Sam Riley: From Joy Division to Brighton Rock

He had a breakdown at school before cutting his teeth as Mark E Smith and making his name as Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Now Sam Riley is taking on Brighton Rock's psychotic Pinkie and Jack Kerouac's alter ego

It's a bright early January morning when I meet Sam Riley. Clad all in black, he marches into the lobby of London's Dean Street Townhouse hotel with a silver tankard in one hand, full to the brim with Guinness. "They keep this behind the bar every time I come," he grins. Not surprisingly for a former musician whose acting breakthrough came by playing Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in the sublime 2007 film Control, it is a very rock'n'roll entrance – until he explains why. "I get a bit nervous before these things," he reasons, "so I thought I'd have a quick pint."

It is this sort of admission that immediately makes you warm towards the Leeds-born actor. Rowan Joffe, the director of Riley's latest film, an evocative new adaptation of Graham Greene's seaside gangster novel Brighton Rock, compares him to an "errant schoolboy" – both wicked and vulnerable. True, but there is also an intensity to him, as anyone who witnessed his trance-like transformation into Curtis could see. Joffe pays tribute to Riley's "devilishly good looks" – but that really doesn't quite capture his essence. He's no square-jawed silver-screen idol. Rather, he boasts a brooding quality that seeps from his very being, from his dark-brown eyes to the strands of hair that angrily slash their way across his forehead.

When we meet, just a few days before he turns 31, Riley is over from Berlin, where he now lives with his German actress wife Alexandra Maria Lara. He met and fell in love with her on the set of Control, when she was cast as Curtis's lover, Annik Honoré. That can't have been easy, I suggest. "Although it was wonderful, it was also very difficult, because it wasn't all that simple at the time," he reflects. Despite their growing chemistry spilling over on to the screen, it left him apprehensive. "I wasn't thinking, 'This is fantastic for my portrayal.' I was genuinely concerned as to what might happen."

What did happen was marriage in the summer of 2009, coming on the back of a heap of praise for his searing turn as Curtis, which included a Bafta Rising Star nomination. What didn't happen was a subsequent rise to major-league stardom. "I still couldn't get a job for a while," he says. "Despite the accolades, I was quite a long way down the food chain as far as getting more lead roles." He made sci-fi effort Franklyn, which flopped, and 13 – a US remake of the 2005 Georgian film about a gang of Russian-roulette players – which is still unreleased after becoming mired in post-production problems.

"I'd been told I was going to be the next big thing," he shrugs. "But in actual fact, the complete opposite happened." His wife – who has had her own post-Control highs, working with Francis Ford Coppola (on 2007's Youth Without Youth) and Spike Lee (2008's Miracle at St Anna) – had already warned him this might happen. "She's been doing it for 15 years, so she's slightly more jaded," he says. "When Control came out, she said, 'Enjoy this. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.' And, of course, for some people, it's a never-in-a-lifetime experience as an actor, to go to Cannes [where the film made its bow] and win prizes." Yet, being lauded in this way must have left him feeling jittery, if only because he'd been there before.

Back in his early twenties, Riley's ambitions lay in a very different direction. He was the lead singer of fledgling rock band 10,000 Things. They played Reading and the V Festival and were billed as Leeds' answer to Oasis – "although we didn't sound anything like them". "We were on the cusp of something, but then we managed to piss off somebody at the NME who had been touting us for a while. I don't know what we did, but we weren't the best-behaved band on tour, so that might have had something to do with it." With their album given 1/10 by their nemesis critic, "the label pulled the plug immediately" and their dreams of rock stardom were swiftly crushed. It was a devastating blow. "I took that pretty hard and my parents were pretty concerned," he recalls. And not for the first time...

The son of a textile agent and a nursery-school teacher, Riley grew up loving cinema. "My father showed me a lot of movies that he loved when he was young, and I've always been a big film fan. I always took games when I was a child slightly more seriously than my friends, getting into character, so maybe that was a hint." For a while, he wanted to be in the Army, even joining the local cadets and spending all his pocket money on camouflage make-up. "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."

It was clear where he was heading. During his early years – he attended the private boarding school Uppingham, following a family tradition that stretched back to his grandfather, who later owned a textile mill – Riley got a taste for acting after a fortnight spell with the National Youth Theatre during one summer holiday. But he was prevented from taking it further.

"I had a big falling out with the drama teacher, who refused to give me any references for the drama colleges. He told me that I wasn't in a fit mental state." Partly this had come from a mini-breakdown he had suffered in the wake of performing in a school production of Nicholas Nickleby – when Riley felt he'd been left to carry the play on his own.

While he did eventually pluck up the courage to apply, he fluffed his lines at an audition for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and was later told by Rada that he was too young and inexperienced. Even when he did get his foot in the door, things seemed to go wrong. He was cut out of Michael Winterbottom's Manchester music scene comedy 24 Hour Party People, in which he briefly played The Fall's Mark E Smith (while no doubt watching Sean Harris play Ian Curtis in the film's first half). By the time 10,000 Things imploded, Riley was left to lick his wounds, scratching out a living working in pubs and warehouses.

So it's no surprise that when Control came along, Riley grabbed at it with both hands. It meant performing Joy Division songs live in front of dozens of extras made up of hardcore fans – an exercise he felt "was pretty destined for failure". Yet there was no way he could refuse such a challenge. "I was in no position to say, 'I'm not sure.' So I sort of had to do it."

He felt the same way about Brighton Rock, which is just as daunting as Control in its own way. Taking on the role of scar-faced seaside gang leader Pinkie, Riley is inviting comparisons with the venerable Richard Attenborough, who played the character in the 1947 original when he was just 24. Yet, as with his turn as Curtis, Riley showed no fear. As it happens, he only saw Attenborough's menacing turn when his grandmother sent him a DVD copy of the film that came free with a Sunday newspaper – "So I didn't hold the film in such reverence that I didn't think I could do it." Rather, his only doubts related to the time period – Joffe relocating the story to 1964, with its backdrop of seaside brawls between mods and rockers. "Pinkie wouldn't be in a gang like that," says Riley, "so I was anxious about that when I first read it. I thought, 'Oh, it'll be Quadrophenia or something.'" Yet Joffe put his mind at ease, and Riley signed on. He learnt to ride a scooter and even to pick pockets. "I was just in heaven," he says. "A sharp suit, slick hair, scar on my face and a flick knife in my pocket." On his first day, he slashed John Hurt in the face with it. "I was like, 'This is it! I've arrived!' It's great fun to play being so awful."

Perhaps less chilling than Attenborough's portrayal, Riley's take on Pinkie is more troubled, less psychotic. "He's misguided. Unloved. And he's really unsure." He's uncertain whether Pinkie loves Rose (Andrea Riseborough), the waitress he becomes embroiled with, as Joffe suggested to him. "That idea of contact with the opposite sex is really revolting to him."

From one classic book to another, Riley has just finished work on Walter Salles's long-awaited adaptation of Jack Kerouac's Beat bible On the Road. Ian Curtis, Pinkie and now Sal Paradise, the book's Kerouac alter ego – Riley is not one to shirk a challenge and it could even be said that the book's line "The only people for me are the mad ones" was written for him. "I ask for it, really!" he grins.

"There's a cheekiness to Sam and he hasn't lost that," says Joffe. "It's not cockiness. He's not an actor who lacks self-doubt or humility. And he's not an actor who takes on these iconic roles because he's too confident or too stupid to realise he might fail. But I think it's a cheekiness that is the equivalent of saying, 'I might get away with this and if I don't, I'll have fun trying.'"

Not that On the Road sounded like fun exactly. Before a gruelling five-month shoot that took him from Montreal to Patagonia, Arizona, New Orleans, Calgary and San Francisco, he spent four weeks in "beatnik bootcamp" – "doing press-ups while reciting Nietzsche and Thomas Wolfe. It was very odd." He also hung out with Kerouac experts. "We had this guy who is this biographer of Kerouac who within the first few minutes said [putting on a convincingly whiny US accent], 'You're awful tall to play Kerouac! And you're British? And you don't have the right colour eyes!' So I said, 'Well, what brand of cigarettes did he smoke? I'll get one thing right!'"

It didn't help that Salles had previously made a documentary about the history of On the Road and the many failed attempts to bring it to the big screen. On Riley's first day, Salles sat him down and showed him a DVD of the film – which includes footage of the open auditions Francis Ford Coppola held in the 1990s when he was trying to launch his version. "It was going to be Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt," he explains, "and Johnny Depp is saying, 'I'm glad I didn't do it. There would be too much pressure.' And I'm thinking, 'Too much pressure for him! Why are you playing this to us Walter? What are you doing?'"

Left to absorb this pressure, just as he did on Control and Brighton Rock, he was also away from his wife for the longest period since they'd been married. How did he cope? "It was horrible, especially when you're in a desert that doesn't have phone signal for 12 hours. You can see how so many relationships [in the film industry] tank. You have to make rules to try to not let it be longer than three weeks [before you see each other again] if you can. But that's not always possible." Neither is interested in making back-to-back movies, he says, which at least allows their young marriage to flourish. Indeed, Riley has made just five films in total.

"I'm a bit fussy. She's a bit fussy. And if you live fairly frugally, you can get by. I don't think we lead a flash lifestyle. I didn't do a lot of work in the years after Control. I've done one film every year since. I haven't gone nuts on it." Yet, given in three of those films he has played iconic characters most actors would kill for, it's a patience game that has stood him in good stead. So, if once he was the Next Big Thing, what is he now? "Now I'm not really anything, I guess," he says. "I'm just still somehow landing juicy parts."

'Brighton Rock' (15) opens on Friday

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