Sam Riley: when I heard you’d been cast in Maleficent, a live-action retelling of the 1959 Disney cartoon Sleeping Beauty, I thought… “You thought,” Riley interrupts, “I would have been playing Prince Charming. Surely.”
Well, yeah. Riley might be 34, and seven years removed from a name-making acting debut in Control, the Joy Division biopic in which he starred as Ian Curtis; he might be a very new father who, on the morning of our interview, also happens to be hungover after a big night out. But with his Burberry-contracted good looks (boyish, beardless) he still looks very young. Teen-friendly. A plausible Prince Charming in a Disney film, I reckon.
“I don’t think I have the teeth,” Riley says sadly, opening his mouth to show a crowded lower deck. He explains that in Maleficent he plays a henchman, servant to the wicked witch of the title, played by Angelina Jolie. “I’m her lackey,” Riley says, “her gobshite.”
The film is called Maleficent, by the way, and not Sleeping Beauty because of a shift in focus on to Jolie’s character. A $200m kids’ film, its 3D effects still being tweaked some two years after Riley filmed his scenes, it isn’t quite like anything the Yorkshire-born actor has made before. To date he’s tended to appear as frowning thinkers, handsome and nicotine-bathed and doomed: Curtis in Control, Pinkie in an adaptation of Brighton Rock (2010), Sal Paradise in an adaptation of On the Road (2012). In the new film, says Riley, “I don’t smoke, or die, or have sex with anyone. So it’s kind of new ground.”
Why this job, why now? “I audition just to remind people that I still exist sometimes. I have to do it occasionally, otherwise the casting directors forget who you are. That’s what my agent tells me anyway. I liked the sound of the part, it sounded fun. And obviously working with Angelina was an attractive proposition. Now I’m a father, it’s nice to think my son’ll be able to see something I’ve done before he’s 18.”
It was curiosity too, Riley says. “What’s it like to do a movie of this scale? They took over seven or eight studios at Pinewood. Usually you walk from the trailer to the set, but here it was golf buggies. I had to wear a net over my head in case anyone was watching. You know, secrecy and that. I looked like Michael Jackson going shopping.”
This actor has an appealing unruly streak. Every so often – as we sit in a part of a London hotel that has been taken over by Disney, for the purposes of promoting their expensive new film – Riley looks over his shoulder, in case he should be overheard saying something wrong. For instance, calling his character in a Disney film a “gobshite”, or for having to fudge details of the narrative. “When she’s 16, obviously, she’s put in the… uh, the sleep, the sleepy thing,” is his outline of the Sleeping Beauty plotline.
He is carefully respectful of his co-star, several rungs higher on the fame ladder. Jolie tends to be referred to, with muted voice, as “her” or “she”, as if she might be listening for her name on the other side of the door. “All my scenes are with her,” says Riley. “We bicker and banter like an old married couple. It came very naturally to both of us – she’s always bickering with Brad, I imagine. She’s really good fun. That always sounds like a lot of bollocks, doesn’t it? But right from the get-go she was a very approachable and kind and nice colleague to have.”
One day during shooting, Riley says, his parents visited him on the Pinewood set. He took them by golf buggy to meet Jolie, and they were “uber-charmed,” Riley says. “They floated back to Leeds…”
He grew up there, in Leeds, a public schoolboy who liked The Jungle Book and James Bond and who for a while wanted to join the military. “The sorts of schools I went to kind of encouraged it. I mean, I had a picture above my bed of Colonel H Jones. He was the paratrooper from the Falklands war who died in a hail of bullets. Which at the time seemed like an incredibly romantic idea.”
The interest in being a soldier waned under the nervous dissuasion of his parents; also when Riley “realised how much marching was involved”. He began to tell people he’d like to be either an actor or a singer. After school he formed a band, called 10,000 Things, who were signed by Polydor and supported the Libertines on tour. They released an album that caught an awful review in the NME, a zero out of 10, and were dropped by their label. Riley refers to 10,000 Things now as a “pub rock band”.
Was that all they were? “We were a very good pub rock band. But if you never break into stadiums… We played some festivals. We were always on as people were walking in.”
After the band fell apart, Riley floundered for a while. He worked in a clothing warehouse and a bar; a low came when he had to serve the Kaiser Chiefs, a rival band from Leeds, their drinks. He had done some acting for TV over the years and now he called up his agent to see if there were any parts going. One of the first auditions he went to was for Control.
Photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn had been considering the Irish actor Cillian Murphy for the lead role of Ian Curtis in the biopic, finally deciding that Murphy was too short. Riley, 6ft, auditioned for Corbijn in Manchester. Not long removed from his life as a frontman, Riley thinks he brought with him the authenticity of six years’ gigging, recording, mic‑hugging, hoping…
“So weird, how perfect it was. I grew up 40 miles away [from Macclesfield, Curtis’s home town]. I’d been a singer. I understood what his dreams were.”
When Control premiered at Cannes in 2007, Riley heard the standing ovation in the Palais des Festivals and “knew I’d jumped up the food chain. I’d skipped The Bill – all the stuff that proper actors have to do. Just one of those lucky things.”
A double lucky thing, I suggest, because it was on the set of Control that Riley met his wife, the German actor Alexandra Maria Lara. Is he a “what if-er”? What if Cillian Murphy were a few inches taller? What if another actress had been cast opposite him? “Alexandra and I do think about it, especially now we’ve got our son. How insane it was. Anton had taken a photo of her five years before casting the film, and then remembered her and thought about her to play the part [of Curtis’s mistress, Annik Honore]. What are the chances?
Riley and Lara have since worked on more movies together. While filming the most recent, Suite Française, an adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s novel that’s due out this year, she was pregnant. The couple’s son, Ben, was born in January. “I remember when we took him home,” says Riley. “The first night we were asking ourselves, ‘How are they letting us do this on our own… Where are the police?'”
The adjustments of new fatherhood – the nappies, the nights, the sudden shifts in priority – keep catching him by surprise. Last week, Riley travelled by plane for the first time in a while. “It used to be I fell asleep the second I got on. They can wake me up when I get there, you know? But this time, I caught myself saying a little prayer as we took off.”
With Harvey Weinstein backing it, and a potent cast that includes Kristin Scott Thomas and Michelle Williams, Suite Française looks a promising project. Honestly, Riley could probably do with appearing in a film that everyone agrees is good. His work, since Control, has tended to divide. That 2010 rejig of Brighton Rock got some OK notices but came and went, no impact. I thought On the Road was a far more lively and effective adaptation of a difficult novel than most stingy reviewers made out. (Riley: “I’m glad you liked it. I don’t meet many people who say they do.”) At the small-print end of his CV, Riley starred in a 2010 thriller called 13 that had such a minimal release the actor himself had to watch it on a pirated DVD, sourced in a Leeds pub. Last year he shot a European film in which he played a German cowboy; it awaits an English language release. Control, seven years on, remains the calling-card work.
“She’d seen Control,” says Riley, referring in that oblique way, again, to Jolie. “Brad told me he liked it. Control gave me a career and I’ve got just about every job since thanks to it. Which is weird, because it still feels to me like a small movie. It wasn’t a blockbuster. People don’t recognise me in the street.”
Adverts for Maleficent, he says, have already started popping up on the telly a good month before the film’s release at the end of May, something he’s never experienced before. With all the might of Disney’s backing, it has a potentially massive audience. “I’m proud of all of my films. But it’s going to be fun being in a film that people might actually go and watch.”
Riley and his wife have lived in Berlin for several years, a city in which he can go completely unnoticed, he says. Having a low profile as an actor is a good thing and a bad thing, he says. Good for the ease of day-to-day existence. Bad for jobs. “It’s two-way. You need people to recognise you in the sense that you want the producers of films to have the perception that you are recognisable. Then you maybe have more chance to get the good parts. But as a person…”
Riley wheezes. It might be a muffled laugh, or a sigh, or just that hangover, catching up with him. Either way I appreciate his honesty when he says: “It’s ironic. I spent years as a musician, desperate to be famous. And then the second that it came close, I thought: ‘What the fuck have I been thinking? What a stupid idea.’ You know, I need it [recognition]. My ego wants it to some extent. But the adult in me? Absolutely no interest.”
Maleficent is out on Wednesday
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.
- Eight Anime Films Worth Watching That Aren’t By Studio Ghibli
- Conan O'Brien Makes Fun Of People Who Hate Spoilers
- Over 1 Million People Watched A Group Of YouTubers Playing
- Director Coralie Fargeat on Playing With Film Clichés and the Artistic Power of Blood
- An Interview With The New Hosts Of
- Chloë Sevigny on the Whiteness of Film, Sensitive Horses, and Why It's Hard for Her to Lie
- Asia Argento on Her Film
- A Conversation With Andie MacDowell on the Messiness of Grief in Her Film
- Watch a Patriarchy Crumble in
- An Interview With Céline Sciamma, Director of
- brought guns, gimps, and glory to the Cannes Film Festival
- 'I Love to See Men Cry': Interview With Jill Freedman, Street Photographer of the '70s and '80s
- Stephen Colbert Interviews Pewdiepie, Nails It
- Bruce Jenner: 'Do You Have Any Idea What I've Been Going Through?'
- Hell Yes, The BMW Films Are Coming Back
- John Mayer Is Disturbingly Obsessed With Watches
- Networks Are Trying to Deal With Your Love for Binge-Watching
- This Study Is Trying to Ruin Your Precious Binge Watching
- Watch Pokemon Go videos all day, every day
- Sorry To Bother You director Boots Riley on the genius of Armie Hammer
Sam Riley interview: 'It's going to be fun being in a film people might watch' have 2061 words, post on www.theguardian.com at May 24, 2014. This is cached page on Business News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.