Top image: Still, ‘Sometimes Always Never’ (2018) dir. Carl Hunter
Since his breakout role as Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s biographical black-and-white film Control, which earned him a BAFTA nomination amongst others, actor Sam Riley has continued to make waves within the cinematic field. Between playing Stevo, a reckless wrongdoer in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire and appearing alongside Angelina Jolie as Diaval in Disney’s live-action adaptation of Maleficent, Riley has proved his prowess as an actor with a multi-faceted repertoire.
In his most recent project, he plays the role of Peter in Carl Hunter’s Brit comedy-drama, Sometimes Always Never. Starring opposite industry veteran Bill Nighy who portrays his father, Alan, the film explores the troubled relationship between the two in light of the absence of Peter’s brother, Michael, who’s been missing since he walked out during a seemingly innocuous game of Scrabble.
Here, we talk to Sam Riley about his character, what it was like to work with Nighy and the process of delivering a heart-breaking story through the medium of humour.
Lakeisha Goedluck: How did you first get involved with the film?
Sam Riley: I used to be a musician before I was a luvvie and I knew Carl Hunter from his band The Farm, and I knew Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s work and that he’d written the script for Sometimes Always Never. I was told Bill Nighy was attached to the film, too, so those three elements piqued my interest very quickly.
LG: And what were your first impressions?
SR: I read the script while I was on holiday and it really touched me – it was so charming. I’d not really done anything like that. I’ve done a lot of extreme films recently, either involving dying or very adult content. The fact that it’d be shot in Yorkshire and Liverpool appealed to me, too, and I just really wanted to work with Nighy. And the fact that it was a short shoot – that’s always nice.
LG: What was it like working with Carl Hunter as your director?
SR: It’s his first big feature film, so he doesn’t have any of the ego that certain directors can inherit. He had these new wave European ideas that meant it wasn’t going to be your typical British comedy, which can be very twee, and, well, bollocks. The whole filming experience just felt like a breath of fresh air. He had all these weird rules: no one will close or open a door, there are no close-ups, we’re not allowed to waiver from the script.
LG: How did you cope with all those rules?
SR: Actually, my sister sent me a link to an article that said Nighy’s pet peeve is when people don’t know their lines – even for rehearsal. She sent it to me the night before I flew out to Liverpool to start rehearsing and I was like, “Ah, fuck.” That was a long night spent cramming.
“[it wasn’t going to be] your typical British comedy, which can be very twee, and, well, bollocks.”
LG: What was Nighy like to work with in general?
SR: He’s a fascinating man. He’s sort of exactly what you’d imagine him to be like, but also full of surprises as well. I loved his way of working. I’ve worked with method actors before, but I think it should be within reason. If you’re playing an asshole, there’s no reason to be an asshole to the make-up person. Nighy is like the anti-method actor. It was inspirational to watch someone who was that prepared, and it encouraged me to do the same. He also knows everybody’s name on set and that puts you under pressure as well.
LG: You play his character Alan’s son Peter. What were your initial impressions of the role?
SR: There’s always something tragic about suicide, but I feel like the most harrowing instances are the ones where someone just disappears. You can’t ever really tell yourself that they’re gone because there must always be a niggling part of the mind that says that maybe they just didn’t ever want to see you again. Or maybe they are somewhere on earth and they’ll come back. And then to be a sibling of one of these people – someone who stayed but is not really seen by the parent because the individual that went missing is always the most present child somehow. There was something that really moved me about the idea of playing that person.
LG: That’s the most interesting aspect of the film: it can be so harrowing, but the script is still injected with comedy. How did you find balancing the two?
SR: It’s such a British trait to laugh through adversity. I’ve had friends who have been in hospital for all sorts of terrible ailments, but we go and take the piss out of them. It’s sad but we don’t dwell on miserable things. And life is funny, isn’t it? Even when it’s not intentional.
LG: Were there any comedy scenes or otherwise that you particularly enjoyed filming?
SR: I always looked forward to doing the scenes in the car with Nighy. They were always very long – I’m talking a lot of pages of dialogue – and we weren’t cutting in and out. We’d do a whole take for six or seven minutes and then do another. I’ve never really done theatre, except for the National Youth Theatre as a child, so working with someone of his calibre and being able to perform for that amount of time with a nuanced script was a lot of fun.
LG: Another film you’ve got coming out, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, I’ve read was heavily improvised. How did shooting that film compare?
SR: Scripting is easier because you’ve got something to cling onto – provided you can learn it. The more often that you learn lines, the easier it becomes, and it helps if it’s well written. Period stuff or badly written stuff is always harder to learn, because neither naturally come out how you want to say it. I loved working with Ben [Wheatley] and improvising, but to be honest, on the first day of shooting I was really terrified. What you do with Wheatley is you do one take on the script and one take off it, and then he’ll say what he liked about the improvised version and tell you to do that when you go back to the script. Often, the exercise of just having done it completely differently makes you perform the script in a more natural, realistic way without you deliberately trying to do so. I was with my wife [Alexandra Maria Lara], and she was nervous because German is her first language and she’d have to improvise in English. So I was also sort of nervous for her and I didn’t need to be at all. The first day I was like, ‘uh, urrrh, uh,’ and my wife started helping me out!
LG: Both films recently premiered at the London Film Festival. How do you hope audiences will react to Sometimes Always Never?
SR: I hope they fucking love it. When I read it, I felt like it had a lot of heart and charm. You always hope people love [the film]. Small British films have been my bread and butter in previous years and they’re getting harder and harder to make – there’s fewer of them around. I enjoy supporting British film and first-time directors – although, Hunter is getting on a bit! [laughs].
Sometimes Always Never is out now.