Riley doesn’t command attention in On The Road, and that’s the point. Stealing thunder is Dean Moriarty’s job. Dean (played by Hedlund) is Sal’s brilliantly exciting counterpart, the Butch Cassidy to his Sundance Kid. In contrast to Dean, Sal is reserved, contemplative. He sits at his typewriter smoking cigarettes. He crumples paper. He opens a book and closes it. He stands along the highway with the collar of his hunting jacket turned upward. He’s in the other room when Dean is with a woman or he’s watching as his two best male friends make out. Like Sal, Riley is a spectator, an outsider for whom observation often trumps action.
In preparation for the shoot, the actors were sent by Salles to what Riley calls “Beatnik Boot Camp” in Montreal, where they were given dialect lessons, tutored by Beat experts, listened to jazz, and watched films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and John Cassavetes’ Shadows. While there, Riley also got his first taste of Stewart’s superstardom. Early on in his training, a car pulled up to him in front of his hotel. The driver said, “Excuse me, sir—would you mind walking up the street again so I can take a photo of you?” Riley thought the driver was from production, but soon realized that she was a paparazzo looking to practice on Riley while she waited for Stewart to emerge. “At 19, I think I would have wanted to be that famous, but now that I’m older and settled I wouldn’t like it at all,” Riley says. He stops for a moment to reconsider. “Actually, I wouldn’t mind the money.”
Be careful what you wish for. This summer, Riley filmed Maleficent, a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty starring Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning (see page 148), with an estimated $200 million budget. He describes his Disney debut in relation to his previous roles as “more or less the same, only I don’t smoke or die.” As a raven named Diaval who sometimes appears in human form, he plays the sidekick to Jolie’s evil queen. He shakes his head, recalling with disbelief his first day on set. “They said, ‘Angelina is ready,’ and all I could see was the back of her head with these huge horns on it. I thought, Fucking hell! What am I supposed to do?” According to Riley, Jolie was “quite subversive,” even when playing by the rules of such a large production. “She’s doing Disney but she doesn’t want it to be too safe,” he says of Jolie, who allegedly fought for him to get the part after he was ruled out for not being “Disney material.” Before Maleficent hits theaters, he’ll star as a vampire in Neil Jordan’s latest film, Byzantium. “I have the complexion of a vampire,” Riley says drily. He has other undead characteristics, too—a widow’s peak, arched brows, and canines angled like the ends of an upside-down canoe. “I always thought I was overdoing it, but how can you not when you’re changing into a vampire?”
Riley feels lucky to be working, but he doesn’t subscribe to the trappings of celebrity. “I always feel kind of exposed by the time a movie comes out,” he says. “You’re putting yourself out there, which I don’t mind doing, but it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.” He gets nervous after he recalls what he’s said about someone like Stewart or Jolie. “What I have to say isn’t newsworthy, but what I have to say about Kristen or Angelina is newsworthy, which is weird. And sometimes you say something that doesn’t translate, and you read it and think, I sound like such an arrogant twat, but I was fucking joking.” He avoided reading almost any review of On the Road—that is, until he stumbled across a negative reaction online. “That opened the floodgates,” he says. “I read the article and I read the comments afterward. Big mistake. Then I wanted to see if I could find a review that was extremely positive, in order to restore the balance in my mind. But you only remember the bad ones. I’m back off it now.” It’s near impossible, he says, to kick the habit. “But I’m two weeks clean without Googling myself.” The only critic from whom Riley looks forward to hearing is his grandfather. “Mostly it’s because he completely dismisses my work. He told me, ‘I saw Brighton Rock—it should have never been made,’” Riley says of the 2010 adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel in which he plays a 17-year-old sociopath. “I was like, Thanks, Grandpa! You really hit the nail there!”
Over the course of two hours, Riley sheds his detached exterior. He cracks jokes, swears, and shares drinking stories. Still, it’s hard to pinpoint what he’s passionate about. “My private life,” he says matter-of-factly and without pause. “My passion is at home, in the garden with my flowers. I sweep up pine needles.” The days of pub fights and tour buses seem like distant memories. “I play guitar a little bit and I sing in the car and in the shower. I miss it sometimes,” he adds with more than a touch of wistfulness. “Not the business, but the camaraderie and the feeling of playing live—I love that. Essentially, I’m a show-off.” These days, however, his live shows are limited to karaoke bars. “It’s the only opportunity I get to have a bit of a sing,” says Riley, who always warms up the crowd with Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” On his most recent trip to the pub, and with more than a splash of liquid courage, he expanded his repertoire to include songs by Adele and Creedence Clearwater Revival. “At least I think that’s what we sang.”
Want more? Get into the Surreal Issue, now at The Bullet Shop!