Oct. 16, 2013 at 12:46 PM ET
Universal Pictures and Focus Features haven't yet resorted to posting a woman-seeking-man personal ad on Craigslist. But in the wake of Charlie Hunnam's abrupt departure from "Fifty Shades of Grey" — after what sources say was increasing conflict with the high-profile film's creative team — the studio is left to scramble desperately for another actor to star opposite Dakota Johnson in the role of billionaire S&M fan Christian Grey so the project can meet a looming Nov. 1 start date.
Universal chairman Donna Langley, producers Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and author EL James are said to have drafted a list of four men they want to read for the role. Although the list is being kept under NSA-level secrecy, THR.com revealed Oct. 13 that British TV stars Jamie Dornan, 31, and Christian Cooke, 26, are among the targets. Both actors came close to capturing the part the first time around but lost to Hunnam because the "Sons of Anarchy" star is a bigger name. ("True Blood's" Alexander Skarsgard also is being considered.)
Dornan could be emerging as a front-runner. Born in Northern Ireland, he's a former Calvin Klein model, dated Keira Knightley for two years and played Sheriff Graham on the first season of ABC's "Once Upon a Time." According to a source, Dornan was contacted by Langley even before Hunnam officially dropped out Oct. 12. But a Dornan confidant says no overtures had been made at press time to the actor, who stars in British series "The Fall," on which he plays a killer terrorizing Belfast. The fact that Dornan's wife, actress-singer Amelia Warner, is pregnant also could complicate matters.
The last thing Universal wants is another actor to emerge as its "Fifty Shades" protagonist only to waffle. The studio is reeling over Hunnam's exit less than three weeks before the start of production. Sources say his discomfort with the hoopla around the project had been mounting for at least four weeks before he bailed, which officially was blamed on his "Sons" schedule not allowing him time to prepare (the FX series wraps production Oct. 22). After signing Sept. 2, Hunnam faced a public frenzy on social media sites, where fans of the book congregated to fawn over and complain about his casting. Universal was forced to hire bodyguards for the actor at a recent "Sons" premiere, and two appearances to promote the show were canceled — one at Goulet Motosports in Hawkesbury, Ontario, on Sept. 14, and one at Rocky's Harley-Davidson in London, Ontario, on Oct. 13.
In addition, Hunnam, who also is a writer (he penned the gothic horror screenplay "Vlad" for Brad Pitt's Plan B and Summit Entertainment), is said to have submitted his own very detailed script notes on Kelly Marcel's adaptation of the runaway best-seller. The notes were well received, according to sources, but that only led to Hunnam seeking further script approval, which was denied. "That's Charlie, that's who he is. He's particular," says one source.
According to another source, Hunnam, who was to be paid about $125,000 for the film, began butting heads with the creative team, including Taylor-Johnson. The conflict reached a fever pitch in early October, though everyone involved thought the issues had been resolved. But the discord spiked again Oct. 11. Hunnam's team at CAA and Brillstein Entertainment Partners strongly advised him to stay on the project for fear that his exit would embarrass Langley — new to the chairman job — and burn a bridge with one of the major studios. That same day, Universal hired writer Patrick Marber — no stranger to taboo sex themes with his Oscar-nominated screenplay "Notes on a Scandal" — to do a polish and bolster the characters. But by then, Hunnam, whose heart it seems never was in the project, had decided to decamp. The next morning, the studio announced his departure, and James tweeted, "I wish Charlie all the best." Universal and CAA declined comment.
Hunnam isn't the first actor to have doubts about playing the dungeon-loving Christian Grey. James' first choice, Robert Pattinson, never engaged with producers. Garrett Hedlund was heavily courted this summer and even received an informal offer, but the "Tron: Legacy" star passed in July because he couldn't connect with the character. Now he is in Australia to shoot the Angelina Jolie-directed "Unbroken."
Fortunately for Universal, its leading lady, Johnson, 24, remains firmly in place, ready to take on the virgin-turned-sexpert Anastasia Steele, a role that has greater dimension than the Grey character. But with the clock ticking, the start of production likely will need to be pushed back at least a week. Still, the studio says it remains committed to making its Aug. 1, 2014, release date.
For her part, the ever-involved James (she has approval rights on cast) is in Los Angeles the week of Oct. 14 as the hunt for a new Christian Grey continues. As the author writes no fewer than 44 times in "Fifty Shades": "Oh my."
Borys Kit contributed to this report.