How Riley Keough Found Joy in ‘Daisy Jones & the Six’ During Her Darkest Times

TheWrap magazine: “It helped pull me out of the suffering I was experiencing at the time,” the actress says

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Steve Pond’s inside look at the artistry and insanity of the awards race, drawn from more than three decades of obsessively chronicling the Oscars and the entertainment industry.

This story about Riley Keough and “Daisy Jones & the Six” first appeared in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

She walked out into the blue stage lights like she’d been there before, a gossamer cape swirling in the wind as she warily eyed the guitar player standing a few feet away. The wariness gradually melted, replaced by a gamut of emotions: playfulness, then a passion that felt driven and a joy that almost seemed desperate. She was flirtatious and seductive when sharing a microphone, but when her partner left the stage she grabbed hold of a love song and turned it into an instrument of salvation. 

This all happened during the concert scenes in the final episode of “Daisy Jones & the Six,” and it added up to one thing: In the title role, Riley Keough was pretty much a rock star. In one way, that was strange, since the actress-writer-director-producer had never played guitar or sung in public before she got the lead part in the Prime Video limited series. But in another way, how could you doubt that she has some rock ‘n’ roll in her? Keough, after all, is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, the guy who basically invented the job of rock star. 

When I brought that up, she laughed. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” she said. “It is funny, and a lot of the response I get when I share that I never sang or played instruments is that people are very confused by that.” Another laugh. “But it’s the truth. For whatever reason I never picked up a guitar and sang until the show.”

But when that final concert was filmed in New Orleans in the spring of 2021, she was ready to embrace the role and claim a bit of the legacy. “We had been rehearsing to do the live performances and then we had, like, five months of just acting,” she said, laughing. “We were like, ‘We wanna perform now!’ When I watch the performance stuff, it makes me feel joy because we were all feeling wild. Performing was very real and we didn’t have to fake the fun. We were having the best time ever, and there was a real sense of freedom, even though it was probably four or five in the morning.”

A slice of even make-believe rock stardom wasn’t on the wish list for Keough when she was growing up under tumultuous circumstances: Her parents divorced when she was 5, with her mother subsequently going through brief marriages to Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage. She became interested in film and specifically in directing at a young age, but she also developed an aversion to the kind of things that would put her in the public eye. She made a conscious decision not to work during her teen years, apart from some modeling — because, she said, “I’m a bit of a workaholic.”

When she did begin to act at the age of 20, she gravitated toward dark indie movies and worked with directors like Andrea Arnold, Lars von Trier, Nick Cassavetes, Trey Edward Shults, Jeremy Saulnier, Antonio Campos and Steven Soderbergh, who cast her in two movies and who executive produced the TV series “The Girlfriend Experience,” in which she played a law student who moonlights as a high-class escort. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, she had two films. One was “American Honey,” Arnold’s purposely anarchic and unkempt road trip across the American countryside with a group of rampaging youngsters who used magazine sales as an excuse to swindle, smoke and party. The other was Danish provocateur von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built,” a nasty flick about a sadistic serial killer that’s punctuated by long monologues about Hitler. In that one, the murderer played by Matt Dillon cut off her breasts — on camera, not off — before killing her.

“I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m never gonna do anything mainstream,’” she said. “What I was drawn to happened to be a lot of independent film. It’s very character-driven to me, and director-driven first and foremost.”

But was there also a sense of not wanting to do something mainstream that might put her in the limelight?

“Probably,” she said. “It wasn’t super conscious, but there’s part of me that values having a normal life. You know, I grew up in a very not private life. My whole childhood was very public. My family in the ’90s was very much in the public eye, and things were really difficult in the sense of not being able to live normally. Lots of paparazzi and security. I cherished the idea that I could potentially have the opportunity to go to the grocery store and do normal things, and I realized that I was able to have that. I’m not born into fame in the way my mother was, you know?”

Riley Keough (Daisy)

But by the time “Daisy Jones” came along, she was ready to do something that was both more mainstream and more fun — partly because she’d spent a decade in an indie phase, but also because she’d been through a particularly dark period, with health problems and the death of her younger brother in 2020. 

“I have Lyme disease, and the sickest I’ve ever been was probably the year we filmed ‘Daisy Jones,’” she said.  “And I’d also lost my brother, so emotionally and physically I was feeling totally overwhelmed. [The disease] makes basic things like getting out of bed and going on a walk challenging.”

In that state, she fought for the role of Daisy even though she didn’t have musical experience. “She raised her hand early on and said, ‘I want to do this,’” executive producer and co-writer Scott Neustadter said. “And we thought, How lucky are we? Because we loved ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ and ‘American Honey,’ and she’s so captivating on screen. But she also said to us, ‘I can’t sing, I have no musical ability.’ And we thought, what a great story it would be if she could belt it out and sing.”

Riley Keough (Daisy Jones), Nabiyah Be (Simone)

For her initial audition, Keough sang a song with her husband, stuntman and actor Ben Smith-Petersen, playing guitar. The “Daisy Jones” team asked her to submit a second song and gave her three choices, from which she chose the Rolling Stones’ ballad “Wild Horses.” “I sang really softly, because that was all I knew how to do,” she said. “And they said, ‘That’s great, but whoever’s playing this role has to be able to really sing.’”

She hired a vocal coach, tried to learn how to belt out a song over a weekend, and kept sending tapes, including one where she performed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” (which was heard in “Almost Famous,” a rock movie she loved). After that, the producers sent her to Sound City studio in the San Fernando Valley so she could sing for music producers Blake Mills and Tony Berg. “Tony called afterward,” Neustadter said. “He said, ‘She’s obviously not polished, but you don’t want that in rock ‘n’ roll. We could totally work with this.’ And that was a big relief for us.”

Still, she and the rest of the cast members — Sam Claflin, Suki Waterhouse, Will Harrison, Josh Whitehouse and Sebastian Chacon — probably wouldn’t have come together as a convincing band if not for the production delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “If the pandemic hadn’t hit, we would’ve shot the show at the beginning of 2020,” she said. “We would’ve had two months to prepare, and I think it would’ve been a lot of faking things and faking hands [playing instruments] and maybe faking vocals. I don’t know whose voice would’ve been on the show, but it was gratifying that we were able to do everything ourselves.”

But that also meant that “Daisy Jones” was a formidable undertaking for Keough on many levels at a time when she was not at her best physically. “It was a massive job,” she said. “I was really afraid of it because the schedule was rigorous and long and physically exhausting. I couldn’t believe that I did it, in a way. There was a moment when I could have pulled out, and I definitely considered it. It felt unachievable to me, but I just thought. ‘No, I think this came to me for a reason.’ And it ended up being a very healing environment with wonderful people.”

“In hindsight, it helped pull me out of the suffering I was experiencing at the time. It was exactly what I was supposed to be doing: something that would be entertaining and an escape for people.” And was it as much an escape for her as for the audience? “Totally,” she said. “Totally. I needed that in my life at that moment.”

The limited series led to the kind of commercial success that Keough had never before experienced in any project. In its aftermath, she and her producing and directing partner Gina Gammell are planning to produce the upcoming true-crime Hulu series “Under the Bridge,” while she’s working on writing their second movie after the Cannes-winning “War Pony.” “I can’t write when I’m not inspired, so I kind of take it when it comes and then leave it,” she said. 

Sam Claflin (Billy Dunne), Riley Keough (Daisy Jones)

In a way, she added, the future is on hold in the aftermath of her biggest hit. “I go through periods where I feel like there’s something in me that I need to get out, whether it’s joy or sadness — or sociopathy,” she added with a laugh. “I feel drawn toward playing a certain type of person, and I usually end up getting a role that’s similar to that. It’s cathartic. With ‘Zola,’ I was feeling like doing something wild and outrageous. With ‘American Honey,’ I was craving to be super-immersed in independent film. With ‘Daisy,’ I was really wanting something that felt joyful. Some sort of weird spiritual thing happens where I really want some kind of experience, and it matches up.”

She paused. “And it’s funny now because I don’t know what I want. I’m just kind of holding on for a minute. I’m not getting a call toward anything in particular, so I’m just here waiting.” 

Read more from the Limited Series/Movies issue here.