British actress Talulah Riley on life with Mr PayPal, Elon Musk
In 2010 the news broke that Elon Musk, a genius Canadian-American tech billionaire, was marrying for a second time. Immediately the green-eyed trolls sat up and took notice. It has been a journey to reach this point.
In 2010 the news broke that Elon Musk, a genius Canadian-American tech billionaire, was marrying for a second time. Immediately the green-eyed trolls sat up and took notice. Talulah Riley was her name; 25 years old to Elon’s 41. A not very well-known British actress from upper-middle class beginnings.
She attended Cheltenham Ladies College and Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for . She had become a bit of a film star, with a minor role in that summer’s sci-fi blockbuster, Inception.
Before, she had appeared in two St Trinian’s remakes, playing 15-year-old Annabelle Fritton, and played a dowdy Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. She met Musk in a London nightclub and, she says, they only started talking because she felt sorry for him. She had never heard of Elon Musk.
Musk is the co-founder of the online transaction service PayPal, the aerospace company SpaceX and Tesla, which is famous for its electric sports cars and battery storage technology. He is God in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street.
To idolise Musk is to think you own him. The geeks and nerds who watch and comment on his every move felt cheated by a woman who they decided was a gold digger. “He’s Beta as f***,” one hard-done-by trollette wrote in the comments section of an awkward 60 Minutes documentary showing the newlyweds making house with Musk’s five children by his ex-wife, Justine Musk.
Sadly — or is it happily for the trolls? — Talulah and Elon are getting divorced, but not for the first time. Their romantic life seems complicated. Their first marriage ended in 2012. Talulah received a divorce package said to be worth $16 million. By 2013 they had remarried and, notwithstanding a wobble in 2014 when a second set of divorce papers were filed but then retracted, stayed together.
By 2016, married life for them seems to have once more become untenable. “We got married, we got divorced. We got remarried, we filed for divorce, we retracted that divorce. We filed for divorce again recently,” she says. Is she really worth $18 million? (Musk is worth $12.3 billion) “I haven’t checked my net worth recently.”
Money is not the point, is the point she’s making. “We are best friends.” Although there has been recent speculation of a blossoming friendship between Musk and actress Amber Heard, Johnny Depp’s estranged wife, she doesn’t rule out marrying him again in the future.
She would rather talk about the complicated romance of her new novel, Acts of Love, which is published next week. We’ve met to discuss it at the Sanderson Hotel. It’s a little bit of Los Angeles in the heart of London: its clientele is primped, its “lean” architecture is antiseptic and its waiters hum discreetly around, as solemn as mortuary staff.
Los Angeles was Riley’s home for several years when she and Musk were together, but not long ago she moved to San Francisco, owing to the demands of a start-up business venture, an app called Forge. Riley sits on a banquette. She’s bright, speaks British with an American intonation and wears the smiling, politely inquisitive mask all actors do when they’re asked annoying questions by journalists.
Riley isn’t the only writer in her family. Her mother is a businesswoman, but her father, the former head of the National Crime Squad, now writes screenplays.
She wrote her novel over three years. Its plot centres on a young, female, attractive, man-hating British ingénue, Bernadette, who moves to Los Angeles in a crabby, self-hating search for “The One’’. Bernadette’s dilemma is: “At what point do you concede you’d like to find the one without ignoring your strong feminist values?”
The plot came to its author after she read Fifty Shades of Grey, a book she did not enjoy. She disliked the bastard-as-crush cliché, which she says female millennials have been reared on. “We grew up on the TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice,” she says. “I also loved Jane Eyre growing up, but then when I went back to read it I realised that the power dynamics are atrocious — this is not a healthy relationship. And nothing to really aspire to. I wanted to write a female version of Christian Grey.”
Bernadette is not a sex,but she has her share of flaws. As well as being British, leggy, attractive and living in Los Angeles, she has also got wide-set eyes and meets a Silicon Valley guy who proposes to her within a week (as Musk did with Riley). Similarities between protagonist and author escape Riley. “It’s funny because this keeps coming up. I didn’t realise how it was going to look. Originally, Bernadette was going to be an American, but the voice didn’t seem right.
“I used Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as a backdrop — and this isn’t my experience just because they’re sort of the land owners of our generation and it seems like an accurate parallel to what you see in classic romantic fiction.” She and Bernadette have only two things in common: “I can relate to fantasy not meeting reality. The other thing is I can sympathise with being objectified. Judged on the way you look, the way you dress. But, in every other way we are completely different.” Her experiences of being objectified or misunderstood are “quite comforting in a way”, she says, smiling — a good thing, given that her soon to be ex-husband used to be married to Justine, who gave Elon both barrels two years into his relationship with Talulah. Justine, a terrific writer herself, penned what has gone down in history as a “business insider divorce piece”. Multiply syndicated, I Was a Starter Wife: Inside America’s Messiest Divorce went viral for the best part of a year.
Musk had groomed Justine into becoming a trophy wife, she wrote. He was particular: “If you were my employee, I would fire you,” he’d say. She felt “sidelined into the million-dollar spectacle of my husband’s life”. Six weeks after filing for divorce from, he texted her to say he was engaged to Riley. Elon always pestered her to go blonder, she said. “My life with this man had devolved to a cliché.” Talulah’s hair seemed to be getting lighter, the longer she stayed with Elon, warned Justine.
It doesn’t sound like Talulah’s got much truck with Justine. “I believe that everyone’s entitled to share their version of the truth,” she says, “I don’t see it as my job to clear the record. The people who know me and their opinions matter and other than that there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Was she conscious of wanting to keep her independence in the face of this quite unbalanced financial power dynamic? “I think she gave that interview 2-3 years into my relationship with Elon. I didn’t have Justine’s take on Elon before entering into a relationship with him.”
Being judged on how she looks and being objectified: the two things that Bernadette and Riley share. “That’s another thing I was trying to address in thebook.
Should women be sexually exploitative? Bernadette very much is. She happens to be young and good looking. And should the people judge that?”
It’s an interesting point, given some of the publicity Riley has agreed to do in the past. That awkward 60 Minutes interview — she and Musk at home with his young children by Justine — made Riley out to be a bimbo, an impression not counteracted by underwear shoots she’s done and interviews she’s given describing married life thus: “I dress Elon every morning. It makes me feel domestic and happy. He enjoys it when I wear smart dresses at functions and is proud when I do underwear shoots.”
Is that still her? “Well, that was never me. I think the point I was trying to make is being a wife and being a mother is a full-time occupation and rewarding. I’m definitely a feminist.”
Riley is still acting — in October on Sky Atlantic, she plays an alien robot in HBO’s adaptation of the wonderful cult Western, Westworld — but it was never an end destination for her, and it fell by the wayside at this time: “I was raising four kids and all the rest of it.” (Justine and Elon’s kids).
It’s a shame we are here to talk about the book because, as nicely written as it is, it’s not half as interesting as Riley becomes when she is talking about Forge. She launched it with Stacey Ferreira, an electronics entrepreneur listed this year by Forbes as one of the 30 under-30-year-old entrepreneurs to watch.
Forge works with companies such as Gap and Victoria’s Secret to control their part-time rosters. Store managers update hours available each week and individuals looking for work can select shifts they would like to work and get paid for each hour they work. “The nature of work is fundamentally changing. It’s more ruthless. You won’t know one week to the next how many hours you’re going to be working or when those hours are going to be, or how much you’re going to earn.”
It’s a brilliant idea, a project she’ll be able to pour all her power and connections into and a chance to stand on her own two feet. Musk isn’t involved, and wasn’t asked to be. He’ll be watching from the wings, with proud admiration — that seems to be the only constant narrative in their relationship: “We really are best friends. I’ll always love him, I’ll always be there for him.”
It sounds like a good basis for a marriage. A smile. “You’d think.”
Stefanie Marsh / The Telegraph / The Interview People