Sam Riley: Out of Control, into a new life

After meeting his German wife on the set of Control, his breakthrough film, Sam Riley left Leeds and settled in Berlin. But he made a rare trip back to the north to make a new film with Bill Nighy

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When actor Sam Riley shot his new movie on Merseyside, he wasn’t quite sure what sort of reception he’d get. That’s because, Riley, of Menston, near Leeds, and the city of Liverpool didn’t really part on good terms the last time he was there.

“One of the last gigs we did was in Liverpool and we got really badly heckled by a girl.”

That was when he was the lead singer with the band 10,000 Things, which came prior to his move into acting and roles such as Ian Curtis in the Joy Division biopic Control and Jack Kerouac’s literary alter-ego Sal Paradise in the adaption of beat classic On The Road.

“One of the last gigs we did was in Liverpool and we got really badly heckled by a girl,” recalls Riley, 39, who now lives in Berlin. “I think I lost my rag a bit and she went away, but then came back with all her family. I had to hide backstage and then literally make a run for the van.”

Although he admits to looking over his shoulder once or twice while filming his latest movie Sometimes Always Never, it seems that Merseyside might have forgiven Riley, which is a good thing as he appears alongside national treasure Bill Nighy, who began his career at the city’s Everyman Theatre.

The movie, which debuted at the London Film Festival in October and goes on general release next month, stars Nighy as a retired tailor from Merseyside and Riley as his younger son. But a shadow hangs over the pair in the form of Nighy’s other son, Michael, who stormed out of their home years before in an argument over a Scrabble game and has never been seen since.

Riley’s character Peter feels he can’t live up to his brother in his father’s eyes, and their strained relationship – set against a backdrop of the board game, which Nighy’s character has become obsessed with since his son went missing – forms the backbone of the movie.

“There’s something deeply sad about the idea of someone going missing without leaving a note or any word. It leaves so many unanswered questions for those left behind,” says Riley. “Bill’s character Alan is very intelligent with words, he’s always playing Scrabble and he’s got this huge vocabulary, but he’s unable to communicate with his own family.”

For Riley, being in a film that is so immersed in wordplay is interesting because he is, in his own words, “horribly dyslexic”. He adds: “When the Scrabble board used to come out at home I used to disappear.”

He attended the Malsis School in Cross Hills, near Skipton and then Uppingham School, near Leicester. His private education sometimes causes consternation with interviewers because it doesn’t quite fit the rags to riches narrative they’re often looking for. Riley’s parents were by no means rich. His mother was a nursery school teacher and his father a textile agent. But, he says, they always worked towards providing opportunities for their sons.

“My parents spent a lot of money on private schools. There’s no point me fibbing about it.”

Still, he wryly says he had what might be termed as a “1950s-style education” where his dyslexia wasn’t picked up and his struggles in the classroom were instead put down to laziness.

Riley was always getting involved in school plays, though, and setting up bands. At Uppingham especially he emphasised his northernness, adopting a Gallagher-esque swagger. “I like being a bit provocative,” he laughs. “And Liam was my hero.”

Riley’s older brother George attended Leeds College of Music and through him Riley met some like-minded lads with whom he and George (on bass) formed 10,000 Things. The band had some modest success and signed a deal with Domino Records.

Then the band “had a cheque waved in front of us by Polydor and that was the beginning of the end”. The band split up around the middle of the noughties, though not before, grins Riley, they earned “the worst review NME had ever given anyone”.

Dreams of musical stardom in tatters, Riley went to work in a warehouse in Leeds. He’d entertained ideas of being an actor, and attended the National Youth Theatre as a teenager, getting a part in a play. He even auditioned for Coronation Street, but nothing came of it. Still, he kept a weather eye on the acting industry, and on a whim phoned the agent he’d kept in touch with in 2006 and asked if there was anything going.

“It was incredible good fortune. She told me there was going to be a film about Joy Division and they wanted someone unknown to play Ian Curtis.”

Over the following weeks, Riley skipped his work at the clothing warehouse, telling his bosses he had a string of dental appointments. When he was eventually given the role of Curtis in Control, he phoned to say he wasn’t going back to work because he was making a movie. “They said to me, that’s your worst excuse for not coming into work yet,” he laughs.

Control, released in 2007 and based on Curtis’s wife Deborah’s memoir of her life with the troubled singer in Macclesfield, won critical acclaim and set Riley on a path of movie and TV stardom.

However, his actual debut was very nearly a few years earlier, in another movie about Manchester’s music scene – Michael Winterbottom’s portrayal of the Factory era, 24 Hour Party People, which came out in 2002.

He originally auditioned to play Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris. “I’d been in a fight the night before in Leeds,” says Riley – who doesn’t drink at all these days – airily. “I turned up to the audition with a black eye. The director came up to me and said, can you play the drums? When I said I couldn’t he looked at the state of me and said, I might have another part for you.”

That was of hell-raising The Fall frontman Mark E Smith and Riley spent the next few weeks filming in Manchester. “It was quite a riotous set. I’d go out with the lads who were playing the Happy Mondays. They stayed in character the whole time, and we ended up a bit worse for wear.”

Riley proudly took a group of friends to the cinema to watch the movie, only to find out he’d ended up on the cutting room floor. “We were just sitting there, waiting for my scene, and it never came,” he says.

Riley as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in Control

But Control, directed by legendary rock photographer Anton Corbijn, made Riley’s name and roles swiftly followed in the science fiction film Franklyn, the 2010 adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, and On The Road in 2012, then opposite Angelina Jolie in Disney’s re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty classic Maleficent.

Control also set him on another path. While filming he met Romanian-German actor Alexandra Maria Lara, who was playing Annik Honoré, the Belgian journalist with whom Curtis had an affair. Riley and Lara married in 2009 and relocated to Berlin, where they have a son together.

“I’ve been made welcome here. I love it here and I integrated. It’s funny, living here allows me to enjoy my Englishness more. There aren’t any questions about what class you are or anything like that. I’m just a Yorkshireman in Berlin.”

Riley’s parents still live in Menston, and he made a rare visit back to the north for Sometimes Always Never, which was filmed around York as well as on Merseyside. It was the script that clinched it for him, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who had also scripted 24 Hour Party People.

“It wasn’t too dark and it had comedic aspects, despite being about a serious subject. Also, it wasn’t based on a book and it wasn’t a biography, so I got to play the character for the first time without any preconceptions.”

Beyond that, Riley is next year reprising his role as Jolie’s love interest Diaval in the sequel to Maleficent, and also playing another real-life character in the shape of Pierre Curie, opposite Rosamund Pike’s Marie Curie, in the biopic of her life, Radioactive.

His brief sojourn back to home territory for Sometime Always Everywhere has given him a fresh appreciation of the north. “I’m very proud of where I come from,” he says. “And I’m grateful to the north for what it’s given me. Northern humour is appreciated and admired everywhere.”

Sometimes Always Never is released in cinemas on 14 June

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