Outside of movie buffs, film critics, and die-hard Joy Division fans, most people have never heard of Sam Riley. But that’s not the way it was supposed to be. After his haunting performance as Joy Division front man Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s brilliant biopic Control, Riley was immediately put on the shortlist of actors about to break big.
Then came roles in Franklyn and 13, two films you’ve never heard of. But for Riley, letdowns in this industry are nothing new. He was cut from Michael Winterbottom’s cult classic 24 Hour Party People, and his band 10,000 Things, had their debut album thrashed by critics, ultimately leading to their break-up. Now living a fairly low-key life in Berlin with his wife, actress Alexandra Maria Lara, Riley is forging ahead. First up is a role in Rowan Joffe’s remake of the Graham Greene classic Brighton Rock, where he stars opposite Helen Mirren and Andrea Riseborough, followed by Walter Salles’ long awaited adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, where Riley stars as the Beatnick pioneer’s alter-ego Sal Paradise. We chatted with him to find out what the last few years have been like and where he sees himself in the future.
So, why Berlin? Well, it was because of a girl, I guess. That was the first reason for coming here. She is now my life. We talked for a moment about living between Leeds and Berlin, and neither of us fancy Leeds, and Berlin is a fantastic city. I needed to get out, to dodge everything. It’s a very relaxed city. It’s got everything one could need, minus the millions and millions of people. I suppose that’s one of the benefits for me. It has incredible history and it is affordable compared to other European capitals, and it’s away from the office, if you know what I mean. I’m a long way away from Hollywood for American actors, London for British actors. I like to have a bit of perspective on it all, which I can have here.
You’ve played a lot of troubled characters. Do you draw on any of this from personal experience? I’ve lived a pretty charmed life compared with most people born in Great Britain. I guess my most troubled time was probably during my boarding school experience. It wasn’t exactly Hogwarts. It was pretty 1950s. They don’t really exist anymore, these places. In a way, I’m quite proud to be the last of the “beaten generation.”
Did that shape you at all as a kid? I generally tried to avoid conflicts as a kid. Leeds is quite a tough town, so you don’t have to go around starting fights to get in them. I was outgoing amongst my friends and shy around girls. I was a mixture between a proper show-off and someone who thinks that sort of thing was obscene.
When did you know you were cut out of 24 Hour Party People? Not until I watched it with a couple of mates, actually, to show them my big moment. It’s a classic actor story. It got to the part where I thought the scene was going to be, and it wasn’t, and then it went on for another twenty minutes and I thought, “Oh, fuck.” A mate finally says, ‘Well when’s your bit then?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think it was meant to be about 25 minutes ago.’
Sounds rough. How do you bounce back from a disappointment like that? You’ve gotta’ laugh at it. If there’s one thing that people in the North of England are famous for, it’s their sense of humor in the face of crisis. If your mate has just lost his girlfriend, there’s nothing better then taking the piss out of him for half an hour to make him feel better. Similarly, I remember when we read that music review for my old band 10,000 Things aloud, our hearts just sank. But then we read it over again and again and after the third time, we were all rolling around because we had to get over it. You have to learn to laugh at it. Also, I’m an Englishman. I can switch off. I got that from my father’s side. I can blank out the bad things.
On the flip side, how do you deal with success, namely with the response to Control? Seeing it for the first time, that was a very big moment. The first time I saw Control was at the premiere in Cannes. Not only that, it was my first time at Cannes, my first time at a movie premiere, and the first time I saw myself on a screen the size of a billboard. It was also the first time I was on the side of a success. Of course, it wasn’t the sort of film that a lot of people saw, though it got me every job I’ve ever gotten since and many other things. I was prepared for it to go either way. And people were saying I’m “the next big thing,” and I’ve heard that before. But that’s just the start. What I learned from being in a band was that once you get signed, you haven’t made it—your career has just begun. Once Control came out, it got a nice response and prizes, but what do you do from there? I wonder, Fuck, how am I going to top that? Probably never, but I’ve still got to work though.
Was there the pressure of being “the next big thing”? It’s better to imagine it’s not going to happen then get your hopes up about it. You have to do that as an actor. I’m still relatively far down the actor’s food chain, especially when you are dealing with studios. I go to a lot of auditions, I don’t get a lot of parts, and even if I do, I don’t really think I have it until I’m having breakfast the first day on set, and even then it’s a little unpredictable. Of course, getting the lead role makes it a lot harder for them to cut me out.
Is that why there has been some time between films? I’m fussy, I guess. I got gifted such a dream part with Control. I don’t want to spoil it. I could do five films a year, and three of them are shit and no one gives a rat’s ass. Who cares about my career anyway, other than me? I have a feeling that I owe it to my start to keep a certain standard in the films I do. So I live frugally and take the parts that I am interested in and that I want to play. At that point, even if it goes tits up I am okay with it, because I did the film for the right reasons. If I say yes to a project that I think is cheesy bullshit and I’m going to be miserable while I do it, I’m probably not going to be very good in it either.
I heard you learned to pick-pocket for Brighton Rock. I did. I was taught by a great magician who said you really need two people to successfully pickpocket somebody. It’s rare to do it on your own. He taught me a few fast-fingered things. I really enjoyed it, I felt quite tidy at that. You never go after pockets that aren’t clearly open.
Have you practiced it since? I better not say if I have tried it since. Times are tough.
What was the Beatnick bootcamp you had to attend in lieu of shooting On the Road? Walter Salles wanted the main actors to get together and hang out with a lot of experts and biographers from the Beatnick generation, who came in to talk to us. We would watch films from that time and listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie while doing push-ups and picking our fingers. I learned to type and I learned to speak French Canadian with a Quebecois accent. It was a full schedule.
How’s your American accent? I think it’s better then passable. I just did the ADR and voice overs. The English have so many different dialects so we have to learn all of them, mainly to tease each other. Speaking like an American isn’t that difficult. Plus, there are a lot of recordings of Jack Kerouac to work off of. But you be the judge. Take someone who doesn’t know I’m English.
How was the shoot? It’s a tough book to adapt into a film and a lot of people have tried and failed in the past. Well, it was a five or six month shoot. It was hard going. The therapy is going fine, by the way. I should be rid of all of it before too long.
What’s your impression of Hollywood these days? I don’t know, really. I haven’t been in a long time. I’m hoping to make in roads there, because I figure they must be running out of superheroes pretty soon. Of course, it all goes in cycles, where everything is popcorn fodder and then really good films come out. It was like that just before the seventies, and then all those great films came out all at once. Maybe we’re just on the cusp of people being able to make great films on their own again. Then again, you might see me in spandex in a year and a half.