Riley Keough is barreling up the I-5 highway, zipping from her Los Angeles home back to Sound City Studios in the Valley, where she’s shooting her upcoming Amazon Prime Video series “Daisy Jones & The Six.” She’s an impressive multitasker, FaceTiming me to discuss her role in Janicza Bravo’s A24 summer hit “Zola” while racing to get back to set on a Friday evening, already pitch-black at 5 p.m.
“It’s a little dark in here. Sorry, this is not perfect,” she said, excusing her surroundings, which make for a lively interview to talk about Stefani, the crass and gratingly bubbly Detroit stripper she plays in “Zola.” Keough and I share in our mutual disgust for one of Stefani’s more heinous moments, one that surely haunts anyone who’s seen the movie. There’s an overhead shot where Stefani and her stripper protégé Zola (Independent Spirit Award nominee Taylour Paige) peel themselves off the toilet in separate stalls, revealing from above Zola’s crystal-clear pee contrasted against Stefani’s deeply sick-yellow urine.
“Every time I pee, I think about that scene. It’s a good PSA: Drink more water and have good hygiene,” Keough said.
As much as some may still be talking about this scene, more are definitely still talking about the movie, which just notched seven Film Independent Spirit Awards and has landed on numerous top-10 lists. But “Zola” has had quite a journey: It shot three years ago, premiered at Sundance 2020, and then didn’t see a theatrical release until the summer of 2021 due to the pandemic.
“I’m glad that I’m still talking about it, because it was such an amazing experience, and I love this film so much. It’s such a fantastic movie, and Janicza is so incredible. I could talk about it all day forever. A lot of the time, you do these things, they come out, and it’s over. I like that we’ve had time with this,” Keough said.
Keough plays Stefani as a foul-mouthed, demonic grifter who affects a “Blaccent,” wears braids and flashy bling, and talks at an alarming speed in between pops of gum. It’s a hilarious performance but also slightly terrifying — and that’s certainly reflected in reaction shots of Paige’s Zola, mouth agape at everything this woman says and does. But Zola is along for the ride anyway on a dark road trip down to Florida in search of a big score.
Keough has picked up a few critics’ kudos, and in a less packed year, gives the kind of zany, unforgettable performance that could end up in the Best Supporting Actress conversation. She has already displayed a knack for playing working-class women in previous acclaimed projects. There’s her crunchy criminal ringleader Krystal in “American Honey,” and her cold, calculating sex worker Christine in Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience.” In a sense, Stefani combines the best and worst of those worlds.
“There’s definitely comparisons [to ‘American Honey’ and ‘Zola’], because you could say they are, I guess, ‘white trash’ is what I get tweeted all the time. Although I don’t like that word so much. They’re very different types of women,” Keough said. She agrees that the loaded label “white trash” is an oversimplification of who Stefani is, adding, “I do get tagged in all these Twitters, like, ‘If you need someone to be white trash, ask Riley Keough.’ All the time I get this.”
While Stefani is outwardly repugnant, Keough was conscious in making efforts to give the character humanity and groundedness in spite of being the clear villain of the story (written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris from a viral 2015 Twitter thread).
“It could have easily gone into this caricature world of ‘this is not a real person,’ because the film, as Janicza says, already exists in hyperbole. I really was trying [to], and hopefully succeeded at, keeping the wildness to her and the theatrical aspect that was in the script, but also trying to make her feel like a real person,” Keough said. “Stefani by nature is always putting on a show in general, and manipulative, and she’s always plotting, but I wanted her to feel real. This isn’t just a cartoon.”
Stefani’s jarring accent wasn’t written into the casting call, but that’s how Keough saw the character on the page when she read the script. (The real Zola who inspired the Twitter thread went on to praise Keough’s interpretation.)
Courtesy Everett Collection
“For me, it was in the script. When I read the dialogue, I’m going, OK, the way she’s speaking is super offensive, and the words she’s using are offensive to the Black woman she’s talking to,” Keough said. “I read it as if her entire being was offensive. That’s how I read it. When I sat down with Janicza, I was like, ‘Do you want her to have an accent?’ and she said, ‘100 percent.’ For me, it really helped drive home what Janicza was saying with stereotypes and the racial aspect of it, to make it that much more uncomfortable. Maybe Janicza didn’t write it that way but… I just thought that’s what it was.”
Keough worked with dialect coach Aris Mendoza, who “kind of created what the accent was. She was the one who really, word by word, made sure that it was legitimate to what she had in mind for Stefani [based on] people she knew,” Keough said. “She had me put a cork in my mouth and just do it over and over and over again.”
While Keough’s co-star Paige fully immersed herself into the world of stripping, Keough didn’t have as much time, and so she leaned into what she learned about sex work playing call girl Christine on “The Girlfriend Experience.”
“Christine was very different from Stefani, in a more privileged situation, working in a law firm. Stefani is also this kind of fierce, crazy, wild woman who maybe is empowered by her sex work, but it’s also maybe a more oppressive situation she’s in. There’s so much nuance in sex work. To be able to portray those different stories correctly was… an amazing experience.”
“Zola” is now available on VOD platforms.