Sam Riley shoots down typecasting with his dynamic ‘shit bag’ role in ‘FREE FIRE’


Sam Riley as “Stevo” in FREE FIRE. Courtesy of A24.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

“I always wanted to play something like that – a proper shit bag. It’s much more me…”

You might be pretty familiar seeing Sam Riley play either a drug addict or a man more at home in period specific garb. He first grabbed your attention playing Ian Curtis in CONTROL, and has since gone on to play Sal Paradise in ON THE ROAD, Diaval, the crow henchman to the titular villain in MALEFICENT, and Mr. Darcy in the batshit re-imagining of Austen’s literary classic PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. However, in director Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE, he gets to play a potent combo of a character with “Stevo.” Not only is he a drug addict decked out in shiny, satiny Seventies garb, but one with a wicked sense of humor and hubris – a side rarely seen on-screen from the multifaceted Riley.

At the stellar shoot-‘em-up’s recent press day, I was able to sit down with the affable actor to discuss everything from fleshing out his character, to his choice of costume, to what comprises his bucket-list dreams.

I’m always curious about the process of creating a character. It’s a collaborative effort. With this, the script is a little economical with your character, so you can build him from the ground up, right?

Yeah. I think my character has more backstory than a lot of them because of what’s happened the previous evening. [laughs] What a horrible scenario. A lot of it is selling your character by how they look, so the costumes are important. But with Ben, he’s got a great trick of making you feel like there’s an element of authorship where actually he’s sort of masterminding the whole thing somehow. There’s a lot of adlibbing, but at the same time he does it in a way where he’s still the captain of the ship.

You’re also in the background, being there for the other actors as well in scenes. That adds another layer of support, no?

That was great. I don’t think we knew what we were expecting when we got there. It was very much like a team effort. It’s risky with that many guys around as well, that there would be ego, or that someone would feel that they weren’t being treated correctly. There wasn’t any of that. We all realized at the beginning that there would be a close-up of me, but Brie [Larson] would have to lie down and crawl in the background with Armie [Hammer] and we all did that for one another. Everyone mucked in, literally. The framing, Laurie Rose, the DoP – he’s brilliant. I just remember seeing camera people hiding behind massive [shields] all the time because of hazards. They’re all wearing those breathing masks too, because the quality of the air in there was atrocious. Every time a gun would go up, the dust would raise up. This can’t be good for us.

I was talking about this with Brie earlier! I’m sure you’re finding dirt up in places you’d never expect.

Oh it was amazing. It was just black in your nose. You get knocked about a bit, but if you wanted to have a bath at night, you’d have to have a shower first. It was in the scalp. It didn’t matter how many times you shampoo’d or power showered, somehow it managed to stick. Towards the end of the shoot, we almost didn’t bother with the makeup trailer. There was no way of recreating what state we were in with a brush. I had to go because [the character] had a black-eye. We’d all be chatting about what we’d done the night before, and then we’d all start lying on the floor and rubbing our head in the dirty. It was perverse.

That seems to forge a strong bond though.

Yeah. The thing that was the most uncomfortable was the noise – how deafening the guns were in this enclosed space. The crawling around in the moment, you’re in character. We all looked like shit. We’d look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck?!’

Did you get finally get down a system with the wax earplugs?

Yeah. You’re always taking them out to be told what to do next. The color – because you’d have filthy fingers as well – of these things was pretty disgusting.

God bless you guys.

If I look back at it, I don’t really notice it. It’s when you’re being asked about it by people who’ve seen it. If I think about myself, I remember having a great time doing it.

Enzo Cilenti, Micheal Smiley, Sam Riley and Cillian Murphy in FREE FIRE. Courtesy of A24.

I loved your antagonistic dynamic with Jack Reynor’s character. Did you work on that prior to shooting? Was there time to rehearse? Or do you just do it in the moment?

It was all in the moment. It was a great script and my guy is such a shit, you know? The things that come out would irritate anybody. He should’ve just apologized. It would have been a really boring film then. It was the same with everyone. To some extent, our characters became more tailor made for us by Amy Jump, the writer. She’d see what we were bringing, accidentally or with our own personalities, and then sort of tweak the dialogue to fit the character more personally, which is quite an ask from that many actors. Everyone seemed to arrive knowing how to do it. There wasn’t a moment where anyone was like, ‘What’s my motivation?’ Everyone was the right person for the job. I don’t know what that says about me.

Were you like, ‘Really? This is how you see me?’

I love that! That year, the previous year I was playing “Mr. Darcy” so I was really relieved. I always wanted to play something like that – a proper shit bag. It’s much more me than Darcy. I’m more “Stevo” than “Darcy,” for sure. [laughs]

You get punched a lot.

They all… yeah! There were a few, but Cillian’s [Murphy] slap wasn’t even in the script! They put padding on me in certain places and [Michael Smiley] couldn’t hit the padding if his life depended on it. In between takes, I’d go, ‘it’s here Michael. There on this side.’ He’d touch it and hit me on the other side. For fuck’s sake.

But it was funny as well. I was a huge fan of Michael’s before and he was the one I was most nervous about working with. I knew he’d worked with Ben already and would be on fire with him – with improvisation, I was worried if I could keep up with him. I enjoyed bonding with him, squeezing my balls.

Did you get to pick out your wardrobe? It’s lighter than the other characters. They get heavy wools and fabrics.

I love my jacket – the embroidered jacket. Emma Fryer, the wardrobe supervisor, had brilliant ideas and then we sort of then developed it together. I really thought he was one of those guys who would have jewelry and one of those ID bracelets. I don’t remember really being as involved at that stage of things. Emma came with great ideas. Weirdly I’ve seen so many people wearing them. All of them are a bit cleaner.

Did you keep your jacket?

There was nothing that you would want to keep.

When you choose your projects, do you choose the scripts that are going to be challenging to you where you’ll be able to grow as an artist?

It’s difficult. It’s a mix of things. There are a lot of scripts that you read that you just don’t understand why they’re even going to get made. That’s the majority. I’m always excited to read something that I enjoy firstly. That doesn’t happen as much as you’d think. And if it’s challenging on top, that’s fantastic. I don’t wanna repeat myself. There’s always the element of typecasting because people see you in a certain way. “Stevo” was nice for me because it was very different of what I’m like. In that way, it was more challenging because you’re playing then. You’re not just sort of being real. With that part, there’s something you can disappear inside of, that uses yourself, but not in the same way you’re often used to ask of yourself.

Do you have a dream project you’d love to do?

I wanna work with Ben again. I know he’s doing WAGES OF FEAR at some point. I was texting him that I’m Yorkshire’s Yves Montand. I’m hoping he understood that. I think that’s what we all want. You want to find a director, male or female, that’s having their moment. We all wanna be De Niro and find our Scorsese in the moment where they’re at their pinnacle. Whoever my Scorsese is…or if Martin is tired of Leo [Di Caprio] at some point, I’m available. [laughs]

FREE FIRE opens on April 21.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.