Portraying a well-known, beloved literary character from a critically acclaimed novel in a film adaptation is taunting task for many actors, particularly for those who were unfamiliar with the book before shooting began. But Sam Riley, who plays Sal Paradise in the new movie ‘On the Road,’ and hadn’t read the classic 1957 book of the same name by Jack Kerouac that the drama’s based on, easily took on the task of discovering the unknown to his character. He battles his inner conflicts of staring a stable family and working life during the Beat Generation of the late 1940s, while also being intrigued by the carefree, traveling lifestyle of his new friends.
‘On the Road,’ which was directed by Walter Salles, follows Sal, a young New York City writer (played by Riley), whose life is ultimately redefined by the arrival of Dean Moriarty (portrayed by Garett Hedlund), a free-spirited, fearless Westerner. Dean and his girlfriend, Marylou (played by Kristen Stewart), are living a carefree style, and urge Sam to join them on a personal quest for freedom from the conformity and conservatism surrounding them. They travel across the country in search of themselves, through the use of drugs, jazz and poetry in the aftermath of World War II.
Along the way, the trio’s pursuit of the pure essence of experience is continuously shaped by their interactions with the people they meet along the way, including Camille (portrayed by Kirsten Dunst). Dean ultimately marries and has children with Camille, feeling that he should settle down, but still continues to live his care-free lifestyle with Marylou and Sal.
Riley generously took the time to sit down during a roundtable interview recently in New York City to discuss filming ‘On the Road.’ Among other things, the actor discussed the process of preparing for his role of Sal Paradise, how quickly he formed a close bond and working relationship with Hedlund and how he relates to his character’s nonjudgmental nature towards those living outside the social norm.
Question (Q): What was your favorite part of this role?
Sam Riley (SR): That’s difficult, because it was such an honor, as well as being very intimidating. I worked with a lifetime’s worth of great actors in one film. Meeting Garrett, and becoming friends with him, was great, but the whole thing was pretty unusual.
Q: Was there anyone in particular that you really enjoyed working with?
SR: Without upsetting anyone, I’ve been a big fan of Viggo (Mortensen) and Steve (Buscemi). After working with Steve one day, we all went to the bar together, and that was quite surreal. He was really nice, and I wanted to ask him lots of questions about ‘The Big Lebowski,’ and he was more than happy to share some secrets. All of them are great, but you pinch yourself, like how did I get here?
Q: You and the other lead actors had a beatnik camp prior to the shoot. What was that like?
SR: It was great. But when I heard we were going to be doing beatnik boot camp, I thought we were going to be doing push-ups and poetry, something like that. But it was more or less like going back to school. We had an apartment in Montreal, and everyday we would go at like 9 o’clock in the morning. We’d have biographers come talk to us. We’d talk to people who knew them, and watch documentaries. We listened to jazz, and rehearse a little bit. Walter wanted us to get to know one another. Since we go on this big trip, we’d be familiar and comfortable with each other.
Also, it was a long time ago. We had to know more about that time, and what was going on historically then. The strange thing was that I playing Jack Kerouac and Sal Paradise, so we filled our heads with the real people, and the realities of who they are. So all of that was in the back of your mind, somewhere, and then you’re free to play Sal, without having to think about how Jack would say it.
It was great, it was a long time. Normally you don’t get so much preparation time before doing something. Also, of course at the end of the four weeks, you’re like, let’s get on with it.
Q: Were you worried about that bond between you and Garrett?
SR: No, I think it was one of the things that got me the job in the first place. He was already on board. I think we met for the first time in 2008 or 2009, here in New York. I auditioned, and he obviously had already been chosen for a long time, and they auditioned with a lot of other guys. I don’t think a Yorkshireman was the first choice to play an American icon.
We got along very well immediately. We went out the night before the audition, and got to know each other. That was very natural. It was very lucky; we couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. He’s a Minnesota farm boy and I’m an Englishman. But it could have been difficult, because actors can be quite ambitious, and egos can play a big part in things. But he’s not really like that. There was no competition, just brotherly rivalry.
Q: Sal is a character who doesn’t judge, and everyone he sees is inspiration material. What aspects of your character do you sympathize with the most?
SR: I don’t really know. I’ve heard these words a lot. I am the witness, my part in the film. I don’t do a lot of flamboyant stuff. I do a lot of listening and smoking cigarettes.
Everyone of the experts who knew him said that period of his life, before the fame and alcoholism, he was a very open and warm person. It was quite unusual at that time to have openly homosexual friends and love the black culture as much as they did, and to take drugs and have sex out of wedlock. But he never judged people. That was the thing that people kept saying to me, that he was open-minded to all walks of life and types of characters. I tried to associate myself with that.
Also, I was finding America for the first time myself, like him. I’ve only really been to New York and Los Angeles, to do these sorts of things (press interviews). You only see a small angle of America as a country, and the people that you meet. I loved the variety in this country, environmentally, how the landscape changes, and the different personalities of people. It was really fascinating.
Q: Talking about playing the witness, did you find it challenging to be blasé about the ridiculousness of what was going on around you? Garrett had numerous nude scenes, and opened the door naked at one point, for example. You were so nonjudgmental.
SR: I don’t know what that says about what I had seen or heard before. We all felt so much pressure. It’s a gift and a burden to be given these parts. We knew that so many people had nearly played them before, and we were the ones that had been lucky enough to do it. It really felt like we were so tight in that way, us against the world.
But it’s funny, I haven’t seen my brother that often naked as often as Garrett. It sounds ridiculous, but you don’t really think about it. It was funny, because he was always making a joke out of it. It was very funny.
Q: How familiar were you with the book before you signed onto the film? Were you familiar with Jack’s life at all before you joined the cast?
SR: No. In America, it’s a book most students study in school. A lot of people I’ve met have said that they had. It’s not so much in England. We have our own people that we’re forced to read.
I had read books by other young men around that age, like ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ But I had friends that read ‘On the Road,’ but for some reason, it sort of passed me by. So I didn’t read it until they sent me the script, and I knew I was going to audition for it. It’s a bit strange, because I read it a bit later, maybe about 26 or 27. I loved it, and could appreciate exactly why it is appreciated by that age group. But I was reading it, I was thinking, how are they going to do this, and how am I going to do it? I was sort of spoiled in a way, I guess.
A lot of my heroes, musically, I was a musician before I was an actor, were influenced by the writing style of Burrows. They kind of kicked off the hippie movement and punk. They’re sort of the godfathers of the idea of teenagers as well, before that was even a phrase, youth culture. I learned a lot at the boot camp, also.
Q: In the movie, you have some racy scenes with Kristen Stewart. What was it like to film those scenes?
SR: It’s a strange thing. I never had to do that much of that sort of thing before, and they’re not the sort of scenes that I relish. There’s not a lot you can do or play, necessarily. It’s like a fight-you hit, you duck. It’s all quite orchestrated.
I was pretty uncomfortable. She was 19, and I was nearly 30 and married. (laughs) We’re mates, but it was weird. You do it as quickly as possible, unlike in real life. You want to try to get it right the first or second time, so you don’t have to do it a lot of times.
My grandparents went to go watch it, and my grandfather’s 90. I said, what do you think of it, and he said, you were very good, but it was a bit racy in some points. He said, it’s not really my generation, and I said, it is your generation, you were there.
Q: Did you know KristenT before you worked together on this film?
SR: No, I don’t come into much contact with stars in my daily life. I’m married to a German one (actress Alexandra Maria Lara).
I knew the Jodie Foster move she was in (‘Panic Room’), but I didn’t realize it was her. I had seen ‘Into the Wild,’ and my younger sister loves the ‘Twilight’ movies. Kristen tried to explain to me the plot for the one that just came out (‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2′), and it sounded bonkers. (laughs) It’s like, he’s a vampire, and he’s a werewolf. I get pregnant by the vampire, and the child grows at an enormous rate, and comes out almost at toddler age. I thought, this is very unusual for children’s’ entertainment. (laughs) But I didn’t know anyone before starting.
Written by: Karen Benardello