On Screen with Actress Riley Voelkel


May 31, 2024

Carly Long

Today we stepped into the world of actress Riley Voelkel, where versatility meets vulnerability. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Riley moved to the US as a child, growing up in Sacramento, CA. She was discovered during a modeling audition, and swiftly transitioned into acting, landing her first role in the Oscar-nominated film “The Social Network,” followed by hit series such as “The Mentalist”, “Glee”, and “American Horror Story.”

In this intimate conversation, we navigate through the layers of Riley’s career on-screen, from her breakout roles to the challenges and triumphs of embodying characters vastly different from herself. She delves deep into the intricacies of human emotion with each role, showing an unwavering commitment to her craft whether she’s navigating the treacherous waters of addiction in the hit Jerry Bruckheimer-produced STARZ series “Hightown” or harnessing the power of magic in Freya Mikaelson in CW’s The Vampire Diaries spin-off, “The Originals.” Rooted in a foundation of authenticity, Riley navigates the complexities of life with grace and humility, finding solace in the simple pleasures of mindfulness, honest storytelling, and human connection.

Riley Voelkel – Photography by Tyler Patrick Kenny

Tell us about yourself. In a world where women are the ultimate multi-hyphenates, how would you describe yourself?

Well to quote Meredith Brooks, I think “I’m a little bit of everything all rolled into one.” 

Creative fulfillment is extremely important to me, but I can also be very “Type A” and crave organization (I still handwrite a daily schedule in my day planner.) I love my family and friends more than anything. I love being in nature and being active. Music is my medicine. I love makeup and fashion, and going out dancing. I also love being lazy in my sweatpants, cuddling with my cat, cooking at home, and watching a movie on the couch with my husband. I believe in spreading love and kindness. I can also be very stubborn (it’s the Taurus in me.) I love evolving in business, but try not to take myself too seriously and find joy in the small things that make life beautiful.  

That is beautiful. Of that little bit of ‘everything’ and all the projects you’ve been a part of, which one do you feel has had the most significant impact on you personally, and why?

Every project I’ve been a part of has had an impact on me so it’s hard to pick just one. “The Newsroom” was my first recurring role and I learned so much every day working with Aaron Sorkin and some of the best in the industry. Getting to work with people of that caliber felt like the best acting school I could have had. “The Originals” had a huge impact because it was my first long-term series regular role, and the fanbase is incredible. 

But the biggest impact, I’d have to say, was playing Renee in “Hightown.” 

It has been the most challenging and fulfilling experience in my career so far. She allowed me to break walls creatively that I hadn’t before, gave me new perspectives, and brought out sides of me I didn’t know I had. I was surrounded by the most extraordinary cast and crew who constantly inspired me. Everyone on that set cared about telling the story, and it created a really rare and special dynamic that I feel so lucky to have been a part of. 

From portraying a sorority girl to a witch, and now a former exotic dancer and fiancée to a drug kingpin, your roles have spanned a wide range of characters. How do you approach preparing for each unique role and immersing yourself in the diverse worlds and personalities of your characters?

It all starts with the writing. I’ve been very lucky to work with incredible writers, and I try my best to understand their vision for the characters and the world they’ve created. I then work on learning as much as I can about that character’s perspective, skills, and traits. 

Sometimes, I have to go outside my comfort zone to immerse myself in the character’s world. For Renee, knowing she was an exotic dancer, I decided to train in pole dancing, went to clubs, and watched documentaries to try and understand a world I knew so little about. As different as a character can be from me, I always try to bring a piece of myself to every role I play. This allows me to show authentic emotions when dealing with a situation I haven’t dealt with in my own life. Throughout the process, I grow with my character and find complexities along the way. It’s like getting to know someone, the more time you spend with them – the more you learn about them and the deeper you can go.

You’ve said, “You never know what someone is going through and you most likely can relate.” Is that what excites you most about acting and trying on these different personas – being able to relate to more people?

It’s definitely one of the most exciting parts of being an actor. I love getting to become someone else and live in their world for a period of time. The process has required me to be vulnerable and messy in ways I’ve never shared before, and the hope is always that the audience connects with that part of you or the character. It’s extremely fun, exciting, and terrifying all at the same time and I’ve learned so much from every character I’ve played. Diving into a character that is so different from yourself allows you to learn new perspectives and relate in ways you maybe didn’t see on the surface. 

It’s a great reminder that in real life, you never know what someone is going through – and most likely, you can relate.      

You’ve mentioned finding balance between your work life and personal life. Especially when playing such intense characters like in the gritty crime drama “Hightown” or after an emotional scene, how do you manage to maintain that balance?

It’s definitely easier said than done. I love my work, so I easily get engulfed in it. I’ve come to realize, however, how important work and personal life balance is in order to not burn out. 

Playing Renee on “Hightown” was the most vulnerable I’ve been on screen. As scary as that was, it was a challenge I was craving and the emotional scenes ended up being the most fulfilling. It can be hard to shake an emotional scene after shooting it, but luckily I’ve had the support of my castmates and crew on set, and my friends and family at home. I try my best to “leave everything on the field,” meaning once I’m home from work, I take the time to be my normal self and try to separate that from the character I’m playing. In between seasons or shows, I definitely prioritize my home and personal life. I have amazing friends and family who have always helped to keep me grounded and rejuvenate me.  

Riley Voelkel – Photography by Tyler Patrick Kenny

You’ve also expressed the importance of never stopping growth, and living in the present moment. How do you ensure you’re continually evolving both personally and professionally?

I think we are all constantly growing simply by being human. 

And what I mean by “never stop growing” is just being open to learning new things and taking care of yourself. Sometimes growth comes from clarity in what truly matters to you, and other times it comes from overcoming the hard things in life. 

Working to better yourself professionally and personally is important, but I also see growth as being as simple as finding joy in the small things. I find that being present in “the now” is more important than planning out or worrying about the future. I do have goals for the future and I try to look at every experience as an opportunity to learn. When I’m on a new set or meeting new people with new perspectives I try to learn from them. Every job and every conversation is an opportunity to grow and I try my best to remember that. 

What are some specific rituals or practices you incorporate into your daily routine to promote mindfulness and presence? 

Yoga and breathwork are key for me when promoting mindfulness. Wim Hof has some of my favorite breath guides. I try to do an at-home yoga session whenever I can. Spending time in nature is also a big part of feeling present for me. Taking occasional walks for some fresh air does wonders. Also, my husband and I recently started having ten-minute pow-wows each day where we discuss goals we have for the day and for the year. We give each other a little high five after, and it puts us in the right mindset to start our day.  

Lastly, taking five minutes at the end of the day to think about what I’m grateful for. Reminding myself of what I’m grateful for really helps me to stay present and remember each day is a gift. 

How does it feel when a show comes to a close? Do you have anything new lined up?

It’s always a bittersweet experience when a show ends.  During the time of shooting, the cast and crew often spend more time together than with their own friends and family. This creates a very strong family dynamic on set. It’s always hard to go from working together over the course of months and sometimes years, to no longer seeing everyone every day. In the end, everyone’s excited to have created something great together and to let the world see it, but it’s always sad to say goodbye. 

Luckily, the industry is a small world and we often get to work with some of the same people on different projects. As actors, it’s also bittersweet to say goodbye to a character that has been a part of you for so long, but it’s always exciting to meet the next one. I see every role I’ve played as a chapter in my journey, and I always keep a part of that character with me going forward. With the industry just getting back to work, I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m excited for whatever it is! 

How do you see the landscape of television and film changing, and what excites you most about the future of storytelling?

What I hope the future brings, is even more honest storytelling. 

I experienced this with our brilliant showrunner on “Hightown,” Rebecca Cutter, who was insistent on creating a world that tried to give honest portrayals of addiction, recovery, and the hope of redemption. I think when the intention is honest, it allows more people to relate when watching, which is powerful. 

She also told this story through the female lens, which I think is also very important and something we don’t always see. It excites me that we have started to pull away from the “TV version” of telling a story and are showing more of the vulnerabilities of real life. I hope to see more of this in the future.  

Can you share something people might not realize about life as an actress?

You never know where you are going to be living! Shooting a season of a show takes anywhere from five to nine months, and you typically live in the city you are shooting in during the entire season. You kind of live your life “on call” knowing that when you book your next project, you could be moving to a city you have never been to, which is exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. Sometimes it’s a big city like New York, and other times it’s a small town with only a few restaurants. As amazing as it is to experience living in different places, it’s difficult to have a normal schedule or routine. A typical workday is usually between twelve and fourteen hours and the call time is always different. If we have a night shoot, for instance, we sometimes don’t start work until 6PM and work till 6AM (assuming you are in most of the scenes that day). Being an actor or working in the industry definitely requires flexibility and long hours, but most of us love it so much, it’s all worth it.

You’ve said “Everything passes. Good feelings and bad.” How do you celebrate the good? And what do you do to pass the bad feelings? 

I try my best to stay present in both. During the good times, I try to keep my mind free of anything else. I try to soak that single moment in and not stress about what’s next or what I need to do later. I also try to be grateful during the moment rather than in retrospect, which is something I always have to remind myself. 

I think the more time you spend being grateful for the small things, the more the good feelings present themselves. 

Of course, this is easier said than done, and inevitably there will be some bad times or feelings. One of my biggest lessons in life has been that “everything passes.” When you are in the midst of a difficult time, it’s really hard to believe it will pass, but somehow it always does. There are always moments that simply just suck, and sometimes saying “that’s life” out loud and finding humor in the situation helps put things in perspective. 

Life can be messy, but I believe that there’s always a good moment waiting around the corner, even after a challenging one. 

*This interview has been edited for clarity.

To keep up with Riley Voelkel, follow her on Instagram, X, or TikTok.


Written by Carly Long |  @bycarlylong

Photography by Tyler Patrick Kenny | @tylerpatrickkenny

Styling by Alison Hernon | @718blonde

Hair by Corey Tuttle | @coreytuttlehair

Makeup by Liz Olivier