Riley Keough had an amazing 2016, landing a much-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience” and an equally-deserved Independent Spirit Award nomination for “American Honey.” Moving out of the shadow created by her family’s legacy (she’s the granddaughter of Elvis Presley), Keough continues her streak, appearing in last month’s “Lovesong,” and playing a crucial role in next week’s “The Discovery,” co-starring Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, and Robert Redford, which premiered at Sundance, where the actress spoke to us. In the film, Keough plays someone working with Redford’s doctor, who has conclusively proven the existence of an afterlife and now wants to prove exactly what happens next. It’s a relatively small part, but Keough does so much with it, proving that she remains one of the most interesting actresses of her generation. And she’s just getting started.
With “The Girlfriend Experience” and “American Honey,” can we start with what 2016 meant to you? What was that year like?
It’s weird because I’ve been doing independent film for eight years. I was just doing my thing, and, all of a sudden it was just a bigger deal than normal. [Laughs] I was totally surprised. I don’t know. It’s weird.
Why did it all come together?
It was a mixture between timing and the roles and life and what’s happening in the world. It’s just timing.
Also, if you do good work long enough it gets recognized.
What does the awards recognition mean to you?
I don’t know. It was really great because I felt really supported by Independent Film, which was really cool. That made me really happy. The Spirit nomination meant so much to me. I watched it for years and was like, ‘That’s the room I want to be in. These are the people that I like.’ It’s just really special. It’s funny because I don’t know how I feel about awards necessarily. I was actually trying to figure out what it means to me because it’s not something I’ve thought about much until it happened.
You can’t plan for it.
Totally. I think I have to simplify it because people can get weird about it. For me, if you get awards or nominations, it does help you do more. I was talking to Andrea about this at Cannes, and she was like ‘Awards have helped me further my career.’ And just to be recognized by people you look up to is really nice.
You’ve done Sundance a few times. How is this Sundance different?
It’s an emotional thing for me. I love Sundance so much. I love being around people who love film so much and their energy. So I always love being at Sundance. It’s definitely one of my favorite festivals because it feels alive and excited. I really love it. It’s different in a couple ways. It’s different in that my schedule is a little more chill. I just have this and I’m more supporting so I’m not obliged to do everything. Last year my schedule was really crazy. It was fun but I can be able to see movies this year. Last year, I wasn’t able to see anything and you feel like an idiot. People are like ‘What have you seen?’ And you’re like, ‘My own movie? Three times?’ Also, it’s nice to be here right now where we’re all so, I think, like-minded. We’re still just doing our thing and trying to change things in the world. It’s a very supportive community and I feel really lucky to have that, especially today. We’re all trying to put our attention to art.
Let’s get to the movie. What attracted you to this project?
I love Charlie. And, also, I read the script, and it’s something I’ve never seen tackled directly before.
The afterlife. And not being super-ambiguous about it. This is what happens. It’s an interesting take on it and I’ve never thought of it before and I think of a lot of things. [Laughs] Pat myself on the back. It was a take I had never really seen. Also, there’s this element to it that was about family emotions and it was purely just sci-fi. It was in this sort of genre when I read it where it was a few different things.
Like “The One I Love.”
Exactly. So, it was a few different things. It was not something I read before …
So is that important to you when you get a script? Originality?
Oh, yeah. That’s like my main thing. If I read something and I’m like ‘I’ve never read something like this before,’ that makes me so excited. To be a part of it.
How important is it who you’re working with? I looked at what you have coming up …
And you see it’s very impressive. [Laughs]
Yeah. Yes. It’s really important. Trusting your director is essential. For me, it’s having the same taste—films I like.
So, their previous work.
Yes, their previous work, exactly. A lot of the times it’s just that the artists I’m obsessed with want to hire me. [Laughs]
You’re a fan.
I’m a fan. I’m a HUGE fan. And then it’s the script. It’s all those things. I love working with newer filmmakers. By newer, I mean three movies. Charlie. David Robert Mitchell. Trey Shults. It’s super-innovative and exciting to me. Then I also love old-school. Steven Soderbergh.
How’s Charlie different from all these people?
Charlie is an interesting mix between … he’s super low-key and that energy is so important when you’re working. It allows you to do what you want and not feel restricted. But he also knows what he wants, so it’s not ‘Yeah, do whatever. Do your thing. I’ll watch.’ It’s not that loose. He’s chill, which allows you to feel free as an artist, but he also knows what he wants. He’s really easy to work with.
You don’t have as much back-story or material as Jason or Rooney, but you make an impact. How much back-story do you do for a character like this to make sure you make that impact?
A lot. I go as far as I can with everything. For me, I have to or else something will come up I don’t know and it freaks me out. I had figured out her whole story for myself.
Do you do that every time?
Mm-hmm. I don’t know. It would be weird for me [not to].
Do you do that alone or with Charlie?
A lot of times I’ll get what the director says and get the main things and then I’ll find stuff for myself that’s personal to me. I find if I talk about it then it gets weird. I listen to what they think and then add a bunch of random shit.
An actor once told me every movie is a learning experience so what did we learn here?
It’s so true. [Thinks] I learned how to openly be resentful. I know that sounds crazy. She decided to be unapologetically fucking angry and hurt, and that’s something I have a problem with. I tend to go inward. It makes you think, ‘Is that the right thing to do?’ It made me think a lot. I always do movies that make me think but I don’t really know what the result is. [Laughs]
What was the most challenging element of this?
I think existing in her struggle and being uncomfortable. I had anxiety when we were shooting. Being in her universe and having anxiety was a weird combination, but it was a really cool experience.
“The Discovery” premieres on Netflix on March 31, 2017.