Riley Keough (‘Paterno’): ‘I was a little bit intimidated’ working with Al Pacino [Complete Interview Transcript]

Riley Keough plays Sara Ganim in the new HBO movie “Paterno,” the journalist who broke the story about Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and his involvement in child sex abuse. She stars alongside Oscar and Emmy winner Al Pacino, who plays the university’s head football coach Joe Paterno. Previously, the actress was part of the ensemble cast of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and earn an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her work in “American Honey.”

Keough recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about the responsibilities of playing a real-life character, what it was like to work with Pacino and “Paterno” director Barry Levinson and her evolution into producing. Watch the exclusive web chat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Riley Keough, how much did you know about the Jerry Sandusky scandal before getting involved in the movie?

Riley Keough: Not much, to be honest. I’d seen it on the news obviously and I got little bits here and there when it came out but it wasn’t something that I had particularly looked into very much. I didn’t know the details at all.

GD: How different do you think the story would have been if it had come out in 2018 instead of 2011? Do you think it would have moved faster for Sara?

RK: Probably. I think with what’s going on at the moment I think that it would’ve been maybe a little bit easier of a break and more supported and I think she would’ve been probably more supported. From what I understand she did feel support from her co-workers and that kind of thing but I think it would’ve been a lot more worldwide support, definitely.

GD: All right, now take me back and tell me how did you get the part?

RK: I read the script and then I sat down with Barry in New York and we just talked about Sara and about the project and something that I really liked, that we both really liked, was how you’re seeing a reporter that’s a little bit more green and hasn’t been doing this for a long time and that’s not something either of us had really seen before so that was an interesting thing, and also you’ve got this young woman who’s going up against this incredibly powerful group of men, which of course is interesting to play. So yeah, we just talked a lot and I signed on to the film.

GD: What do you think they saw in you? Why did they think that you’d be right for this part?

RK: I don’t know! (Laughs.) I’ll have to ask Barry. I think we just had a good conversation about it. I feel like I really wanted to do the project, that probably helped. Yeah, I think we were just in agreement about her and the film. We got along, I guess.

GD: I believe this is your first role since your debut role in “The Runaways” playing a real person, so how do you approach that differently?

RK: It is, it’s definitely strange because you feel pressure to do it right, of course, but with both of the people I’ve played that were real were on-set and available to talk to. Sara was very much involved, so that was helpful because in a way you have somebody there to bounce things off of and you don’t have to make every decision by yourself, which, in a way, there’s something cool about that where you can be like, “Well, I don’t know what to do here, how she would be feeling about this.” And then I can just ask her (laughs). Instead of having to make it up myself. So in a way you have this support, it feels like. But I did feel pressure because you don’t wanna get it wrong and you don’t wanna disappoint them. That would suck.

GD: What did she tell you about your portrayal and how to shape it?

RK: The one thing that she did tell me was that she did feel supported. That’s something that I misunderstood or I didn’t know. I thought she was always up against something and I think that one thing she made clear to me was that she felt supported and she knew she was doing the right thing. She never wavered or doubted herself or had conflict. She kind of just knew what she wanted and went for it. There wasn’t a lot of questioning. She wasn’t like, “Am I doing the right thing?” She definitely knew that she was doing the right thing and stuck with it. So that was something that was interesting because as a performer you’re like, “Where’s the internal conflict within to make it dramatic?” But she was like, “No, I just did it. I knew what I was doing and I knew what I was doing was the right thing to do and I just did it.” It wasn’t this drama.

GD: In the movie we see Sara interact with Victim 1 but obviously there were many more victims. How do you feel about it all being boiled down to just that one guy to showcase in the movie?

RK: I think that is a choice that Barry made. For whatever reason that was the victim that he wanted to show and I believe there was some dramatic license taken there. I’m not sure if that victim was actually in that conversation. I’m pretty positive that Sara spoke with his mother so I think that that was a choice that Barry had made to tell the story, but there are very few things like that, of dramatic license taken in the film. Most of it is pretty 100% accurate. I think you’d have to ask him why he chose that victim.

GD: You keep mentioning this Barry Levinson. Tell me what distinguishes him as a director in your role as an actor?

RK: He was amazing. One thing I’d never really experienced that I got to do with him was he really wants you to try the scene in a way that you never would’ve imagined it being played. For example, if you’re doing a very serious scene he would do it that way but then he would also wanna see it in more like a comedy almost or something. He wanted to see both ends of the spectrum on it and all the different ways you could do the scene, which isn’t something I’ve ever really done before which I really enjoyed. So it made me think of scenes very differently. For example, the scene where I’m speaking to the victim’s mother, we did that scene in a lot of different ways, tonally anyway. It really was an amazing experience because it ended up going places that I was like, “This is not how I ever would’ve seen this scene going,” so he’s kind of opened my mind in a way now when I’m looking at scenes where I look at them differently. It was really fun.

GD: On this movie did you get to work with Al Pacino? Because you only have the one scene in which you’re both present, I believe, and I don’t think you even interact in it.

RK: Yeah, it’s funny because no we don’t interact in both of the scenes that I’m in with him I’m watching him speak which is good for me because I’ve had a few moments in my life where I’m working with an actor and I’m starstruck a little bit, so I think it was better for me that I just got to watch him perform as opposed to have to interact a lot with him because I was a little bit intimidated. You’re just standing there trying to be in the scene but then a part of me is like, “That’s Al Pacino. Doing a movie with Al Pacino, that’s crazy!” (Laughs.) So yeah, I got to sort of stand back and watch him.

GD: So a few years ago you were in “Mad Max,” which went on to win six Oscars and then you were in “The Girlfriend Experience,” more stuff like this, and you got a Golden Globe nomination. Do you prefer Oscar or Emmy campaigning?

RK: Oh god, well I wasn’t really part of the Oscar campaign for “Mad Max” because I was shooting “The Girlfriend Experience” so I wasn’t able to go to any of the things. I missed out on Cannes and all those things. I had a lot of fun doing the Emmy stuff for “GFE” ‘cause that’s kind of the only “campaign” I’ve ever been a part of and it was really fun. By the end of it you really know what you’re talking about (laughs). You really understand your character in a whole different way and you’re really intellectualizing things. You’re also talking to people that love television and cinema. I could talk to people all day about that kind of stuff, so it’s fun.

GD: Now a random piece that I pulled from your Twitter, do you have any news about appearing on “Riverdale”?

RK: (Laughs.) No, I don’t. I have no news on it, sadly.

GD: Okay, so recently you started a production company and why did you do that?

RK: I did that because lots of reasons. My partner and I were very interested in helping filmmakers get things going. We really were interested in development, actually, which is a little bit scary for some people but it’s something that we’re both very passionate about. I think it’s an area people are afraid to go into because it’s a little bit risky. We just wanted to make content, really, and help filmmakers make films. It was really that simple, so we started a company. We’re pretty focused on development and getting the rights to things, getting scripts written and putting things together. That’s where our focus is at the moment.

GD: And what lessons did you learn on the set of “Paterno,” as a producer?

RK: As a producer… You’re always kind of learning, I think. It was a different experience. Working with HBO was interesting and just seeing how that works, watching how everything comes together is always helpful. I wasn’t necessarily sitting on the set thinking about producing, just because I was in the acting headspace but I think that it always helps, talking to people and getting to know how everybody does things.

GD: My final question is, when you meet other Rileys, are they most often male, female or canine? You know what my answer is.

RK: (Laughs.) It’s funny. It’s changing. First was canine. As a kid I remember going, “That’s my dog’s name.” And then male. The females that I’ve met that are named Riley are babies, so little kids. But my age or anything over… I don’t know, how old are you?

GD: 25.

RK: Okay. Like over 20 is male, I think, and then under six years old has been female.

GD: All right, well thanks for taking the time to chat and we hope to see “Paterno” this summer at the Emmys.

RK: Thank you.

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