LIFE OF RILEY
Actor Riley Keough is a beguiling presence in young Hollywood as she refuses to play by the rules
‘Wait, so am I weird? I honestly had no idea
‘I might be a sociopath. And I might be very neurotic. I do wonder sometimes…’ Riley Keough blurts the words out with the kind of heady giggle that might erupt after an embarrassing anecdote. I’m certain the softly spoken Keough, candle-lit before me in an old-school ‘white tablecloth’ diner in Los Angeles, is none of those things. But it’s statements like this that make the 28-year-old actor – nominated last year for both a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award for her raw performances in The Girlfriend Experience and American Honey – such a fascinating creature and one with that rare gift of standing out in Hollywood.
‘Acting is the only thing I don’t get anxious about,’ she says. ‘I’m constantly having an identity crisis and you start to go, “Who the fuck am I?”’ Keough’s sense of her own identity seems as fluid as the waved Titian mane that falls mermaid-like over her navy sweater. She appears both ‘silly’ (her words) and serious, vulnerable and headstrong, child-like and savvy, intense and easygoing, but above all, willing to lay herself bare. In black lace-up Louis Vuitton boots and rolledup jeans, today she is equal parts tomboy, Rita Hayworth, shy emo and pro-woman rebel, all encased in her mother’s exquisite bone structure (she’s the daughter of musician and philanthropist Lisa Marie Presley). The word ‘Nope’ is tattooed on her left wrist. Recently, she overheard one of her PR team describe her as a bit of a weirdo: ‘I said: “Wait, so am I weird?” I had no idea. There are a hundred people in the world who think I’m a hundred different people. So you’ll hear, “Riley is the sweetest girl” or “Oh no, Riley? She’s so wild.” My friend said yesterday, “You’re the most unpredictable person. You’re a nut job.” And I said, “Really? I view myself as rational, hardworking, ethical and a good decision-maker.”’
Judging by her body of work over the past seven years, Keough’s perception is pretty accurate. Since her turns in 2010’s The Runaways, about the eponymous all-girl punk band, and as a stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012), she has tackled a diverse range of often unlikeable antiheroines in female-centric, independent films. She has been hard-hearted in the sapphic love story Jack & Diane (2012) and as the homeless American sweetheart-cum-bitch in Andrea Arnold’s awardwinning American Honey. She was sociopathic as the sexually predatory law-school intern who moonlights as an escort in The Girlfriend Experience, the anti-Fifty Shades Of Grey in terms of its honest portrayal of female sexuality. Her character masturbates 10 minutes into the first episode – and that’s not even the hors d’oeuvre.
‘The Girlfriend Experience is about sex as female empowerment. I was terrified people would just think: “Oh, she’s just a slut who took off her clothes.” There is definitely not a full acceptance of a female being as sexual as a male,’ she says.
So far, it seems there is no unflattering physical or emotional challenge that Keough, as an actor, won’t undertake. But then she has ‘really lived a lot for a 28 year old. No one in my family is all that stable. They are all artists, a bit like pirates.’ Her grandfather was Elvis Presley, and her father is rock bassist Danny Keough. Her parents split up when she was five, after which her mother, an outspoken Scientologist, was famously married to Michael Jackson, Nicolas
Cage and then musician Michael Lockwood. ‘I’m sensitive. I’m riddled with issues. I’m probably a bit emotionally unstable. I felt so many emotions. I mean, crazy shit…’ she says.
With seven films released this year, Keough has projects lined up like cars on a Los Angeles freeway. Next up, in a rare light moment in an otherwise gritty body of work, she does comedy in Logan Lucky (directed by Soderbergh, his first film in four years). She stars as a racer girl and southern-belle hairdresser with two siblings, played by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, who attempt to rob a Nascar stadium with the help of Daniel Craig (a hard-nut jailbird). The quick-witted cast certainly didn’t help with Keough’s tendency to have fits of giggles while filming.
‘Channing just makes me laugh when I look at him. He’s such a goofball,’ she tells me. Craig and Driver, meanwhile, were ‘non-stop bantering’. She didn’t have any scenes with Family Guy’s creator Seth MacFarlane, who has a cameo, but did mistake an end-of-October birthday party of his for a Halloween event: ‘I dressed up “trashy” in a hot-pink Adidas tracksuit and a gold tooth. When we arrived, people were in cocktail attire.’ Alongside the comic moments, Logan Lucky is also socially conscious, dealing with poverty and lack of healthcare – none of which is lost on Keough. ‘There are so many things that concern me,’ she says. ‘[The current US president] is regressive in so many areas – women, immigrants, environment. Right now, everyone is an activist, and I think that’s really cool. I am very passionate about Native American rights, the environment, and women.’
Born in Los Angeles, Danielle Riley Keough grew up between there, Hawaii and England, where her mother moved when she was 19. She was a sensitive child with a morbid streak. At 11, she filmed homemade horror movies: ‘I’d put all my friends in them and kill them off.’ At 12, she was told she could do anything, so she resolved to be ‘President of England!’ After her parents divorced, she stayed close to her father, who understood her rollercoaster of emotions. ‘He always said: “You can feel more deeply than others – the horrible feelings, but also the good ones,”’ she reveals. Her mother was determined not to bring her up as the average Hollywood celebrity daughter. ‘My mum is very androgynous – she hated bimbo girls. She put it in my head that that [behaviour] was rude and spoiled and bratty.’
In 1994, when Keough was five, her mother married Michael Jackson; Keough remembers trips to toy-filled Neverland, Jackson’s own version of Elvis Presley’s 14-acre Graceland estate in Memphis, Tennessee. She never met her grandfather, who died there in 1977. If she could time travel, she’d ‘probably want to see him with my mum as a baby. I’m obsessed with pictures of my deceased family and the [American] south. It makes me feel very nostalgic.’ Elvis died when Lisa Marie was nine, after which she became sole heir to the Presley estate. ‘My mum is the strongest woman I’ve ever met. She has had a tough life, having that kind of power so young. She’s also had to deal with a lot of death and loss in her life.’
Keough admits that growing up under press scrutiny left its mark. ‘I was over-aware of people looking, but I am not bothered by fame,’ she says. She’s gracious enough to admit that ‘fame has allowed me to act. I don’t think I’d have progressed as quickly [had it not been for her background].’ She attended theatre programmes at school and enrolled in acting classes at places such as Hollywood’s Lost Studio: ‘I would vet them, do a couple of days, then I would leave.’
Keough’s fascination with female identity came at an early age: ‘I realised when I was very young that if I dressed up, did my hair and wore make-up, I’d be treated differently, and it made me uncomfortable. I always felt a bit androgynous. I just didn’t want men to look at me.’ In her late teens, she observed how others responded to her based on her ever-changing hair colour (since our interview, she has gone brunette): ‘Red is, “Oh, you’re interesting, a bit wild.” Brunette: people tend to take you more seriously. Blonde is, “Here’s a hot young actress” – and I don’t like that,’ she says. At 20, she shaved all her hair off: ‘I could walk around Brooklyn at night and, as a woman, I didn’t feel like I had to look over my shoulder. I always felt vulnerable at 2am with no one else around. I used to carry a knife everywhere with me, in my bag.’
She no longer carries the knife now that she has her husband by her side. Keough first noticed Australian stuntman Ben Smith-Peterson while filming Mad Max: Fury Road in the Namibian desert in 2012, but she was with her fiancé, Magic Mike’s Alex Pettyfer, at the time. It was only on the re-shoot a year later, in Australia, when SmithPeterson and Keough were both single again, that they started ‘hanging out’. He won her over with a road trip. ‘One day, we were at this gas station and I just had this weird feeling he was going to be the father of my kids. It wasn’t a sexual thing or an irrational girlie thing, it was just “remember that thought”.’ They got engaged six months later and married in the Napa Valley in 2015. So far, they co-parent two dogs, but Keough isn’t quite ready to follow that up with her desired ‘tribe’ of children. ‘I think I know who I am, and then I don’t. I want to get to a stable point where I’ve been consistent for two years before having kids.’ But Smith-Peterson has proved to be a grounding influence: ‘It’s a rollercoaster for him. I’m a complete psycho and he’s stable and rational.’
The pair are more likely to be found at home playing charades than partying. ‘I’m not in any kind of Hollywood crowd,’ she says. She knew her bridesmaid, Dakota Johnson, before either of them started acting, and grew up a 10-minute drive away from her Runaways co-star, Kristen Stewart. ‘All my friends are kooks. I don’t hang out with any nine-to-fivers who’ve got their shit together.’ Her other friends include film-making partner Gina Gammell, who she coproduced Dixieland in 2015 with, and Australian model-actresspainter-musician Abbey Lee Kershaw – her co-star in upcoming mystery thriller Welcome The Stranger. But Keough’s tendency to mirror others means she prefers to work with friends – and ‘kind people’.
When Keough does lose her way, she remembers who she really is: ‘I think, “I’m sure I care about other people. I’m sure I’m silly….”’ Keough’s internal contradictions, candour, and exploration of female identity make for charming encounters off-screen and thrilling performances on it. And there is so much more yet to come. As well as her film commitments, she has founded her own production company for female-centric works and called it Felix Culpa – happy flaws. It could be Keough’s personal motto.
‘I was over-aware^of people looking, but i am not bothered by fame... it has allowed me to act
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