Starring in the psychological thriller My Cousin Rachel gave Sam Claflin the opportunity to embrace a role unlike any other he’s tackled in the past. Having starred in some of the biggest movie franchises of recent times – playing Finnick Odair in the hugely successful Hunger Games series, William in Snow White and the Huntsman and its popular sequel, as well as starring alongside Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – his star has never been bigger.
Based on the classic Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name, My Cousin Rachel has been adapted for the screen, directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and provided the perfect opportunity for Claflin to showcase a different side to his acting ability. Though it was a huge challenge, he seemed to love every minute of it, and opened up in an exclusive interview for Female First all about his experience.
Tell us about Philip, your character, in My Cousin Rachel.
Philip has grown up under the guardianship of Ambrose, and he kind of hero worships him. Everything that his cousin Ambrose says is gospel. And Ambrose falls for Rachel, this mysterious woman who is based in Italy, and he then starts going mad – maybe driven by her or maybe for her or perhaps not because of her – but Ambrose is blaming her and Philip finally believes Ambrose and not this woman whom he has never met. So when he finally meets Rachel he is ready to blow up and confront her and of course, she is a very beautiful and mysterious woman and because Philip has never grown up around women he doesn’t know what that means. And she is so mysterious it’s hard for him to read the signals she is giving him – sometimes she is hot, sometimes she is cold and he thinks he has done something wrong. It’s almost like a teenage love story. Philip is so naïve.
He’s infatuated by her…
Yes. There’s a great scene where she says, ‘you’re like a puppy looking for its mother.’ And that’s basically what he is. (laughs)
And the audience doesn’t knew whether she is the scheming woman after his fortune, or whether she’s genuinely a grieving widow who’s being kind to this young man.
Yes, and I love the ambiguity of the story. When I was reading the script I relished that aspect of it. I love the guessing game and I hope that the audience will too and then they can make their own mind up.
Did you change your own view of Rachel as you filmed, just like the audience will when they watch it? Did you see her as a villain or as a woman who’s trying to survive in a harsh world?
With Rachel (Weisz) I think one of the great things about her performance was that I couldn’t work out how she was playing it as we were filming it! (laughs) And one thing that Roger, Rachel and myself would never discuss was who thought what. And standing in Philip’s shoes I was continually questioning whether the character Rachel is or isn’t scheming against Philip, which was perfect for the story we were telling. And I still to this day don’t know what Rachel (Weisz) thinks about her character. It was enjoyable going from scene to scene and not knowing exactly how she was going to play it. We did rehearse, before we shot every scene, but at the same time we didn’t over-rehearse and we discussed the script in its entirety before we started shooting, but we didn’t want to give exact end pints, we wanted to play around with it and build up the ambiguity and the mystery and the darker nature of it. And watching it for the first time really took me into the story. I’d look at it and think, ‘I didn’t see that look she gave to-camera with her back to me.’ So it’s all very well played.
Did you know the book?
I knew of the book but I hadn’t read the book and Roger veered me away from it. He said, ‘this is the story we’re telling.’ And actually it was the first time doing a film [based on a book] where I hadn’t read the book prior to doing it. I picked it up as we were filming because I think as an actor you have to have some understanding of the source material. So it was something I was reading as we were going along as [opposed] to something that I’d used as part of my preparation.
You’ve worked very successfully on several literary adaptations from William Boyd’s Any Human Heart to the Hunger Games novels and even more recently with Me Before You, which was also based on a novel…
I have. It’s just happened that way. And you know, I’m not a great reader; I didn’t grow up reading many books. My Cousin Rachel feels very different, almost a more adult story than I’m used to. And I enjoyed the mysterious aspect of it and the thriller element. It was a new thing for me but one that I enjoyed.
I guess if there is a thread with all of those films mentioned, it’s that they’re all about great storytelling…
Yes, I think you just have to trust your director as well. You don’t shoot in chronological order and sometimes you have to trust that the director knows the journey your character is going on and that a scene he adds on the day is helping. At times I felt unprepared but in the best kind of way. I think what I’m trying to say is that Roger protected me from knowing too much and I think playing that ‘puppy dog’ character, that really helped my performance.
What hooked you into this project? Was it the script or the director?
I wanted to be a part of My Cousin Rachel for so many reasons: a great director, a fantastic script and a wonderful cast. It’s a psychological thriller but it’s also a period drama and what I love about Roger’s vision is that he didn’t want it set in any particular time or any particular place; it’s slightly ambiguous, and left to your imagination. I also loved the idea of playing this character that thinks he is a man but in many ways is still a boy. We often see the story of a boy who becomes a man but this is more a man who turns into a boy and I enjoyed that transition. At the same time, working with Roger is a treat for an actor. He definitely supported me along the way and he helped guide me and I trusted him totally. I’ve never felt safer.
Roger adapted the book for the screen; what did he tell you about his approach to the story?
He talked to us individually about what our characters were feeling and he was always open to ideas. I think the great thing about working with directors that have that theatre experience is that they are used to working with actors and the great thing about working with the man who has adapted the novel was that he knew it inside out and could help push me in the right direction if I was feeling a little lost. Any time I felt unsettled or confused, I used that in the scenes we were doing and I think that kind of aided the overall storytelling. I certainly felt supported.
Your character Philip is inspired by Ambrose, his cousin who raised him. Who has inspired you?
So many people for so many different reasons. I always look to my parents and as much as my parents aren’t in the arts, they have this determination and strength that really inspires me. My Mum and Dad are ambitious and loyal at the same time. They never use their ambition to push people away. So it starts there, with my parents. As an actor there are performances and other actors that have inspired me also.
Let’s talk about working with Rachel Weisz. What was that like? Because it’s very much a story about your two characters…
My character is swept away and is in awe of her and so I didn’t feel like I was acting much! (laughs) She is incredible and you only have to watch the film to know what I’m talking about. I was constantly on edge in a really exciting way. She was a joy to work with.
Even though it is a period piece, do you think that the power of a good story is that it’s timeless?
Definitely. My Cousn Rachel is very relatable today and it is timeless. Unrequited love is something that we are all familiar with.
Roger has filmed in a way that the audience goes on this journey very much with your character. Did he talk to you about that?
Rachel (Weisz) is such a star and her role is the central character because even though she is not on screen all of the time she is there as a presence, she’s talked about, even when we don’t see her. But at the same time the story is told through Philip’s eyes. Every time you learn something about her it’s through my perspective. And as this new information seeps into the story, that just adds to the mystery. I honestly so enjoyed it. I loved working with Roger and it was a great crew, a fabulous cast – Holliday (Grainger), Iain (Glen), Rachel – and it was really quite lovely.
Do you need to empathise with the characters you play? Was that the case with playing Philip if so?
Yes and I think the most difficult character I’ve ever played in that respect was Alistair Ryle in The Riot Club who came from a very different background to myself, and I had to try and understand why he was the way he was. And it was similar with this. To get into Philip’s head I had to understand what had happened to him as a child – he had lost both his parents and had grown up in a house without any women, surrounded by dogs and farm animals and a lot of manly men.
Your career is going very well!
Thank you. I try and stay away from the box office madness. If you get too wrapped up in that it will drive you nuts. I think the difficult thing about where I’m at now is that there is an age gap in the industry I feel, for a lot of men of all ethnicities. Between the age of 25 and 35 there are stories, but not many, about young men of that age. There a lot of boy to man stories, like 18 to 25, and there are stories that follow men of 35 and over, but not so many in between. So at the moment I’m in the process of bulking up and I’m about to explore a slightly older character next. Now I’m a father, I feel I’ve got an emotional depth greater than, say, it was two years ago. What’s great about where I am now is that I’m starting to get scripts for older men and I’m ready to explore that.
What’s the role you are bulking up for?
I’m not sure I’m allowed to say because it hasn’t been announced but it’s something I’m very excited about and it’s working with a great team of people and an incredible script and playing a very different character to that which I’m used to.
You’ve worked on some of the biggest film franchises of recent times, what has that meant for your career now?
I’m getting great opportunities to sit down with great directors and work on smaller projects that I believe in and I’m passionate about. My Cousin Rachel is a great example of that. I kind of want to work out what I want to do as an actor, where I want to go and what I want to explore. It’s a really interesting time and fortunately directors, like Roger, are willing to take risks on me because I think it would be easy to slot myself into a particular box and do the same thing. But I want to do different things. I really admire Christian Bale who literally transforms from film to film and that’s what I’d love to do.
My Cousin Rachel will come to Blu-ray and DVD on October 30.