In American Honey, a road trip movie now playing at the Toronto International Film Festival before it heads to a national release later this year, Riley Keough plays a Fagin-like character, tough-as-nails with a glare that could peel the paint off the walls.
She is Krystal, the leader of a travelling band of door-to-door magazine sellers who picks up new recruits along the way with one simple job interview question: “Do you got anyone who’s going to miss you?”
It is a bravura performance in a movie that, once and for all, proves she’s not just Elvis Presley’s granddaughter; she can really act.
Making the free-form drama with British director Andrea Arnold and a cast of mostly newcomers was an unconventional occurrence for the Girlfriend Experience star.
“I didn’t know what the (bleep) anybody else was doing,” she says.
“I wasn’t on set for anything except for my own stuff. Nobody knew what the movie was about until we watched it. I literally had no idea.”
Keough, who has appeared in Magic Mike, Mad Max: Fury Road and will soon be seen in the Netflix film The Discovery and Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, says the lack of traditional structure did “all the right things” for her performance.
“It makes you able to do anything,” she says.
“You don’t want to get into the habit of only doing things that are structured and safe. Hit your mark and look that way.
“You have nothing, so you actually have to do something. You’re not going off a whole script and character arc and knowing all these blah, blah, blah things. You’re just existing as this person. You are forced to exist as this person. You don’t get a chance to think about anything at all.”
Hitting marks and finding the light “is just (bleeping) annoying,” she says. “Excuse my French. This was a nice break from it.”
Set in a world where regular folks still open the door for rattily dressed kids selling magazines, it’s a story about families lost and families found, about poverty, disenfranchised youth and finding freedom on the road.
“I think Krystal had been doing this for a long time so that’s all she knew,” Keough says of her tough-talking character.
“This world does exist. I think she grew up ‘on crew’ and she knows the most. We ran into another mag crew. In the movie you see us shaking hands with another mag crew.”
At well over two-and-a-half hours American Honey has an emphasis on naturalism and all that entails: the mundane and the pulse racing in equal measure.
It’s not a traditional road flick. Here, the destination isn’t as important as the journey.
Life on the road taught Keough a thing or two. “I learned not to drink too much,” she says.
“I really think I learned it. Legitimately.”
She laughs, perhaps remembering some long nights while making this movie, then adds in a more serious tone, “I learned a lot of really profound things but I don’t know how comfortable I am talking about them.”