Road Trip movies have served us many truly iconic scenes. Thelma and Louise, made Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis household names gave us that car hurtling into the Grand Canyon and Brad Pitt accessorising his abs with a cowboy hat.
The Sweetest Thing gave us Cameron Diazdancing around to the catchy song, You’re Too Big to Fit in Here and Girls Trip gave us Tiffany Haddish giving a grapefruit a blow job – educating all of us in the process.
But for all the high jinx, those movies have one thing in common: putting the spotlight on the plight of women.
Now 2021’s offering, Zola, continues to provide iconic scenes and push conversations as the big screen adaptation of a viral Twitter feed of 148 tweets from 2015 by a Detroit waitress, Aziah ‘Zola’ Wells discussing a beyond wild – and real – trip to Florida. Just like the feed, the movie follows Zola (Taylour Paige) as she meets a customer, Riley Keough’s Stefani. Stefani, promising Zola they could make a killing pole dancing, invites her on a road trip but later they are joined by Stefani’s boyfriend and a pimp. What starts out as an adventure descends into Zola being entrapped in a circle of murder, prositution, pimps and a gun fight in a hotel room. Not your usual EasyJet girls trip fuelled by a few too many Tequila shots, then!
As I Zoom into Riley’s LA home to discuss the movie, it’s her memories of reading the Twitter feed first-hand that attracted her to playing the outrageous and somewhat unlikable, Stefani. “I remember it so well,” Riley tells me. “There was a reason it went viral. It’s totally compelling and you can’t put it down and once you start it, no matter what you’re doing, you’re just totally glued to your phone until the thread’s over. Zola’s storytelling is incredible!”
The character of Zola takes on the role of the storyteller in the film, too, narrating throughout, using some of the original tweets, as she realises her customer turned friend is actually a sex worker and there are many jaw dropping ‘oh my god there’s no WAY that happened,’ moments like when Stefani posts a sex ad for clients and Zola steps in to makes it a little extra ‘kinky.’
But aside from the comedic take on some aspects of sex work, the movie takes a very real deep dive into the politics of sexuality and sex work. As Stefani makes money fast, it becomes apparent the real earner is her unnamed pimp and the film rapidly makes critical points about the exploitation of some sex workers and how they become victims of viloent crime. Riley was keen to explore exactly that, after previously playing a part-time call girl in Amazon Prime series, The Girlfriend Experience.
“I feel that it’s important to show all kinds of sex work,” she says. “I’ve played sex workers a few times and I’ve learned a lot about the world, how vast it is and how many different types of sex work there are – the more stories there are in that field the better! This one is very specific as Zola and Stefani have very different relationships to what’s going on. Stefani knows more about what’s happening and Zola is forced into a situation she doesn’t want to be in so they have very different relationships and dynamics with the sex and the sex work.”
“There’s women who, when I did The Girlfriend Experience, are putting themselves through college,” Riley continues, “who find it very empowering and very much enjoy sex work. There are people who are oppressed into sex work. There are so many different relationships that people have to sex work and before I had done these films and shows I had this very simple experience or idea of what I thought sex work was from watching movies growing up and it’s not been explored in its entirety yet.”
Alongside Zola’s intense look at sex work, the movie also puts a spotlight on cultural appropriation as Riley’s Stefani immitates African-American speech using a ‘blaccent’ throughout. But director Janicza Bravo – who previously directed a number of short films and TV shows including Amazon Prime’s Them – encouraged Riley to do it and push it to the max.
Was Riley fearful, in a world dominated by cancel culture, of undertaking what could be a very controversial part of the role? “In anybody else’s hands, I wouldn’t have done this role,” Riley replies straight away. “Janicza is such a genius, she’s just so incredible that I felt safe in creating her vision with her. There was a purpose to it but in anybody else’s hands, I think I definitely wouldn’t have felt comfortable playing the character.”
Although the sisterhood may appear toxic on screen behind the scenes it’s clear from speaking to Riley that female solidarity between the female director and Riley’s co-star, Taylour made the project. “Taylour and I became really close friends and when you meet somebody that you’re very similar to, it is a very spiritual experience. It’s similar to falling in love, when you see the person and they see you. I had that with Taylour on a very profound level and I really felt that from Janicza.”
How has sisterhood impacted her own life? “Female relationships have been the most important relationships in my life other than my marriage,” Riley answers, referencing her husband actor, Ben Smith-Petersen who she married in 2015. “Sisterhood has been absolutely lifesaving for me. I have an amazing group of girlfriends and there are many times I would have drowned without them and I am really saddened that when you grow up females in general are pitted against each other from, by, I don’t know, watching Cinderella! It’s like, all women have to fight each other to win the man. A lot of the content we were raised watching are women fighting women and fighting each other for men.”
Breaking down outdated stereotypes and sexism has certainly become Riley’s niche in her work having also previously played a woman escaping a warlord in Mad Max: Fury Road, the leader of a teenage drifter gang in American Honey, a getaway driver in Logan Lucky and the only surviving member of a religious cult in The Lodge. And in Zola with Riley’s Stefani seemingly trapped by the stereotype of being the ‘dumb blonde’ and like Zola, she struggles to take agency over her own life. I wonder how her journey towards breaking down stereotypes and taking agency of her own life has been?
“Having agency has been a journey for me,” she sighs. “For a lot of women you’re lucky if you are raised in a world or a family where women are allowed to take up space. It’s definitely challenging as a female, you get into a room, especially if you’re in a working environment, and it’s just ‘there’ the way women are treated. But I have found that the more that I take up space, the more that I’m myself and unapologetic about existing and anytime I can feel myself shrinking, I’ll try and push back.”
“It’s just crazy, as a female, you think so much about just giving your opinion – it’s wild,” Riley adds. “I almost would play dumb when I was younger and I’m not dumb at all. I’m very smart. The thing that’s actually been difficult is when you are a female and you have good ideas, it makes men really uncomfortable and then you’re babying them at the same time like, ‘I might have the solution. I know this is crazy. I’m just a woman,’ and then you baby their ego.”
Whilst Riley’s voice and career blazes to new heights, personally, the last year has been difficult for Riley. After Zola initially premiered at Sundance in early 2020 to rave reviews, the world shut down due to COVID-19 and whilst she isolated at home in Los Angeles her bother, Benjamin died by suicide in July last year, aged 27. I ask what she has learned from sitting with herself over the last year?
“I have really learned that being sad and things not being great is a part of life,” Riley replies. “We’re also told by Instagram and social media that if we’re not getting up, running, drinking our green juice, yoga-ing, hiking, having 20 babies, being happy and wholesome all day long that we’re doing it wrong. I think that it’s really a sick way to look at life. Life is challenging, life is great, it’s difficult and we’re in a society where we are told that happiness is the goal. I don’t believe that and for me in 2020, that was what I really came to understand in a different way.”
“You’re not flawed because you’re feeling feelings,” Riley adds. “I noticed for myself personally, that I would often try and do things to make myself feel better. I would meditate to feel better. I would exercise to feel better, because I was afraid of feeling bad and when I learned to sit in the feeling bad and just go, “Okay, what is this? How am I feeling,” it definitely was uncomfortable. I’ve had anxiety since I was 14, really bad panic attacks – horrible, horrible anxiety – and I would find myself running from it as a kid and in my early 20s and just whatever I can do to not feel that. As I’ve gotten older, if I feel anxious, I start really sitting in it, just allowing it and not resisting it. That’s been a really big one for me but it’s not always comfortable.”
But how does she look after her own mental health? “I meditate a lot. I love it. It really helps me and I read a lot. I’m very spiritual. I’ll show you,” she says, reaching for a pile of books on her coffee table. “I’m reading the Bhagavad Gita. This is a great one, too, Be Here Now by Ram Dass,” she Riley continues, picking up another well-read book.
Spirituality is something Riley has always been interested in. “When I was a kid, I remember being in the car with my Dad and just being like, ‘Where do we come from and why are we here? Where do you go when you die?’ From when I was very little I was very, very obsessed with those things. Also my dad was very much this mystic guy and very into numerology, tarot, astronomy and astrology,” she says speaking of her musician father, Danny Keough who when she was five years old split from her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. Lisa went on to marry Michael Jackson, giving Riley homes in the likes of Graceland and Neverland whilst she used to visit her father, who was by then living in a trailer.
Riley’s next project, the Amazon Prime series, Daisy Jones and the Six, which is based on the best-selling novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid, follows the rise and fall of a 1970s LA based rock band and sees Riley singing. You might think that given her incredible musical pedigree as the granddaughter of Elvis himself, it might come with a little pressure, but feeling the fear and doing it anyway is clearly Riley’s superpower.
“Something that I’ve really liked about myself is I don’t care about those things,” she exclaims. “If I mess up or if I fail at something, I don’t get stuck on it. I just let it go. If I do a bad take of a scene, I’ll be like, ‘Sh*t. How do I fix it? How do I do it better?’ If it sucks, it sucks. What am I going to do about it?”