Riley Keough Won't Be Under The Radar Much Longer, Laughs At Celeb Status Ahead
This planet – black, white, brown, or otherwise – is on a lot of its inhabitant’s minds as of late. Fear abounds in all corners of the globe. Sometimes the fear is for the sustainability of this ball of mud we call Earth; sometimes it’s from the image of an intercontinental ballistic missile’s “successful” launch from a military base in North Korea. It is fear that keeps us reaching for the mind-numbing salves that prop up Big Pharma (while simultaneously making us not care about propping up Big Pharma), descending into a chemical calm, with the chyron running along the bottom of CNN a type of funereal chant, lulling us into a dreamless couch-sleep.
The truly powerful people might be those who can still look inward and shut out the noise; those who might recognize that the world to which they currently bear witness is actually a mirror.
This is, of course, the ultimate fear – that we alone are responsible for our global predicament. Or, more accurately, our American predicament. And, to make things worse, we’re afraid to even look at it. Legacy is a heavy weight to bear and the popular instinct is to just suffer along the same path and blame it all on those who came before and led us astray.
Most of us are just too weak to lift a machete, stray off course, and hack at the weeds to create an entirely new way. This is not true of Riley Keough. She is aware of her own burdens of legacy – both personal and global – as she tries to be a good citizen, even if her career choice requires some element of selfishness. She is also fearless in the grander scheme of her own life. But, to be honest, at this moment, she is frightened of bread.
“I should just get it on rye bread, right?” she asks the waiter, who nods with such solemn certainty that he briefly takes on the appearance of a holy seer. “Some bread I just can’t eat.”
“The rye is what I recommend,” he says, adding to his mystique.
“It’s the only choice, really,” I add, sounding more like Yoda than Buddha. Keough capitulates, closing the menu. In this tiny gesture of courage she might have altered the course of human events. She is the butterfly wing flapping half a world away. Or is she?
The grandchild of Elvis Aaron Presley is now pulling strings of fat from slices of pastrami and reassembling the marbled pink meat into a makeshift rye-bread burrito. Nothing is quite as dull as describing the eating habits of celebrities, but if you find yourself seated across the table from a direct descendant (albeit a generation removed) from the King of Rock and Roll, you can be excused if you find yourself searching for signs of Elvis in even her smallest mannerisms.
Some hazy link between her grandfather’s storied, possibly apocryphal, predilection for peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches begins to surface in my own mind before it all collapses at the sight of the tattoo on her right wrist that says, “Nope.”
“I just did it while I was shooting American Honey,” says Keough, the 28-year-old daughter of musicians Lisa-Marie Presley and Danny Keough. “Everyone was getting tattooed out of boredom, so I just got one, too. There’s that song ‘Choices’ by E-40 in the movie where he says ‘yup’ and ‘nope’ a lot. Someone got the ‘yup,’ so I got the ‘nope.’ I’m very into hip-hop. Almost exclusively.”
No one here knows who she is. The two ladies seated next to us in this overcrowded Brentwood lunch spot are too involved in heated gossip about someone’s ill-advised marriage to care too much about us. In fact, Keough tugs on her own handbag after I point out that one of the chatting women appears to be sitting on it. “Lady, don’t sit on that,” says Keough in mock disgust, rolling her eyes and laughing just out of earshot of the two women. “It’s engraved and everything!”
Unassuming is probably the right word to describe Keough. But her immediate appeal has something to do with her genuine commitment to both capitalizing on her predestined entrée into some kind of celebrated life, even if by DNA alone, while also realizing that nothing is guaranteed and it could all disappear tomorrow in a blink. What exactly is “it”? I somewhat shyly allude to the idea of her having a bit of a head start in her career, a rare opportunity not offered to most.
“Well, I did have a head start and that’s fantastic,” she admits, without reservation. “I feel lucky and I’m not ashamed of it. But do I think I would still be acting if I wasn’t in my family? Absolutely. No matter where I came from, it’s what I would have aspired to do. Would I have gotten an agent so fast? No. I walked in a door and wanted an agent and I got one. That’s not normal and I know that.
Did I work my ass off though? Yeah. I work really hard. I’m a crazy workaholic. All I do is work. There are some things I’ve definitely gotten on my own and there are some things that have been handed to me. I think it’s that combination that’s allowed me to have a decent career so far. I have gotten a head start and I’m so grateful for that. I feel super lucky and aware of the fact that I am in a situation where I have access to things that take some people years and years to get to.”
As she speaks of her early advantages, she is upbeat and unapologetic. Observing her from across the table, however, you can see there is also something just behind her eyes. She has an ability to smile at you without grinning. It’s a magnetism that can only be inherited, not cultivated. But it’s here where we can fully dispense with the Elvis lore.
She never met him, she has already proven her ability to carry a film on her own and to take nothing away from her grandmother Priscilla Presley, Ms. Keough is not destined to linger in some half-formed fame bolstered by appearances in Naked Gun sequels (which are admittedly great, by the way).
Watch Keough in the overlooked indie Lovesong, where she is alarmingly convincing as a young mother enduring the burden of an absent husband while also grappling with a confused and lingering passion for the company of her childhood friend, played by Jena Malone. It’s as unadorned and vulnerable as she’s likely to appear onscreen, before the sweep of movie stardom pulls her further and further away from smaller, character-driven films. But even then, Keough is hesitant to admit to grander ambitions beyond just doing good work.
“I think I have good taste, but you never know how a movie will turn out. That’s the part that I can’t control,” she says. “I don’t expect every movie I’m in to be really good. I’ve been in lots of stuff that isn’t very good, but it’s kind of like a gamble. You read something that’s really great and the director seems great and you just go for it. I also don’t want to always just do one kind of thing. I’m open to anything. I don’t want to stay in my comfort zone. I want to be nervous; I like that feeling. I like feeling scared. That helps me to get better, I think. And I don’t necessarily mean better as a performer, but better as a person. When I push myself and I’m nervous, it helps me to figure out who I am.”
She is also enjoying her anonymity while it lasts. She describes a recent discussion with an Uber driver about the merits of the film It Comes at Night, the second feature from director Trey Edward Shults that turned out to be a modest, unexpected hit this past year. She listened to her driver’s thoughts about the understated apocalyptic not-quite-horror film, thrilled to hear his unfiltered opinion as he remained oblivious to the fact that he had, in his own backseat, one of the film’s stars.
“It happens to me all the time,” she says, about not being recognized. “People don’t see most of the movies I’m in. This driver talked to me for about 45 minutes about It Comes at Night and I was participating in the conversation. It was great. I like being under the radar. In some ways, I don’t care if people see my movies. I just like making them.”
If she had a first “break” in film, it was probably as part of the gaggle of mostly mute and wispy wives draped in white garments who Charlize Theron’s Furiosa discovers while racing through the arid landscapes of Mad Max: Fury Road in pursuit of water. But even when Keough is hovering somewhere on the periphery of a film, she can command a scene without uttering a word.
And it’s not simply a matter of aesthetics. Yes, she is young and beautiful, but she has a presence on film that disallows her from becoming part of the backdrop. Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf might be the “stars” of American Honey, but Keough’s character Krystal literally runs the show. And, luckily, Steven Soderbergh is not an Uber driver.
Soderbergh has now cast her in Magic Mike (2012); the episodic television adaptation of his film The Girlfriend Experience (which earned Keough a Golden Globe nomination in 2016); and most recently in Logan Lucky, alongside Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig. As Mellie Logan, Keough dips in and out of the film, leaving much of the over-the-top comedic scene-chewing to the mostly male cast.
Again, Keough hovers on the periphery. But you don’t so much as miss her when she’s not there as expect her to alight into a scene like some exotic bird, singularly upending the libido-driven heist picture each time she arrives to right a situation gone wrong. That’s no easy feat. It must be why Soderbergh entrusted her with the role in the first place and seems to be some kind of guiding hand in terms of her career.
“No! He‘s horrible at that,” she says, laughing off the suggestion that he’s been instrumental in honing her craft with his careful direction. “He’s just like, ‘Do your thing, girl.’ He’s wonderful. He puts his trust in you as a performer. That raises the bar and makes you responsible for your own performance, which is stressful, but it’s also really good, because as an actor, you will do something and look around for approval – ‘Was that any good?’ But he’s focused on the camera and the light and so many things at once. It’s not all about you and I think that’s great. You do something and you don’t have to run over to him and ask, ‘Did you like that?’ I love him. But he’s not someone who will come up to you and make you feel like you’re amazing, or blow smoke up your ass at all.”
Logan Lucky is many things. It defies genre while being multiple genres at once. It’s a heist film, a reverse prison-break movie, it’s a little bit about NASCAR, and it’s hilarious. It’s set partly in West Virginia, a state that has become a topic of current political discourse for numerous unfortunate reasons. On the one hand, its residents suffer from a disappearing coal economy and an opioid epidemic. On the other, it is taunted by the false promise that a fellow named Trump is going to swoop in and solve everything as smoothly as his golf swing. (That is to say, not so smoothly).
All of this combined has any non-resident of West Virginia (me, to be precise) wondering if some of the humor in the film crosses a line. Are we laughing with these characters, or at them?
“We’re laughing with them! They have a sense of humor about that shit too,” she says, responding directly to my skepticism about whether or not West Virginians really play a variation on the game of horseshoes by swapping them out with toilet seats.
“Just because they’re wild characters doesn’t mean we’re laughing at them. My family is from the South and they say and do some crazy shit, but they laugh about it, too. They’re wild and they’re characters. They’re quirky and funny. But with the film, the intention the whole time was that we don’t expect these people to be able to beat the system. And they do! That’s what the film is about, in my opinion.”
As it is nowadays, one mention of Trump and the conversation takes a turn, usually for the worse. Keough and I delve even deeper into the State of the Union, wondering aloud at what exactly the future holds for all of us, from the Hollywood Hills to the Charlotte Motor Speedway where the heist in Logan Lucky is set. She doesn’t like the word “progressive” but believes strongly in progress as an undeniable force that cannot be blocked or reversed. I ask her the same question her character from American Honey asks her newly minted recruit, played by Sasha Lane, who arrives at her motel door one evening begging her for a job in a door-to-door magazine sales scheme: “What are you here for?” Of course, the answer she’s looking for is: “To make money.”
“What am I here for?” repeats Keough, pausing. “Making money is great. I fully stand behind that character. It’s America, man. It’s the world. You’ve got to hustle. There’s something, I think, about being shameless in hustling. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, in my opinion. That’s how you have to get shit done, you know? Especially in the situation that most Americans are in, where they’re not privileged – as privileged as some of me and my friends – and I have to hustle too. Imagine the rest of the world? I’m definitely behind hustling. I think it’s amazing. I love it. I love hustlers.”
Of course, making loads of money isn’t her primary ambition, she merely appreciates the old-fashioned American hustle to attain the unattainable. The American Dream, as it were: everyone is only temporarily poor and inevitably rich. We speak of topics as far and wide as Syria and famine and narcissism and racism. We wonder together about where America is headed and both agree that backwards is not an option, no matter what the Man in Charge might think.
As far as activists go, Keough isn’t eager to oversell herself as a humanitarian, but it is obvious that whatever wealth she has, in currency or fame (is there even a difference between the two?), she plans to share, collaborating when she can toward some greater good that benefits people and places she might not ever meet or see.
Which brings us back to her grandfather. Hope, change, progress – these things have given in to the weight of a nation that seems nostalgic for a past that no longer exists, a past where Elvis Presley is still the King and the dream of suburbia is still in reach for the most, not the few. Despite her own publicist’s request to dial down the connection to her hip-shaking ancestor (“Did they tell you not to talk about Elvis? That’s funny. Soon, I won’t have anything left to talk about!”), his presence lingers at the tail end of our conversation.
As Keough’s husband waits patiently outside to whisk her off to her next appointment, I make a not-so-subtle reference to Public Enemy’s infamous dismissal of her grandfather as a cultural icon, representing all of America. After all, she loves hip-hop and, in some sense, she is also a living representation of the inevitability of progress itself. To me, at least, the question seems unavoidable. Making America great again, whatever that means, seems inextricably tied to the era of not just her grandfather, but mine, and maybe yours too.
“It’s complete insanity. That’s what it is,” she says, without pause. “You can’t go backwards. You can’t do things when you know they’re wrong. Once you’ve learned a lesson, you can’t return and repeat them. That goes for day-to-day life too. You fucking do this thing, you learn this lesson, and if you try to go backwards, you’re going to really fuck things up for yourself. Once your morals have evolved and reached a certain point, if you turn back, that’s just chaos.
The thing that I get afraid of is that people are going to quiet down, move on, and just go back to work. That can’t happen. Can you imagine having our kids grow up with some ‘50s mentality? That’s crazy. I don’t even know how to talk about it. It’s making people crazy. It’s chaotic. And it needs to go away.”
By 2014, even Chuck D himself had moved past his specific Presley-ian disdain for the equivalency of whiteness with greatness, telling The Guardian, “I never personally had something against Elvis. But the American way of putting him up as the King and the great icon…. Elvis was just the fall guy in my lyrics for all of that. It was nothing personal – believe me.”
As Keough gathers her things, thanks me for lunch, and rescues her handbag from the gesticulating housewife to her left, she doesn’t get up to leave before clarifying one last point.
“For a lot of time, there was a lot of pressure to be a certain way,” she says about being a young woman, just starting out in film. “I think that’s changed now. Imperfections are more widely accepted. I think that’s really cool. I prefer people to be honest. I want to know if I suck. I don’t want to beat around the bush. That’s how you get stupid millennials. I don’t want to be babied. It makes you delusional in all aspects of life, not just acting.
That’s the thing about celebrity. You’re fucking babied all the time. You become a pussy that has no grasp on the real world. That’s my nightmare. And it’s probably going to happen to me. I mean, let’s be real.”
She stops short of standing up to leave and lets out a big laugh, something she tends to do when she feels she’s gotten a little too serious, too fast. “I’m rambling. You can just drive the car here,” she says, gesturing toward the digital recorder on the table between us. She is letting me know, in her own way, that whatever I write, in the end, it won’t much matter to her.
“I make such an effort not to be in a bubble. It sounds crazy, but I don’t actually care if people don’t like the movies I do. That might change, but right now, that’s how I feel. I do this for myself, in a selfish way, not necessarily for an audience. I want people to enjoy it. When people like what I do, that’s fucking cool. But the press part is the work part. This is the shitty part.”
She lets out another laugh. “I’m just interested in living in this world.” She says this as if she has a choice. And maybe she does. But, in this world where we both live, pastrami belongs on rye bread, Riley Keough belongs to America, and only one of these things is Elvis Presley’s fault.
Written by Gregg LaGambina
Photographed by Gilad Sasporta
Photographed at a Splacer property available on splacer.co marketplace for unique spaces.
Styled by Jamie Mizrahi for The Wall Group.
Hair: Gregory Russell using Kérastase at The Wall Group.
Makeup: Rachel Goodwin for NARS Cosmetics.
Manicure: Stephanie Stone at Forward Artists using CHANEL Le Vernis.