[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]
[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
When I meet Riley Keough, it's the day after Elvis Presley's 80th birthday. As the oldest grandchild of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, she had of course attended the celebration at Graceland the night before, with her mother Lisa Marie Presley and her grandmother Priscilla—three generations of Presley women, all in black for the occasion, not in mourning but in homage. According to Riley, even her brother Ben, three years her junior, couldn't get over it. "My brother was like, 'You guys look so creepy. You all look like different ages of the same person.' "
Elvis died 12 years before Keough was born, yet the questions about him and what it's like to be his granddaughter never stop, a line of inquiry that strikes her as both numbingly standard and profoundly strange. "I kind of know how to answer the question," she tells me once we've gotten to know each other a bit. "But I don't know the answer."
Keough and I are sitting in a cabana on the roof of the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills, having a manicure-pedicure. Despite her lineage—or maybe because of it—the 25-year-old model turned actress is what I'd call low-maintenance. She arrives 10 minutes early (despite Golden Globes gridlock), has no special requests, and is dressed to underwhelm in jeans, a green hunting sweater, and Timberland boots. For a moment she eyes a purple shade for her fingernails—the one she'd pick "if I had my own self-determination"—but settles for a color that is subtle-to-invisible. For her toes she grabs a sparkly sea-green bottle called Mermaid's Dream. "Natural on top," she says, "and then there's a party on my feet."
As this is my first time in the chair (note that I am a man), I ask Keough to pick a color for me. "Look at that," she says, reaching for a bottle in vampire black. "It's called Hit Me With Your Best Shot. It's really aggressive and dark and sort of tormented. It's very you."
Her own color choices will likely be more adventurous when it comes to her wedding, on February 4, in Napa. Still, she's marrying her Aussie stuntman boyfriend, Ben Smith-Petersen, with whom she shares a house in L.A. Keough, despite roots and relations all over—Presley cousins scattered about the South, seven-year-old half-sisters in London (from her mother's fourth marriage, to Michael Lockwood),and a slew of erstwhile residences in Florida and Hawaii—considers this city home. It will be a small affair, no more than 80 guests (including Kristen Stewart and Dakota Johnson), and then the newlyweds and their French bulldog Grubs head off to Toronto, where Keough will play the lead in The Girlfriend Experience, a Starz series based on Steven Soderbergh's film about a high-end call girl. It's a nice setup for a fledgling family: a job in one place with regular hours. "Just prostitution nine-to-five and the weekends off," she says dryly.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the long shadow Elvis casts on Keough's life is her wariness of fame. Few people in Hollywood, or anywhere else, have had a better view of the perils of celebrity—including, most infamously, her mother's two-year marriage to Michael Jackson, which began when Keough was five. (She briefly lived at Neverland before Lisa Marie and Jackson divorced.) She therefore really likes being able to go to the beach on a whim, or to run out for coffee without dressing up—simple things, not basic human rights but all too easy to lose. "I think I'm under the radar enough," Keough says when I ask if she's worried about paparazzi storming her wedding."No one cares about me in general."
In part that's because she has chosen to work a little under the radar. Thanks to the Presley estate, she's had the luxury to be picky, focusing on juicy roles in indie hits, such as Jack and Diane. "In major studio scripts the girls are very similar. They're all witty and hot," she says. "I'm more of an oddball." Still, it's not as if indie directors are immune to typecasting. "Do I just exude stripper/lesbian?" she asks, somewhat rhetorically, having played one or the other four times in her 14-picture career.
Still, it's hard to imagine another young actress who'd consider passing up a part in Mad Max: Fury Road—the $100 million reboot of the postapocalyptic biker series from the 1980s—because it was "too big a movie." Keough did finally accept the role of Capable, one of a crew of badass sidekicks crossing the wasteland with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. She can calculate the professional dividends when the movie comes out in May, but the personal rewards are already clear: She met Smith-Petersen on location in Namibia in 2012; they started dating the following year during reshoots in Australia.
In another upcoming film, Dixieland—this one intimate and low-budget—she plays the love interest of an ex-con, her neighbor in a Mississippi trailer park. The film, which Keough co-produced, was shot in Jackson, not too far from Tupelo, home of Elvis's birthplace, which is a Mississippi historical site. Jen Gatien, one of Keough's co-producers, remembers the actress jumping into her rented car and setting off on the 200-mile drive to the shrine. Keough told her that she and a pal walked the grounds—including the two-room shotgun shack where her grandfather was born and the small Pentecostal church where he learned his first guitar chords—like any other tourists. She didn't bother telling anyone there about her connection to the place.
Keough is on her second soy latte and worried about excessive chattiness. She says that caffeine can trigger a hyperkinetic neurosis that once landed her in the ER, but I'm coming from New York, and she strikes me as easygoing, even playful. At one point she picks up my notes and sees my list of her tabloid-reported past romances (Ryan Cabrera, Robert Pattinson, Nicholas Hoult, Alex Pettyfer). She feigns ignorance but then agrees to give a reason for a breakup as long as she doesn't have to identify the guy.
"I had one boyfriend who... Well, we broke up because I wouldn't French-kiss him." Funny. How about boyfriends beyond junior high school? She laughs and says more generally that most of her breakups happened because the guy was cheating on her. "Some people are okay with that," she says, "but it's not really my jam." There was one fellow she broke up with "because, um—why did I break up with him? Oh, I think we just stopped liking each other." When I point out that she seems to be the one doing all the breaking up, she admits that's probably true. "I've maybe gotten broken up with one time, and I like to think that's because I'm a very good girlfriend."
I wonder about the track record for marriages between a stuntman and a rising star. "You know, I'm not delusional or a complete idiot, and neither is Ben," Keough says. She ad-libs an interview, playing the ditzy starlet: "I'm so excited! He's the one! We're going to be together forever!"
It's not news to Keough that the celebrity marriage stats are stacked against her; the divorce proceedings for Lisa Marie's third marriage, to actor Nicolas Cage, lasted longer than the marriage: 108 days. But Keough says her mother was a champion parent. "She's the one who kept me from not turning out how she didn't want me to turn out." And Lisa Marie made sure her first husband, musician Danny Keough—father of Riley and Ben—remained close even after they officially split. For years both parents continued to live on the same estate in Los Angeles, contentedly raising their kids together. In any case, her mother's serial monogamy hasn't turned Riley off the traditional path. She's sure marriage is "the right thing to do right now. Like, I want to have children with Ben, and I know we'll always be close. That's what you want anytime you get married."
Anytime you get married?
Keough laughs. "Every time I get married."
For a time she was expecting a proposal, though Smith-Petersen seemed to expressly wait for the most unromantic moment possible. She prefers to keep mum about the details, except to say that she was not at her best. He got the diamond from his mother in Australia (his parents are still married; she had just stopped wearing it), and Ben had it set in a vintage ring. "Everyone knew," Keough says. "Even Grubs."
If she sounds slightly miffed, it might be because she's used to orchestrating the big decisions in her life. This is, after all, the very determined young woman who decided, at 12, that despite her ample advantages she "needed to make her own money." She chose modeling, and, as it turned out, she was good at the job, quickly picking up gigs with Tommy Hilfiger, David Yurman, and Dolce & Gabbana. By the age of 14 she had landed a three-year contract as the face of Miss Dior Chérie perfume. She earmarked some of that money to pay for film school, which has never happened. Since landing her first movie role at 19 (in The Runaways, alongside Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart), Keough has been too busy working to go to school.
A turning point came at 21, with Jack and Diane. Not only was it Keough's first title role, but the butch haircut (required for one of the aforementioned lesbian roles) marked a point of no return, almost an official announcement, in case anyone was in doubt, that she had left modeling for good. That her hair was also dyed black, accentuating the slow-burn gaze and mama's boy pout she inherited from her grandfather, was, Keough says, completely unintentional. "When you do that to me, I guess that's the result."
The movie didn't make a big stir at the box office, but Hollywood insiders—directors, producers, talent scouts—took note. "Most actors have a tendency to start off big—a little too big, performancewise," says Dixieland's director, Hank Bedford. "Riley is much more natural. It's just too much of a coincidence that she has this magnetism in her lineage."
Amy Seimetz, part of the two-person writing-directing team behind The Girlfriend Experience, cites Keough's indie experience as a kind of film school in itself, and certainly great prep for this particular project. "We're bringing an independent film style to television—a pared-down, run-and-gun set, a nimble schedule," Seimetz says. "A lot of being able to execute that is having a lead actor who's able to roll with the punches, is okay with location shooting, doesn't need a fancy trailer." It also helps that, as Seimetz notes, Keough is "alive on camera. I don't know how else to describe it: There's a life inside her. She's fun to watch. She's obviously beautiful, but she's also very relatable."
At the end of our spell together, waiting downstairs for her then fiancé to pull up in a car they've borrowed from a friend (Riley's is in the shop), she talks about her plans for the next few weeks. She'll see the first cut of Dixieland soon. But before that she and Smith-Petersen are heading to Nepal to join a program called BuildOn.org, which has built 121 schools for "untouchables" in the region. The couple have raised $30,000 on Instagram, mostly through donations of $2 and $5—enough to build another school.
Since it's an awards weekend in L.A., I ask if she's going. "No, I'm not going to the Golden Globes," she says with Angelina Jolie–worthy self-seriousness. "I have to build a school." Keough tries to keep a straight face, then abandons her pose and laughs. "Just kidding. I'm so not that person."