Thursday, 11 October 2007

Interview with Sam Reilly - by Robert Duffin

“Ian Curtis means so many things to so many people” muses actor Sam Riley who portrays the cryptic lead singer of Joy Division in Anton Corbijn’s biopic Control which was released in the UK this week. The group, who formed in 1976, only achieved modest success before Curtis committed suicide in May 1980, releasing only two official albums and a handful of singles. Yet despite this they became one of the most influential bands in modern musical history. The four boys from Macclesfield who emerged as Warsaw, just another three chord plying post-punk band, would go on to challenge perceptions of popular music.

Plucked from relative obscurity to play one of the most intense front man in rock history, Sam Riley knew it was not an easy task to undertake. “Ian was one of the most unusual front men in music, Elvis had the pelvis and Curtis had…the arms,” Riley struggling as everyone has to classify Curtis continues, “the fascinating thing about him is that he’s not the classic front man, he’s not full of bravado and confidence, he’s quite fragile which makes him more mesmerising as there’s a sort of fear and desperation in him which I tried to convey.” When Control premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the furore surrounding Riley confirmed that his attempts were successful.

Distancing himself from the classic rock star mythologizing, Curtis continued to work as a civil servant after the legendary Sex Pistols gig that resulted in the formation of the band. Even when they were achieving moderate success, thanks to the late Tony Wilson allowing them to showcase material on Granada Reports, he continued to work while cultivating his stage persona. Riley notes, “I knew immediately that that part of the character, the stage persona and the dance and the singing style was going to be very important to get as close as I could to looking and behaving as much like Ian as I could.” On stage Curtis was a shifty eyed demon with a booming bass baritone voice, an intimidating spectre despite being an genial young man with a higher pitched speaking voice, further developing the duality of his personality. His inimitable dancing, reputedly drawn from his own experiences of epileptic seizures, provided Riley with his first horrifying audition story. He mocks Corbijn’s first question to him in a faux-Dutch accent, “can I see you move?” “I knew I might be asked to do the dance at the audition but I hadn’t prepared so I was hoping Anton wouldn’t ask. I was sitting outside the room for my audition and there was another lad in before me, and suddenly I saw him fly past the window waving his arms around! So I headed straight for the toilets to practice!”
Whatever practice he managed to squeeze in obviously paid off, and the former front man of 10000 Things would now have to become the former leading man of one of the defining bands in British music history. “With Ian Curtis, and the time that Joy Division were playing, there’s only about an hour and a half of footage of them, two television shows and the rest is VHS of fan recorded concerts of poor quality,” Riley observed, “It was just a case of watching them again and again, and dancing around my living room in front of the TV or the mirror, which was quite embarrassing but essential. It didn’t really all come together until I arrived on set and I got the hair cut, put on the clothes, and the band I started learning the songs.” The recreation of the music itself would prove to be a contentious issue on set. “It’s impossible to do anything completely live from so many different camera angles, and we simply weren’t good enough” adds Sam Riley, and as a result of this the band recorded their versions of the tracks so they could mime to their own playback on set. Riley continues, “We tried playing the songs for the audience of extras first and recorded that version and we played that back to ourselves while filming. So some of it is absolutely live, and the rest is our own recorded performance.”

Taking the award for Best Performance at the Edinburgh International Film Festival was another milestone in the burgeoning career of the young British actor hotly tipped to be the next big thing. Yet he closes with what he rather modestly feels most contented with during this whirlwind year of his life, “you know there are so many Joy Division fans, an army of hardcore fans, who have approached me and thankfully they’ve been nice! That's what mattered.”
Control is on general release now.

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