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.”
“We were discussing the fact that she was most likely a tomboy when she was young, so he’s always sort of perceived her as a mate,” he adds. “And so to have this obsession with a female creature entering his life, it is so different from what he’s used to and so mysterious. It’s like being a fourteen-year-old boy going through puberty, experiencing womankind for the first time. It’s so confusing. I think that’s why the story for me works so well.”
Yet, Philip’s relative naivety of spirit opens up a wealth of discussion elsewhere. What becomes so immediately clear from our conversation is how layered, in comparison, an audience’s reaction to Philip might be. His absurd leaps from utter devotion to spite towards Rachel managed to inspire in me, at least, an emotion that was half-disgust, half-sympathy.
Claflin, of course, in dutifully completing an actor’s task to understand fully a character and their motivations, saw the good in Philip. “I think that’s why I quite like what I do,” he tells me. “I have the opportunity to play people that I wouldn’t normally understand or get to know. And then you do feel pity, or empathy, or sympathy. I think you have to in order to make it work and to not play it with any judgement.”
“I feel incredibly sorry for a man who got to 25 and hasn’t really experienced the world,” he continues. “He believes he knows all there is to know, without actually really knowing anything. He is a very humble person in the sense that he helps the workers on the land and he does try to keep the whole estate working the way it was prior to his takeover. Yet it’s impossible to say that you know everything if you don’t know everything, but so many people do that all the time. And it’s sort of frustrating.”
Rachel, too, comes with those same nuances of interpretation, though her own character is far more enigmatic and ambiguous in how she operates, which Claflin attributes wholeheartedly to Weisz’s performance. “What Rachel brought was this incredible kind of mystery and dark, kind of Gothic, undertone,” he notes. “She left me on the edge of my seat, witnessing her performance. I totally was swept up in the magic of it.”
She’s also, on one hand, a particularly empathetic figure for women, simply because of her own sense of romantic independence. “It’s so relatable nowadays, for a woman to be able to see that,” Claflin adds. “What I love about the dynamic of the relationship in this movie is that it’s an older woman and a younger man, which is bizarrely so rarely seen and often frowned upon, for whatever reason. However, pretty much every action movie ever has a 40-year-old man dating a 20-year-old girl. It’s strange, I don’t understand why it’s not as accepted or not as talked about.”
But there’s something else to Rachel as well, less flattering and even potentially sinister; something he describes as, “so different and so ethereal and magical and bewitching. The entire town is completely in awe of her. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether she might be good or bad. She’s manipulative. It’s just whether she uses that manipulation in a positive or a negative way.”
The mystery of My Cousin Rachel, famously, centres on Ambrose’s death and, later, Philip’s own mystery illness. Has Rachel been poisoning these men, utilising the herbal teas that she claims are merely curative in nature?
Claflin has his own theory, but he reveals that he hasn’t disclosed this to anyone – not even Weisz or the director. And the audience, he insists, should be left to come to their own conclusions.
‘My Cousin Rachel’ is out now.
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