CANNES — Despite different last names, being the granddaughter of Elvis Presley often precedes Riley Keough. But the 32-year-old has carved out her own name as an actress through “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and as a longtime Dior ambassador.
Now she has stepped behind the camera for the first time to “War Pony,” which premieres in Cannes Saturday.
Speaking during the Kering Women in Motion series, Keough said that when she first entered the acting world, she had to overcome perceptions of nepotism, felt pressured by expectations and was apologetic for her ancestry. Keough later came to appreciate the benefits, such as getting an agent quickly. “It helps you in so many ways, it helps you have more resources,” she said.
Directing has helped her put those expectations behind her. “I think it’s separate inherently, because it’s not music as well,” she said of walking in her grandfather’s legendary shoes. “So I think there’s a level of separation, there’s also a generation of separation.”
Any nepotism didn’t help on financing “War Pony,” codirected with Gina Gammell, Keough said. The first-time helmer noted that it’s an industrywide problem for the money men to take chances on women directors. That results in slim pickings for festival producers, such as this year’s Cannes selection, which has just three female filmmakers in the main competition and has been widely criticized for not meeting its gender-parity target.
Keough said she sees her male friends getting financing much more easily. “What does that mean for somebody who’s isn’t an actress and who hasn’t the relationships I have? I see it all the time with female filmmakers, even those I’ve worked with.”
Among those luminaries are Andrea Arnold, who directed “American Honey.” It was on the set of that 2016 film where the seeds of “War Pony” were sewn. There, Keough met Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob as extras and became fast friends. They went on to cowrite, along with Gammell and Keough, the story about two boys growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Getting the film into the film festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar was a life-altering moment for Keough. “It was the first time I’ve ever thought I was gonna faint,” she said. “I had to lie down and breathe.”
Keough, who will walk the red carpet in Dior for the “War Horse” premiere on Saturday, is also expected to make an appearance at the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” on May 25. She’s already seen the film, along with her family.
“It’s a very emotional experience to watch,” she said, “When it’s your family, you know, it’s an interesting position to be in where there’s kind of free rein over who gets to tell your story. Like, we don’t really have control over [it].”
She said Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” was the first movie she ever watched in the theater, and she has great respect for him. That feeling was mutual, and he overcame any of the family’s trepidation through a series of meetings that made them feel listened to.
“You’re protective over your story of your family,” she said. “The first five minutes for me, I could just feel how much work Baz and Austin [Butler] had put into trying to get it right. And that made me emotional immediately. So I just started crying five minutes in, and I don’t think I stopped. I felt so honored that they worked so hard to really get his essence and I really feel like Austin captured that so beautifully.
“There’s a lot of family trauma, and generational trauma that sort of started around there for our family. So it was a very intense experience,” she said. Luhrmann did not try to cast her, she revealed, adding that it would have been a “little too close” anyway.
The legacy of being Elvis’ granddaughter doesn’t directly shape her artistic choices, she said. “Maybe like somewhere in my DNA. But not the memory. I think my whole story shapes the artist. I am my whole family, my every moment, you know? I’m sure that that’s a large part of who I am.”