You may have seen your share of World War II movies, but you’ve never seen one like this. Rather than focusing on the front lines, Their Finest (in theaters today) follows a British film crew as they attempt to boost morale and encourage America to join the fight against Hitler by making a propaganda film after the Blitzkrieg.
If you’re thinking of Katniss’ “propos” in Mockingjay, you wouldn’t be too far off – which is apropos (no pun intended), given that Sam Claflin also stars in this movie as the rather prickly script writer Tom Buckley. Tom works with the Ministry of Information to write and produce their latest propaganda film, reluctantly recruiting Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) – a talented young Welsh woman and writer – to bring a female perspective to the operation. Though Catrin faces many challenges from the male-dominated ministry, Tom soon comes to appreciate her abilities – both for writing and for wrangling the veteran actor and demanding star of the film, Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). What follows is a story full of love, laughter, an impressive film-within-a-film, and lots of surprises.
Fangirlish had the chance to speak exclusively with the incredible Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy about their roles in Their Finest, exploring the World War II time period on film, and their (perhaps surprising) pop culture obsessions.
It’s always fun to hear actors talk about their characters, but I thought maybe you guys could tell me about each other’s character instead – switch it up a little.
Bill Nighy: Well, [Sam]’s got a great character, and it’s beautifully written. It’s a wonderful love story. I loved reading it. I was jealous – I wished I was younger and I could play Sam’s part, but then I often feel that way. It’s a very dryly written, beautiful, and unexpected kind of leading man experience. You see someone in the time-honored tradition, I suppose, of initially dismissing the leading lady and then falling deeply in love, and that’s very fulfilled in the part.
Sam Claflin: Whereas I find that Ambrose Hilliard is a man who loves himself more than anyone else. [laughs] So his love story was between himself and himself. It’s about a man who believes he deserves more than he’s had – the hand that he’s been dealt – and he is a great actor. I think that’s what is so beautiful about the performance: it’s about a man who knows he can do it, but has never been given the opportunity, and this is, I suppose, his opportunity. He gets cast in the film within a film, but has to realize that he is what he is – and not a 20 year younger version of himself. It’s about a pompous leading actor.
Both of your characters develop a really special relationship with Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton). Could you talk a little bit about that?
Bill: Catrin is very clever with [Ambrose]. She starts off by flattering him, which is a very good move with Ambrose, because that’s about the only thing he responds to, and then she manipulates him very successfully. She’s also a very good writer, and Ambrose is not stupid – he soon identifies her as a good writer, and therefore useful to him. There is a scene at the end which was an extra scene that was added after the main body of the shoot as a kind of resolve, where they meet and you do see a kind of professional admiration. You see something a little bit extra – a little bit less self-absorbed about Ambrose, about his responsibility – how he feels as, dare we say, an artist. They share that, as artists. There is a kind of circle, and I think the implication is at the end that they are on very good terms.
Sam: Tom Buckley has a very interesting relationship with Catrin. He does see the potential in her as a writer from the very, very beginning. He knows she’s a good writer and she’s very good at what she does. At the same time, I don’t think he realizes her full potential – and I think like most men of the time, is slightly misogynistic and thinks that he is God’s gift, almost. But he realizes that she can step up to the plate and give as good as she gets. In her, he basically finds a sparring partner – someone who actually can fight back and speak up – and that’s exactly what not only this film needs, but he realizes that’s what the world needs. He gives her that opportunity, and I think between those moments, he realizes that she’s the love of his life. She’s a very, very powerful and intelligent, clever woman who’s experienced a lot in her time, and I think she should be granted that opportunity.
How was it for both of you working with Gemma?
Bill: Dreamy. She is exemplary in every department, and easy and wonderful in the role. All her preparation seems to have taken place elsewhere, and she just comes to work and is gracious and funny and exceedingly good company.
Sam: She’s really irritating, actually. [laughs] It’s one of those things, actually, me and her sat with [director] Lone Scherfig very early on, and Gemma’s one of those people who says, “Oh, I can’t really do a Welsh accent” and said “I’m just gonna give it a go” and nailed it, straight off the bat. You’re like, “Oh god, you’re actually really good.”
I think if I’m 100% honest, initially, before I even met her I was slightly intimidated because I knew she was very talented. I’ve been a fan of hers and her work for a few years, and you actually really see the work and the professionalism that goes with a girl who’s actually willing to have fun with it and be generous and kind and loyal and respectful to everyone. She ticks every box, basically. She’s an incredible leading lady and an incredible friend, so you couldn’t ask for more.
The World War II time period is so iconic and important. How was it to step into that for this film?
Bill: I’ve never, I don’t think, really been in anything that really addressed that period as successfully as this film does. I was born just after the war. My parents were obviously heavily involved in the war, like everybody else, and it’s the great event – as you say – which looms large in the United Kingdom, and indeed in America and all over the world.
The Blitz – there’s an odd thing, which is that a couple of generations have a very specific kind of nostalgia for that period – which is odd, because it’s such a terrible time, and also because you weren’t there. I think every generation apparently has nostalgia for a period 60 to 70 years prior to whenever they’re speaking, which is what you’re seeing now expressed in political terms – but it’s being manipulated by corrupt people. They invent a world some years ago where everything was apparently okay, which of course never existed, which we’re going to get back to or something – which of course is impossible, because it’s not there.
I digress a bit. But people were starving, people were terrified, you didn’t know who was going to wake up tomorrow, you didn’t know who of your friends would be left, you didn’t know which part of London would still be standing. You didn’t know who would survive the night. Those extreme situations free you from the usual concerns of life, and I think that’s what people are nostalgic for. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but people correspond in a way that they wouldn’t under normal circumstances, and all the pettier dealings that you might have with people cease – because there’s bigger fish to fry.
Sam: I’m not overly familiar with wartime England, honestly. It’s definitely something I studied in school, and I feel like I watched documentary after documentary with my dad, but having the opportunity to portray a character in a war film that’s not necessarily a war film… And I think we’re so used to seeing war films with guns blazing and explosions happening. It’s a way of telling life within that time, and it’s fighting a war – there is a battle to be fought – but it’s fought in a very, very different way to that that we’re used to.
I think so many people around the world were fighting in that war without actually being on the front line and necessarily dying heroically, but at the same time, they’re equally heroes for doing what they did. The writers doing what they were doing, the actors doing what they were doing. I think there was something about that and about the script that really resonated with me, being an actor and living in the world that I live in. It wasn’t safe. It wasn’t safe there, either. The sort of random bombings and people dying left, right, and center. Well you say it’s for no reason, but they were all in a war, they were all surviving, they were all fighting. I just think the uniqueness of that was something that really, really spoke to me, personally, and something I enjoyed being a part of.
That and the costumes and the world and the attention to detail and all the props – the typewriting. Someone told me they call it NAR, which is “No Acting Required.” You kind of felt like you were in it and living it, so it was really, really enjoyable.
As you mentioned, I think the costumes and the props and the sets were so amazing and really established that time period. Was there any particular detail that stood out as especially impressive or memorable to you?
Sam: I’d say getting used to a typewriter, definitely. I’m so used to using a laptop, where everything is so flat. Having to do that was really difficult. Both myself and Gemma were given typewriters about a month before we started filming, to kind of get used to using all of your fingers and not just one. It was a very different machine – a different beast – and one that I don’t think I ever quite got the hang of, especially because my typewriter broke halfway through and I was trying to hide the fact that it was broken. [laughs] It was really enjoyable, I think, approaching it like that.
Bill: Walking on the film set of the movie within the movie and seeing the period equipment and the odd arrangements of scaffolding and ladders that they used to use on movie sets – that was kind of exciting. And being in the water tank – which is not particularly period, because you would have a water tank now, but somehow it added to the whole period feel. The clothes were very satisfying. All the women look completely adorable and chic. I think everything since that period has been downhill, really, in terms of clothing. That’s when trousers were trousers. It’s a very stylish time.
Is there any other time period that you’d like to tackle in a future project?
Bill: I’m not particularly interested in going back any further than that, because the trousers get very complicated. [laughs] And that’s not even a joke! Although I have to do something soon where I’m apparently going to wear suspicious-looking trousers. I love the 30s and the 40s. I wouldn’t want to go back much further. The 50s was quite interesting. In the UK, the 50s has got a bad reputation – only because it’s been lazily described by the media, which is what always happens. For their own purposes, they sort of emphasize certain things and not others. It was actually a very, very rich period, and lots of really great literature and films and music were made. It was also kind of stylish – there was a radical shift in terms of clothes, for instance, in cars – cars suddenly got very different. That would be something.
Sam: I’ve found myself doing quite a lot of period pieces. I find it really difficult to live in the now on film. [laughs] And also, I’d love to do something where it was set in the future – and you hopefully get a bit of a say in what your costumes look like. I’m usually wearing a uniform, and it’s usually quite uncomfortable – tight or whatever it is. [laughs] I’m done with the period stuff.
No, I honestly love trying on a costume. I love the information of what it would have been like to have worn something like that. I just did a World War I thing not long after doing this, and wearing the uniform and the full regalia… There was a point in which I needed to take all my equipment off, and I was like, “Oh my god, there’s so many little things and so many little bits and buttons and all sorts that you kind of have to consider.” How do they take this off when they go to bed? I don’t know, they just kept it on, they slept in it. It was really amazing stepping into the shoes of another generation. It’s really interesting.
I’d love, personally, to do the 60s thing. I did it briefly for a TV show, but I’d like to do it properly – the flares and the long, curly permed hair would be great.
I thought it was so interesting in the movie how both of you with the film within a film – Bill, you’re an actor playing an actor, and Sam, you’re an actor playing a writer. How was that to play, and would you like to write or direct or anything like that down the line?
Bill: I’ve never had any desire to direct. It just seems like very, very, very hard work. I was once offered a movie to direct, and I was flattered for, you know, twenty minutes. Then I realized it was going to take me three years.
Sam: Oh god.
Bill: I’ve got about eight things I want to do. So I have no desire to do that – which is surprising, because I am a control freak, so you’d imagine it would appeal. But it doesn’t particularly. Writing is something that I admire more than anything else. I don’t see it in terms of myself, really. And playing an actor? Whenever I get a period script, I generally write on the first page: This is not a period film. You can’t be in a period, because it’s happening now. It sounds stupidly sort of simple, but I don’t want to act some idea of some other time. It’s contemporary, as far as I’m concerned. You may be wearing something different, but it’s happening now. Because people start talking differently or standing differently, like everybody stood up straight in the 16th century – I don’t think so. You know what I mean?
Sam: Just because in pictures, yeah.
Bill: Or they all spoke rather well. No they didn’t, not any more than they do now. You can’t play your job – you just have to play the guy. The fact that he was an actor was, you know.
Sam: I quite enjoyed being a writer. I’ve tried the writing thing, honestly, because I thought I had a really good idea for a TV show. I then realized that all of the characters sounded exactly the same, and I realized that it probably wasn’t for me, so I gave up quite quickly. But I think structure and how to kind of go about writing a story – the realization that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end as opposed to a beginning and an end – I think was quite important. I think actually having played Tom Buckley, I feel that it was really insightful and I actually learned quite a lot about how to structure a story, strangely. And it’s all what was written in the script – it’s nothing that I kind of researched privately. I just found in Lissa’s [Evans] novel and also from the script, it was all there for me.
I think eventually, if I could, I’d like to think that I could write something or direct something. But in my honest opinion, I feel like my knowledge is pretty limited. I’m not a trial and error kind of guy – it has to be perfect – so until I felt like I could do a perfect job, I wouldn’t touch it.
To wrap things up, at Fangirlish we’re all about embracing the fandom things you love. Is there a particular movie, book, or TV show you guys are loving right now?
Sam: I’m a secret fan of the TV show Nashville. My wife turned me on to it, and it’s one of those things that we binge-watch when we’re really tired, when the baby’s just gone to sleep and we just need something kind of country. I suppose the opportunity to go to Nashville and just see the world of country music, which is something I never knew that I would ever be into, but I’m kind of fangirling over a little bit at the moment.
Bill: I love country music – real country music. In terms of reading things, I always get the new James Lee [Burke] novel, in terms of American writers. And like I would buy the new Stones album on the Friday it came out, when I was young, I would always buy the new Martin Amis book whenever it came out, the day it was released. The last thing I think I binge-watched was True Detective, which was just great.
Sam: Yeah, it was amazing.
Bill: I did watch – very, very late, about 10 years too late – I watched all 29 episodes of Twin Peaks.
I still need to watch that myself.
Bill: Do you? Oh, you’ve got to see Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks is absolutely delicious. It’s completely unlike anything else, and it’ll drive you crazy. And they’ve got new stuff coming – so if you watch it now, you’ll be ready. It’s deep. It’s deeply pleasurable. It’s so weird and good.