The Café Einstein Stammhaus is situated in what was once silent-movie star Henny Porten’s villa in Berlin’s affluent Charlottenburg neighborhood. Its gilded walls are covered in mirrors, and the bow tie–wearing waiters glide through the coffeehouse carrying cappuccinos on silver trays. Into this already glamorous scene enters On the Road star Sam Riley: tall, rakish, and wearing dark sunglasses that match his expertly unkempt brown hair. The English actor lives nearby, “sort of,” surrounded by everyday neighbors, the vast majority of whom are septuagenarians. “It’s nice not to live next to too many hip people,” he says. Riley enjoys the anonymity of Berlin, where he lives with his wife, Romanian actor Alexandra Maria Lara. If there’s an enclave of Hollywood expats settled in Germany, he’s not paying attention to it. “I’m sure there is,” he says. “I just haven’t gotten my invite yet.” At 32, Riley carries with him an air of boyish mischief, despite his penchant for playing world-weary, chain-smoking brooders. “I know I have a face that can look quite forlorn sometimes,” he says, “but I’m really not a moody guy.”
Blame Anton Corbijn. In the director’s 2007 film Control, he handed Riley his breakthrough role as Joy Division’s depressive, epileptic frontman Ian Curtis, who hanged himself at the age of 23. The part launched Riley’s acting career and introduced him to his wife. “It’s bonkers how quickly your luck can change. I wasn’t bumping into many gorgeous Romanian movie stars playing the pub circuit,” he says, referring to his stint as the lead singer of 10,000 Things, a six-man rock group (touted, improbably, as Leeds’ answer to Oasis) who’d recently been dropped from Polydor Records when he was offered the part. Certain that his career as an artist was over, Riley, who was raised by his textile agent father and nursery school teacher mother, took jobs slinging pints in bars and folding shirts in a warehouse. When he auditioned for Control, he says, “I really didn’t have anything to lose.” He was cast alongside Lara, who played Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, the woman with whom Curtis had an extramarital tryst. “I was instantly bowled over,” Riley says about meeting her.
In Control, the affair with Honoré broke up Curtis’ marriage; reenacting their dalliance led to Riley’s own. In a surreal conversation he had with the actual Honoré, Riley says, “She was touched that what hadn’t been possible in life, for her and Ian, had somehow played out between Alexandra and I.” After they wrapped the shoot in late 2006, Riley boarded a plane to Berlin to be with Lara, who has lived in Germany since she was 4. “It was the first time I’d been on an airplane by myself, so coming here was grand,” he says. In 2009, Riley and Lara married, and he made Berlin his permanent residence.
Riley was once again saddled with the challenge of portraying a quietly charismatic cult icon when he was cast as Sal Paradise,the protagonist in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 beat bible On the Road. Sal, a blocked writer who embarks on a cross- country road trip with Dean Moriarty, is a difficult role in part because the film itself was made despite near-crippling obstacles. The history of its failed big-screen adaptations is almost as epic and meandering as the book itself. Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to the book in 1979, which set into motion a revolving door of high-profile actors (Marlon Brando, Brad Pitt, Ethan Hawke), screenwriters (Russell Banks, Barry Gifford, Roman Coppola), and directors (Gus Van Sant, Joel Schumacher) who tied themselves to the film. One after another, each attempt fell apart. Walter Salles’ version, out in December, wouldhave followed suit had it not been for the film’s French investors. “The fact is that it’s un-filmable, but the French don’t really give a fuck about that,” Riley says. (The graphic sex scenes, in which all of the main characters get down and dirty in different configurations, are also giveaways of the film’s un-American sponsorship.)
Salles auditioned dozens of talented actors—James Franco and Joseph Gordon- Levitt among them—but he says, “Sam’s reading brought a level of resonance and humanity to the role that we had not yet encountered. He has the intelligence and the sensibility of a writer. On the Road is an ode to youth and freedom, but it’s also an ode to literature and the creative process. Sam relayed that better than anyone.” Riley wasn’t immune to the pressure of the challenge; luckily, he wasn’t in it alone. His costars Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart helped carry the burden of bringing to life one of literature’s most fetishized threesomes.