The Riddle of Riley Keough

Most actresses play to you. When they’re pondering or feeling one thing, you already know precisely what that factor is. But Riley Keough is a bit more elusive.

Whether she’s weighing issues of cash and intercourse in “The Girlfriend Experience” or staring down a romantic rival in “American Honey,” Keough, 32, actually seems to be like a star — it helps that she inherited ice-blue eyes and a chin curved like a query mark from her grandfather Elvis Presley — although her display screen presence stays unusually emotionless and mysterious. What are Keough’s characters pondering? You can by no means fairly inform.

This isn’t a nasty factor. Instead, it’s the first supply of her attract: That hole between what you don’t know however need to discover out is what’s so beguiling. And then, as you scan Keough’s face for sparkles of intention and emotion, you notice you’re leaning in.

“She’s one of those actors who so effortlessly lands in the feet of her character that it almost seems like it isn’t acting,” mentioned the director Janicza Bravo, who pursued Keough to play Stefani, an unique dancer with murky intentions, for her raucous new comedy “Zola.” You’re compelled by Stefani even once you don’t totally belief her, and Bravo knew Keough may play that ambiguity to the hilt.

“That morsel, that taste, that juice, that flavor — I wanted that,” Bravo mentioned.

In late 2018, the “Zola” script was despatched to Keough, and a gathering was set on the starry, storied Chateau Marmont, in Hollywood. Bravo bought there first and whereas she waited, a girl got here by her desk, mentioned hiya and started to hover. The Chateau boasted a excessive stage of superstar density in its prepandemic heyday however occasionally, a civilian nonetheless bought by. And this one wasn’t leaving.

Though Bravo nodded again, she was busy scanning the room for her would-be star. But this normie, this noncelebrity, this interloper saved standing by her desk like she anticipated one thing.

And then she mentioned, “I’m Riley.”

Bravo apologized profusely to Keough that day, and now she laughs about it. “I had this idea of what I thought she was going to be like — I believed her to be a larger-than-life person — and what landed in front of me was someone with a good deal of ease,” Bravo mentioned. “I’m maybe dancing around it, but I didn’t expect her to be normal.”

Me neither. When I met Keough in mid-June on the house of a pal in Los Angeles, I used to be struck by her calm, undisturbed vitality — one thing I’ve by no means sensed in even probably the most wellness-obsessed stars. With Keough, there is no such thing as a eagerness to please, no have to impress or to have all eyes on her. You really feel that you simply’re merely speaking to and observing a traditional individual.

So how does she maintain on to that lack of self-consciousness in Hollywood? “I have an ability that’s really hard in this industry to be kind of like, ‘Meh,’” Keough informed me, shrugging. “I don’t take things too seriously.”

“Zola,” primarily based on a infamous Twitter thread, is about individuals who use social media as an commercial, however Keough prefers utilizing it to puncture her personal superstar: Though she has starred in a couple of movies for the recent studio A24, Keough hopped on her Instagram final 12 months to breezily rattle off all of the A24 motion pictures she did not guide, together with “Uncut Gems,” “Spring Breakers” and “The Spectacular Now.”

Directors of these movies messaged Keough to supply apologies, however the rejections hadn’t bothered her a lot to start with. “I don’t care if I fail,” she mentioned. “I have this attitude of, ‘Well, then I’ll just do better.’” And in addition to, there have been greater quandaries to spend that vitality on.

“I’ve lived my whole life in a sort of existential crisis,” she informed me matter-of-factly, tucking strands of auburn hair behind her ear. “The minute I got to Earth, I was like, ‘What am I doing here? Why is everyone just acting like this is normal?’”

Of course, Keough’s childhood was removed from unusual: When she was about 5, her mom Lisa Marie Presley cut up from her musician father, Danny Keough, and married Michael Jackson. One father or mother offered entry to moneyed fortresses like Graceland and Neverland, whereas the opposite lived extra modestly, in trailer parks with mattresses on the ground.

Keough had no qualms about visiting her father; as soon as, she even informed him, “When I grow up, I want to be poor like you.” She hadn’t recognized then how offensive her comment was, however that bifurcated childhood together with her brother, Benjamin, would turn out to be useful in her 20s, when Keough pursued work as an actress: She had amassed sufficient authenticity to play common folks in addition to sufficient privilege to dwell her life with out a lot fear.

And blasé fits her: In motion pictures like “American Honey” and “Logan Lucky,” about hustlers simply attempting to get by, her characters really feel actual and lived-in somewhat than condescended to. Or, as a current tweet put it, “Riley Keough understands the white working class way better than J.D. Vance.” Was it glib to check her to the “Hillbilly Elegy” creator turned struggling Senate candidate? Perhaps, however the tweet nonetheless bought greater than 1,000 likes: Keough’s model is powerful.

Keough as a intercourse employee reverse Taylour Paige in “Zola.”  Credit…Anna Kooris/A24

The Florida-set “Zola” at first gave the impression to be lower from that very same material: Stefani is a Southerner and a intercourse employee, two varieties Keough has performed a lot of up to now. Still, the actress needed to make use of this chance to push issues slightly additional. “I didn’t want it to be ‘American Honey,’ this really naturalistic, understated performance,” Keough mentioned. “When you do something well, people want it again and then you kind of get stuck.”

Bravo needed her to go huge, too. Adorned in blond cornrows and hoop earrings, Stefani shrieks and cajoles in a blaccent so pronounced that even Iggy Azalea would possibly blush. At first, when Keough was looking for Stefani’s voice, she would textual content recordings to Bravo: “And Janicza was always like, ‘More, more.’ I was like, ‘OK, if you say so!’”

The film’s Black heroine, Zola (Taylour Paige), can hardly consider the vibe that Stefani is placing down, and in an period when white appropriation of Black tradition has turn out to be a sizzling subject, audiences would possibly discover themselves shocked by Stefani, too. “Riley said, ‘Am I going to get canceled for this?’” Bravo recalled. “But what she’s playing only lands if you’re going to the extreme. If you’re at all shying away from what it is, it can look like an apology.”

The result’s the polar reverse of Keough’s extra tamped-down performances: Stefani is outrageous, over the road and gut-bustingly humorous, even when Keough can sense that some viewers don’t know what do together with her.

“People are like, ‘Am I allowed to laugh? Am I a bad person?’” she mentioned. “I love that. I’m a little bit of a troll in my heart, and I think I bring that into my work.” And in case you have hassle sussing out Stefani’s intentions as she goads Zola right into a highway journey that shortly turns harmful, that’s by design.

“You don’t know if the whole thing’s a manipulation, even in her moments of being vulnerable,” Keough mentioned. “That’s why I love playing these characters that would seem like the bad guy. It’s so much more fun to make people have moments with those characters where you’re like, ‘I feel bad for her.’ Or, ‘I’m having fun with her. I’d go with her, too.’”

“Zola” premiered in January 2020 on the Sundance Film Festival, and Keough was excited for it to return out that summer season: She’s at all times been type of a searcher, and if the film led to new and extra fascinating work in comedies, perhaps these roles would assist her to know herself higher. Then the pandemic scuttled these plans, and as Keough was adjusting to months off from work, her youthful brother, Benjamin, killed himself in July 2020.

What adopted was “a year of feeling like I was thrown into the ocean and couldn’t swim,” Keough mentioned. “The first four or five months, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was totally debilitated. I couldn’t talk for two weeks.”

Even now, Keough finds the tragedy exhausting to simply accept. “It’s very complicated for our minds to put that somewhere because it’s so outrageous,” she mentioned. “If I’m going through a breakup, I know what to do with that and where to file it in my mind, but suicide of your brother? Where do you put that? How does that integrate? It just doesn’t.”

After the suicide of her brother, Benjamin, Keough went by “a year of feeling like I was thrown into the ocean and couldn’t swim.”Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Keough bought by it with the assistance of her pals and her husband, Ben Smith-Petersen, a stuntman, however first she laid down some floor guidelines: “I wanted to make sure that I was feeling everything and I wasn’t running from anything,” she mentioned. To that finish, Keough just lately turned a demise doula. Instead of serving to to facilitate a start, she guides folks by the problems that come up through the last portion of their lives.

“That’s really what’s helped me, being able to put myself in a position of service,” she mentioned. “If I can help other people, maybe I can find some way to help myself.”

And she has these days discovered issues to treasure about her grief, too, although she admits that if somebody had informed her to anticipate a silver lining shortly after Benjamin died, she most likely would have replied with expletives. “But there’s this sense of the fragility of life and how every moment matters to me now,” Keough mentioned.

It’s her new regular, one she’s nonetheless getting used to: Maybe you’re by no means fairly sure the place Keough stands as a result of till just lately, she hadn’t been all that certain herself. It virtually couldn’t be helped with a childhood that whiplashed between two extremes. But now, at 32, she’s lastly figured one thing out.

“I think growing up, I was always searching for answers,” she mentioned. “Now I know that everything’s inside me. All you can do is surrender and be present for the experience.”