Death can make for great drama on a series like FX’s Sons of Anarchy—but it can also break a lot of hearts. Such was the case on Sept. 25 when SAMCRO member Harry “Opie” Winston (Ryan Hurst) was fatally beaten in retaliation for the death of a rival’s daughter. Hurst first learned about his character’s fate in April, when he received a call from creator/executive producer Kurt Sutter while he was (strangely enough) hosting a wake for a friend.
“I couldn’t stop crying. I tried to talk him out of it,” recalls Hurst, who played Horatio to Jax’s Hamlet since the drama’s pilot. “I went through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. He wasn’t sure of the particulars yet, just that it was gonna be bloody and gonna be noble… I didn’t see the way that it served the story. But then again, it’s not necessarily my position to comment on that. It’s Kurt’s show that he created, and whether it’s the right decision or the wrong decision, remains to be seen.”
The table read for Hurst’s final episode titled “Laying Pipe” was particularly upsetting, recalls Charlie Hunnam (Jax). “We finished reading the script and basically sat crying in silence for about 45 minutes afterwards. None of us could go back to work. It was such a profound thing.” So Hurst made sure his last day was memorable. Though only Jax, Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) and Tig (Kim Coates) appeared in the prison death scene, Hurst asked that all of his SAMCRO brothers stand in his sight line when he received the fatal blow to his head from a pipe. “I wanted everybody to stand behind the camera for the last shot so I could look at them. If you look at that last shot of Opie, he is just looking at all my brothers, and saying… thank you.”
What Hurst didn’t expect was how hard it was going to be to let go of Opie. Recalls Hunnam, “This is the first experience he’s ever had where the character will not die. Opie was alive and well inside him and had unfinished business. And he didn’t know how to kill Opie. In an act of desperation, he found himself online at 4 in the morning. He said there were a thousand books to help actors with character development but not one on how to kill the f—er when you are done. So, I said, ‘Why don’t you come to my house, man, and we’ll do this really right. I’ll get a few of the boys there and we’ll cut your beard off as that’s ultimately going to be the final farewell.'”
Hunnam gave Hurst a parting gift of a samurai sword that he and Boone were going to use to remove Hurst’s scruffy beard. “I started crying, and then Boone started crying,” Hunnam said. “By the end of it, it was the catharsis that we’d all hoped it would be.”
Though Hurst has since moved on to the TNT drama pilot King & Maxwell (he plays a high-functioning autistic savant), nothing has changed when it comes to his relationship with the Men of Mayhem. “These people are much closer than just friends or acquaintances. I’m one of those all or nothing kind of people,” says Hurst. “I’ve been with my wife for 18 years and my manager for 22. When I buddied up with these people, I was like ‘Okay, we’re going to know each other until we’re actually dead.'” (Video Courtesy of Herman/Scheer Productions)
For more on Sons of Anarchy, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now. For an exclusive video of Charlie Hunnam shooting his EW cover and talking about his inspiration for Jax Teller, visit EW’s Facebook page. Check out our gallery of nine pics of Hunnam from the shoot. And to learn why Hunnam stopped talking to Ron Perlman this season, click here!