In the last few years, Riley Keough has carved out quite a burgeoning career, working with George Miller, Andrea Arnold, Steven Soderbergh, David Robert Mitchell, Trey Edward Shults, and, for her most recent premiere, Charlie McDowell. Starring alongside Rooney Mara, Jason Segel, Robert Redford, and Jesse Plemons, The Discovery finds her playing Lacey, a character attempting to rebuild her own life under the guidance of Redford’s character after the afterlife was discovered.
While at Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with the actress to discuss the emotional sci-fi film, how realistic it might be, the ethical questions behind it, as well her promising upcoming year, her favorite sci-fi films, her thoughts on television after The Girlfriend Experience, and much more. Check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: There’s great world-building right from the beginning, and I was curious if it was all in the script, or did Charlie talk to you about backstories with any characters?
Riley Keough: We talked a little bit about backstories, definitely with Lacey, because I mean we kind of touched a little bit on her backstory in scenes. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know what he’s done in terms of cinematography, but I saw the trailer… and it looks so beautiful. So I don’t know what he’s done. I kind of get a sense that it looks very beautiful and cool and amazing.
Yeah, the cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, also shot Rams and Victoria. Did you see either?
Rams, yeah. I love Rams!
This movie is more emotionally grounded rather than something like Primer, where it gets scientific. Did that emotional core attract you?
Yeah. It’s funny, because I read it and it felt almost like an emotional family journey a little bit, you know? And that was interesting to me, in this sci-fi world.
And one of your best scenes is with Robert Redford, where you kind of stand toe-to-toe. It’s probably one of the most emotionally vulnerable scenes of the movie.
I wouldn’t know. [Laughs]
What was it like just being next him?
It was a trip. It took me a couple of days to get used to not just being in a scene and being like, “This is Robert Redford.” [Laughs] By the time we shot that scene, I’d hung with him and luckily that wasn’t my first scene with him, so I was able to kind of get into the characters. It throws you when there’s someone like that, you know? It was also one of those moments, where I was like, “Oh my God, this is the coolest thing ever.” And now being at Sundance in a film with Bob, it’s crazy.
One of the other performances I loved was Jesse Plemons.
He’s just incredible.
His character is so disheveled.
He’s so wild, I love him. I just couldn’t stop staring at him.
There’s like a few scenes where he’ll just do his own thing. Did that surprise you on set?
I think that’s just him, or his character. I found it really fascinating. I found a lot of love for him. We worked together like six days or something, but I felt like I just wanted to hug him. He’s just so brilliant and interesting.
Did you see The One I Love?
Yeah, I loved it. I think Charlie’s amazing. It’s so different from this so. It’s funny when you’re trying to get the sense of what a film is going to be like when it’s completely different from their past films. He’s just a really good filmmaker.
Yeah, with only two films it’s crazy what he can do.
The world is so fascinating. I only read the basic logline before I saw the film and was surprised. Literally 98% of the film is about death, but it’s also really funny.
Were you interested how he would create the afterlife?
Totally. That’s a hard thing to do. I didn’t really know until the trailer, and I’ll see it tomorrow, but how he was going to do it. Once I got into the house, the mansion where we were filming in, and I could kind of see the vibe. He sent me pictures before we were shooting of locations, things to sort of get the tone. And I thought it was super interesting, I’ve never seen anything like it before.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films?
I love Shane Carruth’s films. I honestly love sci-fi. So I loved Arrival. I love Alien, Predator. I love all that shit.
I was actually thinking about Arrival a lot with this movie, because the way he weaves in different backstories and it builds to a crazy conclusion that only gets revealed at the end.
When you were reading the script were you guessing ahead or were you surprised at the ending?
I was surprised. I have never read anything like it. So I when I first started reading it I was like, “Oh, it’s this thing.” And then I kept reading this I was like, “Oh no, it’s this thing.” And then I was bit confused and then, you know…
Then all is revealed.
Kicking off with The Discovery, you have quite a year with It Comes at Night, Under the Silver Lake, and Logan Lucky. They are probably four of my most-anticipated films of the year.
Yeah, you are waiting to see them too! How do you choose your projects? Do they come to you? Or do you seek out these directors?
I just try and stick with things that I love. Things that I can’t not be in. They’re different. It Comes at Night and Under a Silver Lake. Both of those I read and I was like I haven’t seen this movie yet. It excites me and I have to have that feeling in order to do something.
I know they are both very secretive movies, but I will ask you about the directors’ previous films. What was your reaction when you saw It Follows?
I loved it. I was like this is crazy! I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t know the background. I didn’t know it was arthouse. I didn’t know anything about him and I just saw it randomly on TV. And I was like, that was so trippy. And then I looked into it, and saw like, oh, it was being recognized.
Krisha was a little different. A24 picked it up and it was overlooked, but they have kind of nurtured him as a filmmaker. And that’s a pretty amazing film.
Oh my God, yeah. It’s so obvious. If you give a guy like $10 to make this film and it was brilliant. To me it was an indie classic. It’s so funny because he’s such a normal guy. You are always expecting filmmakers to be a bit weird, and he’s just so easy and normal and chill and nice to be around. And he just feels kind of like your brother, which is cool.
So, do you usually wait like for the premiere to see your film?
It depends on the filmmaker. Sometimes I don’t even want to see the film. I like to see it before I do press because I like to know what I’m talking about. Sometimes they’ll cut things or change things. But generally it seems like consistently that filmmakers want you to wait for the premiere.
With this movie Netflix is releasing it in March. I’m curious how do you mostly consume movies?
I love going to the theater. I also love watching movies at home. I’ve been making time this last year to go to the theater more than I normally do. But I am busy and I do watch things on my computer and on my TV at home. I like both. There’s so many different ways to watch movies.
Speaking of watching movies at home, I just caught Lovesong since I missed it last year. It was just an incredible performance, and your chemistry with Jena Malone is great. What was your experience bringing that to Sundance last year?”
It was so cool. I love Sundance. It’s the one time I get to pretend I went to film school. It’s just such a good environment, out of all the festivals. The enthusiasm towards independent films is like, “I want to live here forever and just talk about movies all day.” It’s my favorite thing to do. Last year was amazing because I had The Girlfriend Experience premiere here and Lovesong. So I had a week of talking about movies and hanging around interesting, cool filmmakers and I loved it. I love Sundance.
With The Girlfriend Experience, it almost felt like a movie because it’s such a cinematically interesting show. Did that open your eyes in the future of maybe being more interested in television?
Definitely! It was the first TV thing I’ve ever done, but the transition was super easy, because it was basically like, “We are filming this like one long movie.” It wasn’t anything different from what I’ve been used to. So it was an amazing experience. And at first I was like, oh, this is good because I only have to do one season and then if I don’t like it, I’m not stuck. But now I’m kind of bummed, because I really liked it and I love all those guys. I’m excited to see season 2.
I read an interview with you last year where you mentioned maybe being interested in writing and directing yourself. You’ve already worked with so many amazing directors already. What do you glean from them?
Yeah, I watch and hang around as much as possible. Most actors just work and then go to their trailer and sit down. I feel like a nerd because I want to go hang out and see what’s everyone’s doing. I’ve always watched everybody and see how people work. I think what I’ve learned is that there’s just no right or wrong way. You just have to stick to your aesthetic and what you like, because everyone’s so different. Sometimes I’ll work with someone and they’ll be like, “That’s right.” Just get it on the first take and then you are good. And that’s that. And then I’ll work with another director that does like 800 takes, but that’s also really cool. I just think you have to find out what works for you and stay true to who you are as opposed to trying to be somebody else.
You recently worked with Soderbergh again. What was your experience on Logan Lucky?
It was amazing.
It was his first movie in three or four years. What was is like seeing him back? Was he just having the time of his life?
He’s just so funny. You never know what the hell he’s thinking. Because he’s not a man of a lot of words. He’s great. I love him to death. He’s one of my favorite people. It means a lot.
I just remember when the casting was coming out how every new actor that joined, it was completely unexpected.
Yeah, it was so random.
When you were learning that were you wondering how it was going to fit together?
Yeah, it’s funny with Steven, you just have to go with it. You don’t know what you’re getting into sometimes and he’s just so brilliant. And I’ve seen enough of it to get the vibe I just think it’s going to be pretty great.
Well, back to The Discovery. One of the interesting things it brings up is the ethical quandaries where four million people and counting have committed suicide. Do you think if this actually happened, is this a realistic depiction of what the world would be like?
I don’t know. I never thought of that before. And the funny thing is, one of the reasons I want to do this film is because I think about this shit all the time. I think about what happens after you die probably every day. I probably spend way too much time thinking about it and having an existential crisis about it. And it’s never something I thought of. It just seems so simple. If the afterlife is proven, probably a lot of people would kill themselves. I think that it would happen. For sure. If it was proven that it was a somewhat decent place to go.
I like how the movie gives you answer for the afterlife, but doesn’t answer everything.
Yeah, I talked to Charlie about it a lot. I had never read something that was such an openly stated thing. It wasn’t something super ambiguous. He made a decision. And that was cool to me.
Yeah. You’re not guessing if there’s an afterlife. The movie jumps ahead. What was the prep process?
I met Charlie. I was an hour late to our meeting, because I had the wrong time. [Laughs] He still was there, which was great. We just talked about about life, the afterlife, the film. I just really liked him and then I heard that he wanted to use me for Lacey. Then we just talked a little bit about her backstory. His thoughts on it, my thoughts on it.
Specifically with your character and the group you are with, they bring up the question of whether it’s a cult. What’s your take on Robert Redford’s character? His power over these people?
I think anybody who is smart, innovative, and intelligent has power over people. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. If someone has the presence to command this many people, I think that’s accurate. Because if you look at people who are in high positions it’s because they are so genius. Maybe they are a little kooky, but generally, there’s a reason for it. There’s a reason people are listening to them. I thought that it was super interesting reading the script.
The Discovery premiered at Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Netflix on March 31.