‘Nicholas Nickleby’ actor updates Dickens

Charlie Hunnam leads winning ensemble cast

“I’ve spent three and a half years in America auditioning for American roles trying to perfect this accent,” says British actor Charlie Hunnam. “Then my first starring role is to play a Dickensian Englishman, which is about as English as it gets. So I had to get a dialect coach to teach me how to speak English again. Isn’t that just ludicrous?”

Though his accent may have required a refresher course, Hunnam’s career is hardly in need of such tutoring. The 22-year-old plays the lead in the latest version of “Nicholas Nickleby” — which opens in Kansas City this weekend — a lush, entertaining romp through Charles Dickens’ world of the noble poor and the wealthy scoundrels who would try and crush them.

“The thing that really attracted me to this role was I got the script in January (2002), right after Sept. 11,” says Hunnam, interviewed last month during a press roundtable in New York. “Humanity was in such a precarious place. I just thought what a good message to send out: the importance of family, virtue and honor.

“Those aren’t really things that young people are taught or aspire to. It’s not really cool in the MTV generation. No one is walking around with T-shirts saying ‘virtue’ on it.”

Cast system

Already, this updating by writer/director Douglas McGrath is gaining major accolades. The film received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical or Comedy — although it lost to powerhouse “Chicago.” It also won the National Board of Review honor for Best Ensemble.

And what an ensemble it is: Jim Broadbent, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Bell, Nathan Lane, Barry Humphries, Alan Cumming, and especially Christopher Plummer, who as the black-hearted Uncle Ralph delivers an Oscar-worthy depiction of pure wickedness.

“Working with good people always strengthens you,” says the blonde Hunnam, who currently sports a scraggly beard for his part in Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain,” which he’s spent the previous five months shooting in Romania.

“(‘Nickleby’) was certainly fun between scenes. But it was definitely an exhausting shoot for everyone involved, and I had to be there more than anyone else.”

Considering the stellar cast assembled, top-billed Hunnam is probably one of the least well-known of the bunch. The Newcastle-raised actor first came to audience’s attention in the 1999 British version of the controversial gay-themed TV series “Queer as Folk.” Following that, he moved to the states and landed on the Fox slacker-comedy “Undeclared.” This led to a principal slot in last October’s “Abandon” opposite Katie Holmes.

For now, Hunnam is basking in the spotlight, although he’s still unsure (and somewhat indifferent) if his present role will realistically thrust him into the pop culture mainstream.

“I really like ‘Nicholas Nickleby,'” he comments. “I thought Doug did a very nice job. But I don’t know how many people will go and see this film. I don’t know what the audience is for it. I’m really proud of it, and I would love as many people as possible to see it, but I’m completely baffled by the film industry and why people go and see the films they do.”

From sabers to lightsabers

Although he’s making his mark in a movie situated in the 1830s, Hunnam almost became part of a franchise set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Much to his surprise, the actor narrowly missed being cast in the role of Anakin Skywalker in “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

“I very half-heartedly went into it,” he says of the audition process. “I wouldn’t have done it even if I’d have been offered it.”

No, really.

While most humans would have fought an army of clones for the job, Hunnam claims his motive was based more on curiosity.

“It was between me and Hayden (Christensen) and one other guy,” he recalls. “I actually didn’t go back to the final round of auditions. I’d taken it further than I’d intended to do. I thought it’d just be a laugh to go and meet George Lucas.”

Was it?

“Not at all,” he sighs. “He was just an incredibly shy man to the point where it was uncomfortable. I was young myself and not nearly as able to keep the conversation going. The casting director (Robin Gurland) does all of the work for him in the room. Then she had to go make a phone call. Lucas kind of froze up, and his whole body language changed. There was this awkward silence for about two minutes. Then he literally excused himself and said, ‘Well, I really don’t have anything to say.'”

From one Dickensian environment to another …