Riley Keough Understands the Assignment
The first time I saw Riley Keough, she was emerging from a pool in the trailer for Under the Silver Lake, blonde, glistening, and thoroughly charming. The comparisons to Marilyn Monroe abounded, not just because of the nod to Monroe's iconic skinny-dipping scene in Something's Got To Give, but also thanks to Keough's palpable Old Hollywood-like star quality.
It's a quality that made me swan dive into the rest of her filmography; a je ne sais quoi that's anointed her a queen of A24, the indie studio with a cult-like following that distributed Under the Silver Lake as well as three of her other movies: 2016's American Honey, her 2017 horror film It Comes At Night, and the upcoming, highly anticipated Zola. The breadth of admiration is such that she's the subject of Film Twitter's "understood the assignment" meme as well as fellow actress Sarah Paulson's accolades: "She's the IT of the ITS," Paulson once tweeted.
Some might attribute that "it" factor to her lineage of Hollywood royalty - the 32-year-old actress is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, though he passed away 12 years before she was born, something she's patiently explained in interviews over the years. But both on film and over a Zoom call in late May, cozy in a gray knit sweater with her hair pulled back into a topknot, she radiates an effortless magnetism that's all her own.
Over the past year of lockdowns and social distancing, Keough has been content to revel in the quiet of the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, stuntman Ben Smith-Petersen (the two met on the set of 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road), and their two dogs, Grubs and Zushi, who snore lightly nearby as she sits folded up on a taupe couch. After premiering to glowing reviews at Sundance in early 2020, Zola will finally be released to the masses as movie theaters begin to open. Though she's now enjoying being able to sit in stillness, it's taken work to not fall into needing the "constant stimulation" she remembers being surrounded by in childhood.
Keough was born in Los Angeles and considers herself a born and bred Angeleno, though she and her family once moved to Florida for a spell and she lived in Hawaii on and off until she was in her 20s, before decamping to England for four years. Her parents, Lisa Marie Presley and musician Danny Keough, divorced when she was five, and her mother traveled a lot, and "was always doing exciting things." But moving around didn't leave much room for a typical education experience for Keough, who says she had a "weird relationship" with school. She didn't like it, but she could have.
"I think I kind of always felt out of place, and I always felt like I would miss things," she remembers. "I felt like I was behind - I'd get into a new school, and then I would have to leave, and then I wouldn't keep up with the curriculum, and then I'd have to go to another school. This is when I was very little. So I kind of just gave up, and I home-schooled, and then I kind of gave up on that too. I didn't graduate high school. But it's a shame, because I really wanted an education, and I really wanted to go to college, I just didn't have a lifestyle that would permit that."
No matter her journey to get there, you get the sense that an acting career was always in the cards for Keough. While most people go to college to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives, she vividly remembers instinctively knowing she wanted to act, even as a child. She spent hours putting on plays, constantly filming people, making and editing horror films, and having her mom's friends put music in them, armed with precocious determination to make her own way in life.
"At [age] nine, 10, 11, I was making movies all day, and I had a very practical mindset about it all for a child," she says. "I was like, 'I'm going to try and model, get my own money, and then I'm going to finish school, and I'm going to start acting after I'm 18, because I want to be a kid.'"
The path came to fruition pretty much exactly the way she foresaw it. Keough spent her teens walking runways for Dolce and Gabbana and becoming the face of Dior's Miss Dior Cherie fragrance, before making her film debut at age 20 in the Joan Jett biopic The Runaways as band member Marie Currie, buoyed by a sharp intuition and a vigorous work ethic. Her mother, all too aware of the assumptions of nepotism placed on descendants of actors and musicians - not to mention legendary ones - fostered a sense of studiousness in her early on.
"I grew up with my mom saying, 'Anything you do in life, you're going to have to take it seriously, and work really hard at it, and be really good at it. Don't just dip your toes into things,'" she says. "Which is my nature anyway, with acting and with things I want to be doing. I also had this thing where, when you grow up in L.A. and everyone's acting, I felt this sense of, oh gosh ... I was a little bit afraid to fail."
Over Zoom, Keough exudes a laid-back, placid warmth. A tattoo reading "nope" peeks out of her sleeve on her right wrist, misleadingly implying a guardedness that's instead gulfed by her welcoming demeanor. It's cliché to say that it feels like you're the only two people in the world when you're speaking to her, but I'm not the only one reduced to clichés when it comes to her.
Her Zola co-star Taylour Paige, who has become a close friend, says that with Keough, "I just feel so - I don't want to use the word 'seen,' it's so overused now - but I just feel very much like it's OK to be seen by her."
Paige recalls being blown away by her "calming, ancient wisdom" when they first met at a hotel in Tampa, Fla. when production began: "I definitely felt safe with Ri-Ri, and from the beginning, it was like, 'Here's someone who's trying to live their life truthfully and honestly, regardless of their circumstances.'"
Via my laptop screen, Keough's star quality and screen presence translates into a quietly attentive affability. Any assumptions made about the potential grandiosity of someone who grew up with family trips to Graceland and Neverland Ranch (her mother was married to Michael Jackson for over a year when Keough was five years old) all dissipate the second you meet her, or as she apologizes for answers she thinks are "complicated" or rambly.
"She grew up in mansions and castles, and was exposed to all types of crazy, amazing things, but she's one of the most grounded people I've ever met - ever," Paige says.
Keough's energy as a person exists in direct contrast to the chaos she brings in Zola, an adaptation of A'Ziah "Zola" King's viral 2015 Twitter thread (widely known as "the greatest stripper saga ever tweeted"). Director Janicza Bravo, who also penned the screenplay along with Jeremy O. Harris, wrote the role of Stefani with Keough in mind after seeing her as a confederate-flag bikini-wearing leader of a crew of homeless teens in American Honey. During a recent phone call, the director recalled the process of getting the script to her as a near-cinematic encounter - Bravo's producers at Killer Films had spotted Keough at the Toronto International Film Festival in a hotel lobby in 2018 and texted a heady play-by-play as they floated the pitch.
"They're like, 'we see her, she's in the lobby, she's at the Shangri-La. We whispered it to her agent, her agent's crossing the hotel room, she's whispering it into her ear. She's nodding,'" Bravo remembers. "And I'm like, 'what else is happening?! When is she going to look at it?' I was just so anxious because, honestly, I felt like if she said no, we didn't have [the movie]. It's only Riley, as far as I'm concerned."
Before officially signing on, however, Keough requested to meet Bravo, and the two arranged a lunch at the Chateau Marmont. Bravo recalls arriving first, and nearly missing her future star when she approached.
"I'm sitting there, and I don't know it's her. So I look up at her and say hi, and then go back to my phone or my book. And then in the softest little angel voice, she's like, 'It's Riley.' And I woke up and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm so sorry!'" she says. "I felt like such a jerk, because I should have known her face, but how she looked in life and how she was in her body was diametrically opposed to every performance I had ever seen her in. She just read so much smaller in life - and I don't mean physically, her energy just read softer and quieter and more reserved."
"In that moment, I went, oh my God, she's perfect, she's even better than I thought. Because if this is what she is in personhood, the thing that she becomes as an actress is possessed."
"Possessed" is also a good way to describe Keough's character Stefani, whom she herself has called a "demon." Decked out in long, pointy acrylic nails and sporting baby hairs, Stefani essentially lives in a state of appropriation - speaking in a "blaccent," screeching about a woman's "nappy" hair.
In crafting the character, Bravo called on Keough to execute something she knew was uncomfortable and "a little scary." She recalls telling her, "The reason I wrote this for you is that my gut told me you were the only person who could embody this."
"And she says, 'I know what you're going to ask me,'" Bravo remembers. "And I'm like, [surprised] 'You do?' And we stand still for a moment. But we both arrived at the same idea, which is that we want this character to be a minstrel, to be a menace, to be a stereotype of what we feel a Black woman is."
What solidified Bravo's casting decision was that Keough innately understood, well, the assignment.
"I was kind of in awe, because she's like, 'Well, it's on the page. You wrote it that way, it has this accented writing. I know that's what you mean.' It really touched me, because I felt it was that way too, but no one else seemed to have seen that, and she did. She was willing to, hand in hand with me, tread towards it, run at it with total fearlessness. And that's what's so sexy to me about her, is that she is absolutely fearless."
For her part, Keough brought on dialect coach Aris Mendoza to develop Stefani's speech patterns, and sent voice notes to Bravo to perfect the accent.
"I really wanted to go big with it and not be understated," Keough says of the character. "From the jump, we all knew that Stefani was a really offensive person, and so we were committed to making her really offensive. We just went for it, and committed to her demonic self."
The result is a vulgar, anarchic foil to Paige's star-making straight man turn, a sparks-flying screen chemistry that becomes what Keough describes as a "love affair gone wrong."
"I haven't had a female friendship like this, but I've had a male relationship like this, where you kind of fall in love really quickly, you see each other and you're like, Wow, and it's this fast love affair, and then it ends up being toxic," she says. "I've definitely experienced that, but more in relationships with men than women. My female friendships in life have been pretty consistent and long and healthy, luckily."
That includes her friendship with Paige, who says that their bond, one based in wanting to "expand as souls, and empty ourselves of ego, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and trauma," would have been formed whether they were "actors, neuro technicians, or FedEx employees."
"I think that regardless of how we would have met, our souls would have been like, 'Ah, I recognize you. Let's do this,'" she says.
She adds that she and Keough are both "obsessed" with Baba Ram Dass, the late spiritual teacher and psychologist who famously said, "Treat everyone you meet like God in drag," a principle Paige says Keough is particularly adept at applying: "Even when we could be a little petty or when we get wrapped up in some bullshit in the real world, we both are like, OK, but everyone's God, we love everyone.'"
Keough considers herself to be spiritual both when it comes to work as well as in her personal life. She describes her pull towards her career path as "a deeper kind of sense of knowingness," an intuition that extends to the way she chooses roles, a process she says is uncalculated, "kind of a spiritual thing." Her Instagram bio reads "Samsara Participant" along with "Overpromise, Underdeliver," the latter of which she attributes to having "a little bit of a troll in me - I don't think that my comedy really hits sometimes on Instagram." The samsara of it all is a playful nod at her belief in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Though she doesn't identify as a Buddhist, she's been reading Buddhist and Hindu texts (currently, the Tibetan Book of the Dead) as she delves into where her beliefs lie - as she calls it, being a "participant of this world and whatever we're doing here."
Lately, being a participant of the world has meant figuring out a balance for herself. Though she's described herself as a workaholic in previous interviews, these days, she's trying to "not be an anything-oholic."
"I'm really consciously trying to be present, and not use anything as any kind of escape, and be cognizant of when I'm doing that," she says.
Keough and I are video-chatting a few days before her 32nd birthday, one she anticipated would be difficult - it's her first birthday since her younger brother, Benjamin Keough, passed away last July. Earlier this year, she completed training to work as a death doula, an admirable endeavor to help others through grief even as she processes her own.
Amid the past year, striving for balance has led her to reflect on what it means to take in the good and the bad in life, the spectrum of all the emotions that come through on any given day.
"I'm just generally trying to be grateful for everything at the moment, trying to operate in love, and keep my heart open, and give and receive love. And not in a woo-woo way, because I definitely have hard days, and all kinds of pain and suffering and all that. But I think when you realize that's part of it, and your expectation isn't to just be feeling joy, that's been a real shift for me in finding those moments and things to smile about."
Here, she speaks slowly, considerately, her words having the effect of honey steadily pouring out of a jar. The conversation is getting existential as we talk about letting go of the expectation for life to be all daisies and bliss all the time, and allowing for suffering and happiness and sadness and boredom and all the mundane things that make up the whole of a life. If everyone is God, and we love everyone even if we don't always like them, that love isn't limited - it extends to the parts of our life we don't necessarily welcome with open arms.
"Once I've started doing that, I can kind of find more joy in the little things, and smile at cups of coffee and flowers," she says. "It's much easier for me."
As we part ways, Keough, thanks me for taking the time to talk before the screen darkens, leaving behind just a flicker of her enigmatic grin, a splash in the ether.
Photographs by Magdalena Wosinska. Styled by Jamie Mizrahi. Hair Styling by Chad Wood. Makeup by Rachel Goodwin. Digital tech by Dominique Powers. Retouching by Kevin Lee. Beauty Direction by Kayla Greaves. Fashion Direction by Samantha Sutton. Booking by Isabel Jones. Creative direction and production by Kelly Chiello. Digital Content Director: Molly Stout.