When Riley Keough logs on to Zoom to meet me from her home in Los Angeles, the 32-year-old actor—the daughter of musicians Lisa Marie Presley and Danny Keough, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and a bona fide indie darling in her own right—is not at all what I expected. Fresh faced and with her hair piled on top of her head, she sits on her couch in a biscuit-coloured jumper with her French bulldog blissfully snoring on her lap and her laundry spinning noisily behind her.
It’s a delightfully low-key introduction to a performer who has made her name playing bold and unpredictable women: a flame-haired breeder escaping a warlord in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); an ice-cold, part-time call girl in The Girlfriend Experience (2016 to present); the beguiling leader of a rowdy crew of drifters in American Honey (2016); a whip-smart getaway driver in Logan Lucky (2017); and the only surviving member of a terrifying religious cult in The Lodge (2019).
None of her previous work, however, comes close to her audacious, slippery turn in Zola: Janicza Bravo’s surreal summer comedy based on Aziah “Zola” Wells’ viral Twitter thread from 2015. In the 148-post saga, the narrator, a waitress and sometime stripper, meets a fellow exotic dancer named Jessica. They become friends immediately and the latter invites the former on a road trip to Florida that descends into chaos, zipping from pole-dancing to prostitution and a gunfight in a hotel room.
In the big-screen adaptation, the luminous Taylour Paige takes on the role of Zola, while Jessica is renamed Stefani and played with relish by Keough. Dressed in pink with her hair in braids, she’s an enigma who initially exudes naivety, but also appropriates Black culture and spouts problematic anecdotes. She’s hounded by her insecure boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and violent pimp (Colman Domingo), but we soon learn that this isn’t the first time she’s lured an acquaintance into a trap.
“When playing any character, you have to find empathy no matter how unlikeable they are. I’ve played unlikeable characters a few times and it’s so much more fun”
As Zola arrives in cinemas, Keough talks us through embodying unlikeable characters, trying not to giggle at penises during sex scenes and the drastically different project we’ll see her in next.
Do you remember seeing Aziah Wells’ Twitter thread when it went viral in 2015?
Yeah, someone sent it to me! Then, I was told that they were making it into a film and I got sent the script. I was completely obsessed with the writing. Janicza [Bravo, Zola’s director] wanted me for the role [of Stefani], which was amazing. My only question to Janicza was, ‘Can I really go for it?’ She was like, ‘Absolutely!’ We wanted to make her as wild, offensive and loud as we could.
How did you prepare to play such an outrageous character?
I’ve played dancers who work in strip clubs a few times. I’ve had pole dancing lessons and I’ve been in that world. I’ve lived an interesting life, I’ve met a lot of people and, the thing is, I’ve met people like Stefani. I’ve played different versions of what people on Twitter describe as a ‘white trash girl’. When I got this script, someone said, ‘You kind of played that in American Honey.’ I was like, ‘This is a completely different person! You’re putting all these women in the same category.’ So, for Stefani, it was about thinking about the nuances of where she grew up, what she grew up around and how she speaks. I worked on the accent and sent it to Janicza. I wanted to get it right.
Stefani is the villain of this story, but also a victim in some ways. How did you balance that?
When playing any character, you have to find empathy no matter how unlikeable they are. I’ve played unlikeable characters a few times and it’s so much more fun. There’s more work to do because you have to find the humanity in people that make you go, ‘Ugh!’ That’s the work we need to do as human beings in real life. With great filmmaking, you’re able to make the audience go, ‘I hate this girl, but she’s kind of sweet. Is she?’ That’s the experience you have when you meet complicated people who have trauma. If I can find the humanity in them, hopefully that translates on screen. But, obviously, Stefani is a disturbing demon. It was interesting to explore.
The costumes in the film are wild. What are the details that you hope people notice?
Janicza was so incredibly thoughtful with every detail of our wardrobe, hair, makeup and nails. They made my nails pointy because I’m a demon and for Taylour [Paige, who plays Zola], her nails are rounder because she’s softer. I have a snake outfit [a snake-print two piece] because I’m a snake [laughs]. I had this necklace which I loved, that I don’t know if people can see, but it’s a gold chain with a single boob. I loved Stefani’s tiny bags. Like, what is she putting in there, one lip gloss? Then in the first scene where you see us both at the strip club, we’re wearing nipple covers with straps and they are plaid, which was an homage to Clueless . It’s like Cher and Dionne!
There are incredible set pieces in the film, including a darkly funny montage of Stefani having sex with different clients. Was it difficult to keep a straight face filming that scene?
To be totally frank, it was challenging not to giggle. There are a lot of penises! It’s hard, but after you get the first one out of the way, it’s fine. It’s funny. When I did The Girlfriend Experience, the first time I had a sex scene, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ Then, by the second and third you get kind of jaded [laughs]. I also loved that you don’t see any of our body parts—you only see men’s body parts. I have no issue with nudity and don’t like the drama around it, but I just loved that choice.
Zola and Stefani have this strange instant friendship. How did you and Taylour Paige craft that?
Taylour and I fell in love instantly, except it wasn’t toxic like Stefani and Zola. It was this beautiful friendship, which is rare in your adult life. Working on Zola was wonderful. I’ve done a lot of serious work, but as a person, I’m goofy and silly. To be able to play in a more comedic way was great.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for loss and tragedy and I wish there was. When I lost my brother, I felt so angry that no one talks about death”
The film had its premiere at Sundance before the pandemic. What was that experience like?
I’ve had a lot of films at Sundance and I was looking around going, ‘You guys, this is different.’ People were just so excited to see it and you could feel the energy in the theatre. I also had pneumonia at Sundance. Janicza took me to the hospital. It was before Covid was supposedly in America, but it could’ve been Covid. If it was, I’m very thankful that I was OK. We had to push the release of the film back because of the pandemic and at first, I was frustrated because I was like, ‘Everyone’s sitting at home. This would be such a joy to watch.’ But now that it’s coming out in theatres, I’m so happy that everyone waited. With Zola, you want the loud music and big screen.
Up next, you’ll be starring in Daisy Jones & The Six, which charts the rise of a rock band in 1970s Los Angeles. Does having so many musicians in your family make it easier or harder to play one?
I’m still practising my guitar. I don’t have any history of singing and playing the guitar at all, so I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is for me, but let’s try!’ I’m doing the best I can and the show-runners seem to think it’s working, so I trust them. It’s something very different for me and so fun.
And finally, beyond work, you and your family have had an incredibly difficult year [Riley lost her brother, Benjamin, in July 2020]. What has helped you to get through it?
There’s nothing that can prepare you for loss and tragedy and I wish there was. When I lost my brother, I felt so angry that no one talks about death. It’s hidden away and then it happens to you and you’re thrown into an ocean and you can’t swim. So for me, what’s been helpful is trying to help other people who are experiencing similar things. I trained to be a death doula and got my certificate to be a death midwife. I read a lot, meditate and I’m very spiritual. I think it’s rewired my entire existence and also made me thankful for every moment. I have so much more love in my heart than I could ever have imagined. But, it is painful and a lot of work. It’s been a tragic year for so many people. There’s been so much suffering. It makes you realise how connected we all are.