While shooting his breakthrough role as Ian Curtis, the troubled frontman of Joy Division, in the biopic Control (2007), Sam Riley was accosted outside his trailer by a fan warning him, “This better be fucking good.” As he stepped onstage to perform a live set, 200 Joy Division devotees, recruited as extras for the day, glared back, and a man in the front row lifted his t-shirt to reveal Curtis’s face tattooed across his stomach. Photographer-turned director Anton Corbijn had remortgaged his house on the promise of this unknown young actor from west Yorkshire, whose previous acting experience amounted to a role in 24 Hour Party People that died on the cutting room floor and a stint in Peak Practice. “There was a bit of pressure on me,” Riley remembers today, with heavy understatement.
A year later, in 2007, he was on the red carpet at Cannes under a hail of camera flashes, taking his seat alongside members of New Order, Ian Curtis’s wife Deborah and the world’s press, who had queued round the Croisette to watch the premiere of Corbijn’s dark, artful feature. What unfolded on the screen was an uncanny embodiment of the hypersensitive musician; Riley captured Curtis’s essence right down to the lead singer’s manic, jerky onstage antics (mastered by spending hours in front of a bootleg Joy Division DVD, and described by one critic as like “some sort of visionary outpatient”). It won the actor superlative reviews, a clutch of rising star awards, the blessing of Curtis’s bandmates and even nods of approval from those zealous Joy Division fans.
“The night I watched Control at Cannes was the first time I’d ever seen myself on a cinema screen,” Riley says, settled in an airy studio on the edges of London’s Regent’s Park. “My fingernails were dug in the seat. It was a dream part. You don’t get to play epileptic rock stars from Macclesfield with psychological problems every time. I knew it was changing my life as I was making it.” To underline the point, the 32-year-old is fresh off a 6am flight from Berlin, where he now lives; as well as making him an international star, Control introduced Riley to his wife, German actress Alexandra Maria Lara, who played Curtis’s girlfriend. “Alex has been in the business a lot longer than me, and she told me to enjoy it, that we were making something special,” he remembers. “But it’s been a tough part to follow.”
Riley’s answer has been to channel his streak of fearlessness into ever more intimidating roles. If playing Curtis brought planeloads of cultural baggage, his latest film raises the stakes higher still. In 2008 the actor walked into an audition for the role of Sal Paradise aka Jack Kerouac, counterculture American hero and “King of the Beats”, in Walter Salles’s longawaited adaptation of the writer’s seminal 1957 novel On the Road. Depicting Kerouac’s adventures across the highways of mid-century America, often in a battered Hudson Hawk beside freewheeling spirit Dean Moriarty (aka real-life Beat legend Neal Cassady), the book’s rebel yell launched linguistic guerilla warfare and changed American youth culture forever. Decades on, Kerouac’s loose, spontaneous prose – famously typed in three weeks on a 120ft scroll of teletype paper – is so ingrained in popular culture, so dissected by critics, and so referenced by musicians from Bob Dylan to the Beastie Boys that it has veered into cliché; it’s the paperback tucked into the rucksacks of every gap-yearing teenager, the book that, according to William Burroughs, “sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso coffee machines”, and one that a few years ago inspired a “Kerouac” clothing line.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my God, can they really make this into a film?’” remembers Riley. The slippery novel has eluded adaptations by even Kerouac himself, who wrote to Marlon Brando in 1957, offering him the part of Moriarty opposite himself as Paradise and envisioning “the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak”. Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights in 1979, and Jean-Luc Godard planned to make it his first English-language film, recruiting Dennis Hopper to star at the start of the 80s before disappearing back to France because he couldn’t “breathe the air” in California. Coppola passed the torch to Gus Van Sant, who also failed to make any headway. By the time Walter Salles was tapped to direct, its reputation as unfilmable was virtually sealed. “Walter showed me this documentary with Johnny Depp where he’s saying he was glad he never got to play Sal, because it would have been too much pressure,” says Riley. “I was thinking, ‘Brilliant, why are you showing me this?’” So what does he think audiences will make of a “skinny, pasty British man”, as Riley mockingly describes himself,
stepping into the boots of this holy cultural icon? “The M62 isn’t quite Route 66, is it?” he says with a smile, considering his experience of “the road” prior to filming Salles’s epic adventure. “Being an Englishman playing this character will raise a few eyebrows. But it works, because my character is supposed to be seeing all this for the first time. Kerouac’s background was French-Canadian, so he was kind of an outsider too. And I’m a Yorkshireman.”
The oldest of four children, Riley grew up in the small west Yorkshire village of Menston, son of a textile-worker father and nursery-teacher mother. He remembers pretending to be Lawrence of Arabia in his mother’s teatowel as a kid, but credits a turn in a school production of The Wizard of Oz as the Cowardly Lion, clad in skin-tight thermals with slippers on his hands, as cementing his desire to act. After stints at the National Youth Theatre and some television roles however, Riley took a detour to front Leeds band 10,000 Things. The scar on his chin, and a circular one in his palm (courtesy of a flaming sambuca), are both hangovers from his musician days, spent living with bandmates in a rat-infested Leeds flat and touring the north in an old bus; a period succinctly summed up by Riley as “too much ale and too much fighting”. A 2004 Guardian review described his onstage persona as “somewhere between Paul Calf and Bernard Manning... Riley is especially uncouth, unreconstructed, unrepentant and charming if your sense of humour appreciates The League of Gentlemen.” The group imploded when their eponymous first album came out to a withering 1/10 review in the NME and they were unceremoniously dropped by Polydor. “I learned a lot with the band,” Riley muses. “You spend years trying to get signed, you finally do, and you think, ‘Here we come!’ But it’s not that easy.” Relegated to making a living folding t-shirts in a warehouse, Riley gave his old acting agent a call. Soon after, he met with Corbijn and won the role of Ian Curtis on his 26th birthday.
At the time of Control’s triumphant release, journalists liked to paint it as Riley’s second shot at the big time – from rock star to screen god. But the lessons learned from his false start as a musician had hit home in a more profound way. “I realised you can’t believe the hype,” he says. Since Control, the actor has kept his private life low-profile, accepted interviews only occasionally – to promote 2008’s sci-fi Franklyn, with Eva Green, and his nasty, nuanced turn as flick-knife- wielding gangster Pinkie in the second adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (2010). He’s put 700 miles between himself and his native country, living – in comparison with his Leeds days – a relatively peaceful existence with Lara in a Charlottenburg apartment. “I’m happy there,” he shrugs. “It’s away from the business, which can be quite self-absorbed. I like to have a real life if I can.”
Riley was in Berlin when he got the call from Walter Salles in 2010. “He rang and said, ‘We’ve got the money, you’ve got the part, get yourself a dialect coach.’ I was straight into coaching sessions every morning on Skype, driving my wife mad with ‘ooos’ and ‘eees’ and ‘aaahs’.” Soon after, Riley and co-stars Garrett Hedlund (Dean Moriarty) and Kristen Stewart (Moriarty’s teenage bride, Marylou) found themselves in Montreal for a fourweek crash-course history lesson they christened “Beatnik Bootcamp”. They were educated in the differences between Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, watched films by John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke and read Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac aloud until they were hoarse, with occasional visits from surviving notables like Neal Cassady’s wife Carolyn and Beat author Michael McClure. “It was like studying beatnikology,” Riley says. “We turned up every day from nine to five at this apartment, watched films and listened to jazz, clicking our fingers, chain-smoking and wearing berets.”
Fully indoctrinated, the crew set off on a grueling five-month shoot, following the ribbons of tarmac across America with an instinctual spontaneity intended to reflect Kerouac’s own. “We didn’t stay still,” Riley remembers. “From sweaty, almost jungle-like Louisiana, to snowy mountains, to deserts... First Argentina and Chile, then Louisiana and New Orleans. Then we were meant to go to Mexico but there was a drug war going on where we were supposed to shoot, so we ended up in Arizona and Phoenix instead. Then southern Mexico, Calgary in Canada, back across to Montreal, finally wrapping in San Francisco.” They even shot in Kentwood, Britney Spears’s tiny Louisianian hometown, and her mum came out to watch. “She was pretty easy to spot,” Riley says. “She was the blond woman with fake everything.”
The resulting elegiac film captures all the majestic allure of the American landscape – dusty diners and gas stations hugging the roadside, sweaty jazz, sex and Benzedrinefuelled nights and gasoline-fumed days. When Kerouac and Cassady took off across America, they were challenging the complacency and conservatism of a post-war country where washing machines, Bakelite TVs and luxury cars were starting to roll off conveyor belts into a soon-to-be flourishing suburbia. In 1951, the year Kerouac wrote On the Road, racial segregation was still in place, anticommunist witch-hunts raged, Gene Kelly was shooting Singin’ in the Rain and Elizabeth Taylor was filing for her first divorce. The America Sam Riley and his co-stars encountered in 2010 was radically different, and yet, he says, a growing conservatism seemed to link the two eras. “The effects of the economic crisis could definitely be felt,” says Riley. “You saw a lot of areas with poverty, a lot of people on the streets.” Director Walter Salles felt the climate was right for the novel’s themes; rather than shoot a story caught in the amber of the past, he was inspired by youth movements springing up across the world, from Occupy to the Arab spring. “The Beats wanted to experience life in the flesh, not vicariously,” Salles said at On the Road’s Cannes premiere this year, “and that felt contemporary.” Viggo Mortensen, who cameos as a growling Old Bull Lee (ie William Burroughs), agreed: “The protest movements today carry the spirit of that time. There’s a similar rejection of conservatism. People are saying, ‘Well, why not do it? Why not say it?’ It’s a fitting moment for this film to come out.”
For Riley, On the Road has solidified an enviable reputation for embodying the souls of tortured, struggling artists. His intuitive performance (so far the only point critics can agree on) soaks up the visceral experiences of the road and pours them out in the final frames, as Sal pounds his typewriter in a tiny Queens apartment and spells out the future. “I do get a lot of scripts about suicidal artistic types with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths,” he nods, “and they’re great to play. But I think you have to mix it up a bit.” Which may be why, as an antidote to months spent conjuring the birth of counterculture, Riley is giving existentialism a rest and enjoying a more surreal role: the day after Dazed’s shoot, he’ll be onset with Angelina Jolie in fantasy movie Maleficent, which sounds closer to his childhood Wizard of Oz days. “It’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ from the perspective of the wicked witch, involving some fairly strange outfits and lots of prosthetics,” he explains with a smile. “It’s Disney, so quite different from the stuff I usually do...” He pauses, perhaps wondering if Kerouac would approve. “You know, it’s just really nice to do something where I don’t die or smoke for a change.”
Photography by Sean And Seng
Hair Syd Hayes at Premier using Bumble and Bumble
Make-up Gemma Smith-Edhouse
Set Design Robbie Doig for Dragon Fly Scenery at Patricia McMahon
Model Joan Smalls at IMG
Photographic Assistants Javier Villegas, Russell Higton
Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Shawana Grosvenor
Digital Operator Olivia Estebanez at Little Yellow Jacket
Production Sylvia Farago
Production Assistant Samantha Jourdan
This interview featured in the October issue of Dazed & Confused. ON THE ROAD is out now
Follow Robbie Spencer on Twitter here @RobbieSpencer