The Rise of an Elvis Scion: Riley Keough on Her Famous Family and Competing With Kristen Stewart

 Brigitte Sire

This story first appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As Elvis's granddaughter and Michael Jackson's stepchild, Riley Keough has lived in an improbable celebrity vortex for all her 22 years. She's been asked every Elvis question and shyly confesses that the most annoying ones have to do with "people thinking I was alive when he was alive," since Keough was born 12 years after he died. Regarding the eccentric Jackson, who married her mother, Lisa Marie, in 1994, Keough says she mainly knew him as the stepdad who went swimming with her, dropped her off at school and indulged her candy fixes at Neverland from the time she was 6 till she was 11. A few years after divorcing Jackson, her mother wed Oscar-winning professional firebrand Nicolas Cage, which barely registered on the infamy scale with a teenaged Keough, long since inured to the tabloid gold mine that was her family.

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Not a public train wreck by any means, the reserved, childlike actress, who is featured in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, opening June 29, talks about her family's notoriety as if it all happened to someone else. "It felt normal because I didn't know any different," says Keough, sitting in West Hollywood's Cecconi's wearing a baggy white T-shirt and gray cardigan in mid-April. "As I've gotten older, I'm like, 'Wow.' Honestly, I think it's because people draw it to my attention all the time. When they're like, 'Was that crazy?' I'm like, 'No, no, no,' to the point where now I'm just sort of like, 'Was that crazy?' "

Since she started modeling at age 14, Keough (who goes by middle name Riley instead of her first name, Danielle) has not overtly traded on that notoriety. (She politely declines to talk about her personal life, though during a photo shoot she un-self-consciously displayed a beautiful ring, an emerald surrounded by diamonds, symbolizing her engagement to fiance -- and Magic Mike co-star -- Alex Pettyfer.)

Three years ago, after walking the runway for Dolce & Gabbana and being the face of Christian Dior perfume, Keough left modeling behind and began fighting for roles in indie films such as The Runaways, in which she played sister to Dakota Fanning's Cherie Currie; The Good Doctor, opposite Orlando Bloom; and Jack and Diane, which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Now she is enjoying a career step up to studio films with Magic Mike, a Warner Bros. look into the world of male strippers.

In Mike, which shot in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla., last fall, Keough plays Nora, a stripper who has a brief dalliance with Pettyfer's up-and-coming erotic dancer. "Her character is young and really wild, kind of like a siren who leads Alex's character down the rabbit hole," says Mike writer-producer Reid Carolin, who claims he wasn't aware of her legacy before she became a front-runner for the role. "Somebody said something like, 'Elvis Presley's granddaughter,' but honestly, I feel like I heard that after we saw her audition. But as you'd imagine for a Soderbergh movie, every big actor auditions for every tiny part. She put herself on tape and went straight to the top of the list."

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About Keough's chemistry with Pettyfer, Carolin says, "I didn't notice something right away, but their characters were meant to be gradually drawn to one another, which is always interesting when that ends up taking on life offscreen." He adds, "They have different personalities and complement each other nicely -- she is much more laid-back. They're really good about keeping to themselves. I don't think it's one of those relationships for the press. I think they are genuinely into each other and genuinely love each other."

Not surprisingly, Pettyfer, 22, has only praise for his co-star. "Riley is one of the most talented people I've come across. Growing up, I watched Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld. They were truly classic movie stars. Riley, for me, is destined to be one of the greats."

Keough underwent a strip-club crawl to prep for the movie, as did much of the cast, which includes Matthew McConaughey and star-producer Channing Tatum (the movie is based on his life). "It's odd, it's dirty, it's not somewhere I'd like to spend my time," she says of L.A.'s The Body Shop, Seventh Veil and Crazy Girls, where leering, drunken guys hit on her and her female friends. Keough found the male version -- the weekly "Hollywood Men" show at Highlands Nightclub in the Hollywood and Highland Center -- more entertaining. "It's a totally different vibe," she says. "Women aren't threatening to men, so it's just this party. It's not hands-off, but it's not as dirty, and it's more fun. That's kind of what the movie captures."

About her indie career before Magic Mike, Keough says, "To an extent I have to do what I get." She admits that like her peers, she competes for the high-profile roles Kristen Stewart, Lily Collins and Jennifer Lawrence have landed in Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror and The Hunger Games. "It's definitely challenging," Keough says of her efforts to break in, as she enjoyed some misleading beginner's luck when she scored the Runaways role on her very first audition.

For the lead role of Jack in Jack and Diane, "a little story about two girls in love in New York" that Magnolia will release in the fall, Keough indicates "the characters seem more written. I find it more fun to do something with a little bit more to do." That "more to do" included cutting off her long blond hair and dying it black and repeatedly making out with co-star Juno Temple. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray (The Exploding Girl) did the haircutting himself: "With Riley, you're not sure what you're going to get on each take." Adds producer Jen Gatien, who hired Keough again for the as-yet-unreleased Kiss of the Damned, directed by Xan Cassavetes: "When Xan cast her as a fan of an actress, Riley made such distinct choices for who this character was. It suddenly occurred to me that she knew this sort of fanaticism and so she used it."

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When she's not off shooting her other projects -- We Are What We Are, a movie that includes cannabalism, and Mad Max: Fury Road, co-starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy -- Keough lives in Calabasas with much of her current family, including her brother Ben, her mother and twin stepsisters from current stepdad Michael Lockwood (Lisa Marie's fourth husband). That kind of full house is no different from the one she grew up in: "My mom had us sort of young," Keough says. "She was definitely a really great mother, but there were always people over at my house," especially musicians -- like her dad, Danny Keough, her brother, her mother and Lockwood. (Keough's youth also involved Scientology, as her parents were married in the church, a topic she politely dodges with, "If it would be OK, I'd rather not talk about religion or politics. It just feels too controversial.") Keough may like classic rock because "it fits every mood," but she claims she has no musical aspirations.

While she considers a move to L.A.'s Westside, Keough is aware that her career trajectory, if successful, will put her squarely in the spotlight that up to now has mostly been about other family members. "It's one of those things where it's like, if you're going to do this job, your personal life is going to be everyone's business. I'm in a position where I've been really lucky, and I'm not going to act like that didn't have anything to do with it," Keough says. "So you can't be an asshole about it."

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DOWN: Elizabeth Berkeley

Showgirls (1995) Berkeley's big-screen break was derided as a campy hoot. Although she started out in TV (in the early '90s series Saved by the Bell), it took her more than a decade to regain her standing with recurring roles on The L Word and CSI: Miami.

DOWN: Demi Moore

Striptease (1996): Trending downward from a career high in the early '90s with Indecent Proposal and A Few Good Men, Moore may have impressed fitness buffs but wasn't seen in a popular movie again until Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle in 2003.

UP: Natalie Portman

Closer (2004): Portman always had been viewed as beautiful, but in an unearthly (Star Wars' Padme) or Hallmark way (pregnancy drama Where the Heart Is). After Closer, she landed roles in sci-fi actioner V for Vendetta and Black Swan, for which she won an Oscar.

EVEN: Heather Graham

The Hangover (2009): Having racked up memorable roles in Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Swingers (1996), Boogie Nights (1997) and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), Graham's turn in The Hangover neither helped nor hurt her.

UP: Marisa Tomei

The Wrestler (2008): Having won a supporting Oscar for My Cousin Vinny in 1992, Tomei found herself back in the awards game with this performance opposite Mickey Rourke, finally dispelling rumors that her Academy Award 16 years earlier was an accident.

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