WHEN Hunger Games star Sam Claflin signed up for Journey’s End, he didn’t realise he would unearth such a close family connection to the tragic events depicted on screen.
Based on R.C. Sheriff’s iconic play, Journey’s End is the story of a doomed regiment of soldiers on the French frontline in World War I, starring Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany and Toby Jones.
The men have just rotated into the trenches when news of an impending German assault reaches the British forces, with the unlucky men the equivalent of the loser of a game of Russian roulette.
Claflin, who considers himself a history buff thanks to his father instilling in him and his brothers a strong interest since childhood, discovered his own family’s link to that particular battle in Journey’s End.
“It wasn’t until we got the filming underway and I was talking to my dad and he mentioned we had family who died in the Somme,” Claflin told news.com.au. “Then I started doing a bit of research online and I actually found out my great-great-grandfather was a sergeant in the battle we depict in the film.
“His regiment was due to be on the frontline on the day of the onslaught. But he was sent home because he had a boxing match so he managed to avoid it!”
Journey’s End, which is in cinemas now, was released earlier this year in the UK to coincide with 100-year commemorations for World War I, which lends the film an extra gravity.
“We’re not portraying real people but at the same time we’re portraying millions of real people,” Claflin said. “I think that point is always an added pressure.
“I feel like war in general is something we don’t like to talk about. It scares a lot of people. But I hope watching this sort of film will make people want to learn more and understand more.”
The production was a gruelling and challenging affair, with the exterior scenes shot in an actual trench in Wales that someone had dug up in their backyard. Much of the filming also took place in the dead of winter.
“There were two to three weeks of bitter cold and, as you’ll see, it was very muddy. So we weren’t acting being cold and muddy and getting bogged down and being tired, we were cold, muddy, bogged down and tired.
“And I think you could see the gradual decline, not only in myself but in all of us. It was sort of beating us down. It gets to the point when you watch the end of the film, I literally have no voice left because I was screaming and shouting.”
In Journey’s End, Claflin’s character, Captain Stanhope, has been on the frontlines for some years and is clearly feeling the effects, turning surly and to drink. It was what they used to call shellshock and what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. And his character isn’t the only one suffering it — it just manifests differently in different people.
In preparation for the film, the cast was involved in a workshop with actual veterans who talked them through their war experiences.
“I was aware of PTSD but I don’t think I understood what it is, how it affects people and the depth and complexity of it.
“In all honesty, the five hours we spent with these four veterans were the most eye-opening hours I’ve ever experienced. It completely blew my mind.”
Despite the epic nature of its story, Journey’s End is a comparatively small film for the British Claflin, who got his start in Hollywood blockbusters including Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Snow White and the Huntsman.
Before long, he booked the role he’s probably most associated with, as Finnick Odair in the Hunger Games franchise.
Many will also recognise him as the male lead opposite Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke in weepy romance Me Before You.
But then he switched tack, taking on smaller British productions such as Their Finest opposite Bill Nighy and Gemma Atherton and My Cousin Rachel with Rachel Weisz.
For the 32-year-old Claflin, the choice to step outside of the Hollywood machine “was and wasn’t” a deliberate choice.
“It was in the sense that creatively I wasn’t feeling as fulfilled as I hoped I would.
“Doing those big blockbuster films, as an actor, I kind of always felt like there was something missing. I think I forgot why I got into this field.
“I enjoy being other people, going to dark places and challenging myself. And it’s not that those projects weren’t challenging but I think I was so pampered and that’s not me.”
Claflin said he actively chose to do smaller projects that allowed more character work and time to prepare.
“So I chose to go back a step but in my eyes I feel like I’ve grown so much more as an actor and as a person by doing that.
“I love to work with good people on good material, no matter what the scale. I’ve had opportunities and it doesn’t matter about the scale, the quality is what matters.
“I also realised that if I fail on a smaller scale, less people will see it, if I fail on a big scale, I might never work again. So while I’m trying to figure out what I want and what I need to do, I’m allowing myself to potentially fail quietly.”
Coming up next for Claflin, who has two children with his wife Laura Haddock, also an actor, is The Nightingale, out next year locally, directed by Australian Jennifer Kent (The Babadook). Set in 19th century Tasmania, the thriller premiered at Venice Film Festival earlier this year to glowing reviews.
“The Nightingale is a prime example of really allowing myself to push in a different direction,” Claflin said. “It’s a very different side of me. As an experience it blew me away and it was incredibly difficult for many reasons.
“But I’m very excited for people to see it. It’s going to get them talking.”
Journey’s End is in cinemas now.
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