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?