Bringing a Beat Generation legend to life.
SAM Riley was hardly an obvious choice for the role of Jack Kerouac – or rather the American author’s literary alter ego Sal Paradise – in the long- awaited film adaptation of his classic beat novel On
‘‘ I was as surprised as anyone else that [ director Walter Salles] was going to hire a Yorkshireman to play Jack Kerouac,’’ says the self- confessed bar fly, best known for his breakthrough performance as the late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in the Anton Corbijn biopic Control.
‘‘ But he had auditioned other people. I mean, my father is not the producer or anything. I won it fair and square.’’
Five seconds into the conversation, and it’s already clear Riley is a good deal funnier than his sullen, introspective screen persona.
The UK actor, who followed Control with an unsettling performance as the razor- wielding Pinkie in Rowan Joffe’s 2010 remake of Brighton Rock, seems to have cornered something of a niche market in iconic artists.
‘‘ It’s not intentional. It’s not even particularly intelligent, really, to play people that have such a clear imagination of who they think they are. But they are the roles I have been getting offered, so I can’t really say no.’’
Control, Riley says, represented one of those once- in- a- lifetime moments when everything comes together perfectly.
‘‘ I was really down on my luck at that point, having just lost a record deal. They were looking for an unknown actor to play a singer from a town 40 miles from where I had grown up – it was incredible fate. And then my wife [ German actress Alexandra Maria Lara] doing it as well. ‘‘ It changed my life, really. ‘‘ And it’s got me every job since. Walter saw Control. Angelina saw Control . . . ’’
That would be Angelina Jolie, with whom Riley is currently filming Maleficent, a revisionist Disney fairytale told from the wicked witch’s point of view, in London.
‘‘ I don’t chain smoke or die – it’s uncharted territory for me,’’ Riley deadpans.
‘‘ And I get to be funny as well. I am the light entertainment!
‘‘ It’s my last gasp attempt not to be typecast as a depressive.’’
Riley plays the sorceress’s trusty raven, or at least its human incarnation.
Comedy, prosthetics, fantasy, a studio budget – these are all firsts for Riley. ‘‘ It’s quite surreal. I have never done anything on this scale either before – it’s a proper studio monster. It’s great fun.’’ And a nice change of pace from On The
Road, which was shot, guerrilla- style, over the course of four months.
The weight of expectation surrounding the film adaptation, which producers have been trying to get off the ground ever since Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando in 1957 suggesting he play the Garrett Hedlund role of Dean Moriarty, meant Riley wasn’t entirely disappointed when the project fell over the first time around.
‘‘ Part of me was kind of relieved that I had joined this list of nearly Sal Paradises, which was quite an incredible list, and one I was quite happy to be a part of.’’
When the film was finally green- lit, Riley took solace in the fact there would be safety in numbers.
‘‘ We were all in the same boat so that sort of brought us together.’’
Contrary to her reputation in the media, Kristen Stewart, who plays Moriarty’s free- spirited wife MaryLou, proved to be a remarkably low- maintenance co- star.
‘‘ She was just one of the gang. She trusted us. She’s lovely. An absolute pleasure to work with. And it was very impressive for me the way she handled herself, being as famous as she is. I hadn’t seen any of the Twilight films but I was shocked by the reactions we got in some places.’’
Riley, who hadn’t actually read Kerouac’s book before auditioning for the role, ascribes its enduring appeal to the fact it is something of a youthful rite of passage.
‘‘ It connects with that period of life inbetween adolescence and adulthood where you begin to take responsibility for your own destiny rather than following what your parents or teachers say.’’
While On The Road is set in a very specific time and place, its themes are universal. ‘‘ The world has changed but people don’t so much,’’ Riley says.
ON THE ROAD
Now showing State Cinema