Riley's first acting role was that of Mark E. Smith, the former frontman of the English post-punk group 'The Fall,' in the 2002 British comedy–drama film '24 Hour Party People.' However, his scenes were deleted from the final cut.
Riley achieved moderate success as the lead singer of the Leeds band '10,000 Things.' The band made its debut with the indie label 'Voltage Records' in 2002. They then signed to a major label, 'Polydor,' for a self-titled album. '10,000 Things' disbanded in 2005.
Riley's breakthrough project was the 2007 British biographical film 'Control.' It was about the life of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the English post-punk band 'Joy Division.' His portrayal of Curtis earned him accolades from all spheres of the film fraternity.
'Control' brought Riley his first set of awards (eight awards), including the 'British Independent Film Award' and the 'London Film Critics Circle Award.' His performance also received five nominations, including one for the 'Rising Star’ from the 'BAFTA Awards.'
Riley's performance as Curtis caught the attention of filmmaker Gerald McMorrow, who signed him to play 'Milo' in his 2008 science-fiction film 'Franklyn.' Riley featured in the 2008 autumn/winter publicity campaign for the British fashion house 'Burberry.'
Riley appeared in the 'Shadowplay' music video from 'The Killers,' which was included in the soundtrack of 'Control.' 'Variety' named him one of the "Ten Actors to Watch" in 2007.
Riley starred as 'Vincent "Vince" Ferro' in '13,’ the 2010 English remake of the French thriller '13 Tzameti.' He then played ‘Pinkie Brown,’ the sociopathic enforcer of a Brighton gang and the lead antagonist in the 2010 film adaptation of Graham Greene's 1938 novel 'Brighton Rock.'
Riley had a brief role as a "wagenmeister" (“wagon master”) in the 2011 German comedy 'Rubbeldiekatz,' starring his wife, Alexandra Maria Lara, in the lead.
He was the narrator and protagonist, ‘Sal Paradise,’ in the Walter Salles-directed 2012 adventure–drama film 'On the Road,' adapted from Jack Kerouac's autobiographical novel of the same name.
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In 2012, Riley was signed for the 2014 'Disney' dark fantasy 'Maleficent,' starring Angelina Jolie in the titular role. He played 'Diaval,' a raven, who served 'Maleficent,' and reprised the role in the 2019 sequel, 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.'
Riley had the lead role in the 2014 Austrian–German Western drama 'The Dark Valley' (German: 'Das finstere Tal'), adapted from Thomas Willmann's sole eponymous 2010 novel. He played 'Greider,' a solo traveler witnessing corruption and oppression rampant in a small town in the Alps.
In 2015, Riley starred as 'Benoit Labarie,’ alongside Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ruth Wilson, in Saul Dibb's romantic World War II drama 'Suite Française.' It was an adaptation of Irène Némirovsky's novel of the same name.
Riley modeled for the 2014 fall/winter couture collection of 'Ermenegildo Zegna' by designer Stefano Pilati. He was named one of the ''50 Best Dressed British Men'' in 2015 by 'GQ.'
Riley was seen as ‘Fitzwilliam Darcy’ (‘Mr. Darcy’) in the 2016 historical action–comedy–horror film 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,' based on Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 novel of the same name.
In 2017, Riley was seen as a 'Scotland Yard’ detective superintendent named 'Douglas Archer' in the ‘BBC’ drama 'SS-GB,' based on Len Deighton's 1978 novel of the same name. He was the “not-so-welcome” returning prodigal brother 'David' in the 2018 Ben Wheatley-directed comedy 'Happy New Year, Colin Burstead.'
Riley portrayed Pierre Curie, the husband of 'Nobel' laureate and radioactivity pioneer Marie Curie, in her biopic 'Radioactive' (2019).
He will be seen as 'Jack Favell' in the upcoming romantic thriller 'Rebecca.'