"Trying to grow a moustache, learning to plough a field, riding motorbikes, I did it all" - hmv.com talks to Sam Riley
Whether it's his starring role as Ian Curtis in the hugely acclaimed Joy Division biopic Control, his supporting turn alongside Angelina Jolie in Disney's smash-hit fairytale Maleficent or his dashing Midshipman Darvell in strange vampire drama Byzantium, Sam Riley has shown in his short career that he can turn his hand to just about anything.
In Suite Francaise, which is released on DVD on Monday (July 27th) and available to pre-order here, he stars alongside Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ruth Wilson, Lambert Wilson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Margot Robbie in a tender and poignant World War II drama.
The film is written and directed by Saul Dibb, best known for directing The Duchess, and is adapted from Irène Némirovsky's best-selling novel, which despite being written in 1940 and 1941, lay undiscovered for much of the 20th century. That was until the late 1990s when Némirovsky's daughter discovered it in one of her mother's notebooks and offered it up for publication. In the years since its release in 2004 it has been translated into 38 languages and has sold over two and a half million copies.
Set in Nazi-occupied France, Suite Francaise sees Michelle Williams play Lucille Angellier, a housewife who is waiting for news of her husband and struggling with life living with her domineering mother-in-law. Then, everything is thrown into chaos when a regiment of German soldiers arrive in the town and move into the villagers' homes. Posted with a handsome German commander named Bruno, Lucille does her best to ignore him, but she soon falls in love with him, beginning a relationship fraught with, as you might imagine, lots and lots of complications.
Riley plays Benoit, a peasant farmer who becomes murderously jealous of the attentions his wife pays to another German officer and provides a constant brake on Lucille's own affections for Bruno.
We sat down with Riley to find out how he got involved in the movie, how it compared to working on a blockbuster like Maleficent and his plans to team up with his wife to play some bad guys...
How did you come to be involved in Suite Francaise?
"I'd actually sent an audition tape in for a different film, but Harvey Weinstein (Hollywood producer) had somehow seen it and although the tape didn't get me the role I'd sent it in for, I did get me this one. It was a real round the houses way to get a part. Whatever works I guess."
Did you know anything about the story when you were approached?
"I didn't know anything about it, but it's a fascinating story that this manuscript was found so long after it was written and then became a best seller. I'd seen this brilliant documentary called The Sorrow And The Pity which is about the occupation of France by the Nazis and it was banned in France for many years because it was so controversial. It showed that there were plenty of French people who wanted to co-exist with the Nazis and did so quite happily, they supported them and were quite at ease with it all."
How did you prepare for the role? Did you just read as much as you could?
"Reading as much as I could. Listening to all these interviews with old resistance types. Trying to grow a moustache, learning to plough a field, riding motorbikes, I did it all. That's the great thing about this job, you get to do all these things it'd normally cost you a fortune to learn and you get to do it in a week."
How long were you about for? Was it a long shoot?
"Well Benoit is very much a supporting role, so I'd come for spells in Belgium where we filmed it all and then I'd go back to Berlin. It was done throughout the summer and in Belgium they really do have summers. It was lovely because my wife (actress Alexandra Maria Lara) also has a small part in the film, it was the first time we'd worked together since Control and she was three months pregnant with our first child so it was really nice to be able to work together."
It's a fantastic cast, it must have been brilliant to be part of it...
"I loved working with Ruth Wilson, who plays my wife, she was brilliant to play against. I loved being around Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas, it was fascinating to watch them both work and see how they get across their incredible performances. And Mattias (Schoenaerts) too, I loved Rust And Bone so I was delighted to be able to work with him."
What was it like working with Saul?
"Saul's great, I really liked him. He adapted it himself and you can tell throughout the shoot. He was very calm and measured and in control, I liked him a lot. It's always a bit boring asking actors about directors though, because I'm never going to say 'He's a t**t'' am I?"
You might, you never know...
"Yeah, but do they ever say that? It might be years later, maybe when everyone's dead..."
You worked on this right after doing Maleficent, it must have been a very different experience...
"It was. With a film like Maleficent, you spend a lot of time in make-up and a very small portion of the working day actually acting. But you know that when you do it and it's fascinating to see how the crew set everything up and how much goes into all these shots. With smaller films you work and you spend a lot of time in front of the camera and that's always preferable. But I enjoy both, I'd never done anything like Maleficent before and I got to work with one of the very few bona-fide movie stars in Angelia, but they are very different."
It must have been nice to know what you'd have been stood next to because so much of Maleficent must have been added in a effects studio afterwards...
"Two years afterwards. They spent such a long time on the effects. But to be fair they did actually build a lot of sets and you'd go down there and it'd just be incredible so see. They built waterfalls and huge scale things, there was a green screen, but there was so much going on that we basically took over Pinewood Studios. It was a dream for me because that's where they made all the Bond movies and I was being driven around on a golf buggy from one incredible set to the next. My mum and dad came to visit and that was a big moment for me, I think they stopped worrying about me then, the exact moment when I was introducing them to Angelina Jolie."
You're working on Ben Wheatley's new movie Free Fire at the moment, what's that been like?
"It's been amazing. I've got one more day left. Incredible cast, you've got Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy and lots of other great people and we're all trapped in this warehouse. It's about the IRA trying to find two crates of guns in Boston in 1978 in this warehouse and it all goes tits up. It's this group of people in this gunfight for the length of the movie, it's been really intense."
It must take a lot out of you...
"It does. It's rare to work with a director who you completely trust while you have to roll around a warehouse firing a gun in a moustache all day long. You're exhausted at the end of the day, but you've still got a grin on your face."
What are you up to next?
"I'm going to do a German family film where me and my wife play the villains. We're really looking forward to it, especially as we've got a little boy now, he won't be able to see Free Fire or most of my films, but he can see this."
Are you going to be speaking German in this?
"Yeah I've done a few times, it'll be my third German film, I've lived in Berlin for eight years."
How do working on German movies compare to British and American movies?
"They are similar. I'm pretty good with my German, I can survive, but acting in another language is strange, you're always wondering if you're pronouncing everything the right way. The working environments are very similar, the type of characters who are prop designers and set builders are the same types of people in Germany and England, it's like roadies, they're a breed the world over."
Finally, you've got Prides And Prejudice And Zombies coming out too right?
"Indeed, that'll be February next year, it's the film to take your girlfriend to on Valentine's Day!"