Riley Keough is magnetic in The Girlfriend Experience – from the moment we meet her as Christine, an ambitious and disturbingly focused Chicago law student, to the final scene 13 episodes later where she’s deeply embedded in a shadowy alternate profession. Of course, the prospect of peeking behind a velvet curtain into a world of luxurious sex exchanged for huge sums of money is titillating. But it’s Keough who makes the character fascinating in her multiple incarnations.
She’s completely believable as a fresh-faced young woman, giggling with her girlfriend as they order a $900 bottle of wine from room service, charging it to a rich man’s credit card, or as the serious and unsmiling legal intern in a high-pressured patent firm. But it’s in her role as a sophisticated escort, massaging the egos and bodies of powerful middle-aged men, that Christine (or "Chelsea", as she prefers to be known in this world) seems most at ease. There is never any question she enjoys this work, and that she chooses to do it out of desire rather than real financial need.
The Girlfriend Experience, a Starz television series produced by Steven Soderbergh (but completely independent from his disappointing 2009 feature film of the same name), and written and directed by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, operates as a cool and stylish corporate thriller. The sets abound in glass and mirrors and high-rise buildings, and there’s a tense sub-plot involving legal espionage. But the show’s real appeal lies in its character study of a cold and powerful young woman who may be a sociopath (she even voices this idea herself) or may just be the logical product of late-stage capitalism.
But is Christine really cold? We see her working hard to maintain equilibrium and secrecy in a judgemental world, and there are just enough twitches in those navy blue eyes to keep our sympathy. Operating from a smart script, Keough allows us just enough access to keep us pondering the mysteries of this alienated character. It’s a fearless performance – and not just because there’s considerable nudity and sex (especially masturbation) scenes, but because this is a rare female character who doesn’t need or want to be liked. It’s little wonder Keough has been critically applauded and was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2017 for her performance.
Who is Riley Keough?
There’s no doubt The Girlfriend Experience is Riley Keough’s breakout role, but the 28-year-old actor and model has a string of significant credits on her CV, and she’s no stranger to fame. It’s impossible to ignore her heritage as the eldest granddaughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. As the daughter of singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Presley and musician Danny Keough, who divorced when she was a child, she grew up between the world of fame and wealth on her mother’s side, and relative poverty on her father’s (even living with him in a trailer at times).
As she grew up, her mother’s subsequent marriages to Michael Jackson and Nicholas Cage made world news, and, as Keough is often reminded by talk show hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, she’s one of the few people to have had sleepovers at both Graceland and Neverland Ranch. (She seems to accept these comments with good humour and grace, though it must be tedious.) As a teenager, she modelled for the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, and appeared with both her mother and grandmother on the cover of the August 2004 Vogue magazine.
Keough’s film debut at age 20 came in the 2010 film The Runaways (directed by Floria Sigismundi) about the '70s girl band of the same name. She portrayed Marie Currie, sister to Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), with Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett. Subsequent roles have predominantly been in edgy indie films, including playing a patient deliberately kept sick by her doctor in The Good Doctor (2011), a lesbian tomboy in teen werewolf drama Jack & Diane (2012) and a couple of scenes as a pink-haired stripper in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2011).
The biggest film in which Keough has appeared so far has been George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), where she can be seen, flame-haired, as one of the breeding wives rescued by Charlize Theron’s truck-driver, alongside Abbey Lee, Zoe Kravitz and Rosie Huntington-Whitely. It was on this project that Keough met her now husband, Australian stuntman and musician Ben Smith-Peterson.
While The Girlfriend Experience presents Keough with understated middle-class elegance (muted neutral colours and natural makeup), her ability to channel rough, tough Southern women is on show in two of her most critically acclaimed film roles to date: Andrea Arnold’s 2016 Cannes Jury Prize-winning American Honey (where she plays a hard-nosed bikini-wearing boss managing a roving team of underpaid workers); and in Soderbergh’s 2017 heist comedy, Logan Lucky, in which she plays Mellie, the fast-driving hairdresser sister to Channing Tatum’s revengeful blue-collar labourer. It’s in this role that we see Keough’s comedic talents emerge and the versatility of her range confirmed.
In August 2017, Keough and producer Gina Gammell (who already produced together on Dixieland, Welcome the Stranger) announced the launch of their own production company, Felix Culpa. They’ve acquired the rights to three books with strong female protagonists that they plan to adapt: the novel Sweet Lamb of Heaven, the graphic novel Heartthrob and the biography The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel. It’s unclear whether the actress will appear on-screen in all these projects though it seems likely.
In 2017, Keough appeared in the hard-hitting post-apocalyptic horror thriller It Comes at Night alongside Joel Edgerton, but 2018 will see her appearing in a number of other terrifying-sounding films, including Under Silver Lake (from It Follows writer-director David Robert Mitchell), the Netflix-produced Alaskan-set Hold the Dark and Lars von Trier’s serial killer project, The House that Jack Built.
Whatever the virtues of those projects may be, none are likely to showcase the subtle range, not to mention the refreshing lack of physical violence against women, of The Girlfriend Experience. Watch it now to experience a female character of singular power and mystery.
Watch The Girlfriend Experience season one from Thursday 11 January at 9:30pm on SBS VICELAND.