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Sam Claflin on Me Before You, British acting and Emilia Clarke

Blockbuster roles are hard to come by for many actors, but rising British star Sam Claflin has featured in three before the age of 30 – and, as Ben Winstanley discovers, he’s just getting started…

Picture this: it’s day one of your first ever feature film (the previous year you’ve made your small screen debut with a smattering of TV performances), you’re sat next to Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz, the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides script in your hands… In Hawaii. Daunted?

Such a situation could quite understandably result in botched lines or a bout of crying in the foetal position but, like everything else Sam Claflin has achieved in what he modestly calls his “little acting career”, he took the experience in his stride – and here he is, five years on, a month away from his 30th birthday, with a further two global movie hits in the bag. Not at all bad for an Ipswich lad with a love of IMDb trivia.

“Hey, it keeps me off the streets, as they say,” Claflin quips, with the typically disarming humility that has won him fans worldwide.

“Every role is different and, sure, depending on the part, the script and the schedule, you can get a little bit used and abused, but it’s great to be busy and I feel incredibly fortunate to be doing what I love.”

If the fledgling stages of Claflin’s career have been a trial by fire, then he certainly couldn’t have asked for better tutorage along the way. He’s shared the credits roll with superstars including Eddie Redmayne, Jennifer Lawrence, Rachel Weisz, Julianne Moore and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, but where others may have lived in the moment, Claflin was mindful to carefully observe how his colleagues operated.

“What’s amazing is every person I’ve worked with has a different approach to work – not only how they approach a working day but their time off, their publicity, their entire way of life. And honestly they’re all mentors to me in so many ways. I learn something new every time I work – not only from fellow cast members but from the crew as well,” he tells me, clearly having thought about this before.

And the biggest lesson he’s taken away from his time in the spotlight so far?

What I realised quite early on is that it's incredibly important not to lose a sense of self and to celebrate your individuality

“What I think I realised quite early on is that it’s incredibly important not to lose a sense of self and celebrate your individuality. I don’t strive to be somebody else, or mimic anybody – I am me, and who I am is basically an amalgamation of everyone I meet.”

Pirating about with Depp, followed by a trip to the frozen world of Snow White and the Huntsman, may have been a step into the big leagues, but it was Claflin’s stellar portrayal of Hunger Games hunk Finnick Odair that catapulted the young actor to the heights of teenage heartthrob material – and, more importantly, recognition of his acting abilities.

Finnick’s dramatic death in the final installation of the film series brought with it a chance for Claflin to reflect on what’s next. Quite rightly, you’d imagine the progression for an ambitious actor would be to tackle his first leading role and, while Claflin has done exactly that, James Bond (he’s got the cheekbones for it) and Marvel’s superhero universe will have to wait.

“I feel quite individual in the way my career has panned out so far. I didn’t plan it by any means but I have done the big, fantastic blockbuster movies that put my name out there, and now I am trying to carve out a more varied, challenging career for myself.”

The first step on this path comes in the form of Me Before You.

Inspired by the JoJo Moyes novel of the same name, it follows the life of privileged banker Will Traynor in the aftermath of a motorcycle accident that leaves him paralysed in a wheelchair and, unable to cope with his drastic change of circumstances, wishing to end his life via Dignitas.

Action-packed it is not but Claflin certainly hasn’t rested on his laurels – this is a complex role and one he admits caught him off-guard.

“Not that I thought playing a wheelchair-bound man would be easy by any means but I think part of me didn’t really realise the physical demands it came with.”

This isn’t an exaggeration. When the cameras weren’t rolling, the star was training three times a day and eating no more than 500 calories – a sacrifice he made in the name of shedding his coveted muscles to truly “illustrate Will’s circumstances”.

“I think the preparation actually assisted me in getting into the mindset for the role in the sense that I really was drained, I was tired and it was difficult to get through the day,” he explains, laughing at my gasps of horror that anyone would put a role before their stomach.

“It was a struggle but I never felt like I was doing it on my own because I had so many people helping me, everything was expertly controlled and monitored.

“The passion of the entire cast meant I always felt like I was being carried if I needed to be – and literally at some points!”

The first thing Emilia Clarke said to me was, ‘I’m so sorry, my breath smells of onions’

On-screen, Claflin’s character is cared for by none other than Game of Thrones‘ ‘Mother of Dragons’ Emilia Clarke – an on-screen pairing more than a few fans are eager to see.

“Emilia and I first met in 2013 at a photoshoot for Screen International’s Rising Stars. She’d just been cast in Game of Thrones and I had been cast in Pirates of the Caribbean, and we hit it off straight away.

“Of course, we went our separate ways for five years and we nearly worked together on a few other projects but I’m happy that this was eventually our chance.”

Clarke’s portrayal of Louise Clark in the film, a sweet-natured girl who falls into caring to support her family, proves to be a masterstroke from director Thea Sharrock.

“She quite literally is Lou Clark,” Claflin chuckles, recalling a moment far removed from her fierce Daenerys Targaryen image.

“When she turned up in the later audition stages for our chemistry reads, the first thing she said to me was, ‘I’m so sorry but my breath smells of onions’.

“Immediately the ice was broken and that set the tone for the rest of the process – it never felt like we needed to work at our chemistry or get to know one another, it just happened really organically.”

Claflin admits that, despite being “pretty easy to get along with” (never one to overly self-promote), he isn’t sure he could have forged the same bond with another actress.

“At times it was difficult to know whether we were acting or actually having fun. It was just this very easygoing and simple approach to building a relationship on-screen.

“That’s when you can really let go. I’m not thinking about pretending to be upset because seeing Emilia cry genuinely made me cry – she moved me enough in certain scenes.”

Before reaching for the tissues though, the British actor is quick to stress that this isn’t your regular tear-jerker, describing it as a film that tackles the “serious issues with a gentle hand”. This is understandable given the welcomed input of a team of medical advisors who specialised in helping others overcome disability, as well as those who had suffered similar hardships themselves, but it was the euthanasia aspect of the film that took Claflin the most time to grasp.

“This is definitely the most challenging role I’ve had so far, purely just tackling a character who is from a world that I wasn’t in any way familiar with at all,” he admits.

“I had to get to grips with why Will felt and acted the way he did and I think the most valuable thing that I took away from the experience is that everyone is entitled to live their life the way they want to – but I honestly don’t know how I’d feel if I was going through what Will goes through, or on the flipside if I was one of his parents.”

For the fans Claflin has accumulated since the advent of his career, this film will undoubtedly come as a bit of a surprise – some might say a coming of age.

The young star agrees: “I think most films are a coming of age in one way or another. I certainly feel like after each film I do, I grow as a person and as an actor – each character you portray is going on their own kind of journey and you live that through them.

“Me Before You definitely feels like the rebirth of me as a person. It made me aware of a world I’m not familiar with, but also made me think about how I approach my own life.

“I like to think of myself as a positive thinker generally but I do definitely have moments of weakness, as do we all, but this film has made me really question those moments before I let myself go there.”

Sam Claflin's career – in pictures

Claflin’s transition from starlet to bona fide actor couldn’t have been better timed. The current crop of sought-after British actors – Eddie Redmayne (34), Tom Hiddleston (35) and Benedict Cumberbatch (39) – are Claflin’s elder by five or more years, but does he feel ready to take over the mantle and muscle in on what many call a ‘golden age’ of British acting?

“I can’t actually remember a time when there wasn’t a golden age of British talent, to be honest – we’ve been blessed with some truly incredible actors over the years.

“The Redmaynes and Cumberbatches of this world have had great training and received some tremendous opportunities, so you can only hope that those chances come your way and the way of other young actors – although, I hope that they continue to follow us as we get older as well!”

Now a father for the first time, Claflin is no more the bright-eyed Finnick we grew to love but he’s excited for what the future holds.

“I still feel like I’m in the early stages of what I hope is a very long career, but there’s already so much that I can’t wait to show my kids from films that I was in,” he reflects.

“When you start making films, the magic of movies can leave you but you get this wonderful knowledge of how it all works.

“You know that an astonishing gladiator arena is actually made out of cardboard and polystyrene, and even though the film viewer inside you dies a little bit, the set always carries its own kind of aura.

“I’ll never cease to be amazed at the environment and the incredible work that goes in across the board from costume designers and makeup to CGI – all these aspects are thrown together to make entertainment what it is and that’s something I’ll always cherish.”

Me Before You is in cinemas now.

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