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The Riddle of Riley Keough

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Most actresses play to you. When they’re thinking or feeling something, you know exactly what that thing is. But Riley Keough is a little more elusive.

Whether she’s weighing matters of money and sex in “The Girlfriend Experience” or staring down a romantic rival in “American Honey,” Keough, 32, certainly looks like a star — it helps that she inherited ice-blue eyes and a chin curved like a question mark from her grandfather Elvis Presley — even though her screen presence remains unusually impassive and mysterious. What are Keough’s characters thinking? You can never quite tell.

This isn’t a bad thing. Instead, it’s the primary source of her allure: That gap between what you don’t know but want to find out is what’s so beguiling. And then, as you scan Keough’s face for flickers of intention and emotion, you realize you’re leaning in.

“She’s one of those actors who so effortlessly lands in the feet of her character that it almost seems like it isn’t acting,” said the director Janicza Bravo, who pursued Keough to play Stefani, an exotic dancer with murky intentions, for her raucous new comedy “Zola.” You’re compelled by Stefani even when you don’t fully trust her, and Bravo knew Keough could play that ambiguity to the hilt.

“That morsel, that taste, that juice, that flavor — I wanted that,” Bravo said.

In late 2018, the “Zola” script was sent to Keough, and a meeting was set at the starry, storied Chateau Marmont, in Hollywood. Bravo got there first and while she waited, a woman came by her table, said hello and began to hover. The Chateau boasted a high level of celebrity density in its prepandemic heyday but every so often, a civilian still got through. And this one wasn’t leaving.

Though Bravo nodded back, she was busy scanning the room for her would-be star. But this normie, this noncelebrity, this interloper kept standing by her table like she expected something.

And then she said, “I’m Riley.”

Bravo apologized profusely to Keough that day, and now she laughs about it. “I had this idea of what I thought she was going to be like — I believed her to be a larger-than-life person — and what landed in front of me was someone with a good deal of ease,” Bravo said. “I’m maybe dancing around it, but I didn’t expect her to be normal.”

Me neither. When I met Keough in mid-June at the home of a friend in Los Angeles, I was struck by her calm, undisturbed energy — something I’ve never sensed in even the most wellness-obsessed stars. With Keough, there is no eagerness to please, no need to impress or to have all eyes on her. You feel that you’re simply talking to and observing a normal person.

So how does she hold on to that lack of self-consciousness in Hollywood? “I have an ability that’s really hard in this industry to be kind of like, ‘Meh,'” Keough told me, shrugging. “I don’t take things too seriously.”

“Zola,” based on a notorious Twitter thread, is about people who use social media as an advertisement, but Keough prefers using it to puncture her own celebrity: Though she has starred in a few films for the hot studio A24, Keough hopped on her Instagram last year to breezily rattle off all the A24 movies she failed to book, including “Uncut Gems,” “Spring Breakers” and “The Spectacular Now.”

Directors of those films messaged Keough to offer apologies, but the rejections hadn’t bothered her much to begin with. “I don’t care if I fail,” she said. “I have this attitude of, ‘Well, then I’ll just do better.'” And besides, there were bigger quandaries to spend that energy on.

“I’ve lived my whole life in a sort of existential crisis,” she told me matter-of-factly, tucking strands of auburn hair behind her ear. “The minute I got to Earth, I was like, ‘What am I doing here? Why is everyone just acting like this is normal?'”

Of course, Keough’s childhood was far from ordinary: When she was about 5, her mother Lisa Marie Presley split from her musician father, Danny Keough, and married Michael Jackson. One parent provided access to moneyed fortresses like Graceland and Neverland, while the other lived more modestly, in trailer parks with mattresses on the floor.

Keough had no qualms about visiting her father; once, she even told him, “When I grow up, I want to be poor like you.” She hadn’t known then how offensive her remark was, but that bifurcated childhood with her brother, Benjamin, would come in handy in her 20s, when Keough pursued work as an actress: She had amassed enough authenticity to play regular people as well as enough privilege to live her life without much worry.

And blase suits her: In movies like “American Honey” and “Logan Lucky,” about hustlers just trying to get by, her characters feel real and lived-in rather than condescended to. Or, as a recent tweet put it, “Riley Keough understands the white working class way better than J.D. Vance.” Was it glib to compare her to the “Hillbilly Elegy” author turned struggling Senate candidate? Perhaps, but the tweet still got more than 1,000 likes: Keough’s brand is strong.

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Keough as a sex worker opposite Taylour Paige in “Zola.” Credit…Anna Kooris/A24

The Florida-set “Zola” at first appeared to be cut from that same cloth: Stefani is a Southerner and a sex worker, two types Keough has played plenty of in the past. Still, the actress wanted to use this opportunity to push things a little further. “I didn’t want it to be ‘American Honey,’ this really naturalistic, understated performance,” Keough said. “When you do something well, people want it again and then you kind of get stuck.”

Bravo wanted her to go big, too. Adorned in blond cornrows and hoop earrings, Stefani shrieks and cajoles in a blaccent so pronounced that even Iggy Azalea might blush. At first, when Keough was trying to find Stefani’s voice, she would text recordings to Bravo: “And Janicza was always like, ‘More, more.’ I was like, ‘OK, if you say so!'”

The movie’s Black heroine, Zola (Taylour Paige), can hardly believe the vibe that Stefani is putting down, and in an era when white appropriation of Black culture has become a hot topic, audiences might find themselves shocked by Stefani, too. “Riley said, ‘Am I going to get canceled for this?'” Bravo recalled. “But what she’s playing only lands if you’re going to the extreme. If you’re at all shying away from what it is, it can look like an apology.”

The result is the polar opposite of Keough’s more tamped-down performances: Stefani is outrageous, over the line and gut-bustingly funny, even if Keough can sense that some viewers don’t know what do with her.

“People are like, ‘Am I allowed to laugh? Am I a bad person?'” she said. “I love that. I’m a little bit of a troll in my heart, and I think I bring that into my work.” And if you have trouble sussing out Stefani’s intentions as she goads Zola into a road trip that quickly turns dangerous, that’s by design.

“You don’t know if the whole thing’s a manipulation, even in her moments of being vulnerable,” Keough said. “That’s why I love playing these characters that would seem like the bad guy. It’s so much more fun to make people have moments with those characters where you’re like, ‘I feel bad for her.’ Or, ‘I’m having fun with her. I’d go with her, too.'”

“Zola” premiered in January 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival, and Keough was excited for it to come out that summer: She’s always been kind of a searcher, and if the movie led to new and more interesting work in comedies, maybe those roles would help her to understand herself better. Then the pandemic scuttled those plans, and as Keough was adjusting to months off from work, her younger brother, Benjamin, killed himself in July 2020.

What followed was “a year of feeling like I was thrown into the ocean and couldn’t swim,” Keough said. “The first four or five months, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was totally debilitated. I couldn’t talk for two weeks.”

Even now, Keough finds the tragedy hard to accept. “It’s very complicated for our minds to put that somewhere because it’s so outrageous,” she said. “If I’m going through a breakup, I know what to do with that and where to file it in my mind, but suicide of your brother? Where do you put that? How does that integrate? It just doesn’t.”

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After the suicide of her brother, Benjamin, Keough went through “a year of feeling like I was thrown into the ocean and couldn’t swim.”Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Keough got through it with the help of her friends and her husband, Ben Smith-Petersen, a stuntman, but first she laid down some ground rules: “I wanted to make sure that I was feeling everything and I wasn’t running from anything,” she said. To that end, Keough recently became a death doula. Instead of helping to facilitate a birth, she guides people through the issues that arise during the final portion of their lives.

“That’s really what’s helped me, being able to put myself in a position of service,” she said. “If I can help other people, maybe I can find some way to help myself.”

And she has lately found things to treasure about her grief, too, though she admits that if someone had told her to expect a silver lining shortly after Benjamin died, she probably would have replied with expletives. “But there’s this sense of the fragility of life and how every moment matters to me now,” Keough said.

It’s her new normal, one she’s still getting used to: Maybe you’re never quite certain where Keough stands because until recently, she hadn’t been all that sure herself. It almost couldn’t be helped with a childhood that whiplashed between two extremes. But now, at 32, she’s finally figured something out.

“I think growing up, I was always searching for answers,” she said. “Now I know that everything’s inside me. All you can do is surrender and be present for the experience.”

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