As a kid, Riley Keough was drawn to such performers as Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino.
“Looking back, it’s because the men had roles that were more dynamic,” says the busy 28-year-old actress. “I think a lot of the roles for women then were simpler.”
Keough recently met Pacino while shooting Barry Levinson’s HBO film about Joe Paterno. The Oscar-winning actor is playing the legendary college football coach who fell from grace for looking the other way while an assistant sexually abused young men. The actress plays Sara Ganim, the 23-year-old journalist who first reported on the scandal. It’s the type of complex, dramatic role Keough likes to tackle, but it’s not the only kind she does.
In Steven Soderbergh’s fun new heist comedy, “Logan Lucky,” the actress plays a “girly-girl” Southern hairdresser. “I’ve done a lot of heavy roles in my life, so it was fun to do something lighter,” says Keough, who notes that she doesn’t know why she gets hired for so many dark films. “I’m really silly in my life. So you would think I would do more comedies, but this is the way it is.”
The actress admits she hates doing interviews, saying, “I really change my mind all the time. I’m a Gemini.” She has a tattoo of the Gemini symbols, as well as more that she’s happy to explain. “That’s the Led Zeppelin sign. I got that on my 17th birthday,” says the actress, pointing to another. “That’s my birthday on the Mayan calendar,” she says indicating another. There’s also one she got with her father, one with her husband, and one of the word “Nope,” which she got while making the 2016 film “American Honey.”
The likable, unassuming actress — who is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley — may seem like she has a go-with-the flow attitude, but she has single-mindedly avoided being typecast. “I’m trying to play different characters in all my films,” she says, noting that while her character, Mellie, in “Logan Lucky” may be feminine, she’s also tough.
Mellie is the sister of unemployed West Virginia coal miner Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and one-armed bartender Clyde Logan (Adam Driver). The guys believe they are cursed. Jimmy was a star athlete but wrecked his knee, and Clyde was injured in the Iraq war.
After losing his job because his knee is a liability, Jimmy hatches a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. The pair then recruits Mellie, who they think is not cursed, to handle the driving, among other things. “She’s the one they call to bail them out,” says Keough, who learned to drive a stick shift for the film. She says she likes to “do things that make me uncomfortable, things I don’t think I’ll be good at, things that I’m nervous about.”
Through most of her career so far, Keough has quietly worked in the indie world, but recently the actress has been breaking out. “Logan Lucky” is her fourth release this year. She already has completed three more films, and is working on the HBO movie.
Her rise began with a small but eye-catching role in 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” (The film also led to her marriage to her Australian stuntman and actor Ben Smith-Petersen.) Then she received an Independent Spirit nomination for her role in last year’s “American Honey,” playing the bikini-clad head of a crew of homeless teens. She also received a Golden Globe nomination for “The Girlfriend Experience” — a Starz series based on the Soderbergh film. She plays a law student who works for an escort service.
Keough isn’t certain whether being born into music royalty has helped or hindered her acting career, but she thinks it was more of the “don’t-hire-her thing.” Her mother is Lisa Marie Presley, and her grandmother is Priscilla Presley, but she never knew her famous grandfather, who died before she was born. When her mother divorced her father, the musician Danny Keough, Michael Jackson became her stepdad for a couple of years. So both Graceland and Neverland Ranch have figured into her life. Throw in the fact that Nicolas Cage was also briefly her stepdad, and it’s amazing Keough survived the tabloid storms that followed her.
The actress says that when she began auditioning there were those who were skeptical. “It was, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ I felt when I first started I had something to prove,” she says. “It just made me work harder and helped me, because now I’m a workaholic.”
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