How Riley Keough Paved Her Own Way

In celebration of her 35th birthday, revisit Riley Keough's conversation from Mastermind 03 about her journey into acting.

She hit mainstream status in 2023 with her starring role in Daisy Jones and The Six, but American actor Riley Keough’s journey to stardom was a difficult ride, one marked by severe anxiety and external harsh judgments.

She was born into one of America’s most renowned musical families, yet Keough has always been a hard worker who pursued her passion for acting on her own terms. She has starred in several series, including The Girlfriend Experience (2015) and more recently Hulu’s Under the Bridge (2024), as well as films such as Zola (2020), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and American Honey (2016).

On the precipice of her rise to stardom, Keough met Mastermind in New York to discuss her introduction to Hollywood, working on Mad Max: Fury Road, and how she managed auditioning anxiety.

When you look back at the movies you’ve been in, is there anything that connects them all?

RK Everything I do kind of aligns with what I am going through in my life. The characters I want to play depend on how I am personally. So in a way they connect because it’s sort of me, growing as a person, trying to figure things out through art. In that way, I am proud of everything.

When you say every role kind of connects with your life, can you give examples?

RK It’s hard… I don’t know how to explain. It’s like I’ll be really in the mood to play a certain type of character, and then it will come to me as a script when I am feeling I need to get out of myself – that’s weird.

What kind of mood leads to playing the main character in The Girlfriend Experience?

RK I always wanted to play someone really… competent, like a really competent, hard-working character. And I think that sort of worked with the mood I was in at that time, wanting to play someone very efficient and smart.

What about Mad Max: Fury Road?

RK I was young and sort of trying to figure out who I was as a woman at that time, and I was going through a really difficult time in my personal life with my relationships. I kind of didn’t feel strong as a woman. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I really distrusted other women. And that movie, all the bonding with all those actresses, really… It just kind to came to me at the perfect time, and it was a very strong group. We were put through the workshops to really figure out who we were and who our characters were. But I also think that really helped me personally as well, I was kind of… changing. I think at the time I was struggling with feeling like a strong individual and getting that role, and that environment really gave me strength.

Could you talk about what makes your relationship with Steven Soderbergh so special, or so recurrent, at least, from Magic Mike to Logan Lucky?

RK Well, I’m not sure about “recurrent,” we’ll see if he keeps hiring me or not. There are just some people you meet in your life that get you, in such a way that you don’t have to try to explain yourself. There’s no effort. I feel like he just understands me. And I feel I can understand him to a degree – but he’s really complex. It’s such a nice feeling and I’ve had that a lot with the directors I’ve worked with. I just feel like they can see into my soul, and it feels really good. You feel validated. He’s also very supportive, almost a mentor with me.

Do you actually need a mentor?

RK Always (laughs). I always need mentors.

Have you had others?

RK A bit. I ask people questions because I’m trying to write as well at the moment. I also direct a little bit, so I’m always asking for people’s opinions on things and if I need help. I’m really not precious, I’ll send things out and ask for feedback on everything. Steven is probably the one I speak to the most, because he’s really willing to just set aside time for people, and he’s really helpful. I wrote a script recently and I sent it to a bunch of people, and he’s one of the only ones I know really paid attention when he read it! So, yeah, it depends, I consistently ask him for advice on things.

When you decided that cinema was what you wanted to do, what inspired you to first become an actress, rather than a director? You actually started by directing short films as a kid, using ketchup as fake blood, right?

RK Yes, we would make these weird movies back then. I think I was just really shy when I was a teenager, but I wanted to act. So I would hide behind the camera, and would be like, “I want to make movies,” but I didn’t want to be in them. I was painfully shy when I was a teenager, and for some reason when I turned 18 or 19, it just disappeared. But I don’t know, I’ve just always liked filming things and people, to watch people and the subtleties in people’s behavior, zooming in on weird stuff. I definitely knew that’s what I wanted to do, something in the movies. My family are all musicians, so I don’t know how they felt about me wanting to work in cinema. I think my dad was a little bit apprehensive about it, but they are all pretty supportive.

Have you ever felt like the cultural mythology surrounding your family of musicians, from Elvis Presley, your grandfather, to your parents [Lisa Marie Presley and Danny Keough], or your former stepfather [Michael Jackson], weighed on how people looked at you, or on your opportunities to invent yourself?

RK I don’t know. People ask me that and I don’t actually know. I don’t think so. I’ve been used to that since I was a kid, and I don’t think it affected me in any negative way. I definitely felt a bit judged when I started acting. Like “Oh, is she serious about this?”, that kind of thing. But I work hard, I’m kind of a workaholic so I think I needed to show people I was serious about my career, and that I wouldn’t just show up and give it a try. Although I did sort of do that because I was playing it down, and because I was too embarrassed to say I wanted to act because I thought I would fail. So I kind of did start acting in a low-key way, whereas I really wanted people to think I cared. It was something I was extremely passionate about, but I was scared too. That being said, I did come under a bit of pressure as a teenager and in my early 20s. Obviously I’ve had difficult times, like every actress. It can be tough and discouraging. But I’ve felt pretty supported most of the time, which I feel very lucky about. My biggest problem is myself.

What has been discouraging?

RK Oh God, you know, the whole brutal audition process. I have severe anxiety, so that wasn’t good for me. I was doing these auditions that were sort of triggering really intense panic attacks, which I didn’t understand when I was a teenager. I thought something was wrong with me, that I was dying, that I couldn’t breathe, that I had a lung problem. It went hand-in-hand with when I started acting. My anxiety started getting worse. It was hard for me because I suffered from bad panic attacks – I’m afraid they don’t complement each other, auditioning and anxiety. It’s still tough, but at least I have identified that I had anxiety.

It’s almost surprising considering you’ve grown up surrounded by people who would go on stage in front of thousands of people…

RK Yeah, I know. I had crazy stage fright as a kid. I did my very first play when I was like eight years old. I walked on stage, and I was playing Winnie The Pooh. I stood there, and I ran off and just started crying. And my friend had to go out there and do my lines for me. And I just couldn’t, it was debilitating stage fright. As I grew up I did more plays in school, and I think I did Romeo and Juliette or something when I was 11 or 12. It got better. I was addicted to performing as well, so I had to push through it.

When you work on a character as an actress, do you use precise references, like characters or performances, or even music, or do you work from a blank page?

RK I don’t know what my method is. Every film has been different so far. Sometimes I just feel like I transform internally into a different person, and I just don’t know where it comes from. Sometimes I’ll be thinking of people I’ve met. Sometimes I just feel like I’m a little bit possessed (laughs). And sometimes I feel like myself, like I’m just me.

When you feel possessed, do you need an exorcism to get back to yourself?

RK Always! I always need an exorcism. And a break. I do need a break. I should take more breaks than I do, I overwork myself.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 03buy all issues here.

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