‘Paterno’ Star Riley Keough Likes a Challenge (Exclusive)

Riley Kough
Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

The actress talks to ET about her new HBO film and how CW's Archie Comics series got her through a tough filming experience.

In the HBO film Paterno, Riley Keough plays 23-year-old journalist Sara Ganim, who first reported on the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal that rocked Penn State University and forced football coach Joe Paterno (portrayed by Al Pacino) into retirement. It’s not a showy role for Keough, with the film told through the lens of Paterno, but it showcases the actress as a reliable ensemble player in the same way Rachel McAdams was in Spotlight.

Here, Keough gets inside the head of the reporter, who many first ignored and then later hated once Paterno was removed after 45 years as head coach. “One of the things she kept saying was that she was very confident in what she was doing regardless of, you know, the whole Penn State world hating her. She never wavered; she was really sure of herself and sure of what she was doing,” Keough tells ET about her conversations with the now 30-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who was involved in the production and allowed the actress to text her or ask her questions about her experiences.

“It’s incredible a young woman was essentially able to break this story,” she continues. “That was amazing what she did. She kind of took down this empire and it was a very crazy thing to do.”

Ultimately, for Keough, the part was an opportunity to be part of what she calls “an important story to tell” but also to push herself as an actress. “It’s a very specific pressure because it’s a real person and you don’t want to let them down,” she says, adding that with each new project she looks for something she’s never done before, “trying to find different characters and learn things from those characters.”

Following small roles in The Runaways and Magic Mike, when she was mostly known for being Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Keough has since made a name for herself in Hollywood, proving that she has the acting chops to carry a series (season one of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience) and can hold her own alongside more seasoned actors like Shia LaBeouf in American Honey and Jena Malone in Lovesong. In 2017, she appeared in four films -- The Discovery, It Comes at Night, Logan Lucky and We Don’t Belong Here -- with another five, including Paterno on April 7, coming out this year.

“Honestly, I feel so lucky at the moment that I’m getting hired. You have to not take anything for granted,” says Keough, who recently finished production on The Lodge, which is slated for 2019, and recently became attached to Netflix’s film adaptation The Earthquake Bird with Alicia Vikander.

Riley Keough as Sara Ganim in "Paterno." - HBO

While Keough is not partial to any genre -- she's done action (Mad Max: Fury Road), heist comedy (Logan Lucky), indie drama (Dixieland), sci-fi (The Discovery) and biopics (The Runaways, Paterno) -- she does have a string of horrors and thrillers that might suggest an interest in becoming Hollywood’s next scream queen. OK with such a label -- “I get called all kinds of queens” -- it's more about finding better roles as female actor.

“A friend of mine said something to me that really resonated: ‘As a female in horrors and thrillers, you tend to get more fun roles. You have more of a dynamic experience.’ And I think that’s a bit true,” Keough muses. “I feel like the scripts that I’ve been reading -- that happen to be horror, thriller, psychological thriller, or whatever -- the roles are really interesting to me.” She finishes her thought, however, by explaining that she’s going to take a break from the genre. She just did three in a row, with the most recent one being a “really dark” experience.

And it was filming the last one -- The Lodge, about a soon-to-be-stepmom snowed in with her fiance's two children at a remote holiday village -- that would explain her recent tweet about The CW’s Riverdale. “I just want to be cast in Riverdale,” she shared in March. When asked about her fascination with the Archie Comics series -- and to be honest, it’s a favorite of ET’s -- she says binging the show “really got me through it.” Of course, fans picked up on the tweet and have been suggesting roles she could play on the show, including a member of the Blossom family. “Oh yeah, because I have red hair,” she responds with a laugh, adding: “Maybe I’ll be on Riverdale. Who knows?”

A return to television is not out of the question. After The Girlfriend Experience, Keough has been busy making films, but is not opposed to joining another series. “The thing I love about television is that you get so much time to develop a character,” she says, demurring slightly: “It is a commitment as far as time goes.”

In the meantime, her plate is full, with the actress jumping from one film project to the next. “It’s definitely a challenge, but I like a challenge,” Keough says. “I guess that’s why I do it.”

Paterno premieres Saturday, April 7 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.