After a half-century search, Hollywood has finally found the man to play Jack Kerouac’s infamous alter-ego Sal Paradise – “a six-foot Yorkshireman with brown eyes”. DONALD CLARKEmeets On the Road’s improbable star Sam Riley
OVER THE LAST half-century, any number of great actors have been mentioned in association with a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The central role of Sal Paradise is a tricky one. The archetypal word-drunk beatnik is, of course, a fictional character from a novel. But he is also a version of Kerouac: a blue-eyed, hard-drinking American legend.
Weeks after the book’s publication in 1957, Kerouac wondered if he might play the role himself. Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup – raised in, respectively, Texas and New York – have also found themselves in the Paradise loop. In the event, when Walter Salles got round to making the film, he cast a stringy, amiable young actor from an outer suburb of Bradford.
“I don’t look a lot like Kerouac and I am a Yorkshireman,” Sam Riley says dryly. True. But he is also an actor. Nobody expects him to spend the rest of his life playing just tall men from the north of England.
“That’s true. But it did raise a few eyebrows,” he says. “Certainly with the biographers. The film is 50 years in the making and they end up using a six-foot Yorkshireman with brown eyes. Ha ha! I did try to be as informed as possible about Jack. I also was able to use the fact that the character is Sal – a fictionalised version – as a shield.”
Riley turns out to be very impressive in the role. Supported by beautiful young people such as Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst, he offers us a touchingly vulnerable version of Sal. Riley has, of course, already shown form in delivering rounded versions of flawed icons. He first attracted attention as Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, in Anton Corbijn’s Control.
“I knew of Kerouac. But I hadn’t read the book,” he says slightly guiltily. “I had friends who had read it and it had really affected them. I read Catcher in the Rye. But On the Road passed me by. I didn’t read it until I was going for a meeting. You can’t help but feel you are Sal when you are reading it. We all go through that transitional period. But it was spoilt for me because I was thinking how am I going to actually become Sal Paradise.”
Or Jack Kerouac. Written in colourful, hopped-up language, On the Road has long served a dual purpose for acolytes of the Beat movement. It is a style guide to the once-new thing: narrative overpowered by the desire to set language free. It is a roman à clef detailing the movement’s creation myth: Kerouac (Sal) and Neal Cassidy (remodelled as Dean Moriarty) light out for the lost territories.
Walter Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries, wanted to be sure that all his cast were properly steeped in Beat lore.
“We were sent to boot camp – an education in all things Beat,” Riley says.
So they sat round wearing goatees and banging bongos?
“Yeah, we listened to Bebop. We wore berets and clicked our fingers a lot. Ha ha! We had biographers come in to us. We had Neal Cassidy’s son come in. It was sometimes confusing. I met a dialogue coach to get a take on Jack’s accent. But I was always aware we weren’t doing an impersonation.”
Riley’s own accent leaves you in no doubt as to his origins. Tall, dark and grimly hilarious, he sounds like he’s just got off the train from west Yorkshire. Riley came from a fairly ordinary middle-class background: dad worked in the textile industry; mum was a nursery school teacher. Mind you, it seems that he was sent to boarding school – feepaying Uppingham – at a very young age. Was his family more posh than he pretends?
“No, not particularly. It was a strange mix of things. It was the tail end of the textile industry in that part of the world. My grandparents had been instrumental in it at its height. But my father, when a young man, had put money away for my school. We used to holiday in Yorkshire. We were never in the south of France. No, there’s no blue blood there.”
Sam caught the acting bug while at Uppingham. But the allure of rock’n’roll proved a dangerous distraction in his late teens. In the early part of the century, he and his chums formed a raucous rock band – poetic noise not a million miles from contemporaries The Libertines – called 10,000 Things. The group recorded an album (still available to download), but disbanded miserably in 2005.
“Well, the music went in tandem with the acting. Acting was the only thing I was good at in school. But I was equally passionate about music. We wanted a bit of that sex, drugs and rock and’n’roll. That’s what we were promised. But I had done National Youth Theatre as a teenager. That hooked me. I couldn’t cope with A-Levels after that.”
The story goes that a single, staggeringly appalling review of 10,000 Things’ debut LP in the NME killed their careers.
“We were also instrumental in killing our own careers,” he says. “But we were an unsigned band who got a record deal. Then somewhere along the road we upset someone. We were a good-time rock’n’roll band. Some of our attitudes were misconstrued by overly sensitive Smiths fans. We were called the New Yorkshire Dolls. Ha ha! That’s a good one, actually. When the album came out, they said: ‘We’re going to get these assholes.’ We got one out of 10 in the NME. Even we weren’t even sure what the one was for. The review was that bad.”
Still, the musical training proved useful when his big break came along. Released in 2007, Control remains a most unlikely success. A monochrome study of a musician who gained only cult success (if that) in his lifetime, Anton Corbijn’s film could not look less like the standard rock biopic. Yet it became one of the most acclaimed British pictures of the past decade. Riley’s performance was striking in its delicacy: his Curtis seemed quietly doomed from the beginning.
Did Corbijn ever explain what he saw in Riley?
“I don’t know. It was partly the fact that I was unknown,” he says. “That was attractive to him. A lot of better-known actors were interested. He thought it would be convincing if you didn’t know my face. I managed to secure a recording of him being interviewed by the family and I did that weird dance. He lost all his backing when he hired me. He wanted to do it in black and white. He wanted me. The director of photography had never done a feature before. They immediately lost all their backing.”
I assume that the film had an immeasurable effect on his career. “Oh, it changed my life. I met my wife while doing that film. Hey, I am an actor now. Ha ha!”
Yes indeed. In August 2009, he married Alexandra Maria Lara – who played Curtis’s girlfriend in Control – and moved with her to Berlin. It sounds as if they have a very agreeable life. He can commute to London. He can sop up culture in a great European capital. And the climate is probably quite familiar to a boy from Yorkshire.
“I owed lot of money in Leeds,” he laughs. “I loved Berlin when I went. I had a romantic idea of living in a foreign country at 26. Iggy and Bowie had done it. Elvis had done it. I didn’t want to fuck up this second chance I’d been given. I thought when the band got dropped, that was that. I thought maybe, if I could keep a distance from the business and not get lured into the “next big thing” talk that would be good. If I stayed out of it, then nobody would get sick of me too early. Also, my wife is there and I love her.”
Riley did, indeed, avoid overexposure in the years after Control. He appeared in the undervalued Franklyn and the barely seen 13. Two years ago, he turned up as Pinkie in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. But he didn’t sign on too many dotted lines.
He is about to become a tad more visible. On the Road will be with us in two weeks. Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, a vampire thriller also featuring Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton, recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival.
“Yeah we filmed that in Dublin and Castletownbere,” he remembers. “There’s always time for a good time in Ireland. It’s part of the working schedule. Isn’t it?”
Then, some time next year, we’ll see him opposite Angelina Jolie in a version of the Sleeping Beauty myth entitled Maleficent. Happily, Riley got to travel up north while not at work in Pinewood Studios.
“It was funny,” he muses. “I was working with Angelina Jolie on the Friday and then singing Elvis with a dwarf in a pub at Scarborough on the Saturday. That was quite a culture clash. Then back into a golf buggy at Pinewood with Angelina.”
How did he find her?
“We got on very well. Yeah, she’s great,” he says. “The first few days you are pinching yourself. Everyone was calling her ‘Angie’ and I didn’t dare. So, every conversation I had with her, I just avoided saying her name entirely. Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask: ‘Is that what everyone calls you?’ All right then’.”
He called Ms Jolie “Angie” to her face?
You’ve arrived, my son.
On the Road is released on October 12th
Cult novels resisting adaptation
CATCHER IN THE RYE
BY JD SALLINGER (1951)
Sallinger’s gorgeous, cynical novel about a teenager adrift in the city must top the list of cult novels to have conspicuously avoided adaptation. Sallinger was initially keen, but, unhappy with a film version of another of his stories, subsequently refused to license any adaptations. Since his death in 2010, speculation has begun brewing again.
THE DICE MAN
BY LUKE RHINEHART (1971)
Rhinehart’s novel concerns a psychiatrist who decides to trust all major decisions to the toss of dice. Paramount bought the rights a year after publication, but despite purported interest from every one and their dealer – Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis and Nicolas Cage have all been touted – none of the half-dozen screenplays convinced the financiers. An internet campaign is in the works to crowd-finance an adaptation.
A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
BY JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE (1980)
This one very nearly came to fruition. In 2005, David Gordon Green was set to direct an adaptation of Toole’s hilarious, posthumously published novel featuring Will Ferrell as pompous Ignatius P Reilly and Lily Tomlin as his long-suffering mother. Nobody is entirely sure why it never happened. “It’s the movie everyone in Hollywood wants to make, but no one wants to finance,” Ferrell later said.