The Hunger Games brought him fame and an army of teenage fans, but now Sam Claflin is swapping blockbusters for nappies and embracing the ‘dad bod’. He tells Kate Wills about insecurities, turning 30 and why he’s keeping his son firmly out of the spotlight.
He’s best known as the trident-toting hunk in The Hunger Games, but for his latest role Sam Claflin shed more than three stone to play a suicidal paraplegic. He talks to Kate Wills about body shaming, Instagram fame and his most important role to date – being a dad.
When Sam Claflin arrives at the hotel in Wimbledon, south-west London for our interview, it’s a bit of a Clark Kent moment. I was expecting the perma-tanned, super-buff, trident-toting Finn Odair from The Hunger Games (Yes, I am a 31-year-old teenage girl). So when a pale, scruffy-haired, bookish-looking man shuffles in, wearing round tortoiseshell glasses and sporting a battered, brown Mulberry satchel, I almost don’t recognise him.
He orders a black coffee and looks – like most new fathers – utterly exhausted. Claflin and his wife, the Luther star Laura Haddock, had their first child, a son, just six weeks before we meet, and today is the first time that he’s left the baby bubble. He’s positively beaming about fatherhood – “I’m already missing him” and despite being “at that point of tiredness where your eyes hurt”, is unfailingly polite and charming. He banters with the photographer about the new series of Catastrophe and Norwich FC, stops to make a fuss of a passing Pekinese puppy and endears everyone on set with tales of of nappy changing woes (the words “uncontrollable hose pipe” feature).
The Superman-style disguise could soon come in handy. This year Claflin is set to make the transition from teen star to household name. He’s already got huge blockbuster franchises under his belt – he landed a part in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film almost straight out of drama school, then there was The Hunger Games (it grossed $2.3bn, you might have heard of it), and Snow White and the Huntsman, he popped up in the sequel last month. He’s mastered the soppy rom-com, opposite Lily Collins in Love Rosie, and won critical acclaim playing an obnoxious Bullingdon boy in <The Riot Club>. But his new role, as a suicidal paraplegic in the adaptation of JoJo Moyes’ bestseller Me Before You, is a departure from anything he’s done before.
“A part like Will Traynor is a dream,” he says, his actor’s RP occasionally veering into the flat a-s of the Norfolk broads. “It was the most eye-opening experience and I feel like going through the experience has changed me. I know it sounds clichéd and naïve but I am now very aware when pavements aren’t level and curbs are too high or ramps aren’t available.”
Just as Eddie Redmayne faced criticism for what detractors called “cripping up” to play Stephen Hawking, the question of whether able-bodied actors should play disabled parts has been levied at Claflin too. “Someone put a note on Twitter saying how angry they were that I was cast instead of a disabled actor and I hear that point, I really do,” he says, sounding genuinely concerned. “Of course, there are parts of the novel, and our film, where Will is able-bodied and that would’ve been much more difficult for someone who wasn’t able-bodied to portray. But there does need to be more opportunities out there for people of other colours, races or physical abilities. It’s not that white able-bodied men are stealing everyone’s parts, it’s that script-writers need to write other stories. I would if I could, but I can’t!”
Claflin lost three and a half stone of his Hunger Games bulk to play Will. For four months he followed a strict 500-calorie a day diet and worked out three times a day. “I fully punished myself and drove myself into the ground,” he admits. But the transformation was more than just physical. “There was a point just before we started filming where I was in a very similar place to Will emotionally and mentally. By no means am I saying I know what being a paraplegic is like, but I was very depressed and low on energy and in a great amount of pain for completely opposite reasons. I wasn’t in the mood to do anything, which is how Will is at the beginning of the movie.”
If you’ve read the book you’ll know that in <Me Before You>, Will petitions his parents to take him to Dignitas. “I wasn’t aware of assisted suicide clinics before I was cast,” admits Claflin. “So I wanted to do a bit of research and delved quite deeply and darkly into that whole world. The Terry Pratchett documentary about it was mind blowing.” Although he refuses to be drawn on his own views about this controversial subject – “My honest opinion, honestly, is… everyone has a different opinion” – he hints that he believes in the right to die with dignity. “Humans have freedom of thought and freedom of speech… so why are we taking that away from people?”
Claflin spent four months rehearsing with <Game of Thrones> star Emilia Clarke, who plays Will’s carer and love interest Louisa. He also developed a rapport with the book’s author JoJo Moyes. “Sam is a sweetheart,” she tells RED via email. “He is also the nicest smelling man I’ve ever met. So much so that I and a couple of the female crew members would periodically sneak up to him on set and just inhale him.” Claflin recently posted a photo to Instagram of himself reading Moyes’ book in a pair of its famous “bumblebee tights”.
Although he’ll happily upload pictures of himself in hosiery, videos of him and Laura rap-syncing to Iggy Azalea and snaps of his black cockapoo Rosie, don’t expect any shots of Sam Junior to surface any time soon. “We’re purposely shying away from posting any pictures of the baby,” he explains, unwilling to even divulge his son’s name. “I don’t want to force my child into a world that he may or may not wish to go into. He might want to be a banker and change his surname for all I know.”
It’s fairly uncommon these days for anyone to be married with children in their twenties, let alone Hollywood movie stars, but Claflin was keen to settle down. “The day I met Laura I knew I wanted to marry her so it didn’t feel like we were rushing it,” he says. After meeting Haddock in an audition for My Week With Marilyn, Sam called his agent and told him he’d met the girl he wanted to marry. The next day they had a chance encounter on an early-morning tube, and months later Haddock got in touch with Claflin on Facebook (“she definitely pursued me”). They married in 2013, and from the dreamy look in his eyes when he talks about her, to the “hi sweetie” when she calls during our shoot, they’re clearly very much in love.
For Claflin, having children was “written in the stars”. “When I was a kid I used to love playing with dolls, I did my work experience in a playschool and my mum was a child-minder so I’ve grown up around kids.” And yet nothing could prepare him for having one of his own. “Someone described it to my wife as ‘the best shock in the world’ and I think that’s fitting.” He says fatherhood has given him a “newfound admiration” for his parents and “anyone who’s been through it – it’s really hard!”
Around the time we meet, Laura has been pictured on the red carpet for the first time since giving birth, and a certain news website has commented on her “svelte post-baby body”. Does he feel protective of her? “I do, and I think she’s probably more paranoid about it than she needs to be. No one should be expected to ‘snap back into shape’ but I don’t think she has anything to worry about. Laura looks amazing, she is amazing, she’s never not amazing. Even when she was pregnant she looked amazing with a bump.” Claflin also knows what it’s like to have his body scrutinised. “Me and Laura were on holiday and we were papped on the beach and we thought ‘Who gives a crap about us?’ But I started reading the comments underneath the photos and they were really negative, like ‘You say he’s buff? Look at him he’s fat’. Unfortunately, in the industry we work in, it’s expected, but I don’t go walking down the street telling people they’re fat and ugly. People should be kinder. I am a normal person – I have feelings!”
“I constantly worry about how I look because I think the standard among other actors now is so high. Take Zac Efron, for example. He’s about my age, we were both nominated for best shirtless scene and I’d vote for him! He keeps that up all the time. That’s one hell of a life choice. I couldn’t do it. I absolutely despise the gym. I’ll do it for work if I need to, but if I don’t need to then I’d rather have a pint or a burger with my mates.”
Claflin turns 30 next month, so just about remembers life pre-internet – “You’d call a mate on his landline and his mum would say ‘he’s out somewhere’ so you’d take your bike and go and find him” – and laments the role that social media can play in making or breaking an actor. “Being famous now is how many followers you have on Instagram and I think that’s quite sad,” he says. “So many people I know work so hard and train and save up a lifetime of money to go to drama school or university, and then when they get round to auditioning for a part it goes to the daughter or son of so and so, who has absolutely no talent. We are sort of riddled with those people now. It’s getting to the point where if I start losing work…I am aware of it happening. I think that’s my working class roots – when you see someone from privilege walk into a job which you know someone else has really strived for, it’s infuriating.”
One of three boys, Claflin grew up in Norwich with his dad Mark, a finance officer, and his mum, Sue, classroom assistant at his school – the local comp. Sam was captain of the football team, until an injury forced him to try acting. “I was a loud mouth and a bit cheeky,” he says. “I was 5ft 2 and had a shaved head an ear ring and a gold necklace. I wore a lot of Kappa.” He credits his family for keeping him grounded through “moments that even I’m still overwhelmed by”. His mum sorts through his fan mail and makes him reply to every letter. “I remember the first time I saw the amount I was like ‘Can’t you just sign my signature for me?’ and she was like ‘Don’t be so ungrateful! People have spent days and months…look at the artwork on this one!’”
Soon he’ll start shooting <My Cousin Rachel>, with Rachel Weisz – an adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier story by Notting Hill director Roger Michell. With Claflin’s floppy hair, dimples and knack for self-deprecating wit, it’s not a stretch to see him becoming the next Hugh Grant. But he says he’d much prefer a career like Christian Bale’s. “He physically transforms from part to part,” he says. “No one really knows what ‘Christian Bale’ looks like and I like hiding behind a role and getting lost in a character. I love the process of losing weight or gaining weight or growing a craggy beard.” He cultivated an impressive pencil moustache (“that was all me!”) for his role in 1940s-set comedy Their Finest Hour and a Half, out later this year, co-starring Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy and directed by Lone Scherfig of An Education fame.
As our time together comes to an end, Claflin lets slip that he’s casually doing a half marathon later that day. “Well, my friend was doing one,” he explains reluctantly. “So I said that I’d train with him, and now I’m doing it too.”
Definitely still a bit Superman then.
Best things in life…
“<Notting Hill> is the one film I can watch over and over again and not get bored of. I enjoy it the same amount every time I watch it.”
“I’m not a big reader but a book called <The Art of Racing In The Rain> by Garth Stein is sensational. It’s the story of a family and what happens to them but it’s all told from a dog’s perspective. As a dog owner it’s an amazing imagining of how a dog would talk.”
“I’m most excited about the new series of Game of Thrones. Emilia [Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen] and Charles [Dance, who plays Tywin Lannister] were my co-stars on <Me Before You>, which meant that there were many many questions to be asked. None of the answers were forthcoming though.”
“I’m a cheesecake man. Any flavour cheesecake. I was allowed one cheat meal a week on my diet and when it was Easter, Laura made me a Crème Egg cheesecake. She’s an amazing baker.”
“I’d say London. It’s home. Our baby is born and bred here. Work could potentially take us to LA, but I really love London.”
“Sleep. It’s so few and far between at the moment.”