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Riley Keough has previously received critical acclaim for her nuanced performances of stoic characters, but her latest performance in Janicza Bravo‘s Zola is one you have to see to believe. In the film — inspired by A’Ziah “Zola” King’s 148-tweet thread — Keough plays Stefani, an exotic dancer who befriends Zola (Taylour Paige) and takes her on a road trip to Florida that quickly goes awry. Keough has a knack for humanizing people that society routinely shames and discards — and Stefani is no exception.
“I’m very empathetic. Something I practice in life is finding humanity and empathy for everybody,” Keough tells The Hollywood Reporter. “What’s amazing about acting and movies is that you get to spend time with people who you would normally judge, or even hate, but then you might have moments of empathy while watching them. So it’s a really fun exercise in humanity, and I think film is an amazing way to explore that.”
Whether it’s David Fincher’s Mank, Barry Levinson’s upcoming The Godfather making-of movie or Ben Affleck’s take on Chinatown‘s off-camera drama, exploring the stories behind Hollywood’s most beloved films seems to be a trend right now. And since Mad Max: Fury Road is considered a modern-day classic, Keough, who played Capable, wouldn’t be surprised if its own compelling behind-the-scenes drama receives the movie treatment.
“There are a couple films I’ve been a part of where the making of the film would definitely compete with the real film for what’s more interesting,” Keough says with a laugh. “And Fury Road and American Honey were two where the making of was almost just as compelling as the film.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Keough also discusses her harrowing trip to Sundance for Zola‘s world premiere, the odds of revisiting The Girlfriend Experience and the challenge of filming Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty.
So did you happen to catch A’Ziah “Zola” King’s 148-tweet thread when it happened in 2015?
I did. Someone sent the story to me during its viral craze moment. I’m not a crazy internet person. I wouldn’t normally take the time, but from a couple of tweets in, I was totally hooked and I just couldn’t stop. (Laughs.) It was amazing.
I watched some Sundance interviews that you did for Zola‘s premiere, and it was mentioned that you didn’t feel too well at the time. So I looked down at the timestamp of the video — Jan 26, 2020 — and said, “Oh no!” especially since everybody was sitting so close together. Eventually, I saw your tweet about it, but what happened from there?
In hindsight, it’s really terrifying. I went to Sundance, and as I was landing, I started getting a sore throat. And once I got in, I was so sick. I had a horrible sore throat, and it didn’t feel like a sore throat that I’ve had before. My body is also very sensitive. I can recognize when I’m having strep. I just know these things. I’ve never had that painful of a sore throat before, and I’ve had strep multiple times. Tonsillitis, too. So I was like, “This isn’t right,” and then I started getting pain in my stomach/chest area. I was staying in a house with Janicza [Bravo], and then I had to go to the ER. I was like, “This isn’t right. I feel really bad. This pain is just horrible in my stomach, esophagus, chest.” I didn’t really know what it was. So my best friend and Janicza took me to the ER, and this was the night we got in, so our premiere was the next day. (Laughs.) In the waiting room, I was bending over and couldn’t get out of pain. It was just a horrible feeling. So they saw me and examined me. They basically swabbed my throat and my nose, and they said, “You don’t have strep. You don’t have the flu.” And I was like, “That’s so weird. I don’t have strep and I don’t have the flu?” They’re like, “Obviously, your throat’s really red.” But they X-rayed my chest because of the pain I was having, and they said, “But you do have pneumonia,” even though I barely had a cough. I just had a little throat-clearing thing. So it was very eerie to hear that I had pneumonia because I’ve had pneumonia previously and it was accompanied with a very bad cough and sickness. So I was just weirded out by the sickness. None of it made sense in my brain, and I was like, “What is happening?” So they basically sent me home and were like, “Yeah, I don’t know what to diagnose you with.” So I just kept going, and the next day, we had press and everything. I was so tired and I was so sick. I posted that I had pneumonia at Sundance, but looking back, I would never go out with pneumonia anymore. I just had this power-through-it mentality that used to exist before COVID, I feel. Like, if you have the flu, you just go to work, you know what I mean? So I posted that, and then someone responded, “Coronavirus?” At the time, I had never heard of it, and I was like, “What’s that?” So I was on the way to the airport when I googled coronavirus, and that was the first I’d heard of it. And then I got on the plane and that’s when Kobe Bryant died. And then the whole year was … So I still don’t know if I had coronavirus, but I surely could’ve. I don’t have the antibodies, but I got tested way later, so I don’t know if they left. I don’t know how that works, but I definitely could’ve had it.
A’Ziah has clarified some things since her tweet thread, but the real person who inspired your character, Stefani, disputes her story altogether. So did you approach Stefani like she was a real person? Or did you treat her like any other fictional character you play?
I treated her like Stefani is through Zola’s eyes. I was playing Zola’s version of Stefani and Zola’s experience with Stefani. That was my approach. And of course, I was playing the written character that Janicza and [her co-writer] Jeremy [O. Harris] had already fleshed out, which was incredible. So that was my personal take on it. This was Zola’s version of Stefani.
Stefani’s voice is something else. Did you practice her accent in your everyday life until it became second nature?
It was something that I immediately knew I needed to practice. Janicza and I would send each other ideas. I would also send her pictures, hair stuff and references. But once we landed on the accent and decided that we were really going to go for it, I went into dialect coaching with this woman named Aris Mendoza, and we would just send versions of her accent back and forth to Janicza. And then she would say, “Great, keep doing that,” so we just really went for it. We started with a more subtle version, but then we amped it up.
You strike me as someone who’s somewhat reserved or introverted. Is it easier for you to play an outgoing character like Stefani versus having to be outgoing as yourself in real-life social situations?
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I sometimes can be shy and introverted. But mostly, I think I’m just quiet. I prefer to listen than to speak. I’m kind of just a witness to whatever’s going on around me all the time. So I don’t think I suffer from social anxiety. It depends on the group I’m in as well. If I’m with my really good friends, we’re all equally as outgoing and chatty. So I’m definitely quieter. I didn’t grow up needing to be the center of attention. I’m not a ham. I’m not that kind of a person. But with acting, you have characters that are harder to play than others, and I would definitely say that playing Stefani, or more outgoing characters, is more fun. It’s definitely more fun when you have more to play with and more to do.
You’ve played a number of characters that society shames, judges or discards, and you’ve humanized them in the process. You’ve also given them a voice, and I think that’s important. I can’t imagine you were consciously going out for roles that achieved this purpose, but in hindsight, can you recognize why you were drawn to these characters?
Definitely. In hindsight, I’m very empathetic. Something I practice in life is finding humanity and empathy for everybody. Ideally, everybody can do that for everybody. What’s amazing about acting and movies is that you get to spend time with people who you would normally judge, or even hate, but then you might have moments of empathy while watching them. So if I can do that with a character I’m playing, if I can play a character who society would very quickly judge to be a demon or whatever their judgment is, if I’m able to perform it in a way that you still have a moment of, “Maybe I like her for this split second,” or, “Maybe there’s something I can find in her that I care for,” whatever that is, then that’s a really fun process for me as a performer because it’s something I try to do in life. So it’s a really fun exercise in humanity, and I think film is an amazing way to explore that.
Stefani puts on a performance in order to manipulate Zola throughout the film, but Zola eventually calls her out on it. Stefani then seems to drop the mask by bringing up her daughter and how she’ll do anything for her. Did you play that moment as Stefani actually being genuine, or was it all just further manipulation?
So it’s funny that you say that. Janicza and I discussed that scene a lot where she lets her guard down, opens up and is vulnerable with Zola. We also tried it a couple of different ways on the day. That was the only scene where I was like, “I don’t know exactly how to play this.” With everything else, I was like, “OK, it is very clear how this is going to go.” But with that scene, it was like, “Are we going to play it as manipulative or authentic?” So we decided to play it authentic, and I think that that’s really how manipulation works. (Laughs.) You know? When you find yourself in toxic relationships with people, it’s because you see the humanity in them and you care for them. And it pulls on your heartstrings in ways, so you continue on. So I think it was important to have that moment where you’re like, “Wait, is this manipulation, or is this real?” And all of her other actions show that it’s manipulation. (Laughs.) But then you have this little moment where you’re going, “Wait, are you actually in a situation you don’t want to be in? Or are you further manipulating?”
When she washes herself in the bathroom, that’s one of the few moments where I finally saw a human being underneath it all. She takes a long, hard look in the mirror and tries to wash away what she’s just done.
I would agree with that. You have these little moments sprinkled in, like the moment where she cries a little bit, or that moment when you see her washing her body, or another moment after X [Colman Domingo] takes the money from her.
She had to ask him for a cut of her own money. That was painful to watch.
Yeah, exactly. It’s a moment where she’s in a less powerful position, and it just makes you think. So it’s a little more of a human moment.
You operated the camera during the road trip, including the sunroof moment. Were you given specific direction for those wild road-trip moments? Or did Janicza just let the camera roll to see what came out of it naturally?
She let the camera roll. My memory is that we had a GoPro that we were passing around, and we also had a little rigged camera in the center divider area. It was some kind of contraption. (Laughs.) But Janicza was like, “Go for it.” So she handed off the GoPro, and it was up to us if the footage was usable or not. (Laughs.)
I liked the way the film handled text messages without putting text bubbles on the screen. What was Janicza’s direction during those scenes since you and Taylour were both speaking with text message-like voices?
The direction was when you’re writing the text in your head, what would that sound like out loud? You want to keep the pace the same as your text and not any quicker. So I tried to speak the way you do when you’re writing a text in your head. (Laughs.)
Despite appropriating Black culture, Stefani tells an incredibly racist story during the road trip. What did you and Janicza make of that contradiction?
From the beginning and on the page, it was very clear to everyone involved that Stefani is really offensive and just demonic. Janicza really wanted to go there and not half-ass that. She’s such a genius, and the way she handled race with such subtlety in Zola was so brilliant. It was in her hands, and I just performed what she wanted me to perform and communicated what she wanted me to communicate.
The industry has adapted novels, biographies, comics, video games, board games, podcasts, et cetera, but Zola was adapted from a Twitter thread. Do you think Zola is going to launch a wave of adaptations that are based on Twitter threads, Instagram stories and TikToks?
I mean, I hope so. It’s such a fun idea. It’s very modern, and it feels like this modern odyssey. I love it. It’s a combination of mediums. I was talking to a friend about this this morning and how the younger generation is very much wanting to see quick internet-type pieces of content like TikTok videos. They seem to want to watch that over a movie, so I think Zola is a really great combination of the two. (Laughs.) So we’ll see. I’m very interested in where cinema and the internet are going to meet.
Your season of The Girlfriend Experience was one of the most compelling character studies I’ve ever seen. I know it’s an anthology series, but has anyone called you — namely Steven Soderbergh — to discuss Christine Reade and what her life might look like right now?
(Laughs.) That’s interesting. Yeah, that was another fun one. We haven’t talked about what her life would look like now, but I’d like to think that she was always going to end up OK, you know? (Laughs.) Things get shaken up for her, but I think she’s a hustler who figures things out.
A number of readers might be disappointed if I don’t ask you something about Mad Max: Fury Road, but the problem is that it’s been covered every which way.
Yeah, you’re right. People have really gone in on this one and pulled it apart. It was definitely one of the wildest experiences I’ve ever had in terms of filming, but also our mental state. You kind of go crazy filming in the desert for that long. (Laughs.) So it was just a real-life adventure. And when talking about classics from the last decade, it’s really hard, for me, to think of many, but Fury Road is definitely one of them. And being a part of that, especially with the amount of content there is now. It’s just quantity, quantity, quantity and very little quality. So it was honestly such an honor. It’s just like you were in the midst of genius, and you could definitely feel it. I wasn’t quite sure what the film was going to be because, at one point, we didn’t even know what we were shooting. They would just throw us in a car and be like, “OK, now we’re going to move over to this scene.” And we’re like, “What scene?” (Laughs.) We were totally confused, but it ended up being an incredible film. I wish I could just do it over and over again.
Whether it’s Citizen Kane, The Godfather or Chinatown, there’s an emerging trend right now as narrative features are being developed about the making of classic films. And since the behind-the-scenes of Fury Road were captivating in their own right, you just know that someone is going to try and tell that story someday.
Yeah, there are a couple films I’ve been a part of where the making of the film would definitely compete with the real film for what’s more interesting. (Laughs.) And Fury Road and American Honey were two where the making of was almost just as compelling as the film. (Laughs.)
So I rewatched It Comes at Night recently, and your big moment at the end is still as gut-wrenching as ever. Are you able to perform a scene like that and still go about your day? Or does it put you in a dark place the rest of the day?
It really depends. It depends on where I’m drawing from. I don’t often use my real life. I’m not somebody that will be like, “OK, I need to think about something really sad to do a sad scene.” I often try and step into the shoes of the person and be them in that moment. And as much as you try, you can’t not take some of these things home. If you’re screaming all day, it puts your body into a state of grief. Whether or not you’re at home in grief, you’re still exhausted at home, so it does affect you in some way. With that said, I’m very cognizant of taking care of myself, mentally, and the pain and the emotion comes from really empathizing with that character. For a minute, you’re in those shoes and you’re like, “This is what’s just happened. This is my child.” So that’s what gets me there. It’s a weird job, and I don’t think it’s ever the same for me. It’s always a different experience. There are some jobs I go on and I don’t have that problem. And then there are other jobs I go on and I’m really affected by it. So it’s kind of like God energy in the way that it’s hard to put words to the process, and it’s just different every time.
Looking ahead, you recently wrapped The Guilty with Antoine Fuqua. How was that experience?
That was a tough experience. It’s a very intense piece, and it was interesting because it was during COVID. And a lot of the film is audio, so it was very isolating to do those parts when I was shooting them alone. So it was a very bizarre COVID experience of performing, but also very fun, too, because it’s very freeing. You don’t have to think about hitting your mark. You’re kind of in your own world because you’re just doing audio, so it was a different experience for me. But I really enjoyed it, and I enjoyed having very emotional and intense moments with somebody I’d never met. (Laughs.) That was something else that was cool and interesting.
And are you shooting Daisy Jones and the Six right now or The Terminal List?
I’m shooting The Terminal List right now, and then Daisy starts shortly after.
Of all your directors, whose voice returns to you the most when you’re on other sets?
That’s interesting. I don’t really hear voices, but I would say there have been a few directors that have been very wonderful directors for performance. Janicza is definitely one of them. A lot of the time, it’s a sense of giving freedom. So I try and bring that into spaces where there seemingly isn’t any freedom.
Zola releases in theaters on June 30.
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