Sam Riley talks about On The Road in the February issue of Esquire:
Riley has the week off from shooting On The Road, an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's legendary buzzed-out buddy novel, which is being directed by Brazilian Walter Salles. He has spent his summer hopping between Montreal, New Orleans, Phoenix, Calgary and "the arse-end of Argentina", with further stints in San Francisco and Montreal to come. He's playing Sal Paradise, Kerouac's autobiographical stand-in and narrator, and smoking - specifically learning how to toke on filterless Camels "without getting a gob full of baccy" - has been a key part of the prep. Then there's the accent, "which is awkward, because he's French-Canadian, but from Boston, and likes to sound like he's from New York", not to mention the physical discrepancies. Kerouac was muscular, blue-eyed and went to Columbia on a sports scholarship. Riley is from a village near Leeds, has brown eyes, and is, by his own admission, "a proper streak of piss". "I'm sure I'm not welcome in Los Angeles at the moment," he says, taking a drag. "There must be a lot of guys going, 'Who the fuck? From Leeds? Where the fuck's Leeds?'"
He's almost certainly right, and there are probably some older ones muttering too. For Americans, On The Road, the story of Sal and his friend Dean Moriarty crisscrossing the country on a jazz-fuelled, mind-expanding odyssey, is one of those books: a heavyweight contender in the ongoing quest for the Great American Novel and a usual suspect on any high-school syllabus. Francis Ford Coppola has held the movie rights to the book since 1968, and there were numerous abortive attempts to transpose it onto the screen before Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries, finally got the nod. A few weeks before shooting began, Salles showed Riley and Garrett Hedlund, star of the recent Tron revival who plays Dean, a documentary he'd made about past efforts to put On The Road on film.
"You wouldn't believe it," says Riley. "It starts off with the tale of how Dennis Hopper was going to do it with Jean-Luc Godard. Hopper went to meet Godard at an office in Los Angeles and found a note on the door that basically said, 'I'm sorry Dennis, I can't stand the weather here. I've gone back to Europe.' That was before it even started. Then there's Johnny Depp being interviewed saying, 'I was going to do it with Brad Pitt.' Sean Penn was going to do it with John Malkovich and Gus Van Sant or something. Then Leonardo DiCaprio was going to play Sal. Then they plyed us casting tapes of Brendan Fraser playing Sal and Matthew McConaughey doing Dean and Russell Crowe as [William S] Burroughs. It went on and on. They asked all these experts what they want from the movie ans Sean Penn goes, 'I hope it's well acted.' Then the documentary ends. I was like, 'Great. Why are you playing this to us? What the fuck?!'"