Sam Claflin Finds His Voice: How the ‘Hunger Games’ Scene-Stealer Became a Rock Star in ‘Daisy Jones & the Six’
When Sam Claflin was preparing to audition for the role of Billy Dunne in “Daisy Jones & the Six,” the Prime Video adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s bestselling novel about a fictional 1970s rock band, he was told he’d have to sing a ’70s rock song. The trouble was, Claflin, a U.K.-born actor who admits music has never been his thing, didn’t know any. So he scoured the Apple Music app for a genre playlist and chose the only track he felt comfortable with.
“I went into a recording studio for the first time in my life, confronted with a microphone and people watching me in a fishbowl,” Claflin says. “I sang Elton John’s ‘Your Song.’ Terribly.”
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Meeting for matcha lattes in West Hollywood, I’m almost taken aback by Claflin’s instant, overwhelming warmth. There’s no need to ease into things — Claflin doesn’t break eye contact for most of our conversation and interrupts my questions with his own. From the moment we meet, he’s an open book.
At 36, Claflin is not new to auditioning: He landed his first film role in 2011 with “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” and has since shown an impressive range, as Will Traynor in the tearjerker “Me Before You” and the ruthless fascist Oswald Mosley in “Peaky Blinders.” But he’s most recognizable from his role as Finnick Odair from the “Hunger Games” franchise — he played the charismatic revolutionary in 2013’s “Catching Fire” and the subsequent two “Mockingjay” movies.
The Billy tryout was something new for Claflin (despite having auditioned for the film versions of “Les Misérables” and “Cats”), and Scott Neustadter, the showrunner of “Daisy Jones & the Six,” remembers that day in early 2020 like it was yesterday: “It was the train wreck of all train wrecks.” Yet Neustadter wanted to give Claflin a chance. “We’ve seen him be a chameleon in so many other projects that he’d done — the range really made us feel like this guy can do anything,” he says, which resulted in Claflin getting a second shot at the miniseries.
“They started playing ‘Come Together’ by the Beatles,” Claflin says, though he admits he thought it was a Michael Jackson song at the time. “Well, now I know it’s the Beatles,” he says. Despite that wild misunderstanding, his second try was impressive enough to land him the role as the lead singer and songwriter of Fleetwood Mac-like band the Six.
Tortured by addiction and desperate to be a good husband and father, Billy finds himself at a cross- roads when his band finally hits it big: He’s torn between his wife, Camila (Camila Morrone), and Daisy, the fiery singer-songwriter modeled after Stevie Nicks and played by Riley Keough.
Billy is a showy role for any actor, but Claflin, who’d experienced global success as Finnick, wanted it desperately. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do things that are different and out of the box. I hoped that a few people would watch and think, ‘Oh, wow. Actually, he’s not just this guy.’ Now, especially — I’m not 23 with a six-pack and on the up-and-coming list anymore. I’m the older guy.”
Claflin had taken a step back from Hollywood and its tentpole movies after wrapping the “Mockingjay” duo in 2014, and returned to England full time. “This is no discredit to the jobs or the roles I played, but I just didn’t want to be playing the same storyline in a different film,” he says.
Back in the U.K., Claflin had focused on honing his skills in smaller films like “The Riot Club” and “The Nightingale.” But after he and actress Laura Haddock, his wife of six years and the mother of his two children, separated in late 2019, he decided to open himself up to working abroad once again.
“I’d been through quite a lot personally at the time,” Claflin says. “I was in a really bad place. I think I needed to work out a few kinks in my own life, to figure out who I was as this dad on my own in a house outnumbered by two toddlers. Then this job coming out the back of that was just the most fun, joyous fresh start.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the project, Claflin still had a daunting musical gantlet to face: learning to sing and play guitar. “I was fucking petrified,” he says. “Right from the fucking beginning, shit scared. I remember my first guitar lesson, going, ‘What the hell? How am I going to be singing whilst doing this, whilst also moving around?’”
When the pandemic hit, the planned five weeks of musical training for the band turned into a year and a half. “They say everything happens for a reason,” Claflin says, citing band jam sessions over Zoom as a key element in building the Six’s chemistry before they began filming in September 2021.
In early recording sessions, the actor relied heavily on a musical theater-style vibrato. When that didn’t fit Billy, he took a cue from rock band White Denim’s lead singer, James Petralli. “His voice is fucking incredible,” Claflin says. “I don’t do a very good impression of him at all. But that was sort of my guide. And then I got more confident with it and started playing around with my own style.” The result is a silky-smooth vocal performance that will leave audiences asking why they haven’t heard Claflin sing sooner.
In addition to his rigorous musical training, Claflin lost weight for the role, trimming down through cycling and running. “If you watch any videos of any musician of that era, they’re all very wiry and not much muscle,” he says. “Also, Billy’s obviously an addict.”
While Claflin can’t personally relate to Billy’s struggle with addiction, he still found plenty of common ground with the rock star. “I was a husband. I’ve been through marriage and the struggle of juggling work, family life, home and being grounded,” he says. “The obstacles he has to overcome, like becoming a dad and the fear or anxiety that brings, feeling like you might fail. … His fear of failure is something that I can massively relate to — needing to feel approval and the fear of abandonment. I’ve been through this struggle. And I’m sure the struggle will continue.”
That struggle has been eased, at least in part, by “Daisy Jones.” “I think my relationship with myself is a lot better than it was,” he says. “Before, I didn’t like who I was or what I had to say. Whereas now, after going through the journey of Billy Dunne, I realize how therapeutic or cathartic it was to tell a story that feels really authentic to me. It allowed me the opportunity to approach life differently.”
With more than a million copies of Reid’s novel sold since its publication in 2019, “Daisy Jones” is sure to have a built-in fan base when it premieres on March 3 — videos using #DaisyJonesAndTheSix have racked up more than 182 million views on TikTok.
“As much as I do feel pressure knowing that there’s an audience for this already,” Claflin says, “I don’t let it affect me the way that I used to.” Remembering the initial backlash to his being cast as Finnick, he begins to quote the insults from more than a decade ago: “‘You were so wrong for this.’ ‘They should have cast this person or this person, not you.’” But Claflin proved the naysayers wrong when Finnick became a fan-favorite character.
Still, looking back on that project, Claflin says he wishes he could redo parts of his performance, knowing what he knows now. “I feel a little more confident in myself and comfortable in myself. Especially with a part like Finnick, where he just exudes charisma. At the time, I was shitting myself — the first topless scene I’ve ever done, you know? Oh, my God. Also, I didn’t have an accent coach in ‘Hunger Games,’ and I fucking needed one. I look back and listen to myself like, ‘God, that’s terrible.’”
It’s time to leave, and Claflin spreads his arms wide for a big bear hug. As soon as he walks away, our waiter comes by — a fan — wanting to know everything. “Oh, honey,” he whispers, “he was delicious.”
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