Interview with Riley Keough
April 30, 2023
Not starring in them, making them. 'I wanted to direct and write and do films, from as early on as I can remember', the 33-year-old says. Keough was a tiny auteur, working across genres in pursuit of her art. She made 'a lot of scary movies', she recalls. 'I did family dramas. I remember I made a little movie about a single mom who was pregnant and her husband left her. I actually have a video of that. I was probably 10 or 11'.
Keough smiles serenely at her phone camera. She's lying in bed in the cosiest of grey jumpers, her hair a Daisy Jones tumble of copper over one shoulder. It's been a long day, she admits: she's in production on Under The Bridge, a true-crime miniseries in which she plays a novelist investigating the gruesome death of a teenage girl. Keough has been working six or seven days a week to finish it. 'I don't have chill time, I'm working this weekend', she admits, a little sheepishly. She describes herself as a 'workaholic' - 'I really work to the bone. I'm not very good at taking time off' - but Keough's schedule right now is a particular variety of busy. 'I have press, I have this show I'm doing, I have life stuff I'm dealing with', Keough explains. 'So every day is very booked up'.
The work stuff: She is the star of one of the biggest television shows in the world, the rock'n'roll romance Daisy Jones & The Six. She directed her debut film War Pony, which was awarded the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the same prize that launched the filmmaking careers of Steve McQueen and Miranda July. And the life stuff: Keough is a new mother - 'I have a half-Australian baby', she beams - with husband of eight years Ben Smith-Petersen, the boy from Byron Bay she met while making 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road. And it is also still barely a few months since the tragic death of her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, in January.
We last spoke almost a year ago for an issue of this magazine guest-edited by the director Baz Luhrmann in celebration of his electrifying biopic Elvis. Luhrmann asked Keough, granddaughter of the King, to be featured, which was an honour, since Moulin Rouge! is the movie that sparked her desire to perform. ('I know every word ... I could recite the whole film'. ) Keough chose to share the story of how she fell in love with Smith-Petersen on a whirlwind trip to Sydney, a romance that began with a midnight swim and is suffused with all the magic of a perfect Australian summer. Since then, life has changed immeasurably. 'It's been a really crazy year', she sums up. 'A lot has happened'. When we last spoke, Keough shared that she couldn't wait to have children with Smith-Petersen. Now, they are parents to a baby girl. 'It's wonderful', she says, of motherhood. 'Every day is a new adventure, and it's incredible. I feel really grateful to be able to have this experience'.
She was then, as she is now, immensely endearing while also casually mesmerising; 'personable and low-key and familiar' was how the New York Times once described her. I experienced that firsthand last year, when she called me from her own phone - rare, for a celebrity - and spoke to me for almost an hour about what she now describes as 'the best times in my life', and then after we hung up she texted me reams and reams of Smith- Petersen's (very cute) baby pictures. ('He's a real Aussie guy', Keough laughs, of her husband. 'His attitude and his sense of humour. He doesn't wear shoes anywhere'. ) And yet Keough's friend, the supermodel Abbey Lee, shares that 'she has an enigmatic quality to her'. The pair met as co-stars in Mad Max; Lee was a bridesmaid at Keough's wedding. 'As close as I've managed to get to her, there is always this mysterious element to Riley that belongs somewhere, maybe on another planet, or in another time', Lee suggests. 'She can hypnotise you with that element'.
Riley Keough wears a Chanel dress, from Chanel boutiques, Area shorts, Christian Dior necklace and Levante Tights.
Keough's childhood was, in a word, bohemian. She was born in Santa Monica in 1989, the first child of the late Lisa Marie Presley and musician Danny Keough. Because she grew up in the shadow of Hollywood, Keough was reluctant to give voice to any acting ambitions she harboured as a child. 'There was a part of me that felt like everyone here acts, and I felt a little bit shy about wanting to vocalise that'. (In fact, in one early school project, Keough remembers writing: 'I want to be a mom'. ) Her teenage years were spent kicking around the parking lots of various outposts of In-N-Out Burger with her best friend, Dakota Johnson, and sneaking into bars on the Sunset Strip to watch their boyfriends, who were in a band, play gigs. If you think that sounds like a cut scene from Keough's latest project Daisy Jones & The Six then, well, you would be correct. 'It was totally like Daisy Jones', Keough affirms. 'We were sort of living our version of 1970s in LA, and we kind of dressed like that. We'd wear suede and fur coats and bandanas ... and we would hang out at the Whisky [nightclub]'. Even now, Keough says, if she could live in any era in history it would be the 1970s. 'And it would be in the music scene somehow'.
The actor got her wish in Daisy Jones & The Six, which is based on the bestselling novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid and charts the rise and fall of a fictional band - with absolutely no real-life comparison point at all, and certainly not one with a group that sings about landslides and dreams - in the hedonistic heyday of the 1970s. The titular Daisy Jones is one of those cinematic magic tricks: talented, yes, a bold and singular voice, no doubt, but a spectacularly bad decision-maker and tear-your-hair-out levels of frustrating, too. The magic trick is that whenever she's within a whisper of the screen she's the only person you want to watch - and this is a series that also stars Sam Claflin wearing a lot of unbuttoned shirts. As Daisy, Keough is a force of nature: charismatic and indelible. 'It still stuns me just how much Riley looks like the book's original cover', Jenkins Reid admits. 'I know Riley has said she feels like she was born to play Daisy Jones, but I sometimes wonder if it's the other way around. I suspect something was working through me, to create Daisy for her'.
Keough's connection to the character stemmed from the sense that the pair had walked similar paths: that both women had been routinely underestimated by their respective industries. 'I've experienced it a lot in my career ... where you feel like you have to work a lot harder to be heard', shares Keough. 'There's a perception, or it feels like you've ended up where you are by accident and not that you've earned your seat at the table'. It's happened more times than she cares to remember. 'My god, there's just so many', she sighs. The experience of constantly being underestimated is debilitating, she adds. 'Years of that results in you doubting yourself. And that was another thing that I really connected with in the script ... trusting yourself despite the way that you're treated'.
Making Daisy Jones was 'hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours' of hard work, 18 months of singing, guitar and piano lessons to turn the cast into a chart-topping band. It worked: the accompanying soundtrack to Daisy Jones, featuring preternaturally catchy songs written by musicians including Marcus Mumford and Phoebe Bridgers, hit number one on US iTunes. 'Having people call or text me and say they're listening to our record is probably the newest experience for me, because it's just never a situation I thought I would be in', Keough smiles. There are even rumours that the fictional band is going on an actual tour; Keough mentions on more than one occasion how proud she is that the cast went from 'having zero musical experience to performing shows'.
But it wasn't easy. 'There were days where I'd go home crying and frustrated and didn't think I was going to be able to be at the level I needed to be, because I think you watch the show and it feels effortless. And it wasn't'. The result is an intimacy between the actors-slash-bandmates that leaps off the screen.
Her Daisy Jones scene partner Claflin adores her. 'I just love who she is as a person. How joyous and excitable she is. I've rarely seen her without a smile, you know?' he shares with Vogue Australia. 'She's just such a positive force of nature… Some people are innately good and Riley is one of those people'. Claflin remembers an early joint singing lesson for the series, the first time he had heard Keough's voice. 'We were asking to sing whilst staring into each other's eyes - which we could barely do without cracking up laughing - and I just remember us both being so similar, in that neither of us had any confidence at all', Claflin shares. 'We both had quite the journey to go on. She had a really beautiful voice, but it was quiet. I had a big voice, which needed taming. She was nervous. I was petrified. We were lucky that we weren't going through it alone, I think. We always had each other to lean on'.
The only other time Keough has experienced anything approaching this closeness between colleagues was on Mad Max, another production featuring long rehearsals and gruelling work - 'There were awful days on Mad Max' - that bonded the cast for life, especially Keough and Lee. 'Sometimes you meet certain people and you just have a feeling that they will mean something in your life', explains Lee. 'That's how I just always felt with her'. She remembers wild times during Mad Max reshoots in Australia. 'We got up to all sorts of trouble', she shares. 'It was summer in Sydney, so we frolicked on the beach and probably drank too much, being only in our early 20s. Riley can be quite mischievous, and I would say I have a tendency towards wildness, so the two of us combined at that time was pretty funny'.
Daisy Jones is the biggest role of Keough's career. It's the kind of project, with the kind of eyeballs on it and the incumbent scrutiny, that she has steered away from thus far, eschewing noisy blockbusters for smaller independent films'. It wasn't totally conscious, that choice', she explains. 'I think I was subconsciously not living that sort of a life that was very in the public… I was like, ‘I'd rather be a little under the radar'. Even when she appeared in an unabashedly big movie, such as Mad Max, it could never be described as conventional.
Instead, Keough made a name for herself as a singularly compelling actor, whose characters were united by their determination and who always left you wanting more, whether in the trippy Andrew Garfield mystery Under The Silver Lake or the ripped-from-Twitter dramedy Zola. As Jenkins Reid puts it: 'Riley has a glint in her eye, a sense that she's always in on the joke, that she might even be two steps ahead of you'.
Her debut role was in the 2010 music biopic The Runaways. She was 19; it was also her first ever audition. 'It was very surreal', Keough recalls. 'After that, I didn't book things for a long time and I got more of a reality check on how it goes. It's not typical to go out on an audition and book your first one'. She starred as Marie Currie, sister to the rock star Cherie, played by Dakota Fanning. 'I remember Dakota saying to me, ‘Oh, it's the martini shot', which is just a film term for one of the last shots of the day. And I remember looking at her and pretending I knew what she was talking about ... I had no idea what she meant!' Keough is a little nostalgic. 'I was so young. It was my first film and I had to learn a lot'.
It was a time in her life when Keough was still finding her voice. 'I was probably much more shy and introverted', she reflects. 'This is more a public perception - I think at home with my close friends would be different. But I think the way that I presented myself in the world would've felt more of a listener ..'. she trails off. 'I didn't feel I had as much agency. That's also being a young woman, I think I just didn't - I was less confident'. As a teenager, she remembers confidence brimming out of her, 'thinking, like, ‘Oh I'm so good and I'm the best', before the world breaks you a little bit'. Keough isn't sure what to make of herself at that age. She tries a couple of times, before settling on the notion that it was a different era. 'I think as a woman now, you're more encouraged to be yourself', she concludes. 'When I was a teenager, it was still a little bit like ... I want to be successful and to do all these things, but I need to present as this nice sweet girl. I don't know. I was very conflicted, I think'.
And now? Has she changed as a person? 'I'm definitely changed', Keough says. 'I change every year. I feel like a totally different person than I was a year ago. But I think in essence I've always been the same. I think that I've just gone through more, I've experienced more. And I think as you get older, you become more yourself in some ways'. Keough welcomes change. 'I don't think I've always been this way, but I'm not resistant to anything. I think I'm open to whatever life brings'. That's a good headspace to be in, I suggest. 'It's taken a lot of work', she replies, plainly. 'I think when enough happens in your life you start to realise, ‘Oh, I can either roll with life and just allow life to unfold, or I can resist everything'. I've found, for me, that I find the most peace when I don't resist anything'.
Right now, Keough is searching for what comes next. 'Literally my entire book [app] is just 10,000 scripts', she frowns. What she's looking for is something that excites her, something that is worth all the hard work. 'As I get older, I have less time for things that are just okay, that aren't perfect and exactly what I want to be doing, whether that's work or anything in life. I want to make the best of my time'. Until then, she'll plan her family's first trip to Australia since 2019. 'We're going to try and come this summer ... that's what we used to do every year'. Australia is a second home. 'I'm just really happy when I'm there', she smiles. 'I have certain countries and places that I just feel so free in, and I think Australia's one of them. And I fell in love there. I think that when you fall in love in a place, it's always got that memory to it'. She's been scouring real estate websites, dreaming of a place of her own one day. 'If it wasn't so far, I would live there in a heartbeat', she admits. Maybe one day, she will. 'We talk about it all the time. I would love to have a house there. I love being in Australia'. A new beginning.
Daisy Jones & The Six is streaming now on Prime Video.
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Elvis Presley Family History
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