Sam Riley on The Dark Valley & Maleficent
With his deep and raspy voice, actor Sam Riley (Control, Brighton Rock) was definitely the right choice to play the mysterious lone ranger in his new film The Dark Valley. He is an American cowboy in the Austrian Alps, at first hiding his motives, but ready to give the audience a bloody showdown in the snow-capped mountains.
The movie starts off as a serious and dark adventure, but the more bloody and gory it gets, the more funny it sometimes seems. Was the movie funny when it wasn’t supposed to be or was it simply Austrian humour? “There is such a thing as Austrian humour,” Riley assures us in our interview at the Berlin Film Festival. While his character often articulates himself in monosyllabic answers, Riley himself is much more chatty in his English mother-tongue.
Read more about his idea of Austrian humour, his take on his role as a cowboy in the Austrian Alps, his idols, his thoughts on westerns and the German language as well as his work on Maleficent in our interview below…
It’s great to meet you here at the Berlin Film Festival. While other actors have to travel a long way to get here, you’re already living in Berlin. Was it because of your wife that you chose to live here?
Yeah, I didn’t want to take her to live in Leeds, I thought that might be a bit of a downer after growing up here. The first time I came to visit, I really loved it here. To say Berlin has a great history is maybe not the right way of describing it… a rich history, thank you very much! Iggy Pop and many other people whom I admire lived here, so I thought I’d give it a go.
Was your living in Germany for some years now how you came to be part of the German-language film The Dark Valley?
From what I understand, [director] Andreas Prochaska googled British and American actors and found me, having no idea in that first moment that I lived here in Berlin or could speak some German. I don’t think he’d seen any of my movies either, so it was a strange coincidence. But then he couldn’t get the script to me. My agents probably thought that the idea of an Austrian western sounds bollocks.
So Andreas send it to me via Tom Tykwer [director of Run Lola Run]. I was busy at the time and I didn’t read it at first. So he sent me a second email saying: ‘I am sure you would have replied to the first email if you had actually read it by now.’ So out of guilt I read it. But then I emailed him as soon as I finished the script and said I wanted to do it because I’d never done anything in a foreign language before, and you don’t often get the opportunity.
Why did they want an English-speaking actor for this role?
The story comes from a novel and I think Andreas didn’t want a German actor to try and do it with an accent. He wanted to try and find someone with a genuine accent.
Did it take some of the weight off your shoulders, with your role being an American who speaks German, rather than having to pretend to be German?
Oh yeah, I’d never be able to get away with that. If anybody ever asked me to work in Germany again, I will always play the foreign guy, I could never master the language like a native does. I was doing my best to sound as German as I could and they say: ‘The accent is very charming’ and I’m like ‘What the heck, I thought was doing it pretty good.’ Yeah, but you’re right, it did help.
How good is your German really?
Are you going to test me on my German? It’s fantastisch!
How did the majestic landscape of the Austrian mountains help with your performance?
The landscapes are like another character in the movie. I’d never spend much time in the mountains before and it’s truly amazing. If you look at the mountains and the clouds, it changes the whole time. And then being the only foreigner in the valley that we shot in did also help. When I was rehearsing the horse riding, I wanted to do it in full costume once, to get used to the weight of it. So I was in the mini-van in full cowboy costume and stopped at the petrol station to get my cigarettes.
Inside the petrol station, there was a bar and all the workers from the valley were all having a beer in there. Then the door opens and I come in dressed as a cowboy – it was exactly like in one of those movies. And everyone in the whole place just turned around and started looking me up and down, and I had to walk to the bar to order cigarettes in German! I mean I can order cigarettes in German, it’s a daily occurrence, and I know I’m understood when I do this. But the guy behind the bar pretended he didn’t understand what I was saying. I was just waiting for him to lean across and strike a match on his palm. I knew I’d remember this feeling, and that helped to get into my role.
Sounds like a typical moment from a western! Growing up, did you watch a lot of westerns and fancy being cowboy?
Yeah, partly. A lot of my cinema influences come from my parents, my father particularly. None of my family were actors, but they were all big film fans, so part of the education was films like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. My father used to quote lines from films, like when we were kids and we did something stupid, he’d say: “You keep thinking boys, that’s what you’re good at.” That’s what Robert Redford keeps saying [to Paul Newman]. When I was young I played cowboys, but also Robin Hood, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars. Any film that I watched, my brother and I would then re-imagine in the garden. I always took it more seriously than he did, which is why I’m probably the actor now.
You’ve just mentioned some classic films starring brilliant actors. Did that influence your personal, cinema heroes?
When I watched Lawrence of Arabia as a boy, it had a very big impact on me. I think I almost fell in love with Peter O’Toole. He had this British heroism that British boys like. I like a lot of the hell-raisers from that era, like Richard Burton and Richard Harris. Also Gene Hackman, there’s so many. I have a lot of heroes and it also changes over time.
How did you feel when Peter O’Toole died?
I had a drink. I didn’t have any champagne, which would probably be what he would have drunk. I was pretty impressed that he lived that long. If I could be smoking for that long… Garrett Hedlund, who I worked with on On The Road, worked with O’Toole doing Troy and he told me a great story. O’Toole was being helped up some stairs by an assistant, still with a cigarette in his mouth. Then his assistant said: ‘Maybe you should quit smoking?’ and he replied: ‘Maybe I should quit stairs.’ That story still amuses me.
How do you feel about the violence in The Dark Valley? It’s pretty out there.
I will always remember shooting it, so I remember having my fingers crossed and hoping it worked first time. I think we only had one fake hand, when I shoot the guy and his fingers fly off and his brains come out at the same time, so there was a lot of tension on set, because the poor guy had to do it right the first time. But no, I’m still a bit of a child, when I saw it I was like: ‘Oh, cool!’ [laughs]
Some people in the audience were chuckling when that happened, was that intended? In what way do you think there’s humour in the violence?
It’s probably because it shocks. Up until that moment there hasn’t been anything like that, so maybe because it’s a surprise. I don’t see it as a moment without humour. I think it’s maybe Austrian humour? [laughs] It does exist. I’ve noticed some of the international press saying it’s humourless, but I don’t see it. I see it as sort of perversely humorous at times. But that could be, because I spent a lot of time with Austrians.
It’s also the music that comes in, the blood and the slow motion…
I think there’s always a tradition in westerns as well to have modern music of the time in these things. But this type of glorified violence and slow motion, that’s a matter of taste, if you find that too much or if you enjoy it or something. I mean I don’t think it’s quite on a John Woo level, there were no doves flying past me in this scene!
Aside from working in a foreign language, what was the most challenging thing about making this movie?
Apart from my first film, I’d not really done many films that required a lot of physical activity, so that was interesting to me, because it was just different. To have to learn to ride and be more physical in combination with working in a foreign language – just to see if I could do it really. It was hard, also shooting in the cold and the snow-covered mountains, but it was great as well. You could never really leave the set, because it was too complicated. So you were there the whole time, it felt like you were earning your money, I liked that. The film I’d done before I spent a lot of time waiting in the trailer, four hours every morning sitting in a make-up chair for Maleficent. I mean it was great when I was working, but on those sorts of films you do a lot of not-acting.
How do you amuse yourself when you’re in your trailer all day waiting?
It was the Olympics that summer and for the first time in my career I had a TV in my trailer, which was like ‘wohoo, I made it!’, so I watched the Olympics. You do a lot of talking bollocks on these films as well as chatting with everybody.
Chatting with Angelina Jolie as well?
A little bit, but we didn’t have a trailer next door to each other. She’s a very impressive and cool woman, I mean, we were friendly with one another, but I don’t think in between the five kids, saving the world and being a movie star married to the fabulous Brad Pitt, we don’t exchange emails. I was really blown away by her, she’s a proper star. When you first meet her, you think ‘that’s a movie star’. She has an incredible aura. She’s a very cool, impressive person. What she does every day and then during the weekends made me feel so lazy, like I’m really not achieving anything in my life, watching the Olympics and thinking about how much I drank last night.
Being part of the cast of Maleficent, did you have any personal connection to the tale and your role of Diaval?
I was more of a Jungle Book guy; Sleeping Beauty was a bit girly for me, but I don’t think there are any childhoods that aren’t in some way connected with Disney, and affected by it in some way. You know every child has a memory of that company, which is crazy. So I was very proud being part of it and I enjoyed playing the funny guy for once.
How do you think Maleficent will impact your career?
I don’t know whether anyone will recognize me, I wore so much make-up, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t expect anything, really. The reaction I got to my very first film was so unusual and exceptional, as it would be in any actor’s career. It was funny it happened in my first film. It wasn’t an overnight thing though, I already had a failed attempt at being a rock star as well, so I was very happy that something that positive happened.
From then on I’ve had a career and I met my wife, obviously. A lot of people said at the time that this was a star performance and I never believed that for a second. I knew it wasn’t going to be the case. And the doors didn’t suddenly open and I wasn’t offered every good part in Hollywood. That didn’t happen at all. And I didn’t really expect it to. I would be happy if I could just keep working and have things come up. I’m 35… 34 now, don’t even know how old I am! I think I’m too old for sudden amounts of overnight fans of some kind.
The next project you’ve got lined up, and which is coming out this year is Suite Francaise. How was it working with Kristin Scott Thomas?
Kristin Scott Thomas is great, she’s hilarious. I don’t know how many more films she’s going to make, she says she’s quitting every single day, saying ‘don’t you just love making movies?’ [in a sarcastic tone]. I enjoyed working in Brussels as well, it was nice. I play a French farmer in that one. I don’t speak French, but it’s that sort of Hollywood concept where the Nazis are all played by Germans and all the French people are played by English people with English accents.
Any other plans?
I have no idea. I never really know what I’m doing next. But I have a young baby at home and I’m sure my wife would like to work, she hasn’t worked for a long time now, so we’ll see.
How has fatherhood changed your life so far?
It’s only been six weeks, it’s just made me very tired. [laughs] It’s wonderful, but I’m still in shock.