Sam Claflin, the 29-year old Brit best known as Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games, will break your heart this summer. Playing Will Traynor in the highly-anticipated adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ best-selling novel Me Before You (in theaters Friday), the actor is at once handsome and charismatic, sullen and seething, as a man who used to have it all but, due to a spinal-cord injury, is now confined to a wheelchair.
Getting inside that head, and body, was no easy feat. “It was trying to explore a character that I have absolutely no similarities with,” Claflin says. “As you can imagine, limiting my gestures to eye movements and mouth movements was quite difficult. I’m quite an open, flamboyant character myself.”
To replicate a quadriplegic physicality, Claflin held his body in a very specific position, at times tying his hands behind his back to become familiar with the limited movement. He lived for months with soreness in his neck, shoulders, lower back, and fingers. He also dropped close to 40 pounds over the course of production to represent Traynor’s muscular atrophy.
Despite those hurdles, Claflin, who himself dreamed of a professional soccer career before an ankle injury sidelined him, never loses the desirability that makes his caregiver, Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke), fall in love with him. “I tried to be as witty as possible,” Claflin says. “If that comes across, I think it just proves that Emilia is so good that she can act in love. It was really kind of out of my hands.”
What was in his hands was understanding Traynor, a man who is grappling with whether or not to end his life. Director Thea Sharrock says it was Claflin’s innate empathy that led her to cast him. “Sam is unlike a lot of actors of his generation,” she says. “He has a humbleness that is very pure and real. The first time I met him, I felt straight away that this was someone who was really trying to tell me what he thought of Will, the character, not just trying to sell that he could do it well.” That was just an added bonus.
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