Riley Keough Is Our March Cover Star

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    by · February 10, 2016

    Photographed by Hilary Walsh. Styled by Daniela Jung.

    The following feature appears in the March 2016 issue of NYLON.

    Riley Keough’s nails are striped with a riot of color—sparkly mahogany, mermaid blue, Manic Panic purple.

    At Kure Spa in Silver Lake, we’re testing out polishes for a mani-pedi, and the tyranny of choice is killing us. We want all of the colors, like a unicorn’s mane. “I always want to go for the wild shades,” says Keough, her voice still a tad hoarse from pneumonia, “but most of the time, I just have to pick nude.” Defeated, she brings the Deborah Lippmann neutral back to our cushioned white perches where the spa technicians scrub away at our soles.

    It’s a safe choice—the barely there hue won’t clash with the dark Dior ensemble she’ll wear tomorrow to the Critics’ Choice Awards (Mad Max: Fury Road, in which she plays a ruby-haired concubine on the run, snagged nine awards, including Best Director for George Miller)—but it also has an intriguing resonance with Keough’s latest project. In The Girlfriend Experience, set to premiere on Starz next month, the actress plays a Chicago law student who revels in the empowerment and detachment of sex work—and spends a lot of her time naked in the throes of calculated ecstasy. Innocuous nail shades aside, the role, like many of Keough’s career choices, is a high-wire feat that should pay off big time. In the span of a few flurried years, Keough, 26, has defined herself as a gutsy and unvarnished actress who doesn’t blanch at stripping down for steamy sex scenes (hetero, lesbian, or otherwise) or playing a harem member in a dust-raw dystopia. Her laid-back personality—at times in our conversation, she tips her head back like she’s sunning at the beach, her voice close to a sigh—translates on-screen as unflappable. She’s a naturalistic performer who has yet to blink.

    Click through the gallery to continue the story.

    Jacket by Gucci, bodysuit by Topshop, pants by Chanel, choker and belt by Zana Bayne, necklace by Vanessa Mooney, rings on pointer finger and middle finger by We Who Prey, Keough’s own ring on ring finger.

    Photographed by Hilary Walsh. Styled by Daniela Jung.

    “I don’t have a weird button on nudity really,” she says with a wave of her not-yet-manicured hand. “I guess I’m a bit hippie in that sense. You kind of know what you’re signing up for when you’re doing a show about a sex worker.” The 13-episode series jumps off from the 2009 Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name (starring porn star Sasha Grey as Christine), but it digs into the main character’s manipulative psyche even more, while expertly dodging clichés. “We weren’t making her come from some fucked-up background, or from abuse, or being forced into it.…I think the show is really not judgmental and unbiased to that world,” says Keough. “I didn’t want to be like, ‘Hey, I’m promoting it,’ or ‘Hey, I’m against it.’ We wanted to show an accurate story of this girl who ends up doing it.”

    Truth be told, Christine is not particularly likable. As Keough puts it: “She’s selfish and controlling, and she really likes sex. She’s not a character you often see written for a woman as a lead, and you’re kind of put off by it, because women are supposed to be super wholesome and moral or whatever.” She pauses, her lips forming a lazy grin. “That’s why I liked it.”

    Created by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, the drama was produced by Soderbergh, who played matchmaker between the creative team and Keough. Soderbergh first cast her as a hot-mess stripper in Magic Mike. “I got a very interesting vibe from her,” he says of Keough’s performance. “She seemed very unself-conscious. She has a quality that’s rare in a person, much less an actor. There’s no sense of trying to protect an idea of herself, or a persona that’s separate from who she is at her core.” Because of this, she establishes a startling intimacy with the viewer. “You really feel like you’re spying on her,” adds Soderbergh. “You feel like you’re watching someone when they’re alone.” He points out that the shoot, which took place during six months of winter in Toronto, was grueling. “And she had to carry the whole thing. I think she had one day off.”

    Jacket and boots by Miu Miu, top by Merch Junkies, pants by Sandro.

    Photographed by Hilary Walsh. Styled by Daniela Jung.

    But Keough is no stranger to tough shoots. For Mad Max, “there wasn’t really a set; there was just a truck in the desert,” she says. “It was huge and wild and dusty and exactly what it looked like on-screen for six or seven months, which was really hard. Everybody went through such crazy shit on that film. In hindsight, I think we all really had a good experience. That’s what you want as an actor,
    you want to be immersed in whatever you’re doing. But there are moments like, ‘Fuck this, I want a cheeseburger.’”

    Mad Max has marked a watershed moment for Keough, career-wise and personally. Grossing more than $375 million worldwide at press time, it’s her biggest showcase yet. While filming, she met her husband, stuntman Ben Smith-Petersen, who plays the film’s most campy character, the guitarist strapped to an apocalypse-mobile. In the Namib Desert of southern Africa, he was just one of dozens of stuntmen. “They all looked the same and had bald heads and I was like, ‘Oh, whatever. It’s too much to try and figure everybody out,’” she says.

    But then reshoots happened in Australia and a week grew into two sun-dazed months of road-tripping to Smith-Petersen’s native Byron Beach and lazing about Sydney. “It was the summer and you could go topless on the beach and drink a beer and be in the ocean every day—and the food’s amazing,” says Keough. “Ben and I started hanging out, and then we started dating. Then I imported him.”

    Jacket by Hilfiger Collection, dress by Blumarine, jeans by Zadig & Voltaire, shoes by T.U.K., bracelet by Holst + Lee, rings on left pointer finger and left middle finger by We Who Prey, socks by Topshop, Keough’s own rings on both ring fingers (worn throughout).

    Photographed by Hilary Walsh. Styled by Daniela Jung.

    Keough cleaves to intense experiences, relationships included (she’s already been engaged once before, to actor Alex Pettyfer from Magic Mike). With Smith-Petersen, “we were together eight months and then we got engaged,” she says. “But I think I told him I wanted to marry him after a week. I was like, ‘Homie… . ’ I don’t know, I just had a moment. I don’t over-intellectualize it because it just kind of happened, and I went with my gut there. We both had the same reaction, like, ‘OK, cool.’”

    In the middle of our spa sesh, Smith-Petersen wanders in, looking sheepish to interrupt but gleeful to see his wife. The two have been house-hunting lately—and one day, Keough says, they’ll have “a tribe of babies”—but today he’s just waiting to hang out. They spend most of their downtime drinking with friends or watching UFC fights, occasionally playing raucous games of charades. Keough sends him away quickly, but it’s obvious she feeds on the closeness.

    “Oh god, I’ve had so many relationships,” she says, sitting up a bit in her chair, her light cat eyes sparkling. “I’m not shy about that. I’m not someone that’s delusional to the fact that I’ve been in crazy relationships, and a lot of relationships. I like being in relationships. I’d like to say to myself that I love being alone, but I hate it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. People always make this issue out of, ‘Oh you don’t like being alone.’ No, it’s fucking lonely. That’s why people have relationships.”

    In that way, Keough takes after her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, who’s had a number of high-profile loves and flame-outs: Michael Jackson, Nicolas Cage, Danny Keough (Riley’s dad), and her current husband, Michael Lockwood, with whom she has twin girls 19 years younger than Riley. Keough describes her family as “super close: my mom, my dad, my brother, me, my sisters. We’re like weirdly close. We know all each other’s business, and it’s a not-good-sometimes kind of close. We text a lot. I probably talk to my parents every two or three days.”

    Dress by McQ, jacket worn around waist by A.L.C., earring by Vanessa Mooney, necklace by We Who Prey.

    Photographed by Hilary Walsh. Styled by Daniela Jung.

    She credits her mother for her own level-headed approach to fame. “She was like, ‘I don’t want you growing up like another Hollywood celebrity daughter.’ She was so not about that life, you know? She didn’t really put attention on it. It was there. We’d get photographed doing stuff, but I didn’t see a tabloid until I was 15.”

    Elvis Presley, who died before Keough was born, was “acknowledged and treated like what he is, which is a family member,” she says. “It was never like, ‘He was very famous.’ I was aware of the legacy because I was around it growing up. We were always going to Graceland—but it’s never burdened me in any way really.” She blows on her polish to speed up the drying process. “I didn’t have it as hard as my mom. I didn’t have his last name. There’s something about that…writing my name, it’s not Presley. That’s heavy.”

    Growing up between Hawaii, Los Angeles, and London, Keough entertained herself as a child by making amateur films, starting at age 11. “I thought people were super interesting, so I’d film everything, and make these weird little horror movies, and have my mom’s friends edit them together and add music,” she says. Keough didn’t go on her first audition—for the rock biopic The Runaways—until age 19. “I was already exposed to it a little bit, so I didn’t really want more of it,” she says of the celebrity side of the business. “I wanted to grow up before I started acting. I wanted to live my life a bit. I also really don’t like attention on me, so it was kind of coming to terms with all of that.” Of course, Keough nabbed the role of Marie Currie, sister to Dakota Fanning’s Cherie. It’d be the start of a streak of female-centric films, some of which portrayed feminine friendship gone toxic—or rabid in the case of Jack & Diane, where Keough and Juno Temple tangle as werewolves. “Riley completely lets herself go and steps into the skin of the roles she plays,” says Temple. “She takes risks—I feel like there is no part she would be afraid to embody.”

    Jacket by Chanel, t-shirt by Koza, skirt by Marc Jacobs, choker by I Still Love You NYC.

    Photographed by Hilary Walsh. Styled by Daniela Jung.

    So far, Keough’s had extraordinary fortune in finding roles that show off her risky side. “I think when you’re a girl and you’re young, you get pigeonholed as a pretty girl, or the sexy girlfriend of the main guy,” she says, “but my acting style is a lot different from what they’d want for something like that. I’m like, ‘I can’t do that.’ And they’re like, ‘What do you mean you can’t do that? You’re a young woman.’”

    Before she slips away to get Vietnamese noodles with Smith-Petersen, whom she’s been not-so-surreptitiously texting updates on her nail status (young love won’t wait for air-dry), we talk about her role in American Honey, an upcoming road-trip movie she stars in with Shia LaBeouf. The experience, which involved acting alongside several nonprofessionals, married feelings of being “inspired” and “freaked out a little,” she says. In other words, Keough felt right at home: “You’re not really thinking about acting at all. If I ever feel like I’m performing, I don’t get the fulfillment that I get when I feel like I’m existing in the story and truly being this person. That’s what I love doing.”

    Jacket by Prada, jeans by Filles a Papa, boots by Miu Miu, bracelet on right wrist by Chanel, bracelet on left wrist by Libertine. Stylist’s assistants: Lex Robinson and Mercedes Natalia. Hair: Mark Townsend at Starworks Artists using Dove Hair Care. Hairstylist’s assistant: Clay Hawkins. Makeup: Kayleen McAdams at The Wall Group using Lancôme. Manicurist: Debbie Leavitt at Nailing Hollywood using the Nailing Hollywood Collection in “Strand.”

    NYLON’s March issue hits newsstands February 23rd.

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    Last updated: 2016-02-23T16:57:49-05:00
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