Interview: Sam Riley, actor

“I don’t have to look good, do I?” Sam Riley says, sounding pleased.

“I don’t have to look good, do I?” Sam Riley says, sounding pleased.

That is his reaction to the fact that we’re talking on the phone rather than meeting face to face. Fair enough. It makes sense, for him. But I’m feeling a bit disappointed to not be seeing those cheek bones with my very own eyes. That flop of hair, his not quite conventional handsomeness but slightly rough around the edges rockstar charm. Still, as soon as his rasping voice crackles down the phone line I realise that no cheekbones, no matter how razor sharp, could be better than that. Riley’s best feature, as far as I’m concerned, is his gravelly Northern voice. The kind of voice that sounds as though it’s been honed from hours of dedicated commitment to nicotine consumption.

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It’s no surprise really. When you watch Riley as Sal Paradise (the alter ego of Jack Kerouac) in Walter Salles’ long-awaited big-screen adaptation of On the Road, Kerouac’s iconic 1957 novel, you will need no convincing that Riley knows how to suck the guts out of a filterless fag. Maybe it’s one of the skills he learned at Beatnik Bootcamp, the month-long preparatory period Salles organised for his principal cast, including Kristen Stewart (Marylou), Garrett Hedlund (Dean Moriarty, based on Neal Cassady) and Tom Sturridge (Carlo Marx, based on Allen Ginsberg), to learn the wild ways of the Beat Generation.

“Neal Cassady’s son came to speak to us,” says Riley, “as did biographers and experts on the period. We watched documentaries about jazz musicians of the time and films that Walter wanted to inform the way he was going to shoot, early Cassavetes. There were a lot of French-Canadian dialect sessions for me and typewriting practice.” He pauses, before adding with a sarcastic transatlantic twang, “It was a full programme.”

It might sound a bit much, but for Salles, the director to finally bring Kerouac’s Beat Bible to the screen, more than 30 years after Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights in 1978 and more than 50 years after Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to take on the part of Sal, it’s clear the stakes were high. The Brazilian director was no less thorough with the locations he used. Riley says that he was away from home (he lives in Berlin with his wife, German actress Alexandra Maria Lara) for about six months – a month in bootcamp and then a further five months of shooting.

“We went all the way across America. We went to Canada. We went to Argentina at one point because Walter wanted real snow.” He laughs. “He remembered a road in Patagonia that he thought looked American when he was making The Motorcycle Diaries so we all flew there. It seemed to never end, somehow.”

Riley does a good line in dry, Northern humour. It’s punctuated with a laugh that sounds like sheet metal being dragged over concrete. But he makes no secret of the fact that he loves movies and being an actor. He can get away with saying things like “I want to work in Hollywood” because it’s also clear that Riley’s got no illusions about what he calls “the biz”. He may have only made a handful of films but he knows what it’s like to be touted as the next big thing and then for that to never quite happen.

Riley grew up in Leeds, the son of a textile agent and a nursery teacher. He went to boarding school and did a bit of acting there and at National Youth Theatre too. But his first ambition wasn’t acting, it was being in a band.

For a while, Riley was lead singer of the band 10,000 Things. They played Reading and the V Festival. They went from a tiny indie label to Polydor before a stinking review in the NME got them dropped from their label and that was that. Music might even be more fickle than movies, it seems. It was devastating at the time, Riley has said, and it meant working in a clothes warehouse to make ends meet. But if Riley was ever bitter, he’s well over it now.

“I’m going to sound like I’m sucking up but the best gigs were always in Scotland,” he says. “The worst were in London because everyone in the audience thinks they’re the rockstar so they’re looking at what you’re wearing. The boys, I mean. But in Scotland, especially when we played Dundee and places like that, everyone just seemed ready to let rip and have a good time.

“We went on tour with a band called Raising Kain who sadly have disbanded. They were from Glasgow and we had an absolute hoot with them. On the very first night, in Leicester I think it was, we hadn’t met them yet, they turned up already a bit, erm, well oiled. Halfway through the third song the guitarist decked the singer.” He lets out a massive laugh. “We were on the road with them for two weeks. We became very close.”

Being in a band didn’t lead to rock stardom, but it was perfect preparation for what was to become Riley’s breakout film role, and what has continued to be his calling card. With no formal acting training (Riley was knocked back from LAMDA and from Rada, the latter for being too young and inexperienced) being cast as Ian Curtis, the tortured lead singer of Joy Division, in Anton Corbijn’s film, Control, was a big ask, but Riley was mesmerising.

“I had the feeling that I had nothing to lose then because I had nothing else going on,” he says. “It was just one of these things where you got a great director, nobody knows who the hell you are and everything just falls into place at the right time. People have not seen you struggle your way through The Bill, they’ve only seen you in this ideal, black-and-white film, singing, which is what I’d been doing for five years, with all these dramatic emotions. It’s the job that all actors dream of having just once in their career. It’s hard to follow but it’s been a calling card, it’s helped me get every job since.”

These have included playing Mark E Smith in the Michael Winterbottom film 24 Hour Party People, although Riley’s scenes landed on the cutting room floor. Then there was a sci fi film Franklyn with Ryan Philippe and Eva Green which disappeared without a trace, and 13 with Mickey Rourke and Ray Winstone, which never saw the light of day. Then he was cast as the gangster, Pinkie Brown, in the remake of Brighton Rock with Helen Mirren and Andrea Riseborough. The response to that film was lukewarm, giving Riley his first taste of the very particular world of adaptations. “Yeah, things that people hammer before they’ve even seen them,” he says wryly.

The role of Sal in On the Road was on the horizon for a very long time and for a while looked seriously doubtful.

“I auditioned with Garrett in New York two years before the thing actually got made. We got on very well. No one said I had the part but they were saying things that made me think ‘ay up, they like me for this’.”

But as it goes in movies, particularly with On the Road, the money fell through and the project stalled. That’s what happened when Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt were slated to play Sal and Dean. It’s what happened when Jean-Luc Goddard intended to direct it. It’s part of what built the Beat Bible’s reputation as being unfilmable. And actually, at the time, Riley wasn’t all that disappointed that it hadn’t come off.

“When it didn’t happen I was kind of relieved, to be honest, because I thought, well, I’ve joined a list of pretty cool people who have nearly played that part without having to go through having to do it.” He laughs. “Then I forgot all about it. Garrett didn’t, though. Dean is a part he was born to play. He kept in touch with Walter, but I thought well it’s not going to happen and I don’t want to torture myself so I’ll just forget about it.

“Then I got a call from my agent saying it’s happening in two months, get down the gym and get a dialect coach. I don’t even remember being asked formally if I wanted to f***ing be in it.” He laughs. “It was sort of understood. They were right I suppose. I would’ve been jealous watching someone else do it.”

Riley’s performance justifies the casting. It’s not an easy part – Sal/Kerouac is the observer rather than the main act. Dean/Cassady is the freewheeling, free-loving, drug-binging charismatic star of the gang. Sal is a frustrated writer, trying to find a way through his writer’s block. When Dean is raving on the dance floor with Marylou or jumping into bed with, well anyone, Sal is often doing little more than watching or staring at his typewriter. And smoking, of course.

Riley only read Kerouac’s novel when he knew he was in the running to play Sal. He knew a bit about Ginsberg and a bit about William Burroughs too, because his name had come up when Riley was working on Control.

“There was going to be a scene with Burroughs,” he says. “There was talk of Bowie playing him at one point. Ian [Curtis] was a huge fan of Burroughs’ writing.

“With Jack, though, for some reason I had very good friends who had read the book and gone off travelling but it just sort of passed me by really. Reading the book when I knew I might be doing it sort of spoiled it for me. I didn’t read it in the way that I would’ve had I not been thinking ‘oh f**k, I’m going to have to do this.’” He laughs.

Riley is more broody than brawny. As Curtis he was ideal for channelling all of that tortured talent and darkness. Kerouac, though, counter-culture hero that he is, is a different proposition. It’s credit to Riley, that he pulls it off.

“I had the same raised eyebrow as anyone else when they said they wanted a Yorkshireman playing Jack Kerouac,” he says. “But my father wasn’t the producer – he did audition other people.”

Unsurprisingly, Salles has assembled a fantastic cast for the project from Viggo Mortensen playing a morphine-muddled Old Bull Lee (based on Burroughs) with Amy Adams as his Benzedrine-befuddled wife, Jane, to Kirsten Dunst as Camille, one of Dean’s partners and the mother of his children. Of course, much attention has been focused on Kristen Stewart, not least because until promoting On the Road, she’s hardly been seen. For his part, Riley is full of praise for Stewart’s performance.

“Kristen was hired before Twilight I think but it took that long for this film to come to fruition. Before that she’d worked with Jodie Foster, Sean Penn had chosen her, a lot of people with a lot of knowledge of the business had hired her for the actress she is.

With Garrett [Hedlund] as well, the system at the studio tends to mean only certain types of film are made, which then pigeonholes actors as eye-candy. But it’s not true. They [Stewart and Hedlund] don’t have anything to prove to their colleagues but they have something to prove to elements of the media or the industry that pigeonholes them. I think Kristen is great in the film.”

I wonder what it feels like for Riley having his two highest profile roles as parts based on real people – Curtis and Kerouac?

“I learned to stop looking on the internet pretty early on.” He laughs grimly. “It’s a lucky thing to have these parts that are so well developed but you have to have a bit of a f**k-you attitude with this biz anyway. Acting is a strange mix – you have to be sensitive enough that you can cry in front of a roomful of people and thick-skinned enough that when you read that you’re sh*te you don’t take it to heart too much. Being the frontman of a vilified rock band from Leeds was good preparation because people used to shout that you were sh*t while you were singing.” He laughs.

Even with the internet there’s at least a bit of a gap before the criticism starts pouring in.

“Yeah,” he says, “instead of two seconds after the last bar ‘That was SH*TE!’”

Riley says he’s interested in how On the Road is received, what kind of certification it’ll be awarded within the US given that there’s a fair bit of sex and drugs, and whether people will connect with its counter-cultural message. Living in Berlin for the last few years, Riley’s home is one of the few cities where there still seems to be space for a counter-culture.

“It’s affordable for people who are trying not to do things in the standard way, but I’m not involved in anything like that,” he says. “I’m past it really. I’m old now. I keep myself to myself. I listen to Radio 4.”

Riley likes living in Berlin he says because it means that he’s not anywhere near “the business” unless he’s working in it. But that’s not to say he’s snobbish about the work he does. He might not want to live in LA, but he definitely wants to work in Hollywood.

“I’m doing a Disney film now,” he says, sounding genuinely excited. “I’m Angelina Jolie’s sidekick in Maleficent. It’s cool. I don’t die and I don’t smoke. I’m ploughing new ground. I’m really thrilled to be able to do it just before I get typecast completely as the depressive, artist, chain smoker.” He laughs.

It turns out, though, however unlikely it sounds that Control played a part in getting him that role too.

“Angelina said she watched it,” he says. “When someone like that says they’ve seen it you think man, I remember just being in Nottingham monkeying around with the other boys. And then someone like that tells you she’s seen it and it’s surreal really.

“To do a studio film, something with Disney.” He sounds as though he’s shaking his head in disbelief. “My father is thrilled.” He laughs before doing an impression of his dad. “‘If you think about it, son, it’s like a free holiday isn’t it?’ How typically Yorkshireman is that?”

On the Road (15) is on general release from 12 October