The actor talks about his slow rise to fame, his brief career as a rock star and his new film 13.
Sam Riley interview
It's 11am when Sam Riley mooches into the of lobby London's Dean Street Townhouse hotel. The 31-year-old Leeds native exudes that same mean and moody charisma he showed for his 2007 breakthrough role in Anton Corbijn's Control, when he played the tragic Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Perhaps it's the ink-black jeans and matching trench coat, or maybe it's the flick of brown hair and intense stare, but the air of a renegade rock star still clings to him. Little wonder he is often compared to Pete Doherty. "I get that a lot," he sighs.
Even before he played Curtis, Riley had his time as lead singer with the burgeoning band 10000 Things. Dubbed "Leeds' answer to Oasis", they played major rock festivals - including Reading - and it "was looking good for a while," he says, until, he explains, they got on the wrong side of an NME reviewer "who gave us a 1-out-10 review, which is one of the all-time worst - some sort of claim to fame, I guess." Dropped by their record label, Riley compares it to being shot. "There wasn't really a getting back up," he says. "I took that pretty hard and my parents were pretty concerned at that time."
It wasn't as if he could join the family business, either. Riley, the son of a textiles agent, and his family has been in the industry for three generations, gradually watching it decline in the face of stiff competition from India and China. Acting didn't offer any get-out clause either. Having started at school, he'd already failed an audition at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and was later told by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) that he was too young and inexperienced. By the time his music career imploded, he had little choice but to dig out a meagre living, working in pubs and warehouses. No wonder, then, when Control came along he grabbed at it, winning a clutch of best newcomer awards. Yet, aside from the sci-fi flop Franklyn, Riley has not been seen since. It felt like 10000 Things all over again.
"I've been told I'm going to be the next big thing and then… not," he shrugs. "In actual fact, the complete opposite happened." At least he's got strong support in the shape of his actress wife Alexandra Maria Lara, whom he first met on the set of Control. "She's been doing it for 15 years, so she's slightly more jaded, knows a lot more of the tricks. But [when Control did well] she said: 'Enjoy this. This could be a once in a lifetime experience.'"
Partly, Riley's absence from our screens has been out of his hands, due to the long delay regarding his latest film. Shot over two years ago, 13 is a US-set remake of the 2005 film 13 Tzameti, a cult black-and-white art house thriller from the French-Georgian writer-director Géla Babluani about a group who play Russian roulette. Relocated to Chicago, the retread is haunted by the spectre of the 2008 recession as Riley's character Vince is lured into the deadly game with a promise of easy money to pay off his family's mounting mortgage and medical bills.
Not unlike Michael Haneke's American retread of his own film Funny Games, 13 has the advantage over other US remakes in that it's been directed by its original creator Babluani, whose own father Temur is a prize-winning director himself. "His dad was there on set throughout the shooting," recalls Riley.
Riley is simply relieved the film is finally coming out. "All my family have seen it now because they bought it on pirate DVD," he sighs. "I'm still waiting to see it, two years later." So what has delayed the release? "I might be wrong, but I heard he [Babluani] kidnapped the movie. They tried to take it out of his hands and he was convinced that he was allowed final cut. I don't know how you do that."
While there are some elements that diminish the tension of the original (not least shooting in colour, rather than monochrome), Babluani has assembled a remarkable testosterone-fuelled cast around Riley - everyone from Jason Statham and Ray Winstone to Mickey Rourke, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and the former Hell's Angel Chuck Zito. It made for a mind-blowing experience for the unassuming Riley, in particular across the first month of the shoot, when all the Russian roulette scenes were filmed.
"I didn't say a single line for the first four weeks," grins Riley (presumably because the script dictated it, not because he was terrified of this batch of bruisers around him). "But that was fantastic. It was so intense, being around all those guys. I really love Ray. He took me under his wing a little bit. I'd never been to New York before, so he took me to some great places. And Mickey is exactly what you'd want him to be like. He's crackers. In a great way."
Since completing 13, Riley has shot two roles that look set to be equally as iconic as his turn as Ian Curtis. The first is as the scarfaced gangster Pinkie in a new adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. "I was just in heaven," he says. "Sharp suit, slick hair, scar on my face, flick-knife in my pocket." He followed that with bringing the beat-lit hero Sal Paradise to life in Walter Salles's take on Jack Kerouac's On The Road, a film that's been in development for more than three decades.
Talk about setting yourself up for a fall. "I ask for it really!" Riley laughs, but he points out that the pressure was never so intense as when he took on Joy Division and their brigade of hard-core fans. "I didn't get much abuse… but I thought that was pretty destined for failure at the time." It helps, he says, that he was never a major Joy Division fan. Nor had he seen the 1947 film version of Brighton Rock - in which Richard Attenborough gave a chilling portrayal of Pinkie - or read On The Road. "I think if I'd been more of a fanboy of these things, I'd have been more petrified."
He's only just returned from On The Road's gruelling five-month shoot when we meet, one that took him from Montreal to Patagonia, Arizona, New Orleans, Calgary and San Francisco. "It's been really nuts," he admits. "I'm still recovering." To play Paradise, a thinly veiled version of Kerouac, of course, preparation ranged from reading the book out loud with a dialect coach to attending a "beatnik boot camp" for four weeks before the shoot - where he'd be "doing press-ups while reciting Nietzsche and Thomas Wolfe".
Fortunately, it wasn't such an alien experience for Riley. He had spent his youth obsessed with joining the army - and even enrolled in the cadets, until he found the discipline a little too much. "Waking up in the morning, cleaning your boots and marching, it wasn't really for me. But I enjoyed the night exercises where you painted mud on and tried to crawl through a field without anyone seeing you. That's sort of to do with movies." Even then, it seems he was destined to fight his battles on screen.
13 opens in the UAE today.