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Sam Claflin on his bitter, angry Riot Club character: "I absolutely feel his heartache."

22nd September 2014

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As Alistair Ryle in The Riot Club, Sam Claflin is lonely and naive, entitled and angry, sad, violent, confused, destructive... the adjectives go on, and as Alistair’s behaviour spirals out of control it’s likely that we could think of a lot of far less polite terms to describe his character.

Alistair is the central point of the film, and man who leaves a bad taste in the audience’s mouth from the outset.

The actor who created him, Hunger Games alumnus Sam Claflin, is in the midst of a promotional tour when we meet him at a London hotel. “It’s busier than it can be, definitely,” he concedes when asked how his week is going. “But a whole day of talking about a film that you’re proud of... I don’t mind it so much.” Pause. “I could not be working at all, so...”

Sam Claflin is humble, and maybe still a little bit surprised by the success that has come his way over the last few years – pre Riot Club, he’s best known for his role as Finnick Odair alongside Jennifer Lawrence. He’s previously spoken about how pressured he felt by fame, in the run up to his initiation into Panem – is he feeling any different now?

“I definitely feel a lot less pressurised,” he says. “He (Finnick) is a character that’s so well loved by the fans and I definitely felt worried that I wasn’t going to meet expectations.

He adds: “I wasn’t sure whether the fans were going to like me or him, and it seemed to be quite a positive response, so I feel a little more comfortable in myself.” There’s another thoughtful pause, and then: “But we’ll see; we’ll see how the next one’s received.”

Obviously, whether people would like his character is not a worry that he’s had with Alistair Ryle, the bitter, trodden-down Riot Club boy who is the crux of his newest film – and as Sam himself says, “I hope people don’t like him.”

It’s hard for an audience to feel warm towards Alistair, a student who seems to have all the opportunities in the world but none of the compassion or social skills to accompany them. Does Sam sympathise with his character, though? Can he see where he’s coming from, in any way?

“I think I had to,” he says. “I think it’s easy to give up on someone immediately and just say that they’ve got no hope and that he’s a bad guy, he’s a villain, but for me, I had to learn to love him. I had to understand why he was doing the things that he did, and what all the frustration and anger was about, and where it had spurned from.

“I absolutely feel his heartache, really. He’s a guy that was sent away to boarding school at a young age, undoubtedly; he’s constantly in his brother’s shadow, his family life isn’t great in a sense that his parents don’t provide him with much love, or time and attention... he gets mugged in the first couple of weeks of university. He’s not a social butterfly; he can’t just make friends like that.”

I suggest that Sam did well at turning the scene where Alistair is mugged, at a cash point directly before he is befriended by Douglas Booth’s aristocratic Harry Villiers and initiated into the Club, into a humorous one.

“You find yourself laughing at him,” Sam says, “for all the wrong reasons. And actually you start feeling kind of guilty about laughing at him, and then you see a damaged soul; that person who goes home and sits on his own... he’s not much of a drinker, and then, given alcohol and a platform to stand on and he gets a bit carried away.”

Perhaps Alistair can be seen as a microcosm of people who, having suddenly been handed freedom, or power, find themselves out of control - whether this is freshers trying to deal with the first few weeks of university life, or indeed, those stalking the halls of Westminster?

Sam is careful not to explicitly compare Alistair to anyone in particular, or even to reference the outcome of the film – which we’ll avoid to, so as not to ruin it. “People handle it in different ways,” he says, diplomatically, “and his way is to express himself and his opinions to a group of people who spur him on to do so... He starts the conversation but people join him on that; it becomes just one big melting pot.

“There’s a line that the landlord says to him in that sort of square-off, where he says, you’re nothing more than a bunch of kids throwing rocks at windows. And what’s interesting about the film is that we’re so used to seeing the lower classes and their gang culture, and this is actually just a gang culture in the upper classes.

“If it was the lower classes in this situation, you know, ten guys who’ve committed attempted murder, all ten would go down for being accessory to the crime, whereas these guys get off and even the one who might have to go down for a little bit, he kind of gets rewarded.”

This, of course, is the deliberately manufactured and most essential point of them film – the privileged getting away with what they might see as youthful indiscretions, but which are certainly far more serious than this for any other observer. In one scene, the Riot Clubbers deliberately destroy the dining room of the restaurant that they’ve chosen to host their annual dinner. It’s a reckless scene, and one that is designed to shock – but still, it looked like it was great fun to film...

At this, Sam laughs. “We were basically given this playground for a week and a half... it was a really hot room, as you can imagine, and there was basically ten boys, all day every day, living and breathing on top of each other, and basically being told that anything can happen in this room – whatever you want; rip any wallpaper off, smash any chair... we kind of let ourselves go a bit.”

Smashing up restaurants and paying off the owners is a typical behaviour associated with Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, the secret(ish) society that the film and its predecessor, 2010 play Posh, in inexplicitly based upon. How much research did Sam do into these kinds of groups? People are understandably fascinated by secret societies – especially when those at the top of our government are former members...

“Secret societies are obviously things that people don’t really talk about,” Sam says. “I think this offers an insight into a part of the world that a lot of the world isn’t familiar with.

“I’m certainly not from that background, so for me doing all the research and finding out all the information and meeting people of that type was hugely, hugely eye-opening.

“And this just does offer an essence of how some of them live. I’m not saying that the Bullingdon Club, that’s how they all are, or how they all were – no one really knows, and that’s the scary thing about it...”

Scary: the right word to describe the closing moments of The Riot Club, and the future prospects of Alistair Ryle particularly.

The Riot Club is out in UK cinemas now.

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