Sam Claflin: Beauty and the East Anglian

His muscular turn in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is set to propel Sam Claflin to stardom. The Ipswich-born actor tells James Mottram about the gym sessions and sacrifices that go into playing 'the most beautiful man in the world'

When the casting call went out for The Hunger Games' Finnick Odair, the womanising "peacock" from Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy of best-selling novels, Sam Claflin let out a little groan. "I remember reading an email saying they were looking for a tall, tanned, blonde, green-eyed, chiselled god," he says. "And I walked into the audition – English, fat, stubbly, dark hair and very white. Part of me gave up hope there and then."

Claflin, 27, is being super-modest. Just look at his Adonis-like bare-chested opening scene in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second of four films adapting Collins' books. With pecs to put Brad Pitt to shame, the results of Claflin's training regime – five hours a day for three months in the gym, a diet of protein shakes, egg-white omelettes, and chicken and asparagus – are there for all to see. "I wasn't socialising much, I wasn't drinking," he says, "which for me as an Englishman was very tough."

Now, with Catching Fire about to set him ablaze, he might need the odd tipple to calm his nerves. "I've literally got no idea what could happen or how much my life will be affected," he says. Whatever happens, he's well-aware of the cult around Finnick, a former winner of the so-called Hunger Games – the story's televised "sport" where teen "tributes" fight to the death. "So many people have their views on who should play that person and somehow I got the job. There's a lot of pressure. He's a fan favourite – and the most beautiful man in the world."

When we meet, Claflin is understandably embarrassed to live up to this. Dressed in a grey jacket and black jeans, his green eyes full of zest, he's lost a little of the gladiator-like shape his body took on, having been on a juice diet for three weeks. "I'm just trying to not look as buff," he says, blushing as he says it. "Not that I am buff by the way. I'm kidding! Like I'm so hot... No! I'm trying to look a bit more ordinary – a few pies and pints."

Quite what the largely American cast of The Hunger Games made of this awfully nice Brit is hard to say. He clearly found them strange. Before shooting began in Atlanta and Hawaii, he went to a party hosted by Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar-winning star of the franchise, who plays Finnick's Games rival, Katniss Everdeen. "I walked in as Jen was shoving a sock down [co-star] Woody Harrelson's throat screaming at him. I was like 'What the hell is going on?'"

At least being away from home allowed Claflin to focus his attention on the movie. It kept him from his partner, actress Laura Haddock, whom he married in July and is "a distraction", he says. "In a good way, obviously." They met in an audition room, Claflin falling for her charms immediately. "She's my female counterpart," he says. "She reminds me of my mum so much."

They certainly make for an exciting pairing. Haddock, who starred in The Inbetweeners Movie, will be seen next in Marvel Comics' movie Guardians of the Galaxy. Claflin, who only made his screen debut in 2010 after graduating from LAMDA, went from playing legendary footballer Duncan Edwards in 2011's United – about the 1958 Munich air disaster – to roles in Snow White and the Huntsman and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth instalment in the franchise.

A proliferation of fansites is now springing up for Claflin, and you can see why: there's something of the old-fashioned gent about him. The third of four boys, he grew up trying to impress women, "because I wasn't used to women," he says. "I always had a lot of girlfriends growing up. But every woman's different and you try and work out what every woman likes and what they don't like. I open doors for ladies. I like to think of myself as a very nice boy. Prince charming."

There are times when he appears so well-bred, he makes the Downton Abbey cast look common. "I act because I enjoy acting," he confides. "But, at the same time, to be doing what I love so that it will give me the allowance to support my family one day is a dream to me. I'm very family-oriented and such a home-bird. I love going home, seeing my family, spending time with my friends. And to be able to look after my friends and family is key. I have to."

Ipswich-born and Norwich-raised, Claflin is the first in his family to pursue a career in the arts. His father is a financial manager for a charity radio station and his mother a classroom assistant; she, says Claflin, always sensed her son would become an actor. "She claims she saw the drama queen in me from a very young age, and funnily enough, we were only recently watching a very old home video and you could see me walking around with dolls and high heels. I definitely stood out as a kid."

His dad, a die-hard Norwich City fan, wanted him to play football professionally. "I don't think I was ever that good," says Claflin, who notes his father came round swiftly to the idea of him acting. A regular at Carrow Road, like his dad, Claflin has yet to meet the Canaries' famous shareholder, Delia Smith. "I hope to get the chance," he says. "My favourite moment in football history is her [in 2005, taking to the pitch and rallying the crowd] going 'Let's be having you!' What a hero."

With the way his career has been going of late, he could soon become Norwich FC's second most famous fan, after Delia, though Claflin is again too modest to say so. "It's been quite steady," he says. "The first four months of every year, I've been waiting for the right thing. I'm in no rush. I'm not immediately trying to get my name out there. I'm taking my time and choosing what's right for me, personally."

Around The Hunger Games, Claflin has looked for more intimate fare. He'll next be seen in The Quiet Ones, "an amazing little thriller" from Hammer Films co-starring Jared Harris. Then there's romantic comedy Love, Rosie, alongside Lily Collins, an adaptation of the 2004 novel Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern. And there's a role in Lone Scherfig's rather aptly-named Posh, an Oxford University-set drama with Natalie Dormer and Douglas Booth.

Yet with Finnick set to re-appear in Mockingjay, the final part of Collins' trilogy currently being shot as two films, his Hunger Games ride is far from over. "It's a character I'm still coming to grips with," he says. "He's such a complex character. There are so many motives and things you don't learn about him in the second book that you learn about in the third; he becomes a completely different person, so I feel like I'm playing a completely different character." µ

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' opens on 21 November