12 January 2011: Sam Riley talks about his teenage breakdown, failed rock career and finding happiness in Germany

There’s a darkness in Sam Riley that’s unmistakable on the screen in Control and is there again in Brighton Rock. In Control he captured perfectly the sensitive, strung-out and oddly charismatic Ian Curtis, the Joy Division singer who killed himself at 23. And now, in Rowan Joffe’s ambitious, noirish adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, Riley allows Pinkie a self- contained melancholy, a froideur and creepiness that almost makes you celebrate his brutal demise. For an actor with no formal training and with only a handful of films to his name, Riley relies purely on instinct – and he is proving to be scarily good at playing vulnerable young men uneasy with life.

  1. Brighton Rock
  2. Production year: 2010
  3. Country: UK
  4. Directors: Rowan Joffe
  5. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Andy Serkis, Helen Mirren, John Hurt, Sam Riley
  6. More on this film

And yet here is Riley in early January, a few days short of his 31st birthday, chatty and friendly – a little nervous, perhaps, but not brooding at all. His black shirt is slightly untucked, his petrol-blue trousers hug his slender frame, his hair falls into his eyes and his deep, scratchy voice tells of too many cigarettes, late nights and festive excess. Despite his chirpiness, within five minutes of meeting we somehow move from discussing how easy it is to fly from London to Berlin – where he lives his wife, Alexandra Maria Lara, a fellow actor he met while making Control – to the breakdown he had in his final year of school.

I ask how a boy from a working-class family in Yorkshire, the son of a textile worker and a nursery teacher, ended up going to Uppingham school, an independent boarding school in Rutland with alumni such as Boris Karloff and Stephen Fry. Did he win a scholarship? He smiles and quickly shakes his head. “No! It’s a family tradition. My great grandfather was a regular fellow who was very enamoured by his officers in the trenches during the first world war. He promised himself that if he lived through the war and made any money, he would send his son to Uppingham. So my grand-father and my father went there and then there was just enough money left to send me and my younger brother.”

Although he was also sent to a strict boarding school in Yorkshire when he was just seven – “it was like a 1950s education, with no music players and only about 25 pence a week to spend in the tuck shop” – he didn’t particularly rebel. But something changed when he started the upper sixth at Uppingham. He had spent two weeks of the summer holidays with the National Youth Theatre and got a taste for acting. “It wasn’t all posh boys, but a wide mix of kids. The teachers would smoke a cigarette with you rather than whack you one for smoking.”

Back at school for the autumn term, he got involved in an epic production of Nicholas Nickleby. Many of the other boys were forced to act as a form of punishment and Riley felt he ended up having to carry the play. And then, when the play was over, he lost it. “I sort of . . . flipped out. I had, shall we say, a turn.” He lets his hair fall over his eyes. “The school was very worried. I will never forget my housemaster coming into my room in the middle of the night and shining the torch on the beam before pointing it on the bed. He was checking for a rope. I was lying there in the dark, wide awake, chewing my teeth, going nuts. I saw the torchlight and thought, ‘Oh fuck, he thinks I’ve topped myself!’ My dad was there the next morning to take me home.”

Was it a breakdown? “Something like that. But I was very lucky. I had a good doctor in my village who said that while lots of young men are prescribed medication, in my case it was less about inner dramas and more about being in the wrong environment.” He shoots me a look. “God, this is a great way to start an interview.”

It is indeed a bit gloomy, but he can’t stop the story now. Did he go back and do his A-levels? “Yes. I missed my friends and, to everyone’s amazement, I did all right in my exams. I even got an A in theatre studies!” The timing of his “turn” meant that his predictions were low and he didn’t get a university place. He applied for drama school only to forget his lines at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art audition and to be told by Rada that he was too young and hadn’t lived enough.

He appeared in a National Youth Theatre play, got himself an agent and found himself auditioning for the part of Mike Baldwin’s son in Coronation Street with “10 other guys who looked exactly like me”. He told his agent he no longer wanted to act, convinced himself that he was destined to be a rock star instead and made an album for a major label with his younger brother. However, 10,000 Things were awarded 1/10 by the NME for their debut album and, before long, Riley was working in pubs and folding clothes in a warehouse.

In a bold moment in late 2006, he phoned his agent and asked if she had any work for him. She sent him to Manchester to audition for Anton Corbijn’s film about Joy Division. Although Riley heard that Jude Law was up for the part, the director wanted an unknown actor. Riley claims that this is the only reason he got the job, alongside an oblique resemblance to Curtis. He says he wasn’t any good at the idiosyncratic Curtis dance, that he was terrified of doing it in the audition – but as he’s explaining this his arms start jerking around, his face seems to grow even paler and he effortlessly transforms himself into the singer. It’s quite a moment and I almost find myself clapping.

Riley was terrific as Curtis in Control. He was nominated for lots of awards and won a handful, including Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards. He watched the film for the first time at Cannes, left nail marks in the seat and was overwhelmed by the ecstatic response. He moved to Berlin to be with Lara, who played Curtis’s lover in Control, and found himself on the cover of German tabloids with his new love, a great beauty and an established German star. The headlines asked, “Who is the Englishman?”

And then – silence. He married Lara and did a low-key film, Franklyn, with Eva Green and Ryan Phillippe. For a while it looked as though he may have been a one-hit wonder. I ask if he’s fussy about scripts and he says he prefers to think of it as being selective. But, when he heard about Brighton Rock, he couldn’t turn down the role of Pinkie. Rowan Joffe – son of The Mission director Roland and (coincidentally) writer of Corbijn’s second film, The American – was initially asked to write and direct a remake of the classic 1947 Boulting brothers’ film of Brighton Rock. He chose instead – luckily, given the brilliance of the original film – to adapt the Graham Greene novel.

Joffe moved the action to 1964 (the last year the death penalty was carried out in Britain), added mods and rockers and set out to make Brighton Rock for a new generation. He was reminded both of Alain Delon and a rebellious schoolboy when he auditioned Riley for the role of Pinkie and, after Carey Mulligan pulled out, he was smart enough to imagine the hugely impressive Andrea Riseborough as Rose. How did Riley feel about taking on Pinkie more than half a century after Richard Attenborough first brought him to life so chillingly? “What am I meant to say? I’m a jobbing actor. I couldn’t think, ‘Oh shit, Dickie Attenborough did it, I can’t do it.’ Fuck it! I’d be sick if I watched someone else do it.”

There is plenty for cynics to criticise in the film – Pinkie is 17 in the novel while Riley, freshfaced though he is, was 30 when he shot it; the ending is too similar to the Boulting brothers’ – but Riley is the perfect 21st-century Pinkie: malicious, self-loathing and incapable of love. And anyway, he had great fun on set. “What was not to love? I got to wear a beautiful blue suit, have a scar put on my face, slick my hair back, ride a scooter and be horrible. I loved slashing John Hurt across the face with a flick knife and calling Helen Mirren ‘an old bitch’. She was so funny in rehearsals. She said – he adopts a low, sexy voice – ‘less of the old’. I was completely flummoxed!”

If Riley relished Mirren’s being playful, he sounds less enamoured with the project he has just finished. For the past six months he has been travelling all over America, shooting Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. As Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s autobiographical narrator, Riley heads a cast that includes Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart.

Riley had to get fit – “my mum calls me a streak of piss” – and spend four weeks in a beatnik bootcamp. He pulls a face. “Don’t fucking ask.” Did they all get stoned? “We were allowed to, but not encouraged. I’m a 30-year-old who used to smoke for breakfast, but the Americans smoke super-strength skunk so I stuck to my hash. Kerouac experts talked to us, we watched films, learned the difference between Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.”

And how was Stewart, star of the Twilight films, one of the biggest – and, according to the tabloids who won’t leave her alone – grumpiest actors in the world? “She’s just 20! The tabloids can fuck off! She wasn’t grumpy at all. She was a bit of a Rapunzel character in her hotel suite, not wanting to come to the bar to spend all evening having her photo taken.”

When Riley was in America, he missed his wife and new friends in Berlin badly. How is his German? “Super! Fantastisch! When I initially started going out with the lads, with Alex’s old school friends, they all spoke English. After a while, though, they expected me to learn German. Alex was born in Romania and she speaks Romanian with her parents, so I understand a bit of that too.”

The Leeds lad who was folding T-shirts not so long ago has done pretty well for himself. “Yeah, I got myself a career, met my wife, moved to a new city, learned some languages. I still pinch myself.” He is still, however, sleeping 14-hour days to recover from playing Sal Paradise. “On the Road was a hell of an experience so I’m planning to take a break.” He grins and looks very pleased with himself. “For now I’m going to be a hausfrau.”

• This article as amended on 12 January. The previous version named The Mission as Missionary.