Yes, Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century badass whose penchant for brutality and fighting at night were meant to strike fear in the heart of the Ottoman Empire and give his outnumbered forces an advantage on their home battlefield, was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And yes, the Vlad screenplay, written by Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam, will be produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Summit Entertainment, the studio behind Twilight. But no, you will not be seeing vampires. In fact, that was a non-negotiable point for Hunnam, who became fascinated with Vlad, a national hero of Romania, when he spent five months traveling the country during downtime filming 2003’s Cold Mountain.
It wasn’t until Hunnam (who’d previously starred in the UK Queer as Folk, 2002’s Nicholas Nickleby, and Fox’s Judd Apatow series Undeclared) became frustrated with the sort of roles he was being offered that he finally sat down three years ago to write his first script. Development has been staggered — interrupted by both the writers’ strike and Hunnam’s casting as Jax on FX’s Anarchy, which just received a third season order — but this week comes news that in-demand music video director Anthony Mandler is in line to helm the film after wowing execs with a reel reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s 300. Here, Hunnam tells us about the film’s plot (he’s the hottest history teacher you’ll ever have) and who he’d love to see cast as Vlad (Colin Farrell or himself?).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was 300 the vibe you were going for in the script?
CHARLIE HUNNAM: My hope when writing it was for the end result to be more Braveheart than 300, and I think that as it’s evolved, we’ve got a pretty good mixture of both. I labor a little bit more over the history than 300 did. I was really interested in the reality of how this man turned into the myth, and because of some of his behaviors, it’s actually very easy to weave that mythology in, in a true way. As a writer, you have your idea of what it’s going to be, and now I have to release it. It’s Mandler’s film. But I have a lot of faith in him, and I like him tremendously as a human being, so I feel in safe hands turning my baby over to him.
What can you share about the plot?
It’s a very big and sweeping story. The majority of time focuses on him as a young man assuming his rule as a prince, but we actually go all the way through his life. Basically what happened was, the Ottoman Empire was expanding at an exponentially fast rate with a father-son duo of sultans, who increased the size of their territory tenfold within 50 years. They got over the Danube into Wallachia, which is the southern part of modern-day Romania. Romania used to be three separate principalities: Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia.
You have done your research. Impressive.
I did a lot of research. [Laughs]
So the Ottoman came. They conquered Vlad’s father, also named Vlad Dracul — Vlad the Dragon. In Eastern Orthodox Catholicism, because of the iconography of George slaying the dragon, the dragon and the devil was one in the same. If you add an ‘a’, it denotes “son of,” so Dracula literally translates to “son of the devil.” So right away, from the moment he was born, before he did anything heinous of his own volition, he had a pretty bad rap because of his name. So the Ottoman said to Vlad’s father, “You can stay in power, rule your country as you wish, allow Catholicism to flourish, but you have to allow my people who will come to live here now equal rights to their faith, Islam.” There were all of these terms, but overall it was a pretty generous deal until the final moment: The Sultan wanted Vlad’s two youngest children. He intended to raise the children himself, make them devout Muslims, then put them back on the throne at a later date with the proper bloodline and yet loyalty to the Ottoman. So Vlad and his brother Radu went. Vlad was about 12, and already had a pretty elevated sense of who he was, but Radu was only seven and much, much more malleable. So they ended up, in Vlad’s mind, corrupting his brother and converting his brother to Islam. Radu was treated like a prince by the Ottomans, and Vlad was trapped like a slave, like a prisoner. About eight years after they got taken by the Ottoman, his father was murdered, and Vlad decided he was going to escape, avenge his father’s murder, take his throne back and oppose the Ottoman. So he escaped from court, went to his brother, and his brother refused to come with him. It started a 17-year war between the brothers, Christian vs. Muslim.
That’s a good pitch. How much of the film is that? The opening montage?
That’s the entire first act. You see them as children, you see the war, you get introduced to the Ottoman Empire, the deal is made, the children are taken, and then you see how differently each of them reacts to being held in the Ottoman court. The first act break is cutting from them being children to them being adults — and then all hell breaks loose. At least that’s how it is now. This isn’t the shooting draft we have. Who knows, a lot of this might end up getting trimmed down.
Are you doing the polish of the script?
We’re figuring that out. The problem is for me, I have a movie to go do in about three or four weeks [The Ledge, a layered love story with themes of religious faith costarring Evan Rachel Wood, Peter Sarsgaard, and Terrence Howard, that he’s been looking forward to filming for three years], and then I have to go right back to the show, and I’m not a particularly fast writer. It would break my heart, the idea that somebody else might step in and do another draft, but there’s just a certain reality, there’s only a number of hours in the day.
The bigger question, of course, is, did you write a role for yourself?
I did have a couple of different people wanting to buy the script, so I did have a bit of leverage in the negotiations. In lieu of actually attaching myself as an actor, I attached myself as an exec producer. So if it gets made, I’ll get my first producer credit, which is something I’m really interested in pursuing. When it actually comes around to casting, I will definitely throw my name in the hat. I would love to play any part in it. The role of Vlad’s little brother is a very good role and potentially get-able.
So who do you envision as Vlad?
As I was writing it, I vacillated between thinking about myself playing the role as a fantasy [laughs], and Colin Farrell and Christian Bale. Particularly Farrell. There’s something very roguish and bad boy about Vlad, and I know Colin a little bit, and I think he has some of the characteristics that would be essential for playing this guy. I love Ryan Gosling, I think he’s just incredible, but I never really thought he would be 100 percent right. The thing about Vlad is, he wasn’t a conventional ruler. When he took his throne back after his father had been murdered, he did that using a contingent of gypsies, murderers, and thieves that he found in the forest; he didn’t hire mercenaries. He had a real affinity for the darker side of society. I think he felt like he was an outcast, too, in a lot of ways. I think Farrell would be fantastic.
Having watched you on Sons of Anarchy, Vlad sounds perfect for you.
Listen, it would be a dream come true for me to play this role. But I’ve had my heart-broken so many times that I’m not kidding myself that there’s any real potential. There’s a reality to making this type of film and how much it costs, and I’m just not a big enough name to justify that type of budget right now. But I definitely know this guy really well. Inevitably, because he’s my take on Vlad, he acts in a lot of ways that I can really relate to. I capitalized on the stuff that I can empathize with in terms of his story. So just by virtue of that, I would definitely be a smart candidate to consider. It’d just be whether the business machinations of the whole thing were in keeping with my desire to play that role. [Laughs]
And we won’t be seeing any vampires in the film?
As the script stands now, we don’t touch on vampirism. That was my one non-negotiable area when we were developing it, and thankfully, nobody suggested that we should delve into it at the end. But you can clearly see the things that Bram Stoker took…. Vlad was such a brutal man, and the trick is to make him sympathetic. That was the challenge, and if we’ve succeeded in any way in this script, I truly believe that it’s genuinely making him sympathetic. He was doing what he thought was right. He was the one who was being invaded and whose religious beliefs were being stripped away. Vlad met the Sultan three times in battle through the course of his life and at any time he meant him, he was outnumbered 5 to 1. A lot of his brutality just came out of military necessity — shock tactics and fear tactics to give him the upper hand, because he just couldn’t meet them man-to-man. Gunpowder had also just been discovered, so Vlad was fighting with bows and arrows and swords and the Ottoman Empire had guns. He had the advantage of fighting on home ground and he knew the terrain better, which gave him the ability to fight at night. Because he would fight at night, he would try to get his men on a night schedule, so they hadn’t already been up for 12 hours through the day. There are a million ways to show that this guy is the origin of vampirism without actually having him drinking blood.
Photo credit: Albert L. Ortega/PR Photos