There is a weird familiarity with Riley Keough that too many people have without really knowing Riley Keough, perhaps because there are so many ways to have glimpsed her: as a fashion model for Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, and Victoria’s Secret; as the woman born into forever being known as the eldest granddaughter of Elvis, the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, and, later, the stepdaughter of Michael Jackson before Nicolas Cage (making her perpetual gossip-headline fodder); as that sister of Dakota Fanning’s character in The Runaways,
that stripper Nora in Magic Mike,
and that scarlet-haired Capable, one of the five escaped breeders of a water-hoarding desert tyrant, in Mad Max: Fury Road
(on the set of which she met her Australian stuntman of a husband). Though now is a good time to actually get to know her—particularly as a savvy law-school student and call girl named Christine on the new Starz series The Girlfriend Experience
(premiering April 10), which was inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s eponymous 2009 film. Or in the heartfelt indie Lovesong.
Or as a soft-spoken partner in genuine conversation about moneymaking, confidence, and the mechanics of not exactly lovemaking, as she was while sitting recently with Esquire’s chief What I’ve Learned interviewer, Cal Fussman, at the Sunset Tower Hotel, in Los Angeles.
> I’m not shy. I’m quiet.
With my close friends, I talk a lot. But if I’m at a big dinner, I’m not gonna walk in and go introduce myself to everybody. If I don’t feel like saying stuff, I just won’t say stuff.
My third-grade teacher actually made me go outside and yell words across the parking lot—just to be louder. I didn’t get what was happening. It felt unnatural. It made me feel like I’m shy.
I guess I just took that on for a while. I thought I would never be able to act because of it.
> I was always interested in having my own money—not my family’s money.
I don’t think it had anything to do with me being Elvis’s granddaughter. None of my drive was I need to get away from my family legacy! I wanted to save up the money to go to film school.
People always ask, How crazy is it that your grandpa was Elvis and your stepdad was Michael Jackson? I make them happy and say, “Yeah, it’s sooooo crazy!” But actually, I don’t think about it, ever.
The reality is I know as much about my grandpa as you’d know about a grandpa you never met.
But I always wanted my own money, and I just loved working. I’d work at a jewelry store supergluing flowers on sandals for thirty dollars a week. I’d set up a little store in the living room and sell stuff that I’d been given for a dollar to my mother’s staff.
I remember this Disney watch that Michael gave me. I think I sold that for five.
> I don’t know why modeling worked for me, because I’m short. But I liked it because it let me buy my own furniture.
> I started working so much that I didn’t finish high school, and then I didn’t go to film school. So after a while, I thought, Fuck, what do I do?
I’m going to try acting.
But I was battling that stigma. Oh, Riley’s too shy. And when my agent got me auditions, I wouldn’t go. I was really scared.
Then came an audition for The Runaways. And I thought, If I don’t try at least once, I’ll never know what would’ve happened.
So I went in terrified and clueless and sat with the casting director. We did a scene three times. I almost blacked out, I was so nervous. I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever done. I booked it.
I’m thinking, I don’t even know what I’m doing. I’m not an actor.
Two days in, I started to get it.
> I had a little lucky streak for a minute, booked another movie. Booked another movie. Booked another movie. This is fucking easy.
I see this with a lot of people who start acting. You go in—I got this, and you’re cocky, and people like that, so they hire you. Then you get beaten up a little bit. Everything crashes. Oh my God. Am I a shit actor? Then you’re not so cocky.
When I was about twenty-one, nothing for a year.
> What do you do in a year like that? Make bad decisions.
> People make you think you need to audition for everything, and that the goal is to make millions and millions and be an action star and be in the biggest blockbusters. And yeah, some fucking movies are cool as fuck. Like, I loved being in Mad Max. That’s cool. But no one ever said: You don’t have to go on things you don’t want to go on. I don’t care if I do one movie every two years. That’s important.
> In The Girlfriend Experience, I didn’t want Christine just to be the hot girl who’s in law school and does sex work but also is smart. I guess we all wanted her to be kind of cynical and smart, and kind of like a man about her life and her career, and not really emotionally connected to intellectualizing her feelings about things.
There’s sex in every episode. I did talk to a girl who used to do this sex work, and she said she would find one thing that she liked about the person and just focus on that the whole time. I didn’t really do that, but I thought that was interesting.
What I did do was I became kind of mechanical, and I had no emotional connection whatsoever to anything. I didn’t feel gross, didn’t feel awkward. I didn’t feel anything. It was like having a cup of coffee.
> It made me realize that sex isn’t—I don’t know. On one hand, I’m like, it’s really special and it’s the closest you get to the person you love, so it should just be for the person you love. But then another part of me is like, is that something that people just teach us?
> I’m writing a film at the moment, hopefully going to direct it this year. No actors. The leads are real people. It’s based on a lot of true stories. It’s gonna be cool, I think.
> But yeah, just film for now. Eventually I want to move to Hawaii and chill forever.