You may have seen Sam Riley and not even know it. After all, the husky-voiced Brit tends to disappear into roles thoroughly, never using his own accent on film and thoroughly inhabiting his characters. This is the case with Riley's latest film, "On the Road."
Directed by Brazilian Walter Salles, the film is finally reaching U.S. audiences after decades of starts and stops, green lights and financial failures. Jack Kerouac himself wrote that he wanted to see his novel made into a movie in the late '50s, and now audiences are finally being treated to a film adaptation of one of the most iconic American novels of all time.
The pressure was on for Riley, who plays Sal Paradise, Kerouac's literary stand-in. Riley sat down with Film.com in New York City ahead of the theatrical release of "On the Road" to talk about chain-smoking, disappointing auditions, his road trip soundtrack and co-star Kristen Stewart.
It must be a huge relief to have "On the Road" finally coming out in the U.S., since you've been connected to the project since 2007.
I met [director] Walter [Salles] in 2007 and then auditioned later that year, I think, but they never told me I got the part. I had the feeling they wanted me to do it, but then before anything formal was offered or anything, it then disappeared again. One of the ways I protect myself in this business is that if it's not happening then I try not to think about it anymore, because that sort of thing happens, you know, you go out for castings or auditions, and if you don't hear, then you sort of think, "Well, f**k you!" and onto the next. Then they phoned me and said "It's going to happen in three months." I hadn't heard anything before then!
It was a huge surprise. I was in a way almost sort of relieved when it didn't happen the first time, because I joined a very illustrious list of nearly-Sals. Which I was quite happy with, I would have been ok to leave it at that to some extent without having to put myself through it somehow.
But you're not a nearly-Sal!
There have been so many people mentioned, and me in between. I don't know, I'm very honored. I can't believe my luck, really. It was like my fourth film or something and I get to play — first I got to play a British icon, Ian Curtis, and then I get to play Jack Kerouac. I mean, yeah, I'll do that! I feel very honored.
Did you ever doubt that it would happen?
Oh yeah, I mean, as I said, at one point it was going to happen and then it wasn't. It seemed to have been so jinxed in the past, it kinda felt like, even if we were halfway through shooting, I sort of had this anxiety that something might stop it from happening. The very first shooting day, Tom [Sturridge], who plays Carlo Marx, we arrived on-set and it was my father's funeral, which I don't think is in the American cut, and we shot all morning. It was all going very well and then the skies went black and it started raining and so everything that we'd done was useless. We were sitting in our trailer, Tom and I, just thinking, this isn't going to happen, is it? It's Ginsberg and Kerouac pissing on us because they don't want two limeys to play them!
I'm an optimistic person, but in other ways I'm always waiting — when you're as lucky as I have been the last few years, you're always waiting for it to kinda go tits up, as they say.
Like you said, you're British. Did you have any qualms about portraying this great American author in a quintessential American story?
Well, I mean, America's a country of immigrants as well. Jack [Kerouac] didn't speak English until he was four or five. Of course, like anybody else, I thought OK, they want a Yorkshireman to play Jack Kerouac, I'll do that. I never have used my own accent in any of the films I've done so far. I'd love to one day. That's a big challenge [using an American accent], because I didn't want to spoil it for people that it means so much to by being obviously English. Like, "No, that word doesn't sound right!"
Kristen Stewart, who plays Marylou in "On the Road," is kind of an indie actress who happened to be in a big franchise with "Twilight." You've done smaller movies so far as well. Do you hope to make the leap to bigger productions?
Yeah, it depends what it was. I just did a big film this year with Angelina Jolie, "Maleficent." That's my first foray into that sort of thing. I really enjoyed it, because it's very different, and to work with her is pretty cool, obviously. And I was playing something a bit more lighthearted, I was the comic relief. And normally I'm the chain-smoking, lost in thought, brooding. I enjoyed that. Yeah, I'm not a snob, and I enjoy all sorts of — I don't only watch Jean Luc Godard films.
While chain-smoking, right?
I'm hoping to quit very soon. But yeah, exactly. I sit there, reading French poetry. I'm sure I would do larger films, if it was the right thing, but I don't think I'm the first on the list when they're thinking of Superman. Maybe not yet.
Were you worried at all that Kristen's personal drama might impact the release of "On the Road" and how people perceived it?
No. I don't really think that. Um, no. I mean I was more worried for a friend. You know, I don't really care. That's difficult to say, really. You say anything about that subject you're sort of feeding the beast. But no, I didn't think about that at all.
When did you first read "On the Road"?
Later than all the others. I had friends that read it at school and all that, but it just passed me by. I sort of, I don't really know. I read "Catcher in the Rye" and things like that, but I didn't read "On the Road" until they sent me the script. You sort of feel like you've read it when you haven't. But then I read it and yeah, I was a bit older. I loved it but I was thinking all the time while I was reading it, "How am I going to do this?" or "How am I going to play that?" Things like that.
Was it difficult at all for you to wrap your head around playing both Sal and Kerouac in the same character?
That's it, from the young man into then what everybody remembers him being. It was confusing sometimes, because I relied very much on being Sal sometimes instead of Jack, because it's less of a burden on me psychologically than if I'm thinking I'm Jack Kerouac all the time. I listened very much to his voice and about his life and things like that, but I was more focused on him then as a young man, before the alcoholism and the fame and the Beat god and all that.
Is it different reading the book knowing you're going to be making a movie of it? Did you enjoy it less?
Yeah, certainly for me, I enjoyed the story but I was sort of thinking how the hell am I going to do it. It helped me enormously, because you're very much him when you're reading it, so you really feel like you understand what he's feeling and thinking. As an actor it was very helpful to get in his mind and hit the mark.
The buzz around this movie is huge. Do you ever Google yourself?
I have done. But it's a weird thing. It's not very healthy. But it's human nature to be interested in it — you know, you mainly do the job for the enjoyment of the playing and the discovery of trying to make something real, but of course it's nice if people enjoy it as well and if someone says good job. But then, that sort of side of it, fame and things like that, which is not really something I have to worry about, it's quite odd.
It's unhealthy to read it because you start to get obsessed with what people think about you. With anyone, a lot of people think you're a prick without even having met you. I mean there's lots of people that do know me that think I am as well! But I try and avoid it. But I have done it because I wanted to know, for example, the morning after Cannes, I turned on my computer, and the first site that comes up is this film site on a particular British newspaper. And I saw the two-star review as soon as I looked at it in the morning and thought, "Oh, well, why the fuck did I switch the computer on?" And it's often the first time you see the trailer or something. You put in "Sam Riley On the Road" or you put on YouTube and see the trailer, and then you see one comment and you think, "Oh, god." And then you end up reading whatever and then you know that's the day ruined.
It's a strange thing, I try and avoid, and I don't Twitter my everyday activities or anything, so I try and avoid. I try and keep a lot of separation if I can help it.
Do you have a preference between the two cuts of the film? Did the long cut feel long to you?
I think it's, no, I didn't think it was long. I think it's very difficult and that's part of why it's always been so hard to make these last 50 years: there's so much, it's very difficult to fit everything in. I remember the first time I watched it, and you always do that with films, there's always bits missing that you remember shooting or that you liked, and this one particularly, I had the feeling we must have shot nearly four or five hours worth of material. I wouldn't want to be charged with working out what to put in and what not to. It's very hard, I only saw it the once, and the first time it's very hard, I'm very critical of myself. But I'm proud of it.
This is sort of the ultimate road trip movie. Have you been on a long road trip before?
Making the movie was a six-month road trip across America, so we lived it, really. And for me, seeing America for the first time in that detail, instead of sort of the business cities, for my business, New York, LA. It was really fascinating and helped because Sal was seeing it for the first time, and so was I. I used to play in a rock and roll band in England before I was an actor, and we went on tour, but it's a bit different, the sort of Glasgow to London is not quite the same thing. That certainly felt like that was my period in life when I was free from my parents and having fun.
And an important part of any road trip is the soundtrack. Any key songs you listened to on the shoot?
I was sort of one of the ones that was in charge of the jukebox while we were shooting. I bought a huge collection of bebop songs and things which I always had with me on my phone and would always play while we were driving in between. I didn't think I would get into it, but I sort of did, actually.
So you went era-appropriate?
Sometimes it helps a little bit. I learned a lot about modern bands through the kids like Kristen and Tom and Garrett, who all listen. My finger's not on the pulse of what is popular these days.
They all liked, I can't even remember the names... Arcade Fire, they all like folksy stuff these days. Mumford and Sons. And Kristen, occasionally, a bit of Miley Cyrus, as well. And Garrett liked to play a lot of country as well. Whereas I was still listening to Elvis Costello and The Clash.
What did your family say about the movie? Have they seen it?
My grandparents went to watch it in England, my grandfather is 90 and my 86-year-old grandmother, and I thought, "I'll be curious to see what they think." And she was very cute, she was like, "Well, yes, you were very good, and there were certain things of course, but it's just not really our generation." And I thought I won't tell her that it actually was her generation.