Mention the name Mr. Darcy to a someone of the female persuasion, and it's incredibly likely you'll elicit immediate recognition and a dreamy smile. For those unfamiliar with any amalgamation of Jane Austen's apex romantic character from Pride and Prejudice, either on the page or perhaps in an adaptation such as the BBC's much-beloved adaptation starring Colin Firth, Mr. Darcy represents the pride in the title. Always introduced as a wealthy, brooding visitor to the English countryside, he is then eventually revealed to be a very loyal, romantic suitor to fiercely independent heroine Elizabeth Bennet. Thus, getting to play Mr. Darcy is certainly a potential portal into the hearts of women around the world, but it's also likely to induce some flop-sweat considering the expectations. All of that wasn't lost on British actor, Sam Riley, who, in embodying Darcy in the mash-up adaptation Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, gets to add the skill set of "zombie killer extraordinaire" to the character's swoon-worthy talents.
On the set of the film in late 2014, a small circle of journalists got to talk to actor Sam Riley (Malificient) where, in his dry, Brit, wit, he shared the challenges of making this version of Darcy his own and how his own mother refused to consider his performance as definitive.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is essentially Austen's story merged with a frightening/funny zombie outbreak. How does Darcy come across in this version?
Sam Riley: Essentially, he's Mr. Darcy with exactly the same issues of pride and repression as the Jane Austen novel, but he's also a zombie killing expert. He's particularly resolute in his hatred of them and wanting to have them all wiped out because his father was infected and he was forced to kill him. He's not very popular, but he's rich. (Laughs)
Is there a specific choice you've made to make this Darcy your own?
Like with so many people who play Hamlet, everybody brings their own personality to any character. Other than the leather coat or the katana, I don't know. Not that I don't know what I'm doing. What I'm doing is the idea that he's the best zombie killer. I've been trying to explain it to my grandmother for weeks.
Have you had her to set?
They have been on set but it was more of a Pride and Prejudice day. (Laughs)
Is the Darcy/Liz Bennet (Lily James) romance still core to the piece?
The romance is still very much there and we're playing those moments seriously, even if we may be attacking each other with letter openers or pokers. He might be slightly more militant than Colin Firth. By the way, it's my mom's favorite book, so she's thrilled. I told her I would watch one [adaptation] as sort of an anchor and she said there's only one, and that's the BBC version.
But yes, He's oddly attracted [to Lizzie]. He doesn't want to like Liz Bennet and when he sees how good she is at kicking ass, it does something to Darcy's insides. (Laughs)
Is Firth an inspiration then?
I'm taking a mix of Colin Firth, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Sean Connery in Dr. No and the voice of James Mason.
Does the societal class system remain when everyone is potential zombie chow?
There's still a huge amount of snobbery. There's now even another underclass called the manky dreadfuls.
Well that makes the working class feel better.
Yeah, perhaps. But the Bennet sisters, although wealthy...their father could only afford to send them to China to train, whereas everyone who is anyone are sent to Japan. It's a bit like public school versus [boarding] school.
So, everyday citizens in this story are trained to zombie hunt?
They've been trained enough to protect themselves. Also, the Army is now used primarily to deal with the zombies....it's all f***ing ridiculous, isn't it? (Laughs) It's why I really liked it. I read the first 15 pages and usually that's all you need to know if you want to keep reading or not. The way that Darcy is introduced was either going to be a disaster or a lot of fun and I wanted to be involved either way.
Was there the requisite training to look fight-ready on camera?
We all had horse training, samurai sword stuff, some kung-fu and speech training. It's been full-on. But when you do budget movies, you have to do a lot of cramming. Whenever you read interviews with actors, they all seem to be given three months to do something: get fat, get skinny, card tricks. It's been a lot of fun and for me a lot of the attraction. I've played a lot of literary characters in my career and I don't think anybody wants to see another Pride and Prejudice. In this way, I get to play Darcy and fulfill my other ambitions of being an action hero.
Do you think the blood and gore might trick some gentlemen uninterested in the delights of Ms. Austen into the story?
There could be a lot of boys that would never dream of P&P finding themselves sitting through a version of it and enjoying it as P&P while seeing young lovelies tearing it up. We're trying to avoid it being too camp and we want people to feel the romantic elements and believe it's 17-whatever and society has more or less unchanged. And the title, itself, is pretty funny.
Would your Mr. Darcy or the literary one win in a fight?
He wouldn't stand a chance, really. Hand-to-hand, I'd win easily. But against Liz Bennet, I lost. She kicks my ass.
What's your strategy to survive a zombie outbreak?
I'd drink myself stupid and hopefully the zombies would think I'm one of them.