You know it when you see it. A star on the rise.
Casting “Magic Mike,” Steven Soderbergh saw an audition tape for then-22-year-old model-actress Riley Keough—whose genetic blessings from grandfather Elvis Presley and mother Lisa Marie are self evident—and hired her sight unseen for a small role as stripper Nora, where she learned all about “underwear and spray tans,” she told me in our video interview. She first met Soderbergh at a “Magic Mike” staff dinner with her co-stars Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey and her romantic interest Alex Pettyfer, to whom she was briefly engaged.
Five years later, “The Girlfriend Experience” producer Soderbergh cast Keough to carry the 13-part Starz half-hour series “The Girlfriend Experience,” now adapted from his 2009 film by indie writer-directors, Amy Seimetz (“Sun Don’t Shine”) and Lodge Kerrigan (“Claire Dolan”). Reviews and Emmy buzz are strong.
Keough had some discomfort after reading the first four scripts about the high-end sex worker —”I was projecting my own views, judgments, and morals onto this person, they weren’t giving a lot to me, but I was rooting for her”— but she agreed to portray Christine Reade, a whip-smart law student and intern at a New York law firm who follows her best friend (Seimetz fave Kate Lyn Sheil) into the escort business.
Like Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniel in “Klute,” which Seimetz told Keough to watch, her character “likes sex,” and “comes from a place of control,” she said. And the actress met some women who, like Christine, get a kick out of being a call girl. Shot like an indie film by cinematographer Steven Meizler (a Soderbergh camera department vet) with many long takes and hand-held close-ups, “The Girlfriend Experience” pulls the viewer into Christine’s exotic world in a voyeuristic way, said Keough. “It makes you feel creepy and uncomfortable.”
Enjoyably, if not titillatingly, so. While ex-porn star Sasha Grey brought authenticity to Christine in Soderbergh’s 2009 indie film—which also offered no deep psychological underpinnings for why she liked providing sex to unknown men for money—Keough draws the viewer in, eliciting surprising empathy; she is far more relatable as a young woman who knows what she wants.
This has been quite a year for Keough, who said she’s amazed at how fast things are progressing. “I still feel 17,” she said. George Miller cast her (not knowing her lineage) as Capable, a red-haired girl on the run from Immortan Joe in Oscar-winning “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which was a long, tough desert shoot where Keough never knew what was going to happen, she said: “It was the most immersive experience I’ve ever had.” (Reshoots also yielded a relationship with the man who recently became her husband, Australian stuntman Ben Smith-Peterson.)
And Keough scored a key role as Shia LaBeouf’s tough and manipulative boss/girlfriend in Andrea Arnold’s Cannes jury prize-winner “American Honey,” which follows a troupe of young and lawless magazine subscription door-to-door salespeople across America. While filming the low-budget road movie, the young ensemble had to pack up and move through multiple midwestern locations, often getting their sides the night— if not hours— before their scenes. It was “intense,” said Keough.
The actress brought a steely power to that role. In interviews she betrays the reticence that can attend years lived in the spotlight—she’s been modeling since she was 14, and posed with her mother and grandmother for a 2004 Annie Leibovitz Vogue cover. After all, what could life throw at her that would be stranger than stepfathers Michael Jackson and Nic Cage? Born 12 years after her grandfather Elvis Presley’s death, Keough was raised by both parents, Lisa Marie (now living with her fourth husband) and musician Danny Keough, who went out of their way to keep her life as normal as it could ever be, making sure she got a good education.
Clearly, Keough has a good head on her shoulders. But as she was researching her next roles, in Soderbergh’s return to film, heist caper “Logan Lucky” (reportedly starring opposite Tatum, Daniel Craig, Michael Shannon, and Hilary Swank) and Justin Kelly’s untitled film (with Caleb Landry Jones and Abby Lee), she was hit hard by the unexpected tragic death of Anton Yelchin. She had played his sister in Peer Pederson’s upcoming indie-financed dysfunctional drama “We Don’t Belong Here.” “He was a very special person,” she said.