Riley Keough is not one to hide away in her trailer on set. In 2013 she met Ben Smith-Petersen, a stuntman and her future husband, while shooting Mad Max: Fury Road in Namibia, an experience chronicled in a gorgeous romantic essay she wrote for Vogue Australia last May.
Not long after, during the production of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, she befriended two extras – Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy – at the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Indian reservation on the state border of South Dakota.
She returned to the reservation during subsequent summers with Gina Gammell, her best friend and producing partner. Those relationships coalesced into War Pony, the winner of the Caméra d’Or, for best first feature film, at Cannes and the Palme Dog.
“I think in hindsight, the friendship was very intense,” says Keough. “I don’t know, but I think that all of us were meant to meet and meant to go through this together for whatever reason. But it was really simple. It started as a friendship. I was in a room with Billy and Frank for hours because our scene in American Honey was pushed until after lunch. It was an opportunity to hang out. I don’t know how to overcomplicate it. We had a very profound connection, all of us and then Gina. And I ended up hanging out with them throughout the summer, meeting more of their friends and families and having a beautiful time in Pine Ridge. We were all in our 20s and creating art. Frank was making music. Gina and I were just always messing around with some version of making movies. I remember we took a VR camera there. We shot music videos for Frank. There wasn’t one point I can remember saying: let’s make a movie. It just sort of magically happened.”
It can be strangely easy to forget that Riley Keough is the daughter of the late Lisa Marie Presley and the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley. Her film career is impressive enough to eclipse the attendant celebrity tittle-tattle.
A fascinating actor, she disappears into roles and has become a regular on-screen presence at Cannes.
In the 2018 programme alone, she played the most gruesomely murdered victim in Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built and starred as the mysteriously entombed heroine of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Globe.
Her choices are audacious. She blazed up the screen in Zola, a 2020 black comedy based on a viral Twitter thread and the subsequent Rolling Stone article, Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted. (That’s still the only movie based on a Twitter thread.)
Her screen credits can read like a compendium of indie auteurs. She has worked with Steven Soderbergh on Magic Mike, Lucky Logan, and The Girlfriend Experience; Trey Edward Shults on It Comes at Night; Wash Westmoreland on Earthquake Bird; and Antonio Campos on The Devil All the Time.
Most recently she starred as a lightly fictionalised Stevie Nicks in Daisy Jones & the Six, Amazon Prime’s serialised adaptation of the popular Taylor Jenkins Reid novel.
Keough first met the British-Australian Gina Gammell at an outdoor screening of Mary Harron’s American Psycho in Hollywood. They cofounded the production company Felix Culpa in 2017. It’s a Latin term that suggests that a series of unfortunate events will eventually lead to a happier outcome. It feels apt.
In 2020, Keough’s brother Benjamin died by suicide; her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, died suddenly aged 54 in January. (Before we talk, Keough’s publicist politely asks that there be no questions about her famous family.)
“We met through mutual friends and it was a very fast and beautiful friendship,” says Gammell. “I think that friendship is the basis for all of our collaborations, whether that’s starting our company or creating, writing and directing together. It always comes back to the friendship.”
Gammell remembers getting a message from Keough from the set of American Honey after the latter met “the most incredible boys and storytellers”.
“Frank and Bill are incredible and wondrously unreliable storytellers,” laughs Keough. “Over the years, we started writing things down. We were inspired by our friends and the things that we saw and heard at Pine Ridge. And after a while, we started taking it more seriously. ‘Let’s actually try to write something.’ And we ended up writing War Pony.”
War Pony marks Keough’s transition to the other side of the camera. It’s hard to think of a more promising and assured debut. The film, which was co-authored by Keough, Gammell, Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, concerns two Lakota boys: 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) and 23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting).
We decided: this is fucking ridiculous. We’re making a movie about our two boys and Pine Ridge and our friends. Why are we all of a sudden trying to incorporate these white people?— Riley Keough
Bill, already the father of two children, fancies himself as a hustler whose latest get-rich-quick scheme hinges on purchasing and breeding a poodle called Beast. To that end, he spends the $1,000 intended to bail the mother of his first child out of jail on the fluffy (and eventual Palme Dog-winning) dog. Matho, meanwhile, juggles an aggressive father, a crush on a girl in his maths class and near-religious feelings for a children’s book of magic spells he discovers. A freewheeling narrative keeps the dual protagonists apart for much of the run time in a place defined by grinding poverty, drug use and, against all odds, community.
An uncompromising and gritty film counterpointed by a strangely feel-good sense of survival, it was a difficult pitch for potential backers, who couldn’t understand the film that Keough and codirector Gammell were trying to make.
“I think people wanted a white person as a protagonist that they could identify with,” explains Keough. “They wanted an outsider who was going into the community. We tried to incorporate that. Because that was a weird note we got a lot. And then we decided: this is fucking ridiculous. We’re making a movie about our two boys and Pine Ridge and our friends. Why are we all of a sudden trying to incorporate these white people?”
Keough and Gammell were understandably apprehensive about their collaboration with indigenous writers and Native American producers Willi White and Pte Cante Win Poor Bear.
“The film became about how we could consciously and ethically collaborate within this community,” says Keough. “It wasn’t an easy thing to do. In my opinion, if you want to be a filmmaker to go into a community, you can’t just take what you want and leave, You have to put a lot of work in. And that was something that we were going to do because these were our friends. They felt like our families.
Ideally, you go in with an indigenous crew. But that wasn’t something we were able to do at the time. We tried
“But then bringing a whole crew, a lot of whom we had never met before ourselves, was very stressful. We couldn’t see what everyone was doing at all times and we didn’t know how they’d interact on the reservation. We had a wonderful crew. But this is a community that has so much horrific history with white people. And we’ve built up a relationship of trust. So that was a big question for us. How do we do this? Ideally, you go in with an indigenous crew. But that wasn’t something we were able to do at the time. We tried. That’s a whole other issue within our industry. There were challenges. Ultimately, we were present for them and we talked through everything that was going to come up. I’m proud of the effort we put in to make this movie. It really was made out of love. If you’re making a film in a community that’s not your own, there has to be love and care.”
How has working with directors such as Lars von Trier, Steven Soderbergh and Andrea Arnold informed Keough’s own filmmaking?
“The funny thing about acting for me is that when I’m acting I’m kind of not paying attention to a lot of the things around me,” says Keough. “I know when it feels good and bad, and with most of the directors you mentioned, it feels good. But it’s a different part of my brain. I feel like I have a lot of missed opportunities.”
War Pony is in cinemas now