Riley Keough’s tattooed body is a map to her life: symbols from Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, the Hanged Man from the tarot deck, the Gemini sign that looks like a Roman numeral two, her Mayan calendar birthday.
She gets tattoos casually to mark a milestone — a movie shoot, a night out with friends, an adventure with her dad.
“It’s like a scrapbook,” she says on a warm December afternoon at a cafe in Santa Monica.
“The funny thing about tattoos is you get them and they have this deep meaning, but then you kind of forget they’re on your body.”
It’s strange to hear Keough talk carelessly about her body when it’s become so essential to her work.
The 27-year-old actress is immediately likeable — personable and low-key and familiar in a way you wouldn’t expect from the performances currently seducing audiences and critics.
She plays an enigmatic student moonlighting as an escort in the graphically sexual Starz series, The Girlfriend Experience, and a Confederate-flag-bikini-wearing head of a crew of homeless teens in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.
Keough admits that it can be hard to watch herself on screen.
She inhaled The Girlfriend Experience in one long binge, to gauge the show’s tone, but accomplishing that required so much wine that she was drunk halfway through.
What she couldn’t tolerate viewers rapturously embraced: Keough, who appears in nearly every minute of the show’s 13 episodes, is the reason the series works.
She has made a cipher mesmerising. (Her performance, wrote the TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, “deserves favourable comparison with some of the great semi-opaque performances in movie and TV history. It is on par with Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver — yes, really.”)
"The rarity of the part, of playing a complicated antihero, is not lost on her.
“It sounds simple,” she says, “but it’s surprising, as a female, how lifeless roles can be.”
Up until The Girlfriend Experience, Keough was working under the radar, generally pursuing roles in intimate, low-budget films.
There was a blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road, but her part was small. (The experience itself was huge: It’s where she met Ben Smith-Petersen, her Australian stuntman husband of two years.)
She has made 10 movies since 2010, culminating in 2016’s end-of-year one-two punch: an Independent Spirit nomination for American Honey and a Golden Globe nomination for The Girlfriend Experience.
She has seven films due in 2017, including Lovesong, an odyssey of sexual awakening that premiered at Sundance; Charlie McDowell’s afterlife saga The Discovery, with Robert Redford and Rooney Mara; and Under the Silver Lake, a noir crime thriller with Andrew Garfield.
Keough has been processing fame since birth — as the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, and the granddaughter of Elvis (whom she never knew) and Priscilla Presley.
n the wake of her marriage to Riley’s father, the musician Danny Keough, her mother had two other, more high-profile, husbands: Michael Jackson (“I loved him,” Keough says) and Nicolas Cage (“My mom’s a tough bitch,” she says of a relationship that ended after 108 days).
She was mostly raised by her father between Hawaii and Los Angeles, with frequent pit stops at two legendary homes: Graceland and Neverland Ranch.
“There were toys everywhere, animals everywhere, kids everywhere. It was like being at Disneyland all day,” she says of Jackson’s infamous estate. When a traditional education became too much of a nuisance — her attendance required a security detail of “strapped dudes” — her father home-schooled her temporarily until they got her a teacher.
“Looking back on it, I’m like, ‘Wow, my upbringing was very intense.’”
Currently it’s all the attention that’s proving to be intense, enough that doctors put her on a gallbladder cleanse before the news of her Golden Globe nomination.
Keough has her natural ways of coping: lighting candles, reading Sam Shepard plays and, she says with a self-deprecating laugh, “Googling myself”.
Maybe it’s all the talk of fame, but at this point Keough literally starts to squirm. She blames the tank top she’s wearing beneath her sweater.
“I’m so itchy,” she says.
She scans the room, and with the dexterity of a summer camp veteran (or someone who is used to getting undressed in front of a camera crew), she removes the shirt while keeping the sweater above it on, her arms working to pull it out and off until at last she exhales with relief.
“Finally,” she says, smiling.