Monday 23 October 2017

Cool Sam's acting success is certainly no fairy tale

He may have started his career as a singer, but Sam Riley's decision to turn to acting is paying dividends with a role in Disney's Maleficent.

Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara
Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara
Angelina Jolie and Sam Riley

Julia Molony

I'm WAITING patiently for Sam Riley in his fancy hotel room when a glamorous woman appears in the doorway, smiles at me and then steps in. She seems to be searching for something – peering around doorways and crossing to check in the bathroom.

It takes me a couple of moments to realize it's Angelina Jolie. "I'm looking for Sam," she explains with a warm grin. Well, I think. That makes two of us.

By the time Sam makes it down, she has gone – having slipped away as quietly and discreetly as she came. But he doesn't seem worried to have missed her. One gets the feeling they'll find the opportunity to hang out another time.

There's a touch of rock star nonchalance about Riley anyway, despite his easy, affable manner. He started his career as a singer in a band and has retained a certain coolness; a vestige of his former lead singer persona. Perhaps that's part of why Jolie – herself a bit rock and roll – seems to like him.

He's thin and rangy, with Britpop hair, sharp bone structure and long lean limbs. When he speaks, his voice comes out as a broken, north England crackle – strained to breaking point.

"My god I smoke too much," he says. "I haven't smoked today ... my voice always sounds like that but it's particularly bad today. Obviously smoking to some extent..., but I think I mostly got it because I used to sing in a band, and I had the smallest amplifier.

"I was the singer – there were two guitarists, bongos, bass – and I somehow always ended up with this s**t little amp. To make myself heard I sort of destroyed my voice. And talking too loud in pubs."

Riley grew up in Leeds, and now lives in Berlin with his actress wife, Alexandra Maria Lara, who is one of Germany's biggest stars. He worked the UK live music circuit with his band 10,000 Things, achieving moderate success before eventually surrendering his rock star dreams and turning to acting instead. Now he's on the cusp of becoming a Hollywood star, but admits that the loss of his first love, music, took some getting over.

He's been lucky enough to combine the two though – his big break came when he was cast to play Joy Division star Ian Curtis in the 2007 biopic Control. It launched him as a darling of the indie film circuit, and also provided the introduction to Lara, who was the female lead in the film. Earlier this year, she gave birth to their first child.

The next big coup for him came when he was cast to play Sal Paradise in the film adaptation of the cult Beat generation novel On The Road by Jack Kerouac.

It's a big leap from there to Disney's newest big-budget family fare, Maleficent, a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend from the perspective of the evil fairy, who in this version is much misunderstood.

It's directed by the man behind the visual design of James Cameron's landmark Avatar and is, as expected, absolutely stunning to look at. There is no mistaking, too, the impact of a Disney big screen juggernaut – it's the first press junket I've been to that includes a special viewing of the merchandise and fancy dress range designed to coincide with the release of the film.

For Riley, this was part of the appeal. "To work on a proper big budget movie. I was curious what that would be like. And obviously the fact that Angelina was in it made it interesting as well. Because she's quite edgy really... and the costumes and things like that. I didn't think I had a chance when I auditioned for it. I was really thrilled. It was quite intimidating the first time going on set, though, because she was already there. And in costume – with her back to me – and this incredible set. I walked in and I thought 'f**k she's waiting for me, which isn't a good start.' And then I sort of just caught myself for a second, I thought, this is nuts. I've only been doing this job only a few years really. And now you've got feathers in your hair and you're about to do a scene with Angelina Jolie... it's sort of like, what the f**k?"

Riley plays Diaval – a raven that Maleficent turns into a man and fashions as a kind of familiar – her loyal and steadfast companion whom she is able to shape shift in order that he might do her bidding.

"At the beginning it's a sort of servile relationship," he explains. "But over the 16 years (of the narrative) they become closer in a way. And they bicker like an old married couple, which is a lot of fun to shoot. And he knows that she's not as cold-hearted as she seems – he sees the cracks in her facade, and sometimes tries to push her in other directions. Unsuccessfully, usually."

He introduced some anthropomorphic aspects – playing him as a bird–like man. "He's quite vain. I wasn't sure what my homework was and I like to do that sort of thing – it's one of the fun bits about doing the job. So we arranged to have time with a raven, and I sat in a room a bit like this sort of size, with the raven over here and me over there. There was a raven trainer, which I was quite happy about, because they're huge. It could do tricks, but when it jumped up and down I was like, waurrgah.

"They seem quite vain and arrogant. But very intelligent. And they're quite unnerving. I spent an afternoon watching it and seeing if I could incorporate certain tics of the bird when I'm in my human form. And I also had some sessions with a movement coach where I watched the bird ... I did actually run around a room flapping my arms like wings," he says wryly. Not very rock star behaviour, really. "That was pretty ... " he starts, before he says simply, "That's why I didn't go to drama school." In the end though, it was worth the minor loss of dignity. "Although I felt daft doing it... once you've done something silly like that, you're sort of more free. Less afraid to do other daft things."

After he got over the initial stage fright, he and Jolie must have established a rapport. "She's a really nice..." he says. "She's got star quality obviously. She's one of the real Hollywood stars around at the moment," he says glancing around, "Just make sure she's not listening to me at the moment.

"And Brad of course as well. But she's really friendly. And made me feel completely at ease and everything. And generous – it was my wedding anniversary while we were shooting and me and my wife got a gorgeous bottle of wine and things. Not everybody does that. It's a really nice touch.

"I've been lucky to work with some stars and some really great actors as well. And a lot of the big stars are the nice ones as well."

Maleficent is in cinemas next Wednesday.

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