We’ve seen a number of iterations of Mr. Darcy on screen before, but none like Sam Riley’s version in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The film is an adaptation of the Seth Grahame-Smith novel, which is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies. In this rendition, Mr. Darcy is still extremely wealthy, but a good deal of his arrogance stems from the fact that he’s a pro zombie-killer who dispatches unmentionables with a vengeance.
During an on-set roundtable interview conducted back in November 2014, Riley told us all about his interpretation of the character, how the outbreak affects the class system, his questionable but surprisingly clever zombie apocalypse survival tactic and loads more. You can check it all out in the interview below.
Question: Can you talk about your character a little bit?
SAM RILEY: Well, essentially he’s Mr. Darcy and exactly the same issues and pride and repression as the Jane Austen novel, but he is also a zombie-killing expert. He is particularly resolute in his hatred of them and his wanting to have them all wiped out because his father was infected and he was forced to kill him so he’s not very popular, but he’s rich.
In the film the apocalypse happens 70 years before we get to you. How does that change the interpretation of the character?
RILEY: That’s the fun of it because the romance is still very much there and we’re playing those sort of moments very seriously even if we might be attacking each other with letter openers or pokers or occasionally having to kill someone in the process. But he’s maybe slightly more militant than Colin Firth. It’s my mom’s favorite book so she’s thrilled and I asked her, I’m gonna watch one of them as a sort of anchor and she said, ‘There’s only one and that’s the BBC [version].’ So I’ve taken it like a mix of things of Colin Firth, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Sean Connery in Dr. No and the voice of James Mason. That’s my intent.
How do zombies affect the society? Are there still class issues?
RILEY: Oh yeah, there’s still a huge amount of snobbery and there’s now even another underclass which are the manky dreadfuls of the undead.
Which makes the working class feel better, I’d imagine.
RILEY: Yeah, perhaps, yeah. [Laughs] But there’s also little things. The Bennet sisters, although they’re wealthy, their father could only really afford to send them to China to train whereas everyone who’s anybody trained in Japan, so it’s a bit like public school versus comprehensive or something. And there’s still all the layers of the protocols of polite and decent society.
So in that case, the wealthy are more likely to survive because they can afford to.
RILEY: Yeah, they’ve also been trained enough to protect themselves. The army is also now used primarily to deal with the zombie plague. It’s fucking ridiculous isn’t it? [Laughs] But that’s why I really liked it! I read the first 15 pages and usually that can be all you need to read to know whether you want to carry on reading or not. And the intro, the way Darcy’s introduced, just seemed like it’s either gonna be a disaster or a lot of fun, and I kind of wanted to be involved either way, really.
Did you do a lot of training?
RILEY: We’ve all had horse training, samurai sword stuff, some Kung Fu, speech training as well. It’s been pretty full on. But when you’re doing lower budget movies, you really have to do a lot of cramming. We’re not given the luxury of three months. Whenever you read interviews with actors, they always seem to be given three months to do something – get fat, get skinny, learn card tricks – but we’ve had to do it all quickly, but that’s been a lot of fun. And for me that’s part of the attraction as well because I’ve played other literary characters in my career and I don’t really think anybody wants to see another Pride and Prejudice, but this way I get to play Darcy and at the same time fulfill my other ambitions of being an action hero.
How does the costume affect your action hero?
RILEY: Well, this is the third time I’ve worked with Julian and Shyda Day. And for me the costume is always a huge part of getting into character. And these sort of costumes, they’ve given me slightly more under the arm so I can Kung Fu chop people. [Laughs] But this isn’t my favorite one. I have a really long leather coat as well. At the beginning he comes into this room and everyone’s terrified of him because he’s such a militant bastard and people have been able to begin to hide the fact that they’re zombies. There’s a new breed of neo-zombie who try and keep up the pretense, and until they feed on human brains they can more or less get away with it. I don’t trust that for a second. So I’ve got this long leather thing which is somewhere between Gestapo Darcy and the beginning of Once Upon a Time in America, you know, the dusters where they come in and shoot the family?
So the zombie outbreak has had an effect on fashion?
RILEY: I know leather wasn’t particularly common, leather dusters, but we’re taking a few stylistic liberties perhaps. What they’ve done, in my opinion, really well is the mix between the girls wearing these lovely period dresses but with stockings underneath for the boys and knives and swords.
Not bulletproof corsets.
RILEY: Well, look at them. And they’re all mental, the girls playing the Bennet sisters.
How does Darcy feel about them being such badass warriors?
RILEY: Well, I don’t think it’s really – he’s oddly attracted, a bit like in the book, that he doesn’t want to like Liz Bennet, but she stirs something. And when I see how good she is at kicking ass, it sort of does something to Darcy’s insides.
You’re not shooting in order, right?
RILEY: Chronologically? No.
With the books, they slowly peel back the layers of your character so it’s tough to keep up with what we know of him at a certain point and what we don’t?
RILEY: I write a history line so when you read in the morning, you’re doing 63, you know where you are, what you’ve shown and what you want to be telling people at that stage.
Is there anything you bring to the character that makes him your own?
RILEY: Like with so many people who have played Hamlet or something, everybody brings their own personality to any character, or James Bond or whatever. Other than the leather coat you mean? Or the katana? I don’t know. Not that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m bringing the fact that he’s like the coolest killer or the best zombie killer. It’s impossible. I’ve been trying to explain it to my grandmother for like three weeks. ‘Are you a zombie?’ ‘No.’ ‘What is a zombie?’ And now I just tell people I’m doing Pride and Prejudice because the book was very popular in America. When my agent first told me about it, I had never heard of it and I didn’t know what he was trying to get me involved with, really.
Have you invited your mom and grandmother down to the set?
RILEY: They have been on set, but it was a more Pride & Prejudice day.
So they thought you were making the zombie bit up …
RILEY: Yeah [laughs], I think my mother would be happy to see me not decapitate anyone. It could be quite funny because there could end up being a lot of boys that would never dream of watching Pride and Prejudice finding themselves sitting through a version of it and enjoying it as Pride and Prejudice and while seeing young lovelies tearing it up.
Are you playing it as straight-faced as possible?
RILEY: Well, it’s a mix. We’re trying to avoid it being too camp and we want people to feel the romantic elements of it and believe that this is 17-whatever and society is more or less unchanged because the British pretend that things aren’t happening around them or whatever. There’s this horror going on which people have become accustomed to as well. We’re hoping there’s humor. I mean, the title itself is pretty funny.
Who do you think would win in a fight, your Mr. Darcy or Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy?
RILEY: He wouldn’t stand a chance really because he didn’t train in Japan, he doesn’t have three guns in his horse holster. I mean, hand-to-hand, I’d win, easily. But against Liz Bennet, I lost. She kicks my ass in one scene.
Here’s the question of the night, your personal zombie apocalypse survival tactics. What are you gonna do? You’re getting a coffee in Starbucks in London when it happens.
RILEY: I can’t be in a pub? I’d drink myself stupid and hopefully the zombies would think I was one of them.
Just stay drunk until the whole thing blows over.
RILEY: Yeah! That’s the British way, isn’t it?
For more from my Pride and Prejudice and Zombies set visit, check out the links below:
- Lily James on Adding Daggers to Her Period Piece Expertise in ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’
- ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’: 17 Things to Know about the Undead Spin on the Classic