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Interview: Sam Riley talks 'Maleficent'

Sam Riley and Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficent'
Sam Riley and Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficent'
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios, used with permission

Maleficent is one of Disney’s most famous villains. Think back to 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty,” and you’ll likely conjure up an image of the horned, green-skinned villain with a grumpy black raven perpetually perched on her shoulder with ease. Now, Disney is retelling the beloved story, and all from the iconic villain’s point of view in “Maleficent.” Angelina Jolie plays the vengeful title character, with “On The Road” star Sam Riley taking on the role of her trusty raven sidekick -- with a little twist.

Riley, who is accustomed to making small indie films rather than blockbusters alongside one of the most famous actresses in the world, plays Diaval, a raven/human shapeshifter, and Maleficent’s only true companion and confidant. The charming British actor recently made a press tour stop in Miami, where we discussed the surreal nature of working with Jolie and his favorite movie villains.

How did you and Angelina go about developing the relationship between your characters?

Sam Riley: We talked about it [in rehearsals], this idea that in the beginning the relationship is servile, and he’s scared of her. If you think about it, they’re going to spend every single day with each other for 16 years – and that’s a lot for any relationship, that’s a very long relationship in Hollywood [laughs]. So I’m more or less her sole companion. So we thought it would be fun to develop a certain element of bickering between them, showing that they get on each other’s nerves. But also that the mask that she wears, with all this coldness – it slips in front of him, because he sees her moments of vulnerability. And over time he can start to occasionally point that out to her. So we did talk about that. We didn’t rehearse it so much because we tried rehearsing it and we were laughing and decided that we’d just save the fun of saying it for the first time for the camera so it would feel more spontaneous.

What was it like working with Angelina Jolie, and how did you prepare for the darkness of this role?

Riley: Well I’m very dark [laughs]. I’ve played a lot of dark people, actually, and those things have always fascinated me. So I was kind of prepared for that. And I think Angelina brings an edge to the character. She’s well known now for her charitable work, but she was pretty rock and roll as a youth, by all accounts. She loved Maleficent as a girl; that was her favorite Disney character, even when it was the evil version [laughs]. She didn’t like Aurora, which is pretty funny, really. So she’s really born to play it. We met [for the first time] in the green room -- they arranged a meeting for us so I wouldn’t be terrified. She has a very disarming charm. She has both real star presence and charisma, but she can also make you feel like the center of attention and important. But the first time I saw her in costume was intense, because I hadn’t seen it at all and didn’t know what it was going to look like. But what’s so strange is that I met her the one time in the green room, and then more or less for the next four weeks I never saw her again in her skivvies – her home clothes. I only saw her as Maleficent. And you know that this is fake, and that the eyes aren’t real -- but it fit her like a glove, really. When I saw her as Angelina again it was almost strange.

If you could choose any other movie villain to get the Maleficent treatment, who would it be and why?

Riley: Ohhhh, that’s difficult. Maybe the sheriff of Nottingham? I loved Alan Rickman in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” That came out when I was like 14 or something; it was perfect for me. He’s one of my favorite villains. Also in the Disney “Robin Hood,” I liked the lion – but he’s such an idiot [laughs]. But Shere Khan [from “The Jungle Book”] was probably my favorite villain as a child. But it probably won’t be as interesting a backstory.

'Maleficent' is now in theaters. For showtimes in Miami Beach, click here