Sam Riley on indie films and keeping his privacy

BY Simon Button

30th Jan 2023 Celebrities

Sam Riley on indie films and keeping his privacy

Simon Button talks to the Yorkshire actor about playing Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, filming She Is Love on the south coast, and living a family life in Berlin

Sam Riley is happy that the public doesn’t know much about his personal life beyond the fact he lives in Berlin, is married to Romanian-German actress Alexandria Maria Lara and they have a young son named Ben. 

“My wife is a very well-known actress in Germany but they don’t have the same culture of scrutiny,” says the West Yorkshire-born actor who met Alexandria when she played a journalist in his screen debut Control in 2007. “And fame is not something either of us has courted because it’s a double-edged sword. There are a lot of good actors who are successful you don’t know very much about.”

Sam smiles, seemingly forgetting the blockbuster success of the two Maleficent movies he has appeared in. “Plus I’ve never really been in anything that millions of people have seen.” 

An affinity for indie films

The small, independent drama She Is Love is more typical of his CV, although it pushed him far beyond his comfort zone. It was largely improvised. “And it gave me the fear,” he admits. “I’d never done anything like it and just before filming started I started panicking because I realised I’d have to use an awful lot of myself. You’re always using something of yourself as an actor but you’re usually hiding behind the dialogue.” 

In the film, which was directed by Jamie Adams, Sam plays a musician and hotelier in Cornwall whose relationship with his girlfriend Louise (Marisa Abela) is disrupted by the arrival of his ex-wife Patricia (Hayley Bennett). 

Haley Bennet and Sam Riley in She Is Love

Haley Bennett and Sam Riley in She Is Love © Signature Entertainment

A sometime musician himself, Riley notes: “I realised Jamie had based it on a version of me. There wasn’t really a character there, just the fact Idris was a musician. The first thing I had to do was dance like an idiot behind mixing desks in front of complete strangers and I thought, I’m just gonna have to completely give in to this and try not to be vain.” 

Did he learn anything about himself in the process? “No, because the older I get the more realistic I am about myself. I’m quite aware of where my frailties or less attractive qualities are. But Idris is a bit of a coward emotionally, which I hope I’m not—although I do think a lot of actors use the job as a means of expressing things that they’re incapable of expressing in real life.” 

"The small, independent drama She Is Love pushed Sam far beyond his comfort zone"

Zooming in from France, where he’s currently filming Clicqout (again opposite Hayley Bennett), 42-year-old Sam says he feels renewed as an actor. Having also recently completed historic drama Firebrand, in which he plays Thomas Seymour, he acknowledges that She Is Love’s six-day shoot gave him a real confidence boost. “It was an exercise in trying to be fearless and testing yourself. In the jobs that I’ve done since I’ve noticed that I feel more flexible somehow, more relaxed and open to the risk of making a fool of myself.” 

Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara

Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara © Geisler-Fotopress Alamy Stock Photo

Clicquot is all about the founding of one of the world’s most iconic champagne brands but Riley isn’t touching a drop during filming. He gave up drinking five years ago but did champagne used to be his tipple of choice? “It never really bothered me what I was putting in myself,” he confesses, “which was part of the problem.” 

Riley has lived in Berlin for nearly 15 years. When Covid struck, Alexandria worked as much as possible while he stayed home to look after Ben. He eventually agreed to make She Is Love because of the short shooting schedule, spending ten days self-isolating with director Adams before the cameras rolled and smiling now: “We actually spent more time in quarantine together than we did making the film.” 

From aspiring musician to successful actor

The son of a textile agent and a nursery school teacher grew up in Bradford and attended public school in Uppingham, Rutland. He got into acting through school plays, recalling: “I was told I was good at it by teachers and I wasn’t told that about anything else, so that made it appealing.” He laughs. “As did the applause.” 

Sam joined the National Youth Theatre when he was 17. He landed an agent a couple of years later and had what he calls “a serious go at auditioning with little to no success”. He did, however, get an audition for Coronation Street but, as an aspiring musician as well as an actor, he worried about committing to the soap, thinking, If I get this I can never be a credible musician. He also fretted about taking on a long-term role on TV. “I thought maybe it would mean that that was as far as I could go as an actor so I rang my agent and quit.” 

Sam Riley in She Is Love

Sam Riley in She Is Love © Signature Entertainment

Sam’s band 10,000 Things had been signed to a three-year deal since 2002 but, having failed to trouble the charts, broke up in 2005. He worked in pubs, bars and a retail warehouse. “And after a while I realised I’d rather be in any soap opera or commercial that was going so I rang up my agent again.” 

His timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. The following week there were open auditions for the role of late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control. Director Anton Corbijn was impressed and, released in 2007, the film established Riley as a bright new talent. 

"I realised I’d rather be in any soap opera or commercial that was going so I rang up my agent again"

It also earned him a raft of awards and nominations and made a splash when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, with Alexandra pointing out what a big deal it was. “It felt like we were doing something special but I had no frame of reference, whereas she had been in the business a lot longer than I had. When we were in Cannes I saw the poster of me with a cigarette hanging from my mouth and thought, That’s pretty cool. Then we were at a roof party, the press screening had gone really well and she said to me, ‘Enjoy this because it just doesn’t happen.’” 

He could have cashed in on the buzz surrounding his performance. “But to some extent I resisted where the film might have taken me, in terms of Hollywood and things like that. I went there and nearly did a couple of big things, which then didn’t happen. It made me anxious and I thought, I want to use this opportunity to work, to keep getting jobswhile ignoring the strategies that were laid out before me by my agent. I just did things that interested me.” 

Sam Riley and Angelina Jolie in Maleficent

Sam Riley and Angelina Jolie in Maleficent © Walt Disney Pictures

The things that interested him included a remake of Brighton Rock, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and two films in the Maleficent franchise. He also did some modelling, most notably for Burberry’s 2008 autumn/winter campaign, saying now: “I turned up at Hyde Park, wore these incredible coats with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley on my arm and from what I remember it was about four hours work for a lot of money. It helped me be able to say no to stuff and wait for something that I really wanted to do.”  

She Is Love was a tough shoot as Idris and Patricia reconnect during drinking sessions, card games and impromptu songwriting. The cameras were rolling for up to six hours a day. “And no-one wants to hear an actor say that his job is exhausting but you were drained by the end of it and couldn’t really remember what you’d done.” 

"An ideal day for me is pretty dull"

He enjoyed spending time on the Cornish coast but was happy to get back to the family in Berlin, prompting me to ask what he likes about life in the German capital. “People always assume it’s the nightclubs but I’ve never been to most of them. It’s about being with the family, walking through the forests which border Berlin or going to some of the cafes or restaurants. An ideal day for me is pretty dull.” 

She Is Love is in cinemas and on digital platforms from February 3rd 

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...