Series five of Peaky Blinders sheds the grime and soot of Birmingham for the dark corridors and smoke-filled rooms of Parliament, introducing fans to an entirely different game, one filled with political maneuverings, fascist uprisings, and, quite possibly, the most dangerous enemy that Tommy Shelby has ever faced. That’s bad news for those hoping Cillian Murphy’s tortured gangster might get a moment to breathe, but good news for Sam Claflin, who plays divisive real-life politician Oswald Mosley this season. Mosley, the infamous leader of the British Union of Fascists, led an uprising in the U.K. before the start of World War II, and he’s causing problems for the Shelby gang on the show as well.
We chatted with Claflin about the pressure of playing this season’s villain and whether he’d ever return to The Hunger Games world, where he played the charismatic Finnick.
Peaky Blinders is very much the Tommy Shelby show. What was it like to come in playing his nemesis?
I felt like I had some big shoes to fill. Some of the previous antagonists have been pretty big names and so I definitely felt the pressure of the people that tread the boards before me. But honestly, I was made to feel very welcome as an actor. As a character? Very unwelcome. I think Oswald Mosley takes that in stride. To walk into something in series five and mix it up as much as he does, yeah, it’s a dream. And I think seeing someone go toe-to-toe with Tommy Shelby and actually get the better of him in places, it was wonderful.
It’s a very tight-knit cast. Was it intimidating being on set, as the villain?
There was definitely a moment of being kind of awestruck; just rubbing shoulders with the likes of Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson, Helen McCrory, the list goes on. One of the first scenes we shot was the scene in episode three, where I walk into Tommy Shelby’s office and there’s Paul Anderson’s character, Cillian’s character, and Finn Cole’s character in the room. That’s the first big confrontation between the two sides. Our director, Anthony Byrne, specifically told me to hold back and not get involved with the banter, because he wanted me to feel like an outsider, not only as an actor but as a character. So he purposely made me stay segregated from the group a little bit. I’d already had a few scenes with Cillian, but there were definitely moments where we tried to keep the tension as long as we could to kind of aid the scenes as we were making them. But it was really good fun.
Oswald Mosley is a real historical figure. How much of the character is an impersonation of him, and how much is you adding your own flavor?
I was actually told to stop mimicking him. One thing the director mentioned to me from the beginning, he said, “Stop focusing so much on doing the impersonation. You’ve done all the work but just relax. He is a real person.”
I’d done an extensive amount of research, initially. I wanted to make it as real as possible. What I was aware of is that Peaky Blinders is like a heightened reality. There have been a few real-life characters that have come through in previous series, but Oswald Mosley was definitely going to be the most heavily featured real-life person. As much as I don’t believe Oswald Mosley’s belief system, I still wanted to do it justice, do him justice. He was a real man, and I didn’t want to do a disservice to him as a human being.
Truthfully, a lot of what is said, especially during the political speeches, was almost direct quotes from his speeches from way back when. Naturally, in a fictional world, we have to take some liberties with how he would fit into a story like this but at the same time, the majority of his beliefs and what drives that character were real-life ambitions and goals. And I think that allowed me the opportunity, I suppose, to focus on the reality of it.
What do you think it says just about history repeating itself that the same slogans and ideas Mosley was spouting back then are being used again today?
The thing that Steven Knight keeps talking about is the last time people were talking like this was the 1930s. Fascism has always been around, and therefore, has always been somehow relevant. But I think the biggest change is now they have a voice. There are so many platforms for those people to be heard now. What Steven Knight constantly says is the last time people [were] shouting about this, there was a world war.
What’s terrifying is like, this is what we’re moving towards again. Somehow society at the moment is being torn in different directions, and I think it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying, but I think that’s what makes it so interesting to watch. I, personally, wasn’t aware of the Oswald Mosley before I was approached for the part. I’ve never heard of him, honestly, and I’m glad I haven’t. He was a huge political figure back in the ’30s, but his voice was kind of squashed, especially during the Second World War. He was imprisoned during the Second World War as a threat to England. I think there is something quite terrifying about a man like that having a platform like he does. That way of thinking is always going to be there, unfortunately. It’s just a matter of trying to quash it as quickly as possible, I think.
Mosley’s obviously a bad dude, but fans seem to really be enjoying him on the show. Is it strange for you to see people liking the chaos he’s causing?
It’s a very different series, it’s become a very intellectual war, you know. Whereas before, it’s always been about guns, this series is all about Tommy battling with his own mind and his own sanity. There’s obviously still bucket loads of violence, but it’s also about the mind-game. I think that’s what politics is, and I think that’s why Mosley’s such a sensational character. Tommy is a small fish in a very big pond now. Mosley was basically born into this. He knows how these games work, and he knows every which way around these corridors. It’s this new kid that is losing his mind, losing control for the first time in a long, long time. And I think, naturally, that gives you entertainment. Seeing someone like Tommy Shelby unhinged for the first time in five series is always exciting.
For me, having the opportunity to step away from that kind of good boy romantic lead and to step into a darker, devilish character like Oswald Mosley, that’s what I always dreamt of doing.
Normally Shelby’s enemies are dealt with before a series ends but Moseley is still alive and well. Does that mean he’s going to cause more trouble in series six?
I’ve heard rumblings, but whether that includes me, I genuinely don’t know. I know there is a season six being written. I think episodes one to three have been written, after speaking to Steven Knight, but he’s keeping his cards very close to his chest. And I’m so glad that he is because as a fan of the show, I don’t want anything to be spoiled for me.
Mosley lived a very, very long life. I think he died in the ’80s. So, unless they completely mess with history, I don’t see him dying. But whether the next series includes, is not for me to decide, unfortunately. If it was, I’d be in every scene.
Is there anything you’d like to explore with the character if you come back?
Well, yeah. Not long after the ’30s, he married Lady Diana Mitford, who herself was quite a notorious human being. Their wedding was at Joseph Goebbels’ summer house, one of the nastiest Nazis ever, and Adolf Hitler was in attendance, so that is a life event I would like to portray on Peaky Blinders. Tommy Shelby and Hitler in a room together would be quite eventful.
Speaking of returning, if we were to get some Hunger Games prequels, would you be down to play Finnick again?
The thing is, I’m now older than I was when I started, so I can’t really go back in time and play the younger version of myself. But I would support that for sure. Again, I was a massive fan of those books and a massive fan of that filming experience. I had an amazing time. I don’t know how it would ever include me, unfortunately. Finnick’s had his head chopped off.
We could go back to before the decapitation …
I figured what we could do is tell the story of Finnick’s son. He’s been born, right? And then I could portray the son. I could be the son in future years, like 50 years later. There you go. [Laughs] I found a loophole.
‘Peaky Blinders’ season 5 is streaming on Netflix.