Sam Riley Talks MALEFICENT, Settling on the Final Make-Up Design, His Favorite Disney Film, Studying Ravens, and More

     May 28, 2014


Every villain is the hero of their own story, which can certainly be said for the title character in Maleficent.  This untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty shows the level of betrayal that ultimately turned Maleficent’s (played to wickedly delightful perfection by Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie) pure heart to stone and led her to place an irrevocable curse upon the infant Aurora.  Directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton, the film also stars Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Brenton Thwaites.

During a roundtable at the film’s press day, actor Sam Riley (who plays Maleficent’s constant companion Diaval, a raven that she transforms into whatever suits her) talked about his daily make-up process, going through different versions before they settled on the final one, seeing Angelina Jolie in her full costume and make-up, his favorite Disney film, growing up, studying the behavior and movements of a real raven, how this is the only film of his that his son will be able to watch before he’s 18, the character’s deadpan humor, how he came to acting, and his failed dream of becoming a rock star.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

maleficent-poster-dival-sam-rileyQuestion:  How intense was your make-up process, each day? 

SAM RILEY:  I think I actually had more stuck on than [Angelina Jolie] did.  That was a very new experience for me.  It takes a long time.  It was about three-and-a-half hours, every morning.  But there was always somebody sitting in the seat next to me that had been there two hours longer, so you could never complain. 

Did you know what you were signing up for, in that regard?

RILEY:  No, not really.  Not in that department of it.  We did tests that were much more extremely bird-like versions.  It went from being very bird-like to being what it is.  It gradually toned down.  Each hour that went off the amount of time in the morning, I was relieved about.  But, the weirdest part was the chest piece.  That was the first thing they’d have to do, so I’d have to take my top off, every morning, in front of these two girls.  And then, they’d slap on this cold glue, and I’m ticklish, as well.  It was absolute torture, every day.  With the face stuff, I actually worked out a way that I started to be able to sleep through it, which is pretty impressive, while people are sticking things to your face.

What did you think when you saw Angelina Jolie in her full costume and make-up?

RILEY:  The first time I saw Angelina in costume was my first day on set.  It was strange for me to see her as herself, after a couple of weeks.  I met her as Angelina Jolie, and then for three or four weeks, I only saw Maleficent, every day.  You know that it’s fake, or bits of it are fake, but it’s a credit to them that you start to accept it.

Are Disney films as big a deal in the U.K., as they are in the U.S.? 

RILEY:  Oh, yeah.  I don’t think there are really many parts of the world that they aren’t a big deal.  Children have deep-rooted memories from childhood that are associated with Disney, with the animated films and the TV shows.  For me, although it’s my father’s era, The Jungle Book was fantastic.  My grandparents had the LP, and that was my father’s, as a boy.  My brother and I adored that, more so than Sleeping Beauty, because we were more Mowgli-like.  But, I’m the eldest of four.  My younger siblings all watched Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and all of those things that were in a resurgence.  I’ve also watched those a lot because they were just playing in the house a lot.

maleficent-sam-rileyWhat was the biggest performance challenge for you, with this character?  

RILEY:  It was difficult.  I’ve mostly only done independent films, where the homework is very obvious.  You study the mannerisms of somebody, if it’s a real person you’re playing, or you learn accents, and I do an accent in this one.  But with this one, I wasn’t really sure what to do.  I watched the original, and the guy doesn’t do anything.  He looks half-asleep, through the whole movie, which wasn’t gonna help.  So, I started watching videos of ravens.  And then, when I was in London, starting to prepare and doing rehearsals, they arranged for me to spend some time with one particular raven, named Eddie, who they were using.  They’d been drawing him as a model for the CGI version, and I realized that I was completely ignorant of ravens.  

They brought in this bird, and a raven is big.  It’s not a crow.  It hopped on the table and did its thing and made himself completely at home.  I filmed him and watched him for a few hours.  I had a movement coach, so we studied him together.  And then, we started trying to mimic him.  I even ran around the room with my arms flapping, at one point.  That’s why I was glad I didn’t get into drama school.  I’m being a bit flippant, but it was fascinating because when you do something as ridiculous as that, you’re ready for anything.  They wanted to film me rehearsing it, which I flat out refused to allow, because I didn’t want everyone to ever see it.  I don’t ever want to see myself doing that.  It would end up on the DVD.  But, they’re incredible.  When the trainer gave him a treat, he was happy with himself and puffed himself up.  I didn’t really do a walk like him, but it was all in the back of my head, and maybe it comes out in other ways.  But, I stole bits of his manner.  I thought he was quite vain.

angelina-jolie-maleficentThis is a much more family friendly film than a lot of your previous filmography. 

RILEY:  God, yeah.

Was that something you were particularly wanting to do, or was it just a happy coincidence? 

RILEY:  When they said that they were doing a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, and that it would be for tween-agers, I thought it would not really be my sort of thing and not something that I would be interested in doing.  But, I read the script and really liked it.  I thought it was charming and old school, in a way.  I thought it was still a family film.  I thought it had value, to tell that side of the story.  I thought it was more interesting for the female characters, with the idea of evil as a thing is brought into question.  I just liked it.  I thought my part was the best male part in it.  And I knew I was going to be doing it with Angelina, so another plus.  It’s a happy coincidence that I now have a 4-month-old son and it’ll be the only film of mine that he’ll be able to watch before he’s 18.

Was there always that deadpan sense of humor, or did that evolve?

RILEY:  It was funny in the script.  Angelina spoke to me about it.  She said, from the beginning, that it’s an important relationship for her character.  It’s my sarcasm.  The moments that we have together would be, at some points, lighter moments in the movie.  We were laughing at the fact that he begins this servile thing where he’s terrified of her.  But then, if you were to spend every day for 16 years with one another, as their sole companion, you would get on each other’s nerves a bit, and be more like an old, married couple sometimes.  We wanted to incorporate that.  And that deadpan comes because it’s like when you roll your eyes, when somebody you’ve known for a very long time starts saying the same thing again. 

maleficent-angelina-jolie-2Why did you decide to use an Irish accent? 

RILEY:  The idea was an element.  I’ve been told that certain elements at the beginning of the film are no longer in it, but the fairy world had a Celtic vibe in origin, and everybody knows ravens are Irish.

How did you come to acting? 

RILEY:  I did it at school, and it was one of the first things that I did that anyone ever clapped for.  I wasn’t particularly good at much else at school.  And I did National Youth Theatre when I was 17.  It was a summer course.  And then, I did a play with them when I was 19.  I replaced the lead actor and did a play in London and Paris, for some weeks.  But, what I really wanted to be was a rock star.  I got an agent who saw me do that play, and I told her that I didn’t want to be an actor.  I wanted to be a rock star, so I did that for five or six years.  And then, we got one of the worst reviews, of all time, in the New Musical Express.

How bad was it?

RILEY:  Considering that the newspaper had been going for almost 60 years and it’s considered one of the all-time worst they’ve ever given anybody, it was pretty bad.  It was bad enough that they dropped us within two weeks of the review.  We were considered the worst band in Britain.  We got dropped, so I rang that agent up that I’d not spoken to for five years, and the first thing she sent me for was to play a singer (Ian Curtis of Joy Division) in Control. 

Maleficent opens in theaters on May 30th.

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