'On The Road' is the ultimate novel for the Beat Generation, with Jack Kerouac, and has weathered many attempts to bring it to the big screen. But finally, it's made it onto celluloid, with the trio of young stars Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, and our own Sam Riley - best known previously for 'Control' and the recent remake of 'Brighton Rock'.
Sam Riley in 'On The Road'
The story which has a huge cult following is based on the travels of Kerouac and his friends across America. It is considered a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation and has inspired many generations of people to grab their back packs and head of on an adventure of a life time. To mark the DVD release of this soul-searching road movie, Sam Riley speaks about what a Yorkshire boy is doing in this A-list lineup, and how he prepared for Beatnik Boot Camp...
How did you know you'd got the role?
I met director Walter Salles – weirdly – in Cannes, the year after 'Control', which was there in 2007. My wife [Alexandra Maria Lara] was on the jury. We had breakfast together, he'd seen 'Control' and he said that he was doing On The Road, that he'd like to meet me, and he was meeting a lot of people. Later that year, nearer Christmas, I went to New York and auditioned with Garrett [Hedlund], who'd already been signed up for quite a while, a least a year or so. Kristen [Stewart] was as well. And we went out for the evening, Garrett and I, and we hit it off really well, then we auditioned together the next day. I thought it went well – I mean, you can usually tell whether they are interested or not. But, like anyone else. I thought it would be an unusual choice to hire in a six-foot blond Yorkshireman to play a stocky, Quebecois, Boston-American icon.
Sam Riley (rear) with Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund in 'On The Road'
What clinched it?
I think it was partly the natural rapport I had with Garrett, really. They certainly weren't looking for anybody other than him, they were looking for someone to play with him. But no one really said anything. Then I went home and I heard very soon after that they'd run out of money. Again! I mean, this is the story of 'On The Road' from 1960 onwards.
Had you read the book?
I hadn't, no. I'd other “young men” books, like 'Catcher In The Rye', 'Slaughterhouse Five' – things that young men read. And I had lots of friends that had read 'On the Road' and had gone travelling in their gap year. But the whole thing didn't appeal to me, really. I wanted to get on with being a rock star, or whatever I wanted to be at that time. So I read it once I knew I was gonna go to New York and meet Garrett. I think I read the script first, before I read the book, and it forever spoiled the book for me, because I was reading it thinking, God, I might have to do this... I wasn't thinking, 'Isn't this dreamy, I wanna go out on the road!' But I could see the appeal, and I could see that one feels like Sal Paradise when one's reading it. I read some of his other books after that. I enjoyed reading Big Sur, but it's of no help to playing him as a 20-year-old.
So what kind of research did you do?
Walter sent me some CDs with lots of recordings of Kerouac. I started having dialect lessons every morning for the two months before the shoot, and I continued those throughout. Walter said from the beginning that there would be a lot of improvisation. The film, like the book, fizzes with youthful energy. And I was worried that, being an Englishman playing this American icon, I had to do my very best not to throw anyone out of it. So I put a lot of time into that, and also typewriting, so that I could be as fast as I could be. But I'm quite dyslexic, so I had to learn tricks.
Riley's rapport with Garrett Hedlund was what clinched the role for him, he believes
They didn't use a hand double?
The extreme close-up is, because it would have taken all day! The other stuff isn't. I couldn't spell my own name that fast! But I could learn certain phrases of the book off by heart. I also had French-Canadian lessons, which doesn't feature so much in the finished film, but originally there were quite a few more scenes with my mother where we spoke French with this Quebecois accent. And I tried to become as knowledgeable about jazz as I could, so I could tell my Dizzy Gillespie from my Charlie Parker, stuff like that. It was a full programme. Walter doesn't believe in free time.
What happened at Beatnik Boot Camp?
I t sounds like us doing a lot of exercise while reciting poetry, but it wasn't like that. It was Beatnik school, really. It was a chance for us all to get together before shooting, so that Walter could really coerce us into a unit and feel that we were bonding with one another before we went off and did the movie. We had biographers come and talk to us. Neal Cassady's son John came, people who were around at the same time. We watched documentaries and films, like John Cassavetes' Shadows. We read books. Immersing ourselves in the real people, so that we could always have that in the backs of our minds when we went off to be Sal and Dean.
It must have been quite tricky to play, since you're playing the alter egos of real people – and you're also playing a version of Kerouac before he became a famous writer.
Yeah, exactly. I don't really need to know anything about what happened to him after that. And also it was quite confusing, because I was sometimes referred to as Jack by the crew, but I was actually playing Sal. I used Sal as a defence against my own self-doubt or fears about having to play Jack Kerouac, really.
Walter perhaps went further than an American director in terms of the sex and the drugs, especially with the Benzedrine inhalers.
Educational! (Laughs) Well, funnily enough, we learned how to do that from Al Hinkle, who is Ed Dunkel in the movie. He's a great old guy who was with them at the time. And he showed us, via Skype, how to break into a Benzedrine inhaler. We had an 80-year-man teaching us how to take Benzedrine! There were quite a few surreal moments like that.
Walter's also quite liberal with the sex scenes. Is that something you ever had any doubts about?
Of course. I am extroverted, I have my moments, but... I knew that would be controversial, to some extent. I'd only just got married as well, so it wouldn't have thrilled me if my missus had to go off and do that. It took more courage for me to do those scenes than it did others. I can play other things much more easily. No offence to my colleagues, I'm sure they were thinking the same way. You look at one another, you shrug your shoulders and you hope Walter doesn't want to do it in more than one take.
But Garrett had more nude scenes than you, didn't he?
I ended up seeing his plonker more than my own brother's, I think, during that period of time. He was fearless, I heard a rumour that he pulled his trousers down in the audition, just to show how willing he was.
In what way did you think it would be controversial?
Well, I guess I'm curious to see how America takes it. Because the shock of the book... What was on the original manuscript was toned down for the final book. But in America today you can have films like 'Saw', where you can show graphic decapitations, but showing young people having sex or taking drugs could land it with a certificate that makes it hard for people to see the movie. I don't really understand what an NC-17, all I know is that it's the kiss of death at the box office.
Do you feel that you lived this journey?
Walter would have liked it to have been more chronological, but we had to shoot Kristen first, then we had to go back and do it again. But, I mean, there weren't any stunt drivers. And when we were walking through the snow, we were always wondering when he'd call cut. He used tricks like that, because he wanted it to be as real and spontaneous as possible. I mean, we could have tried to fit every scene of the book into the film, but that wouldn't have made for a very watchable film. So he tried to capture with us the spirit of it, if not the running order. There were hours and hours of footage. I remember we were halfway through the shoot and we thought, We've got three hours of footage now, and there's still three and a half months to go.
Was it tiring?
Yes. When I was tired or fed up, Walter, or one of his people, would phone up and say, “The sun's out.” I 'd be like, “Yeah, and I want to enjoy it. Can we wait?” They'd say, “No, because it was raining on Monday, and we're gonna go out.” I usually had the costume at hand in case these things happened. So I'd get in the car with Walter, Eric [Gaultier, DoP] and Garrett, we'd drive around, find a nice-looking field, get out and shoot. We managed to do 19 set-ups in an afternoon, which can be two day's work. I remember at the time thinking, I want a day off! But watching the movie,
some of the most beautiful moments – and the scenes where I look the most road-weary – are those. So, as much as I clashed with that method sometimes, I respect what Walter was doing. And I enjoyed doing the driving.
How much of your own driving did you do?
I don't do as much driving as Garrett. He was amazing – he bought one, a Hudson. So he knew everything about these cars, he was an excellent driver. I needed glasses, which I didn't tell anyone about! And one day they put Eric in the middle of the road with the camera and said, “Drive as fast as you can, and stop as close to the camera as you can.” I was sat next to Kristen, and... I don't remember. He was just a dot and a blur, until we got quite close. After the take, Kristen was like, “Wow, you loved that! Dude, you had your face right up against the windscreen!” And I was like, “Yes, because I couldn't see a thing!”
Was it strange that Kristen was in and out of the shoot?
Yeah, but she was there for the first three months. It was strange with the other people. I finished a day after Garrett, but we were there from the very first day of Boot Camp to the very last second of wrap. And on the way, people came and went the whole time. Steve Buscemi was there for a week. Kirsten Dunst would be there, then she'd go, then she'd come back. Same with Viggo Mortensen. We just kept travelling around America, and people would come and work. And I'd never seen America either, really, so that worked for my character, to see all these things for the first time.
What do you think the appeal of the book is? Why have so many people tried to make it?
I think, particularly for boys, probably, that it's about a period of life that everyone goes through, regardless of what era you're living in. That feeling of breaking away from parents and teachers. It's the time when you start taking control of your own destiny and making your own choices, deciding when you want to go to bed or not go to bed. That's something we all go through. And the way Kerouac managed to write it means that everyone who reads it feels like they are him, somehow. One of the benefits of playing him is that it's all there, to some extent. And the strangest thing about playing it is that, although it's all there in the book, to do it in reality, I am very much a witness to it, more so than I am a participant in a lot of it, because of Sal's infatuation – love – for Dean.
It is the original bromance, isn't it
(Laughs) It is, isn't it?