After making her screen debut in The Runaways, the 2010 music biopic about the all-girl rock band starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, Riley Keough has been inching her way toward stardom -- becoming more than just Elvis Presley’s granddaughter. Following small roles in smart films (a party girl with a pet pig in Magic Mike and a sister wife/sex slave in Mad Max: Fury Road, in particular), the actress is stepping out with The Girlfriend Experience.
Based on the film starring adult film actress Sasha Grey, the new Starz series tells the story of Christine Read (Keough), a Chicago law student who works as a high-end escort. It’s seductive and cool, and earning praise for Keough’s more approachable take on the Experience’s central character. (Grey was largely criticized for her listless performance.)
It helps that the series is executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, who helmed the 2009 film and Magic Mike, and had Keough in mind for the role.
“There’s this real sense that there’s something else going on behind what she’s presenting and what the story is presenting,” he told Vulture about what Keough brings to the series, which is often filled with quiet moments. “What it allows for when you have it -- and you see it in the show and increasingly as it goes on -- is these moments where she’s doing nothing, where she’s very still, and yet you can feel underneath it that there’s an inner life that’s very active.”
For her part, Keough was intrigued by a female role that was different than most leading roles for women on television. “She’s complex, kind of flawed, and kind f**ked up,” Keough tells ET. “She did a lot of things that women shouldn’t do. That really interested me.”
As for insight into Christine’s sex work, the 26-year-old actress turned to creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz. The two built relationships with women who specialized in offering clients “girlfriend experience” (GFE) or ex-GFEs. “It opened up my eyes to the kind of sex worker that Christine is, which is somebody who is not coming from a victimized life,” Keough says. “It’s her choice. It’s something that she really enjoys.”
“The women I was speaking to loved their job,” she continues, “and as far as I knew, sex was a terrible, oppressive situation.”
It’s the complete opposite of Keough’s previous experience on screen in George Miller’s reboot of the Mad Max series. In the film, she played Capable, one of five sex slaves and she worked with Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler to build the anger needed for the role.
“Exploring the other end of that was interesting to me,” Keough says of the Starz series. “I was most interested in how they felt emotionally because I couldn’t grasp that concept. A lot of them had emotions for these men and they ended up being therapists for these men. It’s not just sex work, you’re being a girlfriend so you’re listening to their problems.”
While the show itself is about sex work, it’s not just about portraying those adult moments on screen. “It’s about Christine,” Keough insists -- and to the creators’ credit, there’s a balance of life in and out of the bedroom. Although admittedly, there was some hesitation about letting her parents, Lisa Marie Presley and Danny Keough, watch the soft-core parts. “I showed them a couple of episodes. I fast-forwarded through some sex scenes, but there’s enough where I can show them things and still fast-forward the sexy parts.”
The Girlfriend Experience airs Sundays on Starz. All 13 episodes of season one are streaming on Starz on Demand.
--Additional reporting by Jennifer Peros