Riley Keough knew she was meant to be part of Zola the second she finished reading the screenplay. “I have this weird thing where when I read a script, I either know immediately, or I don’t, if I can do it,” Keough tells BAZAAR.com. “I’ll often very quickly be like, ‘I can do this!’ Or I’ll say, ‘Somebody else would be better at this.’ With [Zola], I just knew I could do it.”
Unlike most modern films whose core stories stem from novels, articles, or historical events, the story of Zola was spawned from a 2015 Twitter thread that ran 148 tweets long, written by its titular creator, A’Ziah “Zola” King. The thread narrates King’s days-long, chaotic adventure with an elusive, over-the-top call girl named Jessica—in the film, her name is changed to Stefani—which sees them road-trip through South Florida’s strip clubs, a casual drug bust, and more. Keough had no reservations about jumping onto a project with a less-than-typical origin story, however; if anything, it excited her even more.
“The first thing that attracted me to it—other than the fact that I’d read the Twitter thread and I just thought it was really amazing that they were turning it into a film—was how well written it was. The dialogue, the script, it was all so brilliant,” Keough says. “The characters were so fleshed out, so detailed, and every word felt like I was almost reading a play. But it’s also so modern and feels like this theatrical piece and the way it’s written in the stage direction. It took place in 2015, but it just felt like a modern tale.”
Calling Keough’s Stefani an unlikeable character is a gross understatement. For the sake of forgoing politeness, she’s best described as the worst type of white girl—the kind who adopts a Blaccent, sports cornrows, and emotionally gaslights every person who comes into contact with her. In other words, she’s the polar opposite of Keough, the bare-faced, poised, and endearingly polite actress who “sits” in front of me in a gray knit sweater via Zoom. For Keough, being able to dive into the mindset of Stefani allowed her to stretch her acting prowess in a way she’s never fully been able to before.
“She is totally outrageous and horrific and horrible and just nuts. And I feel this thing kind of awakens in you when you read something and you realize, ‘Okay, I can perform this piece,'” Keough says. “I had that experience with this. Of course, I had all kinds of [hesitations and questions], but my initial instinct was I can do this person. I know this person. I’ve met this person. I’ve seen this person. I can do this—you know, with some help,” the actress laughs.
The preparation process, according to Keough, included working closely with the film’s director, Janicza Bravo, along with a dialect coach in thoroughly developing Stefani’s “accent” and demeanor, as well as taking inspiration from similar eccentric characters Keough has met throughout her life.
“I’ve had a wild life. I don’t think people would expect it from me, but I have done a lot of things in my life, and I’ve spent a lot of time with all kinds of people, and I’ve really had an adventure here,” she says. “Janicza encouraged me to really just go for it. I think the combination of how well she was written on the page down and looking at the people I’ve met in my life [informed the character of Stefani]. A big part of the preparation was, What does she talk like? Our thought process was if she is going to be this demon, then we need to really make her demonic. It was very collaborative. Trying to make her as awful as possible, as offensive as possible, and just truly going all the way.”
Further diving into the polarizing makeup of her character, Keough says that she found it kind of fun. “I think any time you’re playing a character that’s very loud and liberated in their own weird way, whatever that is—where they just proudly take up space—it’s always fun, because I’m a very internal person and very much on the shyer side in real life,” Keough explains. “I’m not the one that’s going to be holding the conversation at a dinner party. This big character is just so far from who I really am. I also haven’t had a lot of opportunities to play more of a comedic role, and that’s been really fun for me. So often, I get cast in very serious things.”
The actress also credits the film’s crew and cast—including Bravo and her costar Taylour Paige—for helping shape such an invigorating dynamic on set. “It was honestly the most fun I’ve ever had making a film, and I attribute that to the feminine energy [on set], and also Janicza’s genius, and me and Taylour. We all wanted the same movie, and we were all on the same page,” Keough says. “Taylor and I became really good friends, as well as with Nick [Braun] and Colman [Domingo]. You have your best time as a performer in that space like that. … I learned how much I love working with people I actually like and get along with—it’s so important to be around good people.”
Zola could also be interpreted as a post-Hustlers modern feminist tale of sorts: two women who utilize their free choice and sex appeal to dig themselves out of less-than-ideal life circumstances. Cash is king, as are a 20-inch blonde weave and a good push-up bra. The film’s other cautionary message? A fellow woman can be your confidante, but not every woman is meant to be your friend.
You’ve got two very strong women, two very developed characters, who are very nuanced, complicated, real human women that are going through this crazy thing together—and that’s super exciting.
“You really see Zola and Stefani making their way through this wild experience together. But with Stefani, I hope the audience finds themselves wondering, ‘Does she want to be there or not?'” Keough says. “It’s confusing. Sometimes, she feels very liberated and very much in charge, and then sometimes, she’s crying about wanting to go home. It’s very unclear, and I think that there’s a purpose for that, and that leaves room for people to have their own opinions and judgments on her. At the end of the day, you’ve got two very strong women, two very developed characters, who are very nuanced, complicated, real human women that are going through this crazy thing together—and that’s super exciting.”
If anything, Keough recognizes that Zola isn’t your typical breezy movie as much as it is an outrageous sensory overload that captures our current culture and our obsessions with sex and social media, and our endless thirst for chaos.
“I think people will have strong reactions to the film, because it is a lot. But I also hope no one watches it and says, ‘Well, that was really boring, and I have no thoughts,'” Keough says. “It’s either, ‘I really loved that,’ or, ‘I didn’t like that.’ That’s kind of always your goal—that people have an experience. It doesn’t need to be a good one. You just want them to start thinking and talking about the things and feelings [and why those emotions were evoked]. That’s what art is for—it starts conversations.”
Look for Zola in theaters on June 30.
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