Interview: Sam Claflin on the emotional turmoil of playing the villain in Every Breath You Take

After making a name for himself in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Sam Claflin soon earned global recognition as Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games series.  Romantic leading roles and character driven projects followed, with his exercises in the dark psyches of his roles continuing with the release of Every Breath You Take.  In conjunction with its theatrical release (you can read our review here) Peter Gray chatted with the actor to discuss the emotional affects of playing the villain and his healthy relationship with COVID.

When I think of your roles, those that immediately come to mind, it’s generally more agreeable characters. But then I remember how terrifying you were in The Nightingale – amazing performance by the way – is there an enjoyment in being able to play someone so villainous?

I’m growing to love it.  The Nightingale was the first script I read after my boy was born, and I remember getting to about page 20 and there was a baby getting slammed into a wall…and I just thought “Oh wow, this is a new level of darkness”.  I remember speaking to Jennifer (Kent), the director, and she said that’s the point where people stopped reading.  I think because I continued to read…it was a part of my personality that I had never explored and it is so far removed from who I am, and it’s a reminder of why I got into this profession.  I didn’t like who I was as a person and I wanted to hide behind other people.  Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish where you end and the character begins that you feel like you’re playing yourself, and I get more enjoyment from playing people that are so far removed from who I am.

Someone like Hawkins (in The Nightingale) was too far removed from who I am, so much so that it challenged me too much emotionally, physically and mentally.  It was almost too difficult to lose myself in that.  Playing someone like James Flagg (in Every Breath You Take) I definitely enjoyed playing with the levels of how much is true and how much is forced.  The fiction and reality aspect.

Obviously without giving too much away, there are certain narrative elements that took me as a viewer by surprise, how was it for you when first reading the script?

Exactly that (laughs).  I think the sign of a good script is when you’re left shocked and surprised and left on the edge of your seat.  I have to say I haven’t had mountains of thrillers come across my desk for me to compare them, but, for me, it felt like the first time I was really engaged in the characters and was left not knowing what was going to happen next.  It’s a genre I always enjoyed watching, and Cape Fear was something I was told to watch after reading the script, and after watching the film I could see how this works.  It felt like it was the first time I’d read a script or seen a story of this kind, where I was seeing it through Phillip’s (Casey Affleck’s character) eyes and it was his obsessive compulsive behaviour that I thought he was the one who was psychotic…it was the fact that I didn’t know that was a good sign.

Given how menacing you are towards Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan’s characters, was their an approach regarding staying in character when filming or you’re able to separate yourself?

I’m quite fortunate that I’m one of the actors in the world that’s able to leave it behind on set.  I don’t carry it with me.  There are elements of James that I can absolutely relate to, you know, I can get quite obsessive and driven with my work, but I’m definitely able to drop the act, thankfully.  I kept asking Vaughn (Stein, the director) how believable it was that he (James) never drops the act.  There’s a moment where his accent slips a bit, and Vaughn said that it’s the same with acting that he’s someone who can switch it on and switch it off.  Obsession is what drives him.

You mentioned Cape Fear before, were there any performances that inspired you when looking into this character?

It’s a question actors get asked a lot, if there’s any references that we draw from, but ultimately every character is different.  I think with Cape Fear it was more the structure of the film itself rather than me taking anything away from Cady (Robert DeNiro’s character).  I tried to just design him around the script.  I enjoy creating my own version of that kind of character, rather than take homage from any previous portrayals of something similar.  But that’s the fun, that’s the enjoyment.

In regards to the film industry in general, obviously COVID really altered the landscape, but it must be nice that you can still talk about your work.  How has it been for you personally?

Very quiet.  I feel very fortunate that two films I had done pre-COVID came out during the lockdown, both on Netflix and both planned to be on Netflix.  I have quite a healthy relationship with COVID, fortunately.  I was in the process of relocating to Los Angeles (for a new TV show) when COVID happened, so during the first lockdown I was still preparing.  I had to learn guitar and to sing, so I was still learning all of that for the first 6 months…I was still working even though I wasn’t filming.  The first job I did was being back on the set of Peaky Blinders.  I felt a lot of comfort in being surrounded by people that I knew already and playing a character that I knew.  I’m grateful to be in work at all.

Every Breath You Take is screening in Australian theatres from April 22nd 2021.  

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.