Grey Area: Did Charlie Hunnam Make the Right Choice?

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On Saturday, the Hollywood Reporter became the first to reveal what most us had expected all along: Charlie Hunnam’s decision to back out of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, where he’d been cast as Christian Grey himself, had very little to do with his “immersive television schedule,” as Universal Studios initially claimed. That explanation was hollow from the beginning and verged on insulting. Wouldn’t any potential conflicts with FX’s Sons of Anarchy, where Hunnam plays Jax Teller, be the first thing they resolved?

Of course it was, and of course that wasn’t the real reason behind Hunnam’s withdrawal. Instead, as the Hollywood Reporter noted, he came down with a case of “cold feet” because of the sheer size of the project. Read between the lines, and it’s easy to see that it wasn’t just the book’s popularity, or the potential for him to be defined by the role; the huge fan following played a part too, and the masses weren’t exactly euphoric that Hunnam had won the role. In early September, more than 85,000 of them signed a petition demanding Hunnam be replaced. Universal even had to hire bodyguards for Hunnam at a recent Sons of Anarchy premiere, so feverish was the attention directed at Fifty Shades.

It’s still a bit vague as to why Hunnam made such an abrupt about-face. He’s not afraid of starring in a blockbuster film, as his role in Pacific Rim proved. Nor is he afraid of sex scenes. As The Guardian wrote when he was first cast, he started his career on the British series Queer as Folk, where he had to film explicit sex scenes that were shocking (culturally, anyway) beyond anything E.L. James imagined in her relatively softcore novel. Instead, we have to keep returning to the words of two anonymous sources: “He was overwhelmed by the attention…just the media and fan frenzy that came along with it.”

Hunnam, 33, is already a bright star by most standards, but the Fifty Shades film would have made him a household name in a way that Sons and even Pacific Rim couldn’t manage. The downside to that, of course, is that when a film propels you to those heights, it’s inevitable that it will define you. In the best case, the association only lasts as long as your next great project. But if it flops? Then you’ll be defined in the worst way possible, to the extent that it might even derail a career.

The problem with Hunnam’s short tenure as Christian Grey is that it was so negative. The various fan protests (the petition reads like it was written by a psychopath) prompted producer Dana Brunetti to defend the choice on Twitter and urge patience, which was probably a stupid move in that it gave credence to the online movement. The outcry had reached such a hue that the story shifted to whether Hunnam was capable of playing the role at all. Media and fans had adopted a critical approach long before filming even began, and in that unforgiving atmosphere, there was almost nothing Hunnam could have done to assuage them.

Forget the prospect of being defined as a blockbuster failure; Hunnam was on the way to being defined by a controversy and set up as the fall guy for a movie helmed by an untested director that will probably—let’s be honest here—be really, really bad. By virtue of the clamor, he had already come to represent the film version of the novelistic behemoth, and he was going to shoulder its failure.

Why bother? Backing out was the smartest thing Hunnam could have done for himself. He doesn’t need the role. In an odd way, the whole thing worked out like it was planned. Hunnam’s name is now more prominent than ever, and when you think about it, he’s going to look golden either way. If Fifty Shades is a resounding success, he’ll be lauded for stepping aside and letting the fanboys have their way. If it flops, which is far more likely…well, he’ll look like a genius for keeping his name clean.

The only negative fallout here is that it doesn’t look great to quit on a film after contracts have been signed and announcements made. The planned release date is August 2014, and Hunnam’s choice has put everyone in a bit of a tough spot. But these circumstances are sufficiently special, and Hunnam’s track record is sufficiently clean, that Hollywood will forgive him. Especially if the film runs off the rails.

Think of Hunnam and Fifty Shades as a bad relationship where each party’s friends and family despise the other. Like, say, Romeo & Juliet. Sure, there was a spark at first, and it wasn’t crazy to believe that maybe the chemistry could carry them through. But after giving it a month, it became clear that nobody would give them any space to prove it could work. The initial animosity was too strong, and the relationship could never escape from the cloud of public outrage under which it began. Hunnam could have put on a brave face and played this saga out to the final act, but we all know how these things end. The smart move was to take a dispassionate look at what the role might do his career and act accordingly. There was only one path to take, and he took it.

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