Sam Riley is known for his big screen work in Control, Maleficent, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, among others.
But now the 37-year-old British actor has been lured over to the small screen for a lead role in BBC First’s historical crime thriller, SS-GB.
Shedding light on what the series is about, he said it’s based on a novel by Len Deighton, set in 1941.
“It is basically an alternative history of what could have happened had Britain lost the Battle of Britain. It is set just over a year after Nazi Germany occupation, where they have half of Britain under their control. Obviously they haven’t managed to take Yorkshire because we’d never give it up. Or they don’t want it, I’m not really sure.”
Peeling back the layers of his character, Douglas Archer, Riley offered: “I play a detective who, before the war, was celebrated for having solved a scandalous murder. It gave him the nickname ‘Archer of the Yard’. His wife was killed during the invasion and he is the father of a young boy. He didn’t fight during the battle and is now working as a detective for the Metropolitan Police, but under the new authority of the SS Commander in Great Britain. He is telling himself there still has to be law and order, but a lot of people are wondering where his loyalties lie because they see him going to work with the SS every day, so he’s got his head in the sand a bit to begin with.”British actor Sam Riley has been enticed over to the TV realm with BBC First’s historical crime thriller, SS-GB. Picture: Supplied
This multi-layered character appealed to him for many reasons. “I’ve always been a fan of film noir detective stories and trilby hats. I’ve been living in Berlin for the last ten years and I was really into a series of books called the Berlin Trilogy (by Jonathan Rabb) about a private detective working in pre-war Germany.
“They’re sort of like Raymond Chandler, but anti-Nazi and I really love those. Plus, my guy is meant to speak German and I was in every scene. And, if I’m really honest, I thought: ‘Yes, finally, something my family can actually watch’. My father has very kindly been pointing out for 10 years that my films never make it to the Bradford Picturehouse.”
As for whether he read the book that inspired this series, the actor admitted that he hadn’t. “I’m a very slow reader, I’m dyslexic. I listen to a lot of books. If I’d tried to read the book, I’d still be reading. I have a lot of books in my house with bookmarks a quarter of the way through. But I listened to it and really liked what the writers had made out of it in the script. I love Len Deighton anyway, because two of my favourite films are the Michael Caine spy movies, The Ipcress Files and Funeral in Berlin, which are based on his novels.”
Having planted his feet firmly in the big screen playground, Riley contextualises the difference between working in film and TV.
“When I got my first acting job, 10 years ago, it was a lead role in a film and that was, for me, the dream because for an actor, you want to be a cinema actor. I think, at that time, it was sort of the pinnacle of things and in the last 10 years that’s changed. Alec Guinness did Tinker Tailor; and people like John Hurt and Helen Mirren did Prime Suspect, so there have always been great British actors working within the BBC or ITV.
“But I think the international television thing has completely changed recently. You have the amazing Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright with House of Cards – TV is not the poor cousin anymore.
“I have been offered TV roles in the past and, at first, I didn’t want to do them. I was torn between being quite happy with where I am and also wanting to be better known and get more work. But I couldn’t really say no to this one.
“I’m really proud of it. I started watching TV series just to see what five-part dramas are like because I wanted to try understand what the pace is like and how the whole thing worked. The work itself was very similar, the set is similar, the cameras are the same size and everything – but the pace is very different.”
He is paired with Kate Bosworth, who plays Barbara Barga.
“Barbara is a mysterious character,” he said. “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 their 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.”
It looks like there is plenty of deception in this gripping series, with ambiguous characters embedded in the narrative.
* SS-GB airs on BBC First (DStv Channel 119) on Wednesday at 8pm.