Sam Riley on Brighton Rock and His Arduous Trip On the Road
Back in 2007, Sam Riley burst on the scene with a starmaking performance in the critically acclaimed film Control. Poised to be the latest hot British import to invade U.S. shores, Riley followed Control up with two intriguing-on-paper titles -- Franklyn with Ryan Phillippe and Eva Green and 13 opposite Ray Winstone, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgaard. The rest, as they say, is history -- though maybe not the kind Riley initially envisioned.
Despite expectations, both films were little-seen flops that slowed down Riley's trainride to international stardom. Not that the actor was deterred. He took the role of Pinkie Brown in Rowan Joffe's updated adaptation of Graham Greene's famed '30s-set noir thriller Brighton Rock, as well as the potential part of a lifetime: Sal Paradise in the long, long, long gestating adaptation of On the Road opposite Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart.
Riley rang up Movieline from the garden of his home in rainy Berlin to discuss what led him to Brighton Rock (out Friday), how much pressure he felt to live up to the Sir Richard Attenborough-starring original film, and why he almost said no to On the Road.
You've had a very interesting career in a very short time; the big break with Control, then Franklyn and 13 -- two films that looked like possible hits on paper, but weren't. Did those experiences have anything to do with your decision to make Brighton Rock?
It was the last job that anyone was going to offer me, so I had to take it! [Laughs] I have some sort of internal manifest, but I don't really know what it is. If I'm lucky, I choose things. If someone wants me to do something, then -- I do things that I'm interested in, or that could be interesting or different from what I've done before. If it doesn't work out, then it doesn't work out. It's a bit of a shame. But I'm not kicking myself for saying yes to a turkey knowing it was going to be a stinky, cheesy piece of shit, and then wondering why everyone says it is, y'know? I'm picky, I guess.
In that regard, how did Brighton Rock come about? Was it one of those that you chose, or that someone wanted you to do?
They sent the script out to every male actor between the ages of 16 to 30. The usual routine. The stage that I am in my career, I'm certainly not phoning anyone up [to ask for roles]. I read it, and I knew the story, and it's a lead role, which is lucky -- an interesting thing for someone starting out. It's exciting. It was dangerous, which is good. And the people they were talking about being in it certainly made me very keen. Meeting Rowan sealed the deal. I thought this guy really knows Graham Greene back to front, and had an interesting twist on it, and it was like, 'Let's do it.'
Knowing the source novel is so beloved, and that the original film adaptation has such a reputation, did you have any moment of doubt about taking the role?
Do I want to play Pinkie Brown from Graham Greene's Brighton Rock? Of course I do. Shit, even if everyone is going to say Richard Attenborough [who played Pinkie in the original film] and that the original film is brilliant. It is. But, unfortunately -- it's a million times that these things happen. I'm too cocky, I guess. [Laughs] I wouldn't do Lawrence of Arabia again, but I thought not many people had seen Brighton Rock, the original. Obviously, everyone who is a movie critic who writes about movies, should and has seen the original. But I figured most people would be pretty unaware of it.
Plus, with the way Joffe updates the setting to the Mod Era, it separates things further from the film. Besides, you're really adapting the novel itself and not remaking the film.
That's what it is. We're certainly not doing a shot-for-shot thing, it's different. I don't remember Richard Attenborough calling anyone a cunt in the original. I don't know whether that made it into the final cut. It was different enough, and it was at a time when I was still eager to stay in the game. I was very grateful.
You mentioned before how you're picky. How do you reconcile that with wanting to "stay in the game"?
The first film I did came out in such the sort of wham-bam type way. The very first time I saw myself on a cinema screen was at the Cannes Film Festival with 600 people. As soon as we all left, we had a lot of smoke blown up our ass. It was very much, [affects French accent] easy to be a new star. I've been there before with a band, where people thought we might do well and we didn't, so I was quite wary. Also, I've always been fascinated by films, I've always watched how people progressed in their careers. How certain actors have a big break and then maybe desperately fill in with five films in one year; one, two turkeys after another, then two are quite good, and everyone is quite sick of you. Bish, bash, bosh, and it's all over.
There are times -- months or weeks -- where I think, 'Am I doing the right thing? I should maybe just work, for the sake of it. It's only me that gives a shit about the arc of my career, or the types of movies I choose. No one out there really gives two hoots.' I have an idea -- I owe it to the opportunity that came my way at 26, to be an actor, with such an incredible film, playing a part that all actors dream of playing, with a reception that some people work 20 years and are still searching for. I may work for another 30 and may never get that again. I'm fully aware of that. I want to work as long as I can still speak, and walk and move, and am capable of it. But I want to do it in my terms as well, to some extent. Which is cocky, I guess. I say no to things -- I question myself sometimes, but I usually know, 'No, I wouldn't want to see myself in this, I wouldn't want to go work and do this. I don't want to say these lines.'
You share the screen with both Helen Mirren and John Hurt in Brighton Rock, two acting greats who definitely do things in their own terms. Did you pick up anything from how they've managed their careers?
They do. And they've earned it as well. It's strange. I just said to someone else, when you're doing a scene with Helen Mirren or you're doing a scene with John Hurt, you're not allowed to think you're doing a scene with Helen Mirren or John Hurt. You don't think, 'My God, they're brilliant.' You know that, but I'm supposed to be intimidating these people, that's my thing. But you watch them in between; how they handle themselves in the canteen, or the way they have ideas about how their hair should be in the makeup trailer. Whether he'd like a handkerchief here, and why he wants a handkerchief here. And why Helen Mirren would like to carry this sort of bag and not that, and you think, 'Fuck, they think about everything.' It's fascinating. The way they behave to the crew, as well. All the ones who are really big and really good are as charming as anything with the people who make the films possible, the crew. It's the ones -- the exceptions are obviously there, I'm sure there are very difficult and very successful actors, but I don't want to be like that. When I worked with Ray Winstone, it's not so much that I learned from him -- I've watched his films, and I've soaked up as much as I can, as you soak up everything you're watching, crap and good -- but it's just the way he carries himself, that I admire or aspire to or something. To be that successful and cool would be great.
You're following Brighton Rock with another seminal literary classic, On the Road...
Rub it in, why don't you! Rub it in!
What led you to that film?
Walter Salles had seen Control, and I think he saw a lot of people -- every young guy who is interested in acting wanted a piece of this. I auditioned with Garrett Hedlund, who had already been given the part. It was three and a half years ago. It looked like it was gonna happen, then nothing. We didn't hear anything, it disappeared. Then, a year and a half ago, my agent rings me up and says, 'It's happening in two months, you're shooting for six months all across America. Start dialect sessions tomorrow; call the personal trainer, it's on.' You know, I almost felt like I didn't even have an opportunity to say, 'Well...' I was thinking these things: I wasn't sure, I was intimidated, I just got married, I didn't want to go away for six months. But, you know, it was just one of those crazy, lucky things that happened. It's a dream gig, on paper, for a young actor to play another iconic role in such a short career. The pressure is enormous on this one. As a cast we stuck together and tried to make it as free and fun as we could, without the weight of, 'Shit, Johnny Depp maybe played my part. And Brad Pitt. And Jack Kerouac really wanted Marlon Brando to play it.'
No one could ever get it made. The very first day of shooting, it pissed down so badly with rain that we couldn't shoot. It was like it was never meant to be. There were many other days like that in what was a very arduous shoot in many ways for everybody -- for Walter particularly, and for all those who were there for the full six months. It's a battle to get this done. But then it was a battle to get Apocalypse Now done, and Easy Rider, so... fingers crossed.