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Sam Claflin plays a charismatic young British officer coming apart under combat stress in First World War drama Journey’s End. Screen talks to the actor about his passion for RC Sherriff’s 1928 play.

For Sam Claflin, it was seeing Journey’s End on the stage that first ignited his passion to play the role of young First World War officer Captain Stanhope. The Suffolk-born actor was in his second year at London acting school Lamda when students in the graduating year presented the 1928 RC Sherriff play.

“I just remember being completely spellbound,” says Claflin. “Being completely in awe, not only of the performances, but the story and the characters and the relationships and the world that was created. I remember sitting there in the audience thinking, ‘I have to do this play. I have to somehow find a way of doing this professionally.’”

That chance seemed to come when theatre director David Grindley, who had mounted a successful version of the play in 2004, sounded out Claflin about starring in a revival. “We sat in the Groucho, and I was basically swearing, very excited,” recalls the actor. “But we couldn’t. I was in the middle of doing The Hunger Games. There was an array of scheduling conflicts.”

Instead, the 2010 Screen International Star of Tomorrow became attached to a film version, adapted by Simon Reade and produced by Reade and Guy de Beaujeu — who had previously collaborated on the 2012 film version of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War novel Private Peaceful. After two years of rather tentative momentum, the film finally came together for a pre-Christmas shoot in 2016, with Saul Dibb, whose credits include The Duchess and Suite Francaise, in the director’s chair.

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It’s strange, perhaps, to hear an actor express gratitude for a character not being complex. It’s usually the opposite: you’ll hear about how much depth was offered, how much there was to explore.

But Roger Michell’s new adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier classic My Cousin Rachel presented star Sam Claflin with something else entirely: the enticement of a character utterly straightforward, yet in the most fascinating way.

“The thing that really drew me to him was the fact that he’s actually quite simple and two-dimensional,” he admits to me. “He’s like a child, you know? In the sense that he says what he wants and he’s so used to getting it. If he doesn’t get it, he has a hissy fit. And I think that was quite unique, playing an adult-child, it was quite different and a departure.”

Indeed, Claflin has largely crafted a career fit for the dashing male lead: in his breakout roles in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and The Hunger Games series, or as a romantic interest for Me Before You and Their Finest. On paper, a period drama like My Cousin Rachel would seem to offer more of the same, but Daphne du Maurier was no conventional novelist.

Claflin’s Philip goes from headstrong, dedicated bachelor to fawning puppy in a mere gaze directed at the bewitching Rachel (Rachel Weisz), the widow of his own guardian and cousin, Ambrose, who died in such mysterious circumstances in Italy. In short: he’s not too difficult to figure out.

“I’ve spent my entire career thus far begging to get more complex and three-dimensional characters, with lots more layers, but I quite enjoyed the boyish charm of him,” Claflin adds. “The kind of impetuous nature of his personality. It was incredibly enjoyable and fun to explore that.”

The key to his personality, inevitably, is in Philip’s childhood as an orphan brought up in a strictly masculine environment. As Claflin explains, “He’s never grown up with a woman’s touch at all, to the point that we discussed his backstory, and that he never really had a girlfriend. He’s a virgin. He has Louise [played by Holliday Grainger], who’s a friend, but someone who he’s grown up with so he sees her more as a sister figure.”

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A young Englishman plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.
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