Like Trainspotting or The Beach, Shantaram is one of those books – a rite-of-passage read with ‘cult’ stamped on every page. Written by Gregory David Roberts, a convicted bank robber and heroin addict who escaped from an Australian prison and resurfaced in 1980s Bombay, it’s been on Hollywood’s must-make list ever since its 2003 publication.
Johnny Depp was attached for years, followed by Joel Edgerton, but it is only now coming to screens as an Apple TV+ series and fronting it is Britain’s Charlie Hunnam, the Sons Of Anarchy star who here plays Lin Ford, the fictionalised version of Roberts.
‘It was everything to me,’ says Hunnam about bringing the book to life. ‘I’ve had experience playing real people, who were still living or have recently died – even more intimidating! But I knew how popular this book was. I read it myself several times and know what a magnificent role Lin is. And so I was filled with fear at the prospect.’
Still, Hunnam was lucky enough to spend a wild time with the book’s author in Jamaica, where he lives.
‘We slept maybe three hours a night. We smoked so much pot… it was maybe world record levels of marijuana consumed. And we sat and talked for 22 hours straight for four days. It was the confidence boost I needed because I just understand him in a way that’s inexplicable – we would go round Jamaica and everybody thought we were father and son. By the end of it. I went, “OK, I know you. Now I’ve just got to go play my pal.” As opposed to this guy who was, like, writ large up here in my mind. That felt daunting.’
He pauses, looking shifty. ‘Only joking about the pot.’
It’s not always easy to tell if Hunnam’s joking. Like when he talks about the impact India made on him.
‘I’ve antibody enhancement syndrome now, thanks to contracting dengue fever from a mosquito bite,’ he says. ‘So if I get bitten again by another mosquito, I’ll probably die. So that changed me a bit physically!’
Still, this 12-part series – which co-stars Antonia Desplat and Shubham Saraf – feels right in Hunnam’s wheelhouse. Whether it was playing real-life explorer Percy Fawcett in The Lost City Of Z or a Devil’s Island prisoner in Papillon, the 42-year-old Newcastle native has often been drawn to exotic stories.
‘It’d never really occurred to me that there was a consistent, intrepid nature to some of the work that I’ve been doing recently but I’m a great lover of the outdoors and a great lover of the natural world. So those elements do attract me.’
He then starts laughing as an on-set catchphrase comes back to him: Nature AF. It first popped up on a video blog he was watching.
‘Nature As F***! It’s a really silly way of saying like, “Oh, that’s really beautiful.” You could be like “Yeah, brah, it’s Nature AF!’ Just silly.’
But shooting in Mumbai, Bhopal and Bangkok – after Covid stopped filming in India – was profound.
‘I saw things that broke my heart and brought me to my knees where I would be wailing inconsolably in the streets, and then 20 minutes later, see the opposite – the most extraordinary expression of love or kindness.’
Now, when he’s in the street, he does the ‘smile test’, as he calls it. ‘I smile ten times and I will count the amount of times that smile is reciprocated. London, for instance, in summer, is two out of ten. You got a 20 per cent ratio of people who are going to smile back at you in summer. In winter, it’s about 0.5 per cent. In LA, we have a pretty good smile ratio. We’re about 40 per cent. India is ten for ten.’
Every time he smiled he got one back.
‘Most of the time they beat me to the smile and that’s the greatest endorsement of a place I could give.’
Shantaram is streaming on Apple TV+