British actor Sam Claflin opens up about the importance of family, the fear of the unknown and his difficult relationship with fame
Sam flashes a big, warm smile across the room when I arrive at London’s Langham hotel, jumping up from the sofa to greet me like we’re old friends. I thank him for taking the time to meet me, to which he politely responds, “Thank you for… being here?” He giggles at his own awkward response. “Or…wanting to do this!” he corrects himself. This young, charismatic actor drew the attention of cinemagoers across the world when he was cast in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 2011. He subsequently appeared in a slew of blockbusters such as The Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman, followed by his breakthrough role as the quadriplegic young man, Will Traynor, in Me Before You.
Starring alongside Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
“People assume that I live my life trying to be beautiful all the time, whereas actually I live a very ordinary life,” he tells me, on his aversion to the word “fame”. “ ‘Stardom’ is a word I never use to describe my life or my experience of work. I feel very fortunate in my career that I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible people, but I also have the opportunity to live quite a private life. I genuinely believe that if you want to live a private life, you can.”
He certainly practises what he preaches. Wearing a simple jumper, jeans and trainers, he looks nothing like the tanned, oiled-up, Adonis-like Finnick from The Hunger Games. In fact, he’s kind of goofy and fidgety, bursting with boyish joy.
"Because it was my first time on set, I was all bright-eyes and bushy-tailed—a deer in headlights"
Sam's path to success
It may sound like many aspiring actors’ fantasy scenario: a boy-next-door from Norwich, he never even planned on being an actor, putting all his dedication into becoming a professional football player instead. Several years, a broken ankle and a chance encounter with theatre later, and he found himself on the set of Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, mingling with the likes of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz. “Because it was my first time on a film set, I was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—a deer in the headlights. Someone asked me if I got the most out of my experience with Pirates and I was like, ‘Probably not.’ Now I wish I could do that again because I have so much more confidence and so much more self-awareness that I’d be able to hold my own. I felt like I was a lost puppy, just kind of going, ‘Tell me what to do, I’ll do anything’.”
As Stanhope in Journey’s End. “He’s the character everyone wants to play”
Yet Pirates opened many doors for Sam, who went on to star in The Hunger Games film series and the box-office hit Me Before You. Six years down the line, his film choices are becoming increasingly complex, including the dark Daphne du Maurier adaptation, My Cousin Rachel, and the First World War drama Journey’s End, in which he tackles the notoriously difficult role of Captain Stanhope, previously played by Sir Laurence Olivier.
“When I started my career it was like, ‘OK, I’m just doing blockbuster after blockbuster, year after year’. And I loved every single second of it. But from there I kind of branched out and started exploring deeper characters and more complex situations, so it’s become more varied as I’ve got older.” Stanhope is a disillusioned officer, slowly descending into madness and crippling alcoholism in the dark trenches of the war. Claflin’s performance is volatile and throbbing with anger at the helplessness of his character—a complete transformation from the happy-go-lucky chap sitting in front of me.
“Stanhope is the character that everyone wants to play. What’s interesting about him is that he’s still a young lad, but at the same time he’s lived and experienced so much he’s like a 60-year-old man, you know? “I think there are some similarities between myself and Stanhope. For example, his anger comes from fear and when I get scared, I tend to take it out on people—the people I love and who are closest to me. I think everyone does to an extent.”
Sam on the importance of family
At 31, Sam is a devoted family man. He met his future wife and fellow actress Laura Haddock when they both unsuccessfully auditioned for roles in My Week with Marilyn. They married in 2013 and now have a two-year-old son, Pip.
“Anything regarding my little boy scares me. I mean, literally, if he fell off a chair…” He pauses for a moment, trying to convey the dread. “I have these pangs of fear that shoot through me—something that I’ve never really experienced before. It’s because it’s another human being other than myself that’s so young, naïve and vulnerable—there’s nothing like it.”
He reaches down to the wooden sofa leg and knocks on it several times. “I will touch wood right now, that I’ve never lost anyone close to me—no friends, no family—so I don’t know what loss is like. I think I’m so afraid of that happening for the first time, which it inevitably will at some point. It’s that…fear of the unknown.”
When I ask Sam what it’s like to be a new father, his face instantly lights up—that’s all he’d talk about if he could. “He’s nearly two, so yes, I feel very experienced,” he bursts out laughing, sarcastically.
With his wife, Laura Haddock
“There’s still so much to learn. It’s so difficult doing what we do. I’ve basically spent most of this year away from him as I’ve been working on the other side of the world. But when I’m in between jobs, I’m a full-time dad, and there all day, every day. When neither me nor my wife are working, we go on adventures. It’s easy with him because he likes exploring. He’s very adventurous and boisterous—a proper little boy.”
"I don't think the press would follow me like they would someone else—I find it nice and private, my life"
For Sam himself, anonymity is a valued state. “I don’t think the press follow me like they would someone else. I find it nice and private, my life. And living in London as opposed to LA, where on every street corner there’s someone chasing someone, I just find it very possible to live a calm and normal life.”
Even more so in his hometown Norwich, where his mum, a classroom assistant, is more famous than he is! “I’ll be home with her and these little girls at the school that she works at will go, ‘We hear your son’s home,’ and I’ll be standing right next to her and they don’t have a clue who I am.”
Sam had his big break in Pirates of the Caribbean
“Norwich is such a beautiful place to grow up in, it’s one of my favourite places to go back to now. No one ever treats me any differently, which is amazing. I go home and it’s still the same thing. My mum and dad haven’t changed one iota. They’re coming to the premiere this evening and my dad will still wear his Norwich City tie and the same suit like he does every time,” he laughs.
“I’m very fortunate to have such a grounding support. Everyone’s just allowed me to be me, and they knock me back down to earth if I ever get too big for my boots. I’m lucky.”
Journey’s End is released in cinemas on February 2