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

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project