Executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and co-created by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who also wrote and directed all 13 episodes, the Starz series The Girlfriend Experience follows law student Christine Reade (Riley Keough), who is a new intern at a prestigious law firm where she is working hard to establish herself. Her focus quickly shifts when a classmate introduces her to the world of transactional relationships, known as The Girlfriend Experience or GFE, and Christine quickly finds herself drawn in and attracted to the rush of control and intimacy, no matter the opinion that her family has about her actions and choices.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Riley Keough (who gives a brilliantly layered and complex performance as the emotionally hard to read woman at the center of this story) talked about why she felt really lucky to be able to read the full season before shooting, never judging or questioning her character, how liberating it was to play an unapologetic woman, and why she thinks one season was the perfect way to tell this woman’s story. She also talked about reuniting with Steven Soderbergh for his next film, a heist story called Logan Lucky, and the appeal of doing The Discovery and working with Robert Redford.
Collider: Looking back on this series as a whole, did the story, the character and the vision for it turn out pretty close to what you were told, from the beginning, or were there any major detours, along the way?
RILEY KEOUGH: I would say that it was exactly what I thought it was going to be. They had a very strong vision, for the whole thing, and they delivered that vision.
Were you surprised that it did stay so close to what you thought it would be?
KEOUGH: I wasn’t surprised because I think both of the filmmakers, Amy [Seimetz] and Lodge [Kerrigan], and Steven [Soderbergh], are brilliant. I would be surprised if it was terrible.
With this show, you were able to get the first four scripts to read. Do you think you would have been as open to a role like this, if you had only been able to have one script to go on?
KEOUGH: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I was really lucky and got four, and then when I said okay, I got all 13. I really got to make an educated decision about the project, and I was lucky, in that sense. I have no idea what I would have said from just one episode. But with that said, I also really trust Steven and Amy and Lodge, and their taste and storytelling. So, I probably would have done it anyway.
A lot of actors talk about not needing all of the information about their character ahead of time, but it seems like it might have been helpful, in this instance. Did you find that to be the case?
KEOUGH: Yeah. It depends on the project for me, as far as how I feel about it. But with this particular project, I feel it was really helpful that I had all of the episodes.
You’ve talked about wanting to approach this character from an unbiased place and not wanting to judge her actions or decisions. But were there any times that you found yourself judging her, or at least questioning her actions or motivations?
KEOUGH: No, not while I was doing it. While I was doing it, I was in that headspace. I feel like, if I was questioning what I was doing than I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, in terms of inhabiting this person. So, the answer is no.
Christine questions her own behavior, asking her sister if she’s a sociopath before being told that she’s not one because sociopaths don’t question whether they are one or not. Do you think she really was experiencing all of the emotions you would expect someone to have, but just kept them buried deep down, or did she not feel the emotions that most people would?
KEOUGH: I think she feels the emotions most people would, but she doesn’t feel the emotions that most people on TV would. I think it’s a little bit more realistic. It’s more flawed than doing something and feeling the repercussions of it immediately, and then crying, or whatever is supposed to happen in a movie or TV show to show you that it’s a good guy. She is a human being, and she’s a bit flawed and not perfect. We wanted to leave exactly how she was feeling up to the audience.
How did you feel about the fact that this young woman didn’t really have a specific explanation or justification for her choices, other than that it’s just what she decided to do?
KEOUGH: I think it’s a really admirable thing to be very sure of your own moral code and not waver from that. If you’re sure of your moral code, your moral code is personal. Something that I admire about Christine is being unapologetic and knowing who she is. That was empowering to play.
She’s not deterred by the opinions of other people, but did you ever wonder if there could have been anything that would have gotten her to stop what she was doing?
KEOUGH: I don’t think she thought what she was doing was wrong, so I don’t think there was a reason for her to stop.
People talk about the more shocking moments of this show, with the sex scenes, the masturbation scenes and her sitting on the toilet and getting her period, but it’s also refreshing to watch something that is so open with a character. Did it feel more that way, when you were doing it, than it did shocking?
KEOUGH: Yeah, absolutely. It was liberating for me, especially as a woman, to be able to be this unapologetic woman who’s just fine with doing what she’s doing, and who’s not saying sorry to anybody about things one would consider to be wrong. She sticks to the beat of her own drum, and that was liberating.
It was interesting to hear her verbalize that it’s difficult for a woman to be seen as both a sexual person and a competent professional, at the same time, when that’s something that men have to problem with. What do you think it would take for that to change?
KEOUGH: I think it’s exactly what’s happening now, with women being portrayed as human beings, and not just black and white. Men can be the anti-hero all the time, and it’s cool, but when women are, they’re twisted or messed up or something is wrong with them. I think it’s just about portraying women in the world as equals to men, and vice versa.
In what ways would you say this character was easier to play than you thought she would be, and how was she more of a challenge than you expected?
KEOUGH: She was easier than I thought because she was not an unhappy person, so I was not unhappy playing her. That was nice and refreshing for me. And the whole process of acting is hard. There wasn’t anything crazy difficult about it, though. She was genuinely a happy person who was sure of herself, so she wasn’t this tormented person that I had to play. People ask, “It’s a dark show, so did you feel dark?” No, because she doesn’t feel dark.
At the same time, there are definitely things that happen that she probably wishes might have gone a different way, like having her job taken away from her without being able to make that decision herself. So, what do you think her perfect world would have been?
KEOUGH: For her, she doesn’t like a loss of control, so she’s constantly trying to manipulate and control everything. I think by the end, she does ultimately win.
What will you take away from your experience of working with Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, especially as you helped them bring their vision of this character to life?
KEOUGH: It was just a really nice experience where I got to work with two filmmakers in a space where I felt like I could say and do whatever I wanted, every day, all day. I had never done television before, so to be able to exist as this character over a long period of time was really nice, as an actor. I had never experienced that before because this was my first TV show. Also, Christine was in pretty much every single scene of the show. It was just a really cool experience for me to have so long to be this person, in this space where we all agreed on most things. It was just a good group of people that Steven put together. He’s so supportive of other artists and he knows how different energies will work together. It was just a great experience, really.
Because nothing about Christine’s life is really resolved and we don’t have any idea what might be next for her, did you think about where she might have gone, after we leave her, or what she ultimately might have ended up doing with her life?
KEOUGH: I didn’t. I felt closure with her. I just left her there. I felt done playing Christine. I was never really meant to do a Season 2. It was just going to be one season, and if they did another season, it was going to be a different story. But when I finished, even if they had wanted me to, I just didn’t feel like there was anywhere else I could go with her and I felt like I was done with that, so I’m glad it was a one-season thing.
You’re also working with Steven Soderbergh again for his next film, Logan Lucky. We know that’s about a pair of brothers who plan a heist during a high-profile Nascar race, but what can you say about where your character fits in?
KEOUGH: I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say, but he’s always got something up his sleeve and he’s always doing something wild and different. I’m really excited to be a part of anything he does. He’s a genius, so I’m excited.
The Discovery also sounds very interesting, being a love story set after the existence of the afterlife is scientifically verified. What appealed to you about that story?
KEOUGH: I’ve always been fascinated by life after death, and that was the subject matter of the film. There are not a lot of films on that subject, and it’s something I think about often, probably every day. It was refreshing to read it. I didn’t feel as crazy. And then, I met (writer/director) Charlie [McDowell] and he was great, and I just wanted to work with him.
Was it cool to get to work with Robert Redford? Is he just a totally normal guy?
KEOUGH: I wouldn’t call him normal. He’s down-to-earth and kind, yes, but almost more kind and more down-to-earth than a normal person. He’s got such an intense presence. He’s a movie star, and he still has that. It’s intense to be around and it’s a beautiful thing. It was a moment in my life where it was like, “Wow, I’m in a film with Robert Redford. That’s pretty fuckin’ epic!” It’s probably going to be one of the coolest things I’ll look back on and remember. He’s hilarious, charming, kind, cheeky, and all those great movie star qualities.
The season finale of The Girlfriend Experience airs on Sunday, June 19th. All episodes are available now on the Starz app and at www.starz.com.