there with Ichabod Crane headpiece, steam funky thing with all of the gadgets?
HUNNAM: Yes, exactly, something like that. I was thinking it was just going to be one of those mirrored instruments with the little hole, but no, that’s not Guillermo’s style.
I’m assuming you’ve been to Guillermo’s house.
HUNNAM: I’ve been to Bleak House. I have not been to the man cave here yet.
I didn’t even know he had one in Toronto.
HUNNAM: Yeah, apparently. Hopefully that’s not a secret.
I was curious what your reaction is to his house in LA because it’s loaded with the craziest, cool shit.
HUNNAM: Yeah, it’s like a little wonderland.
Was there one thing there that you saw where you were like ‘get the fuck out of here’?
HUNNAM: No, I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard his writing room is pretty incredible. I think it’s a room within a room, so there’s glass that looks out, you know it’s a little room with a cozy little couch and writing table. And then there’s walls and windows in it that have water beating against them like it’s raining and thunder and lightning crashing down. And that’s the little room that he writes in. I don’t know if that’s even true, or if it’s just some Hollywood legend.
It’s the rain room. It’s true.
HUNNAM: Have you seen it?
HUNNAM: And is it incredible?
HUNNAM: I’ve only been there once and it was when I first met Guillermo.
You didn’t do the tour thing?
HUNNAM: I didn’t do the tour. It’s so funny, he asked me if I wanted the tour, and I got a little shy and nervous, and the meeting had gone so well, that I thought ‘just get out of here before you fuck it up’ is really what I thought. We had been talking for about an hour, and it was for Pacific Rim so I guess it was the second time because I’d met him because I’d met him years and years earlier, but that hadn’t gone well at all, so I thought ‘this has gone really well, let’s get out of here before I say something ridiculous’.
Were you worried by leaving early that you might have fucked it up?
HUNNAM: Of course on the ride home I was like ‘fuck, why did you not take the tour?’ But clearly, it went well.
For more on Crimson Peak:
- CRIMSON PEAK: Jessica Chastain Talks MISERY Inspiration, Guillermo del Toro, and More
- CRIMSON PEAK: Tom Hiddleston Talks Progressing from Romance to Kink, Guillermo del Toro, and More
- Guillermo del Toro Talks CRIMSON PEAK, Building a Massive 3-Story House, Crafting a “Kinky and Violent” Gothic Romance, Creating Ghosts, and More on Set
- Over 35 Things to Know About CRIMSON PEAK
- New CRIMSON PEAK Pictures Show off the Stunning Allerdale Hall