Over the past decade, Riley Keough has garnered a reputation in Hollywood that belongs sorely to her. Forget her rock star pedigree: She’s the girl with no fear. One of two glittering actresses leading A24’s much-hyped new film Zola, she comes off as if she’s never met a script that scared her. A subdued smile emerges when she muses about Stefani, the character she embodies in the tweet-thread-turned-indie-dramedy. But, it’s worth nothing, this isn’t an entirely different smile from the one she wears as Stefani, a bold and jarringly offensive stripper who talks in a “Blaccent” and lures Zola, the titular character played by Taylour Paige, into a rollercoaster evening of exotic dancing and, eventually, sex work in Florida. Keough can gently disarm and playfully threaten with this smile, seemingly with equal ease. Sitting at home with her legs tucked under her lap, she’s warm and bright-eyed, full of laughter and love. Which is not to say she’s not ready for whatever you’ll throw at her. Her reflexes are needle-sharp.
Keough’s often described as an indie darling, A24’s crown jewel whose magnetism saturates even her darker, more disturbed characters. But Zola–based on the viral Twitter thread posted by A’ziah King, the real-life Zola, in 2015—gives the actress an opportunity to lean all the way in. Stefani is loud, manipulative, beguiling, and crude–Keough frequently refers to her as a “demon”—but nevertheless, Keough seems to have few qualms with settling into the character and filling in her grooves.
“Sometimes I’ll read [scripts] and go, ‘I can’t do that,’” Keough says during a Zoom interview ahead of the film’s premiere. “‘Somebody else would do that better.’ In this one, I was a little nervous, but I love doing things that make me nervous. I love doing things that are hard, that I haven’t done before.”
Of course, this supposed fearlessness and give-me-all-you’ve-got approach to life, art, and bearing your soul only comes about when you know fear well. Keough has had an unorthodox life from the beginning: The daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and musician Danny Keough, she started modeling in her teens and landed her first acting role at age 20. She joined frequent family excursions to Graceland and even spent time at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch (Presley was married to Jackson for over a year when Keough was a child). But last year brought a pandemic, as well as the devastating loss of her brother, Benjamin Keough, who passed away in July. Fear took on a visceral heaviness that shifted how Keough considers almost everything in her life.
“When you have something like that happen to you,” she says, “you kind of have a rebirth. For me, what I’m trying to do is operate in love. There are so many things that shifted for me, but I cannot bear anything else. I want to make people feel better. I want to make people happy.”
So she’s ready to take more risks, and bigger ones. She’s eager to tear away from the indie world, to star in your next favorite Marvel movie—or some other commercial behemoth, she’s not picky. She’s poised to let loose her own voice in the upcoming Daisy Jones and the Six adaptation. Give her more to work with; let her ooze her soul into every role, even the trickiest ones. She’ll embrace whatever comes.
To learn more about the flurry of noise surrounding the Zola premiere, as well as what it’s like gearing up to play a ’70s superstar, ELLE.com chatted with Keough as pandemic restrictions eased around the country and an almost surreal return to “normal life” loomed.
Why did this role, of all roles, appeal to you? What prompted you to sign on?
When the Twitter thread first came out, someone sent it to me, and I read the whole thing in one sitting. I was totally riveted by [Zola’s] storytelling, just like everybody else.
So I had that experience, and I’m so thankful that I did because then, when the script came to me, I was just so excited. [Director] Janicza [Bravo] had seen my work and, for whatever reason, trusted that I could play [Stefani]. Sometimes I joke and I go, “Maybe I was the only person that was like, ‘I’m down to play this crazy person,’ but I get excited by these kinds of things.
I often have played more serious, subtle, understated characters, and it was really fun for me to be able to play something bigger, to be theatrical—which I love, but don’t often get asked to do. Janicza said to go for it.
You’ve developed such a clear connection with Taylour Paige, who plays Zola. What it was like working together and developing a camaraderie onscreen and off?
We fell in love very quickly. But it ended well, unlike the film. We’re very similar people. Well, not very similar people, but we’re on very similar life paths and are very similar spiritually. It felt like meeting somebody where I was like, ‘Finally, I’m meeting you.’ I guess you kind of feel that when you fall in love, and so it was such a wonderful thing to have that as an adult. I haven’t made many good, good friends in my adult life. Getting to work with Janicza, getting to become friends with Janicza and Nick [Braun] and Colman [Domingo] and Taylour, even if the film never came out, was such a blessing to me.
Stefani’s a bit of a kaleidoscopic role. Sometimes she’s manipulative, sometimes she’s naive. Obviously we can’t know the real Stefani [Jessica in Zola’s original tweet thread] the way we know your character, but I’m curious how you related to her. Did you respect her or dislike her?
I cannot play anything without finding empathy, or else it’s not embodied and it’s not authentic. So that’s the wonderful thing about film: you’re seeing all of the nuances and the humanity in the villains.
I think that practicing that in my work is amazing, and I think it’s what people should be practicing in life–it’s why film is so incredible. Because you’re with this person for two hours, and you’re like ‘I hate her! I hate her! Wait, I kind of am okay with her?’ Whatever the experience is, you’re getting to have a more intimate relationship with somebody that you might have a very harsh judgment on if you’re meeting them for five minutes or on social media.
I start in love, always, even if it’s the devil. With these characters, we have to keep in mind that they are based off of Zola’s tweets and her experience of the situation. I know how Zola talks about these things. So it’s her perspective. [I’m] trying to stay true to how Zola would have perceived this human to be and playing into that as well.
How did you feel about attempting Stefani’s accent? Was that intimidating?
From the jump, it was well understood that this character was wildly offensive. Janicza wanted to go there, not kind of go there, you know? She’s a genius, so I followed her lead. I think when you’re making big statements, it’s always sketchy. It’s always kind of like, ‘Oh gosh, how is this going to go down?’ But I think what she achieved is actually very important and definitely gets a reaction out of people.
I had a woman named Aris Mendoza work with me, and we would try things. We just sat at her house and would go through the dialogue. She would correct me and have me try it different ways and send it back to Janicza, and Janicza would say, “Cool.” It was a development of how she talked and what she would have grown up around.
I’ve lived a pretty colorful life myself, and I’ve spent time with all kinds of people—I’ve definitely seen Stefanis. I’ve spent time with Stefanis. So I have life to draw from for that as well.
Some of the sex scenes you’re in are played with a fascinating lightness; others are difficult to watch. As you were filming those segments, did you feel like you could embody Stefani’s combined agency and lack of agency, while still feeling comfortable yourself?
I’ve had a lot of experience with sex scenes in the work I’ve done. I’ve done so many, I couldn’t even count. When I’m playing a character, I’m in that head space where I’m not Riley, and if I am, something’s wrong. I’m embodying this person who isn’t affected by these things in the same way I am.
Also, I’m kind of a bold person. I’m a little bit fearless when it comes to those kinds of things. With that said, I’ve never had an experience working in sex scenes with men that made me feel uncomfortable. If I did, I would absolutely have a hard time. I’ve been lucky in that the men I’ve worked with in intimate scenes have been very respectful.
Do you think Stefani has agency throughout the film? What about Zola?
[The film] touches on topics that are very serious, and it does it in a way that people can stomach, with this sort of layer of comedy and absurdity. People can digest that easier. I think that’s what’s important—on the surface, you’re seeing this funny, outrageous road trip, but really you’re also seeing a Black woman’s experience in a really fucked-up situation, and both women’s experiences in a really fucked-up situation.
For Stefani, it’s ambiguous when you’re watching it whether she’s really wanting to be there or not, and I think that’s sort of left up to the audience. But Zola very clearly is in a situation that is very dark and she does not want to be in. Janicza was able to make people go, ‘I’m so excited to go see this fun movie!’ And you’re really touching on things that are much more profound.
You’ve spent a long time in Hollywood’s indie scene. Do you ever see yourself headed in a different direction? Like, would you ever do a Marvel movie?
When I started in film, I was definitely like, “I love art house movies. That’s all.” I just kind of ended up in that world. But I love all film. I would absolutely do—I appreciate Marvel films. I appreciate Harry Potter. Honestly, if you would have asked me, like, the career I wanted? I would have been like, “I want to be in all the Harry Potters.”
I love filmmakers, I love film, but I love all films, and I’m not snobby. I want to do good work. I absolutely would do more commercial stuff. Honestly, I just want to do stuff that makes people have a good time, whether that’s Disney movies or…I will do anything. I’m not picky. I’m picky in who I work with. I’m picky with the filmmakers.
I get asked to do dark shit all the time because people have seen that a lot, but it’s not who I am. I’m much more silly and light and goofy. I don’t take myself seriously at all, so it’s a funny thing where my career thus far gives people the idea that I’m kind of like a snobby film person, because I’m not at all. When I’m at home watching TV, I’m watching kids’ movies. I’m not sitting there watching all the Cannes films, you know? I love cinema, but I also love HGTV.
What, then, has your experience with adapting Daisy Jones and the Six been like so far? You play Daisy, a character modeled loosely off of Stevie Nicks. Those are big shoes to fill.
I read the book, and I felt like, “This story is going to bring people happiness and joy. This is going to take people out of their lives for a minute.”
It’s just a fun, fun, fun show. Of course, [Daisy]’s got addiction issues, and there’s sadness and heartbreak, but she’s also this powerful, incredible woman who doesn’t really give a shit about anything. When you play these characters, it’s liberating, especially when you’re playing a liberated woman. You do manifest that. You open up to it in the way you carry yourself. I’ve had that a lot playing sex workers. They’re liberated and they portray this confidence, and it comes into your universe a little bit.
The scripts are so fun. The cast is awesome. It’s just going to be a real good time.
You’re not a trained singer, but naturally audiences will want to compare your voice to Elvis Presley’s. Is that a lot of pressure to handle? Or is it more frustrating than overwhelming?
I have this incredible gift where I don’t really care what people think. I’m going to hold on to it because I have a lot of insecurities in other areas. But if I mess up, I’m like, whatever. I’ll try again, or I won’t do that anymore if I’m not good at it. I’m a realist as well. I know there are some things that I can sing, that I’m better at. I know that there are some acting things I’m better at, some things I’m not. So I’ll try them and if I’m not good, who cares?
It’s fun to get the opportunity. My favorite thing about acting is you get to try things you normally wouldn’t do. I’m not a musician. I’m not a singer. I never sang. So in the same way, whether you’re learning to strip or play guitar, you’re just trying to acquire a skill to portray this character. I’m not putting any pressure on myself. I really hope that people like it, of course. You always want that.
After everything you’ve been through in the past year, how are you thinking about—and reassessing—the next steps of your career?
There’s something about the world—that it’s opening back up, we’re getting vaccinated, it feels like there’s this hopeful feeling, and Zola‘s coming out. It feels like this new beginning. It’s definitely tainted with my own sadness, my own loss and grief from losing my brother, so it’s definitely bizarre. Those things don’t go away. We don’t stop being in pain from grief.
I’m trying to surrender to all of it. Whether it’s you or somebody else, there’s always somebody suffering; there’s always somebody in bliss. There’s always somebody falling in love. There’s always somebody dying. So I think trying to surrender to the fact that it’s all happening right now, all the time, is what I’ve been doing.
I tend to end up doing roles that match whatever I’m going through—because I’m attracted to them and they’re attracted to me. So I think it’ll be dictated on what I’m going through internally. Right now, I definitely want to do things that…really speak to my soul in some way. Whether that’s making people happy or being really entertaining. I’m just trying to stay open to whatever the universe brings my way.
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