Charlie Hunnam
Credit: Photographed by Billy Ballard; Gucci felted cotton sweatshirt; Marla Aaron sapphire and 14kt gold necklace

In person, Charlie Hunnam is pensive and brutally handsome, with a chiseled face and piercing eyes. He wears a dark blue cable-knit sweater over a white T-shirt and jeans, a nondescript choice, possibly on purpose. We meet in West Hollywood at one of his favorite haunts, Greenblatt’s Deli, and sit across from each other in the upstairs dining area. At a table just behind us, two men are talking, one so loudly it’s clear he wants everyone within earshot to know he has grand ambitions. He says he knows people in the business, and because we’re in Hollywood, I can only assume that he’s referring to show business.

Hunnam, on the other hand, does nothing to draw attention. As a reasonably successful actor and incredibly attractive man, he doesn’t need more notice than he already gets. He’s so suave and engaged throughout our conversation, I decide that either he’s being genuine or he’s an even better actor than I thought. The English accent also doesn’t hurt.

Charlie Hunnam
Credit: Photographed by Billy Ballard; Vetements cotton jersey T-shirt and embroidered cotton-blend sweatpants from Barneys New York

Certainly, we cover the expected subjects—the last book he really enjoyed (The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt), what he’s been cooking (shakshuka, which we both declare the new frittata), and the latest film to intrigue him (Moonlight, because he feels that it showed real restraint and respect for the audience). I learn that the 37-year-old practices jujitsu and watches MMA fighting and is really tired of answering questions about why he backed out of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. (He told reporters in 2015 that he was essentially overbooked and overwhelmed.)

In FX’s Sons of Anarchy, which ran from 2008 through 2014, Hunnam played Jax Teller. As the brash but good-hearted leader of a motorcycle gang in the fictional town of Charming, Calif., Teller tried to understand his father’s legacy while raising a family, loving a woman not entirely thrilled with his gang activities, and dealing with a devious mother. There was a lot on Teller’s shoulders, and Hunnam—despite being born in the very non-biker-sounding Newcastle upon Tyne, in England—carried that burden well. Even three years later, the role still affects him. “[After the show ended] it was a painful process of what felt like real mourning, of grieving, to extricate him from my life,” he says. “I became very conscious of what a giant impact it had on me playing that guy—being with him for so long inside of me.”

With that career-making role behind him, Hunnam is thinking carefully about what’s next. He wants, in his words, to “change people’s perception of what I’m capable of.” This moment of insight intrigues me, so I ask Hunnam how he thinks he’s perceived. He’s quiet as he considers how to respond.

Charlie Hunnam
Credit: Photographed by Billy Ballard; Valentino denim shirt and jeans; Marla Aaron silver and 14kt gold necklace; Maison Margiela brass bracelet; Venessa Arizaga braided thread bracelet; Havaianas rubber flip-flops

Eventually he says, “I try not to think about that too much because I’m just attempting to shape my own perception of myself and feel confident in my own identity. But people recognize that I have some real ability and have demonstrated that. There will probably be those that still relegate me to being a pretty boy.”

And there it is. It’s refreshing to hear him talk openly about his obvious physical beauty. Asked if being a sex symbol is ever limiting, Hunnam responds with considerable self-awareness. “It’s both collateral damage and a huge opportunity. I mean, it’s a visual medium, and it makes it a lot easier to get roles if you’re a little easier on the eyes. But the reality is you get on set and every scene is a challenge to make work.”

That’s certainly true of his upcoming roles. In this month’s The Lost City of Z, he portrays Colonel Percival Fawcett, the real life English explorer who in the 1920s was willing to sacrifice nearly everything, including his family, in his search for a fabled city in the Amazon. “I did the best work of my career so far in Lost City,” says Hunnam.

Then, in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, out in May, he takes on Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of the classic legend and plays Arthur like we’ve never seen: arrogant and reluctant, orphaned, hardened by a childhood living in a brothel and on the streets. Hunnam was drawn to the opportunity to render Arthur as a “rough-and-ready street kid who had this call, this duty, this destiny presented to him that he was not interested at all in pursuing.” More than that, though, he wanted to work with Ritchie, with whom he had a “veritable lovefest” when they first met.

Charlie Hunnam
Credit: Photographed by Billy Ballard; Prada jacquard vest; Maison Margiela denim jeans

Hunnam says being part of the storytelling process “totally nourishes” him, though he admits that transitioning back to real life can be tough. “It’s brutal. Reintegration is a motherf—. I keep thinking it’ll get easier, but it doesn’t. It’s really hard for my girlfriend [jewelry designer Morgana McNelis]. There’s all this expectation and longing and hope for what that reunion’s going to be. For me, it’s always a process of trying desperately to get back to center, so I can be that person for her.”

Just before Christmas of last year, he wrapped his next film, Papillon (a remake of 1973’s prison-escape drama with Hunnam in the role famously played by Steve McQueen), and McNelis gave him an ultimatum—do whatever you need to do, but don’t come home until you’re ready to see me. Hunnam took a trip back to England to decompress before returning to L.A., which gave him time to “exorcise the experience from my heart and soul” and reflect on “how fragile our connection is to anything.”

Our conversation is peppered with these heady asides. “I struggled through my childhood as a bit of a weird, existential kid,” he admits. “I was constantly preoccupied with trying to understand what it all meant.”

And now? “I’ve just grown up into a weird, existential adult,” he laughs.

For more stories like this, pick up InStyle's April issue, on newsstands and available for digital download Mar. 17.