Interview with Sam Riley for Jack Kerouac’s On The Road & Neil Jordan’s Byzantium
This is another biographical film; did you feel as though it was a continuation from Control?
Sam Riley: There are elements of it that are similar. It’s another one, playing someone who is loved around the world; idealised in some way I think. No pressure, again!
Did this familiarity help you?
SR: Maybe. I wasn’t really aware of that. I didn’t think that. The thing was with Control that I didn’t have anything to lose then. I was working in a warehouse in Leeds and pulling pints in pubs so if I fucked it up it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because at least I was earning a little bit more money and had an opportunity to do something different. This time, if I messed this one up I would have to do different types of films to earn my living or something like that. More pressure this time!
Do you still feel pressure at this stage in your career?
SR: Yes. There is always the anxiety that the phone will stop ringing. After shooting On The Road I didn’t work for 12 months, it wasn’t only out of choice either. The first few months I didn’t want to do anything; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do anything ever again, but then I wanted to find work and I struggled to find work that I wanted to be involved with. There was pressure with this part because they have been wanting to make it into a film since it came out as a book, almost. Many great actors have nearly played my part. To be honest, when I first auditioned for it and met Garrett and everything, the audition went… They didn’t say I hadn’t got the part, but then they said the money wasn’t there and they couldn’t make the movie and I was quite grateful that I wasn’t going to have to do it, that I wasn’t going to have to take that risk.
Does playing such a strong emotional role take a toll on you?
SR: Sometimes it does, sometimes. When you are playing Ian or Jack or Sal or a mix of the two things, you try and do as much homework as you can to sound like them or dress like them or whatever, but at the end of the day, if we are doing a scene together I will try and listen to you honestly and speak to you honestly and I am not thinking about Jack or Ian in those moments. You are trying to be realistic. If you pretend that your father’s died or whatever, you try and feel what that would be like, and that can be upsetting. It’s nothing close, but its straining sometimes.
How challenging is it to play a biographical role?
SR: In a way I have been quite lucky with the two people I have had to play that really existed in life because with Ian Curtis there is only a limited amount of footage with him playing live, so that was an element that I had to try and achieve, but there were no recordings of him talking so I was free to have the accent of his, but no-one knows how he walked or things like that. If you play somebody like Lennon or something, then every one of us knows how he walked, how he talked, how he looked… And with Kerouac it’s the same; there are a lot of recordings of his voice, there is less material of him… and it is all 10 years after the time where this is set. Most of the footage of all of these guys is once they are already established; this is about the formative era of these characters.
What was your first impression when you read On The Road?
SR: I didn’t read it as a schoolboy. I had a lot of friends who read it and they all went off travelling after reading it, but for some reason it just passed me by; it was not one of those that I did read. I read other classic young men books like Catcher in the Rye and things like that but never this one. The first time I read it was when I knew I was going to New York to meet Garrett and Walter, so in a way for me it was spoiled, because I was reading it thinking; ‘Oh my god, I am going to have to play this!’ rather than just ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be amazing to travel and be that free?’ I was also a bit older; I had travelled and been free. I can understand the attraction, especially at that time. When my friends read it, we were trapped in a school and it was intoxicating; just being able to decide when to go to bed, rather than being told seemed like a great leap of freedom.
The story is about creative freedom, so how much freedom do you need as an actor?
SR: For me, if I am not given a schedule then I am most likely to do nothing, so I need to be corralled into doing things. I think you need to be free from the burden of distraction when you are doing these types of parts in films. In order to write you need that as well.
How did you prepare to play a writer?
SR: We knew, from the experts that came to talk to us, that he always had these notebooks in his top pocket and a pen, so that if any ideas came to him he would be able to write them down. In these moments, Walter wanted me to write; he would call out things when the camera was rolling. He would say ‘Now, I want you to write about the back of the truck, write about something’ so that my facial expression would change, depending on whether I was writing a happy memory or a sad one. He was very keen that I didn’t just doodle. I am dyslexic though, so my spelling is terrible and I was very bad at the typewriter. Even if they had asked me to write ‘Sam Riley, Sam Riley, Sam Riley’ I would have forgotten how to spell it after two attempts, so that was quite a challenge.
Did the idea of playing Jack Kerouac scare you?
SR: I knew what I was getting myself into. I was aware from the beginning; ‘They want to do On The Road, that could go either way’ and I knew it would raise a few eyebrows that they hired a British actor to play an American icon, but I couldn’t say no.
Do you think it is necessary to be unfaithful to the book in order to adapt it?
SR: I think Walter made a definite decision to not try and fit every scene from the book into the film. That will upset purists, but you are bound to upset purists in one way or another, even if its just ‘He never wore shirts like that’ or whatever. People are quite sensitive if they are big fans. There are lots of scenes that we shot that aren’t in the movie. I remember the first time I watched it, I remembered the three hours that didn’t make it, but he wanted us to somehow find an essence of things as well, not just the reality of Kerouac. I am a bit freer because I am Sal Paradise instead of playing Jack Kerouac and also the idea of the loose and flowing way of the writing and the music of the time; with our improvisation – the dialogue is not necessarily in the book, but it’s something that’s spontaneous – and that’s what the style is all about. In a way it’s not a film of the book, it’s a film about the guy who write the book and the journey before writing the book. I think that’s sort of what Walter wanted.
Were you aware of Walter Salles’ previous work before you met him?
SR: I had seen The Motorcycle Diaries and Linha de Passe. My wife was on the Jury at Cannes the year the actress won. My wife and I love that film so I was aware of his work. Also, for me, he is one of the most experience directors I have ever worked with. I have worked, quite often, with first time directors. I was very excited to work with someone that impressive.
Can you talk about the relationship between Dean and Sal, because they weren’t just friends, they seem to have been more…
SR: They are supposed to have had a sexual relationship with one another as well; although I think Dean would have sex with anything [laughs] It’s a strange mixture of admiration, jealousy, competition, genuine love and friendship. It’s a strange, complex mix of these things; they each have things that the other one doesn’t, they each admire qualities in one another that the other isn’t capable of. They shared women… Yeah I think there is a weird competitiveness to it as well.
On The Road was shot in many different places. What was that like?
SR: It was fascinating for me. I had only ever really been in New York and Los Angeles, doing press so I didn’t know the country. I was experiencing and finding out about America as we were going along, which is kind of like my character. It’s a fascinating country. It’s huge! It’s so different everywhere you go. The characteristics of different people in different places… It’s exhausting, travelling. You just about get used to somewhere and you go somewhere else. We really went everywhere as well; we started in Montreal, then we went to Argentina because there was real snow and Walter wanted real snow. Then we went to Louisiana. We were meant to go from there to Mexico but Mexico was too dangerous so we went to Arizona, which was never meant to happen. Then Mexico, then back to the other side of Canada, then San Fransisco at the end. Unless I do a Bond film or something, I don’t think I will ever be able to go to so many different locations… It’s just unheard of really! Especially for a low budget film, it’s just incredible. For me, when I watch the film, one of the beautiful things for me when I watch the film is, how different each place looks.
You have played two iconic people on screen. Is there anyone else you would like to play?
SR: Yeah, there is one guy who I would like to play; there is a snooker player called Alex Higgins. I am not a huge snooker player or anything, but he is fascinating. When he arrived, snooker was all very staid and serious and this guy was a little Irish man who was a genius. He could just come and knock the balls in really fast. He was an alcoholic. I would like to play him; the Hurricane Higgins.
Did working on the film inspire you to write?
SR: I used to write lyrics; I was a songwriter before doing this job, so I know a little bit about that type of thing. I have thought, especially during the 12 months of not working, that maybe I should write something myself and then at least I can create work for myself, and I am still thinking about that sort of idea.
… A novel?
SR: No I am not talented enough to do something like that. A film would be more… Or maybe songs… When I watch bands singing I get jealous that I am not doing it any more, but at the same time, I can just about handle the amount of the public being aware of me. I know I am sort of on a fairly low level at the moment, but if I then threw music in as well – so I do songs and I sing and make music videos – I think that would be too much. I would be bored of myself and I would be out there too much. I like doing one job a year if I can, if I am lucky, and coming out from my little hole to do these things and then disappearing again.
Is there an equivalent of writer’s block for actors?
SR: Yeah there is! But instead of staring at a typewriter, you have 30 people staring at you with a camera rolling. I find there are periods of time where no one will hire me, and that’s the equivalent for me, or reading scripts and thinking ‘I don’t want to do that, I can’t believe no-one has any good ideas…’
Does that scare you?
SR: It’s a part of the job; reading scripts and saying no to things. It’s just as important what you say no to as what you say yes to in a weird way. All of these elements are being an actor… One of the lucky actors there gets to work anyway; here aren’t many of us who are fortunate enough to be in this position.
What makes you say Yes or No?
SR: Instinct really. If someone sent me a script now to play a writer or a singer or a psychotic gangster I would probably say no. It’s also about trying to find some variety and something that I might like to watch myself, or if there is a director that I admire, or if there are actors attached that I would love to work with… But a lot of the times you don’t make it past 10 pages, like when you watch a film sometimes; you start it and you think ‘Oh I know what’s going to happen’. I enjoy watching all kinds of cinema; not only three hour long, black and white, intellectual things [laughs] but I would love to kick doors down and machine gun people. I really would. [laughs]
So many actors are working on stage at the moment, like Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Garfield. Do you have any desire to act on stage?
SR: I think they all came from that kind of background; they went to stage school. I did it when I was at school and I was in a play in London when I was 19. I wrote a play, which was at the Edinburgh Festival when I was 17. The problem with being on the stage for me is that it ruins my life. I get so nervous before going on stage that when I did it I would wake up in the morning, and as soon as I woke up I would think ‘Tonight, I have to go on stage’ and I would make myself more and more and more upset about doing it that I would be physically sick before doing it. I used to do that when I was a singer as well; if there was a big audience I would definitely puke. Then I would do the play, and when I am on stage I love it; I am a show off, it feels great. Afterwards I can’t sleep because I am buzzing, then I wake up in the morning and go ‘Oh god I’ve got to do it again’! It was awful; I didn’t like it. Also, I get bored of doing the same thing every night; I have a short attention span.
Can you tell us about Neil Jordan’s Byzantium?
SR: It’s sort of a vampire story, although Neil wouldn’t want me to say that. It’s about immortality. I play a very small role in it; the film is really Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton’s, and I just sort of fit in… But I have got the right complexion for it! [laughs]
Words – Brogen Hayes On The Road is now showing in Irish cinemas