‘Shantaram’ was more than a passion project for Charlie Hunnam

Shantaram
Charlie Hunnam in ‘Shantaram’.
Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s latest series has been a passion project in the making for Charlie Hunnam. First approached by producer/showrunner Eric Singer to read the novel the show is adapted from—’Shantaram’ by Greg Roberts Daniels— the duo were drawn to the story for numerous reasons. And they also knew they had to be part of the experience bringing the electric story from the page to the screen.

In ‘Shantaram,’ Hunnam plays Lin, who we see escaping from prison in the very beginning of the story. After breaking free, the  former bank robber and heroin addict makes his way to India and dives headfirst into an experience that completely changes who he is—and audiences can watch just where that trajectory leads in the new series, which was co-created by Steven Lightfoot, and premieres Oct. 14 on Apple TV+.

Ahead of the release, star Charlie Hunnam sat down to dive a little deeper into just what makes ‘Shantaram’ special.

You’ve said in the past that to return to TV, you wanted to wait for the right opportunity. Why was this it?

When I finished ‘Sons’, I wanted to take a little break from television—but I had had the best experience that I’ve had in my career on that show, so I knew I wanted to return at some point to long-form storytelling. I was given ‘Shantaram’ to read by a friend of mine who had had this possession, obsession, desire, and conviction to be part of the creative team that would bring this adaptation to the screen. So he sort of co-oped me into his obsession.

That was seven years ago, and over the last seven years, I’ve had quite a few really great opportunities to sign on to new TV shows, but I just kept coming back to ‘Shantaram’ being the one that I felt like I wanted to do more than anything else. It took a while. I mean, it took seven years… four years ago, Apple bought the rights and hired me to play Lin, and now here we are four years later actually discussing the end results of Season 1. So it has been kind of a wild journey, but I suppose it really was just about my absolute love for the source material.

Shantaram
Charlie Hunnam and Shubham Saraf in “Shantaram”. Apple TV+

What in the source material kept bringing you back? The character? The location?

All of the above. I mean, it’s a love letter to India, and so the environment of India in all of its technicolor glory sort of leapt off the page. I thought the environment was fantastic. The character’s amazing in his rendering, but the journey that he goes on and the evolution through the course of the book—it’s a very long book, it’s 980 pages—so, there’s a long journey that he goes through. But I suppose most significantly would be the themes.

Greg is exceptionally intelligent and a real student of the human condition, so theology, philosophy, psychology, the things that I’m really interested in, he is a master of expressing— at least his own perception of ideas within those arenas.

The show and the book are really accessible and it’s sort of like a thriller, romance, adventure, gangster story, friendship story, a tale of the unifying power of love, but also, on top of that, are these themes exploring what it means to be alive and what it means to be a human and what is the nature of love and God and faith and inter-reliance…I mean, it was everything. This book is extraordinary in the topics that it fearlessly explores and so I thought we had the opportunity to do that over the course of 50 hours. It’s just such ripe source material.

At one point this was going to be a movie. I doubt a two hour movie would get everything from the book in. Is this something that you’re hoping will expand after one season?

Oh, very much so. 22 years ago, when the book was released and Warner Brothers [optioned] it, it was a film-centric period of Hollywood where TV had not bloomed into this sort of second golden age that it’s in right now. But as you said, you read ‘Shantaram’ and there’s really just no way to distill it down to two hours. Our hope is that we’ll get to do maybe 3, 4, 5 seasons of this depending. I have tremendous faith in Steve Lightfoot…he’s a great lover of literature and I think he has a really good handle on how to pace the story. But yeah, we needed a minimum of 30 hours to tell the story properly.

What was the journey like to require the rights?

Eric Singer, who is one of our producers on the show was the person who initially gave me this book seven years ago. Four and a half years ago, the rights became available when Warner Brothers decided they weren’t going to renew [them.] So Eric and I raised money and put together a creative pitch to try to control the rights and buy the rights for ourselves, and we did very well with our creative pitch—but our monetary offering was far below what some of our competitors were bringing to the table. So we lost out.

Then we said, “Okay, well, we’re not going to admit defeat. Who bought it and who do we know there and how can we get in the door to pitch ourselves as part of this creative team?” And we happily started with Steve Golin from Anonymous Content, God rest his soul, he passed a couple of years ago, but he was a magnificent producer. And then he teamed up with Apple, and Apple hired me to play the role. So a strange journey to sitting in this seat.

Shantaram
Antonia Desplat and Charlie Hunnam in “Shantaram.” Apple TV+

What can you tell me about your character, Lin, and what he goes through?

What I kept saying to all of my creative partners is that Lin needs to be naked in the first season. I need to be courageous enough to open my heart completely and just not bring any of the tricks that I sometimes bring to performances to protect myself or create a wall between myself and the audience. Sometimes, I do that intentionally. But this became very clear to me that Lin had to be completely open and I wanted him to be quite neutral to begin with….accessible, relatable and quite neutral—as if your best pal had just made a mistake and completely altered the trajectory of his life.

The journey ahead [for Lin] is filled with a lot of forces that sort of, I don’t know the way to describe it…but that keep changing Lin’s trajectory. I wanted every one of those experiences to imprint on him and for us to go through the journey of what he becomes by the end of this. And the central theme for me of this is just navigating the forces of lightness and dark in the world and in our own psyche.

You mentioned this book is also a love letter to India. What do you hope audiences take away in that aspect?

India, Mumbai, and Bombay, are [all] unlike any place that I’ve ever been to before. There’s this funny thing that I do, I like to do the smile test everywhere I go. I’m kind of a smiley person, I like to smile at everybody that I encounter, and in groups of 10, I will count the number of times the smile is reciprocated. Like in Los Angeles, you got about a 4/10 ratio, it’s pretty high, 40% return smile. London will be, in summer, about 20%, in winter, it’s about 10%.

In India, it’s 100%. Everyone will return your smile and there’s something significant in that, in the culture and the people, the fact that God is alive and an enormous part of that culture. There’s faith and devotion and it’s not just one God, there’s 3,000 gods alive and well in India. So there’s also sort of an idea that you can’t go to India and remain unchanged, that one way or another, that experience is going to change you…it changed me reading about India in Shantaram and it changed me going there.

Shantaram‘ premieres on Apple TV+ Oct. 14.

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