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Sam Riley: ‘I am going to have to be myself – a failed musician in his early 40s’

Music and film have overlapped a few times in Sam Riley’s career. His new film, She Is Love, blurs the lines even further

Sam Riley and his superior cheekbones have been living in Berlin since shortly after you first heard of him. His performance as Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, in Control changed his life in more ways than one might guess. He and Alexandra Maria Lara, who played Curtis’s lover Annik Honoré in the 2007 picture, fell for each other, got married and moved to the German capital. They live there still with their young son.

“When my wife and I married in Yorkshire, we had a penalty shoot-out between the German guests and the English as an icebreaker,” he says. “It was hilarious how seriously the English guests took that in comparison to the German guests. The Germans let us win. Ha ha!”

Riley could hardly be more agreeable. Born in Yorkshire to a middle-class family, he retains a cheery, self-deprecating humour. You can see a bit of that in his improvisations for Jamie Adams’s funky new film She Is Love. The picture lands a divorced musician in a hotel with his ex-wife and his current partner. This feels a little like one of those pieces that will be later classified as “Covid cinema” – making the best of confinement to one venue.

“I was longer in quarantine than it took to make the movie,” he confirms. “Ten days in Cornwall quarantining was very pleasant. I was anxious taking work in England at that period and not knowing how long I’d be saying goodbye to the family.”


It’s an impressive chamber piece that, if Riley is to be believed, allows a few insights into its star’s background.

“I remember thinking: what have I got myself into?” he says. “Because I am going to have to be myself. There is a character there – he’s a failed musician in his early 40s. I suddenly started panicking about it at home. It’s going to be like reality TV.”

Like his near-exact contemporary Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley did indeed begin as a musician. His band 10,000 Things got off to a good start. They supported Pete Doherty. They ended up with a record deal. They recorded an album. Then came a near-legendarily terrible review from the NME.

“It was maybe famous in my family,” he says of the piece. “We were given one out of 10. I think there has only ever been one other band to that point that had, erm, ‘hit those heights’. Ha, ha! There is a university tour in that. Put one of the worst quotes from the review on a poster. ‘They are the diarrhoea pouring out of The Commitments’ arsehole.’ Who wouldn’t go and see that? I still do music and I miss the camaraderie. I still write during ‘resting’ periods.”

Acting came at him from an unexpected angle. Michael Winterbottom cast Riley to play Mark E Smith, inimitable (perhaps literally so as things turned out) lead singer of The Fall for 24 Hour Party People, his 2002 study of Factory Records. The footage never made it to the final cut and Smith ended up playing himself in a brief cameo. Elsewhere in the film, Sean Harris was representing the singer who Riley would impersonate in Closer. Is there anywhere we can see his Mark E Smith?

“If you do watch it, you’ll understand why Michael Winterbottom cut me out,” he says. “Me and the guys who were playing The Fall met on the evening. This is as far as I can remember – because the whole thing was incredibly boozy. We were put in some halls of residence or something. And we bumped into the guys who were playing The Happy Mondays. So we thought: The Fall can drink you guys under the table. We ended up going at it. That will be why we didn’t make it.”

The notion of the fake Fall getting plastered with the fake Happy Mondays is almost too perfect.

“It was really so funny. And while I was working off a hangover, I was watching Sean Harris doing She’s Lost Control and thinking: that’s how professionals do it. Only a few years later I was doing it myself.”

Control managed to appeal way beyond Joy Division’s fanbase. Directed by Anton Corbijn, who had shot many famous photoshoots of the band, the picture played at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes and picked up a “special mention” in the Caméra d’Or category for best first film. My memory is the surviving members of Joy Division were supportive.

“I think they were very happy with it. I know they definitely stuck up for me a couple of times,” he says. He remembers Peter Hook, Joy Division and New Order bassist, approaching him after that Cannes screening. “Joe Anderson, who played Hooky in the film, was then working in LA,” he says. “Hooky came up to me in the toilets afterwards. Me and Harry Treadaway, who played the drummer, were crying because we had never seen the film before. I’d never seen myself on a screen. We were in bits about how sad it was. In bowled Hooky to the urinals. ‘Where’s my one?’ We told him he was in LA. He said: ‘If you’d played me you’d be in f**king Los Angeles.’”

Riley has done all right for himself in the interim. He played Pinkie opposite Helen Mirren and Andrea Riseborough in the 2010 version of Brighton Rock. Neil Jordan directed him in Byzantium. He played Sal Paradise in Walter Salles’s adaptation of On the Road. But I get the sense he is relaxed about the profession. Unless he’s putting on a great act, he’s not exactly driven.

“I’m still working 15 years later and doing what I wanted,” he says. “Doing it ‘my way’, as Sid Vicious said. I’m still living with the same woman. We’re both managing those careers and giving our son a balanced life.”

He chuckles his friendly chuckle.

“A successful year is one where we’ve all survived and still love each other.”

She Is Love is on cinema release and available on digital download

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist