Executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and co-created by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who also wrote and directed all 13 episodes, the Starz series The Girlfriend Experience follows second-year law student Christine Reade (Riley Keough), who is a new intern at a prestigious law firm where she is working hard to establish herself. Her focus quickly shifts when a classmate introduces her to the world of transactional relationships, known as The Girlfriend Experience or GFE, and Christine quickly finds herself drawn in and attracted to the rush of control and intimacy.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actress Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) talked about what attracted her to this idea, why TV appealed to her, the advantage of having the same writer/director team for the entirety of the season, being unbiased and non-judgmental in their approach to the character, her concerns over the nudity, Christine’s motivations, and learning about her character’s background and family.
Collider: How did this come about for you?
RILEY KEOUGH: Somebody had mentioned that there was a TV show that Steven [Soderbergh] had me in mind for. And then, about a year later, the casting director that he uses, Carmen [Cuba], called me and said, “We’ve got this project. We have four episodes, we have two directors attached, and Starz is attached. It’s all ready to go. Will you read it, and then meet with the directors, if you like it?” So, I read it, and then I met with Lodge [Kerrigan] and Amy [Seimetz], and we all got along really well. I liked the idea, so we went from there.
Had you been looking for a TV project to explore a character more deeply, over a longer period of time?
KEOUGH: Yeah, totally. That’s what’s great about television. You have hours and hours to tell a story. You don’t have to jam everything in to ten scenes, or whatever. I wouldn’t say I was aggressively looking for a TV role, but I was definitely interested in doing TV. The great part about it is that I can do one season, and then go, if I want to. It’s just like shooting a really long film, which is great.
Does it help, on a project like this, that you have the same writer/director team there, all the way through?
KEOUGH: Totally! I haven’t done TV before, so I don’t know what it’s like to play one character and have different directors. I feel like that would drive me nuts. I felt super lucky to have Lodge and Amy, the whole time. I don’t know what it would be like to have different directors telling you their own opinions, the whole season. That was great. We got to develop the character together, and stay together. That was definitely cool.
When you’re telling a story like this, you can’t get around the fact that it’s adult subject matter. Was there ever any hesitation about the nudity, or are you okay with it because it is so much a part of the character and who she is?
KEOUGH: Yeah, there was concern. I talked to Steven, early on, about all of my concerns. Our goal was to tell a story with no opinion. We wanted to be unbiased and non-judgmental, and show this girl who ends up doing this job and what the repercussions are of that. We want to leave the judging and opinions open to the audience, and not sway them or make them think anything. It’s very voyeuristic. When you watch the whole season, at the end of it, everyone will have their own opinions on the show, as a whole, and the character. That’s what we wanted.
This is just the life path this girl has chosen.
KEOUGH: Yeah, and I think it gets more and more confusing, as the season goes on, to figure out how you feel about things. You root for her, but she’s also an asshole. I don’t know. It will be interesting to see how people feel. People are definitely going to hate it or really like it.
In the first couple of episodes, it’s hard to get a read on Christine and why she’s doing what she’s doing, or if she’s even enjoying it, at all.
KEOUGH: Totally, and I think that’s accurate to life. You can’t get a read on somebody in an hour. So, that’s what we wanted to do. You get a read on Christine as you get a read on somebody you would meet, not as you would on somebody you’re seeing in a movie. It takes you the whole season of being like, “Who is this person?” That was a fun thing to do, to be able to be subtle and have time to develop her.
Did you make those decisions for yourself, as far as who she is and what she thought about what she was doing?
KEOUGH: I did, yeah. In order to play her, I had to understand why she would do everything she does. But, I don’t want to tell the audience why.
Will we see some of that gradually emerge?
KEOUGH: Yeah, you definitely see things start falling apart around her, but how she handles them is very telling. Things start to lose control and you figure out who she is, by the end of it. She’s funny.
You can only life a double life for so long, before it gets to you or the people around you start to wonder what’s going on. Does it become harder for her to compartmentalize?
KEOUGH: It doesn’t get hard for her, mentally, but problems start coming up around her and she has to handle them. Her worlds collide and trouble comes about. But I don’t think there’s ever a moment when she doubts anything she does, ever. She very much believes in herself.
Will we see a growing tension between Christine and her best friend, especially as she becomes more successful?
KEOUGH: Yeah, totally. There’s a conflict on that storyline. Christine is very good at everything she does, and she wants to be the best at it, so she takes this thing from Avery and starts doing it very well because she’s aggressive and controlling and likes being great at things. So, that does come to a strange point, at some point.
Was it important to you that Christine questions working for someone and just how much of her money that person will take, rather than just jumping right into this?
KEOUGH: Yeah. She doesn’t really let anybody else control anything in her life, even if it’s her boss. She’ll end up controlling them somehow, whether it’s in her own mind or reality. As the story goes on, you’ll see that she’s very much in control, more and more, of every little thing around her and everybody, no matter what the cost is.
As her clients try to push her for what they want, she questions them and pushes back. Was that also something that was important to you?
KEOUGH: Totally, yeah. She’s definitely not a victim. That becomes more and more clear, as she starts to manipulate everyone around her.
This is the kind of character that is typically played by men. Did you have to navigate making your male co-stars comfortable.
KEOUGH: I did! If a woman plays this kind of character, it’s like, “She’s cold, she’s heartless, she’s a psychopath.” But if a man plays this kind of character, it’s like, “He’s a man.” There were a lot of day players, every day. I had to be like, “Okay, I have to do this everyday. Don’t get uncomfortable.” I had to talk them through the sex scenes, and so many were so great. They have to come in and do this uncomfortable stuff, like masturbate in front of the whole crew and then leave. They were so courageous.
Did it help that Christine is so confident in what she’s doing, so that you could channel that?
KEOUGH: Of course! When I’m playing a character, Riley goes away. At least, that’s the goal anyway. Christine is not shy in that area, at all, so I had to get there.
Will we learn about Christine’s background and family?
KEOUGH: Yeah, you see her family and her background. Amy, the director, actually plays her sister. Episodes 7 through 13 start to show that a lot more. We set it up in Episodes 1 through 4 or 5, and then we start to get a lot more of her background and her personal life and, if she has emotions, her emotions.
Were you given much information about Christine prior to shooting this, or did you learn that as you got the scripts?
KEOUGH: I read it in the scripts. What was interesting about the show is that we wanted her to have a decent background. She’s not a sob story. She’s not a victim of some assault that made her end up in this position. She comes from a comfortable, loving home. That was an interesting point about the story that was appealing to me. It’s not some sad, sob story about some girl that ends up being a sad prostitute. It’s about a girl who’s in a great spot in her life, has a great family and has great support around her, and decides to do that anyway.
What was it like to be a part of a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, that was so well received by movie-goers and critics?
KEOUGH: It was amazing, honestly. George Miller and all of us put so much work into that film, and it was a crew of really, really smart people. It wasn’t a movie that was just pumped out in a machine, so for it to get recognized was really great.