Sam Riley first came to my attention when he burst onto the scene playing Joy Division’s tragic lead singer Ian Curtis. Now the 37-year-old makes his television debut in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative reality noir, SS-GB, which starts on Sunday. Riley plays Detective Douglas Archer, a man trying to do his job in popst-war London… except in this story, the war was lost by the Allies and London (and the UK) is under the control of the Nazis. We managed to get a hold of an interview with Riley, which you can read after the jump.
The Killing Times: What inspired you to get involved with the project?
Sam Riley: Loads of things appealed. For a start, I’d never played a detective before, especially one in a trilby and smoking cigarettes! I’m a big fan of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir Trilogy about a private detective working in pre-war Berlin. I really love those books. I was also attracted by the fact that Archer speaks German, and I’ve been living in Berlin for the last eight years. And as my dad and my agent put it, “People might actually watch this!”
TKT: Why have you never done TV before?
SR: In the past, TV had always scared me. I was frightened off by the idea of being in a long running format and having to play the same person over many years. But this is very different. It’s great. You have five hours of material to really get your teeth into it. Also, my ego saw that I was in every scene – although my body is now regretting that!
TKT: Can you please outline your character for us?
SR: Archer is ambiguous – that was another thing that appealed about SS-GB. He has an important job and can speak German. He’s looked on favourably by the Germans. He’s a totem for them. Before the war, he caught a serial killer and got the nickname Archer of the Yard. But he is unsure about his role now. He is not a Nazi, but neither is he willing to join The Resistance. He’s happy to keep his job. He thinks that there has to be law and order or things will fall apart. If he’s not there to do it, then who will? His neighbours see him picked up for work by the SS and are suspicious. I think that’s a really interesting place to start a drama. He has a young son. It’s very easy for people who don’t have children to resist the Occupation. But once you have a child – which I do in real life – it makes you ask whether you’d stick your neck out, or whether you would make sure your children are safe and hope it all blows over.
TKT: Why else do you think Archer is an ambiguous character?
SR: Because nothing is black-and-white in this situation. I played a member of the French Resistance once. To research that I watched a documentary called The Sorrow And The Pity about the Nazi Occupation of France. They banned it in France for many years because it went against the public perception that everyone in the Resistance was heroic, which wasn’t the case. A lot of Europe at the time was anti-Semitic. And many people who were occupied thought that if the Germans weren’t going to upset their life, they didn’t want to rock the boat. So Archer starts out being cocky, and then the noose tightens and the pressure is ramped up. His journey should make for a very exciting watch.
TKT: Can you please explain Archer’s relationship with Barbara?
SR: She is a mysterious character. London has become a very drab town. With rationing, everyone is having to make do. Then this glamorous platinum blonde bombshell appears near the scene of the crime. She ingratiates herself with Archer, which he is not unhappy about. What’s interesting about the relationship is that Archer is not sure what Barbara’s motives are – whether she has genuine affection for him, or whether she is linked with the Americans or Germans.
TKT: How have you found it working with Kate [Bosworth]?
SR: It’s been brilliant. Sometimes you don’t like your co-stars and you just have to get on with it. But Kate is fantastic. It’s been great having her around. There’s something about her that you can’t put your finger on. She has the looks and demeanour of a movie star from the golden age.
TKT: What other aspects of working on SS-GB have you relished?
SR: The quality of the cast is outstanding, and the sets are incredible. What’s also been brilliant is having Philipp involved. He’s a superb director. I don’t know what he is taking to give him such energy, but whatever it is, I want some! Thanks to him, we have top German actors prepared to come over here for just three days.
TKT: What is your view of Len Deighton?
SR: I’m a huge fan of his writing. I love those Harry Palmer/Michael Caine movies. Sadly, I have no time to read books at the moment because I have a two-year-old, but I’m very glad to say that I can listen to audiobooks of Len’s novels while I’m pushing the pram!
TKT: The look of SS-GB is very striking, isn’t it?
SR: Absolutely. I love film noir movies. So to be able to wear these wonderful film noir costumes and have my Humphrey Bogart moment is amazing. To play a detective solving crimes and meeting a femme fatale is number one on the list for most actors to play. And now I get to tick that off!
SS-GB: Sunday 19th February, 9pm, BBC1