Riley Keough Talks "Shitty" Female Roles and Avoiding Playing the "Hot Dumb Girl"
"[Actresses] have to play the dumb girlfriend forever until they finally get their chance," the 'Girlfriend Experience' star says, as she talks with THR about Hollywood stereotypes, working with Steven Soderbergh and why she looks up to Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander.
Four years ago, Riley Keough took a turn as a stripper in Magic Mike. Now starring in Starz's The Girlfriend Experience, she's got an even saucier role, that of a high-end escort who's a law student by day. The part marks the 27-year-old actress' second collaboration with Magic Mike helmer Steven Soderbergh, who executive produced this anthology adaptation of his 2009 movie. "The one thing I said in the beginning is that I'm not going be able to play what you would imagine a generic, sexy law student moonlighting as an escort to be," says Keough. "She was going to be a little bit off." The granddaughter of Elvis Presley and daughter of Lisa Marie soon will work with the prolific director for a third time on his return to the film world, Logan Lucky, her role in which — much like the film itself — is shrouded in secrecy. She most recently appeared in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road and next stars in the Cannes standout American Honey alongside Shia LaBeouf and sci-fi romance The Discovery with Robert Redford.
How did you get this role?
Steven came to me two years after Magic Mike and was like, "Hey, we have this show and we want you to play the lead in it." I read the script and had questions like, "What is the point of this show?" (Laughs.) I tend to overanalyze.
Did Soderbergh explain?
They just ended up giving me [scripts for] all of the episodes, which is rare for TV. I had this very weird phenomenon occurring where I was having all of these emotions and the character, Christine, wasn't. Like, I'm irritated or nervous, and she's just chill. I found myself projecting my own feelings onto her.
But did you get your questions answered?
Yes. I cannot and will not play something if I still have questions. I feel like I am being fraudulent. I've done it once probably, and I will never do it again. That is just my own integrity. If I feel like I'm full of shit, then surely everyone else will feel like I am full of shit.
Since this is your first time working on a TV series, albeit a limited series, did you have any concerns?
What I had heard about TV is that it's very rigid — that you have to hit your mark, look a certain way, do certain things, that there is no freedom artistically — and that's my worst nightmare. I don't work well in rigid environments. But the idea of getting to develop this character in real time was really exciting to me. Depending on your role, you normally get 15 minutes to an hour on the screen in a film, and you're like, "How do I get all of this into this one scene?" In TV, you can just exist as the character.
And that offers advantages for the viewer, right?
Yeah, you get to know Christine in a more realistic time frame. It builds in the way it would build if you meet a real human being. That said, I was like, "I don't know if this is going to work for TV. People might be like, "What the f— is this?" We shot it like an independent film, so it's different than what TV viewers are used to seeing.
Kate Lyn Sheil (left) and Keough in The Girlfriend Experience.
Did you do any research into high-end sex work?
I met with call girls — and they weren't crazy! They were actually very smart women; most of them were probably more intelligent than me. It kind of put me in my place, and it opened my eyes to the fact that there are intelligent college students putting themselves through school that way and enjoy it. I didn't know anything about sex work before, but it was fine because I was playing Christine as she discovers this.
What was the hardest thing for you to wrap your mind around about the character?
Her ability to compartmentalize things because I'm not very good at that at all.
You've said that the sexual nature of the material wasn't difficult for you. Why do you think that is?
People get weird about sex, but I had gotten to a place where I understood Christine, and I was in her headspace. She's not uncomfortable in those moments, so I'm not uncomfortable. I am more insecure than Christine in some ways, but I was definitely her for that period of time — and that really helped. You play to different parts of yourself when you take on various roles. Like, you are your confident self when you're playing this person, and you're your sad self when playing another person — but it's all a part of you somewhere.
Do you want to do more television?
I do and I don't — it's stressful. There are a couple opportunities at the moment, but I have never been committed to something for four or six years. I got lucky with The Girlfriend Experience in the sense that it was one season and was meant to be that way. When I signed on, they told me that every season is going to be a different girl. I was like, "Sweet, if I hate it, then I'm out." I get done playing people, and I feel that way with Christine. I wouldn't want to do a second season.
What's the biggest misconception people have about you?
Not to be an asshole, but people are expecting a hot dumb girl, whereas I am sort of cynical and smart. I know from auditions because I get called in to do roles, and I'm like, "You don't know me. I am not going to be able to play that well." And it's for the pretty girl, the sexy girlfriend. The roles they write for women are so shitty. I think part of me just rebels against it, so I immediately make myself not able to do [the part]. I walk in the room, and they are like, "Oh, never mind."
Are there not better roles for women now?
Our options still are limited. Though what I am reading right now in film versus TV is like night and day. I think because it's scary to go outside the box when you're trying to sell a blockbuster. And if there is a good movie, there are five girls who are going to do it, and all of the other ones have to play the dumb girlfriend forever until they finally get their chance. That's why I feel so empowered by Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander. Now we're demanding more-intelligent and less-two-dimensional roles. It's breaking down that stupid thing where you have to be a dumb blond girl with big boobs. Whoever first brought that to the table is being torn to shit.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.