Sasha Grey may be making her acting debut in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, but the 21 year-old hardly lacks experience in front of the camera. Since breaking into the adult industry at the age of 18, Grey has quickly emerged as one of porn's most popular stars, collecting a number of awards and shooting over 180 films in just three years. Now Grey is taking her first steps into the world of mainstream filmmaking with her impressive turn as a high-class escort in Soderbergh's low-budget experiment, and as I learned when I met her in London recently, she has no intention of stopping there.
One of the first things that's notable and perhaps surprising about The Girlfriend Experience is how little sex there is in the film. Was that a motivating factor for you, to make something that's a complete departure from the work you were doing previously?
I was just elated to have the chance to work with Steven, and when we met and he told me about the film, I just assumed there would be nudity, because it's a film about an escort. I thought, this is Steven Soderbergh, if I'm nude or if there are sex scenes they'll all be done in great taste and be done within the context of the film, so that was never a question for me, and had there been nudity then of course I would have done it. I didn't know even in the first few days of shooting, but as the shoot progressed I gathered that was the case, and I think he told somebody that he kind of decided that in the first few days of shooting as well.
How much of the story was on paper when you first read the script, and how much of it was developed throughout the course of the shoot?
The first time I met Steven was a year and a half before we shot, and all I knew was that this is a high-price escort who provides the girlfriend experience, she has a live-in boyfriend, and we know by the end of the film that she will leave her boyfriend. He compared it to the shooting style of Bubble, which I was a fan of, so it was easy for me to pull a reference from that, but we didn't get an outline until the evening before shooting, so each day was really different. It was really up to me to build a character journal, essentially, and share those notes with Steven, and say; "Do you think this is Chelsea? Does this sound like her?" But each day on set would be completely different, because the outline might say 'Chelsea meets with Client A', but exactly what we would talk about would be decided when we get to the set and look at the daily newspaper, to see what jumps out at you. I would always ask Steven before we shot a scene, "What is my objective here? What do I need to get across? Is there anything I must say in this scene?", and that's how it worked every day.
I have seen a quote from you in the past, when you said you are essentially being yourself during a porn shoot, and you don't distinguish between the person who's on camera and the person you are off screen. Here, you're playing a fictional character, Christine, who has herself created the persona of Chelsea, so what was it like to develop that?
That was exciting for me, because like I say, when I'm performing an adult scene I'm just a version of myself. You're never truly yourself, because I believe if you put a camera on somebody they're always going to act differently no matter what, so it's a version of myself, kind of like a hyper-me. I did theatre from the age of 12 to 18, so being able to step back into a role like this was a lot of fun for me. It was also great because we had so many people to talk to about the film, and a lot of the characters are actually based on real people that these escorts encountered on weekly or monthly basis.
So the escorts you met gave you a lot to feed into your characterisation?
Oh yeah, most definitely. Like you said, Christine has this persona of Chelsea, and both of the women I met said that when you meet these clients, you might not necessarily have the same opinions as these people, so they really have to adapt a new personality for each client. A lot of their clients are Republicans, so they have to find inventive ways to talk about politics or personal feelings and opinions in a safe way, essentially, so they don't offend anyone.
I found this whole idea of Chelsea's 'girlfriend experience' a fascinating one. It seems that buying that sense of intimacy is often more important to these guys than buying sex.
Right, and from interviewing the escorts and the people the writers interviewed, I think it's also the fact that these men are very wealthy and powerful, and they enjoy the fact that they can buy women, essentially. They can buy this time, and the fact that they can afford it and most people can't makes that special. It's really a status symbol.
The girls also have to offer that intimacy while remaining emotionally detached. In the film, we see Chelsea get hurt the one time she lets her guard down.
Exactly. Both of the women I spoke to had experienced cases like that and a lot of the women the writers interviewed had also gone through something like that as well.
I liked the voiceover inserts in which Chelsea talks about her encounters in a very clinical manner, and I saw that as being one of her methods of retaining a kind of distance from her experiences.
Yeah, and one of these women actually did that, she kept a detailed journal about each and every date. It also helps if you're pretending to be someone's girlfriend, because you need to remember what their cat's name is, what their kids' names are, whether they're married or divorced. She keeps details like that so the next time she meets them, there's a natural conversation like she's known them forever.
Could you empathise with some of the things Chelsea goes through, from things you have done in your own career? For instance, you have managed to promote yourself and get to the top of your industry, and we see Chelsea trying to make similar inroads in the film.
Well, I have treated myself as a commodity since day one and I made no bones about it, I told people that as I got into the industry because I planned for it for seven months. That's normal, it's just what you do in any type of entertainment industry, but Chelsea has to be careful because what she does is illegal. She wants to promote herself, but she's conflicted, thinking, how can she go out there and do an article, and still be safe and not get caught by the Feds? It's like the guy who wanted to be her manager, she says "How can I open up a boutique and sell clothing to women and their sixteen year-old daughters?", nobody's going to want to buy those clothes. So I guess it's a lot easier to market and self-promote in the entertainment world than it would be in Chelsea's world.
I loved the way Soderbergh put the film together. When you were shooting, did you have any idea how it was going to appear on screen?
No, not at all. You know, I don't like to watch playbacks. I'd look through the monitor occasionally, and it would look great on the set, but we shot the film chronologically, so I was expecting a chronological film. Going into the rough-cut screening was amazing, because it's really hard to watch yourself on screen when you know what's around each corner and each page, so I was kind of able to watch this with a little bit of mystery.
What did you know about the escorting world before making this film?
Well, I watch a lot of bad gossip shows [laughs]. You know, I knew probably as much as anybody does about that world via the media. It wasn't a subject matter I had been attracted to or interested in that much, unless you're talking about courtesans from Greece or Ancient Rome or something. It's funny, I do remember walking in and thinking "Oh, they're both very well dressed", and even though you know they're very sophisticated, I guess you have this image in the back of your mind about escorts.
How do you think that world compares to the porn industry? Do you think you need a different mentality or attitude to succeed in one rather than the other?
I think it goes back to the whole thing that these women need to adapt a different personality for each client and develop these emotional connections, so I do think that takes a different type of person. Depending on your morals and point of view, I guess it's the same thing, but the components and the work that goes into adult filmmaking and escorting are very different. Morally, are they different? No, depending on what you believe in, but it is something that's food for thought.
And yet prostitution is illegal in most countries and porn is a huge industry that has become a generally accepted part of our culture when, as you say, they're pretty much the same thing at a basic level.
Yeah, and I'm being paid to create a character for a film, so you could even say actors are the same thing as well. In the film, what I find very poignant about it is something Steven said, which is that everything in life is a transaction, you have to give something to get something in return. So if you open up those doors it's an entirely different conversation, which removes any moralistic or idealistic thoughts out of the equation.
Almost every scene in the film is a negotiation of some kind.
That's it, exactly.
After this experience, are you hungry to take on more acting roles?
Yeah, definitely. I'm actually going to New York tomorrow, and I'm doing a stage performance based on the novel Neuromancer, which is called Case. It's a six-hour deadpan reading, with all of the characters on stage with their scripts, so that should be fun, and we'll probably do the same thing in Rural Missouri next summer. In December I'm shooting an independent film in France called Life, and March I'll be shooting another film in California.
There have been a number of films in recent years that have included hardcore sex within a narrative, such as Shortbus, 9 Songs, the Catherine Breillat films, etc. Would you be interested in roles like that, or would you prefer to keep the two worlds separate?
I don't necessarily think they should have to be separate. Of course, if you put penetration in a film it will get an X rating, and that classifies it as pornography, essentially. With the films I'm directing now, I am trying to take a different approach, and I'm starting out with what I have, so while they're not necessarily narratives, they're metaphorically connected through visuals, and then I'll slowly move into narratives. My whole feeling on the matter right now is that I want to make erotic films that are cinematic, that are unexpected, so you can't sit down on the couch and know when to press fast-forward and play. So that's really my aim with directing right now.
You made a very conscious decision to move into porn at the age of 18. Can you believe how far your career has progressed in just three years?
It's definitely inspiring and it just makes me want to work even harder because of the opportunities I've had. I got into the business with a few goals just within the adult industry, and now I've been able to open it up and not look at it as something that's segregated from everything else.
As a porn star who has gained recognition in the mainstream media, do you feel as if you're an ambassador for the industry, that you have a responsibility to challenge people's prejudices or preconceptions about porn?
Yeah, it's nice to be able to disprove negative stereotypes when I'm doing interviews, but I wouldn't necessarily say I'm a voice for the industry. I'd rather be a voice for young independent women, and not just women from one group or one section of our world. I'd rather speak for everybody.
I did notice that a number of articles I've read about you have this kind of condescending tone of, "Wow, an intelligent and articulate porn star!" Is it frustrating to have to overcome that barrier before people take you seriously?
[laughs] Yeah, it is. I guess you can't really let those things bother you at all, because I can understand why that's done, but I know many smart and beautiful and talented women within the adult industry, who are very happy and have made their decisions without the influence of anyone else.
As well as performing in front of the camera, you mentioned that you are now producing and directing your own films, and you are also involved in music. How do you juggle so many different roles?
You know, that's life. I'm a creative person, and I just enjoy being and I enjoy doing. I try to look at life as a big canvas, and my thoughts, my ideas and my body are just the paint for that canvas. It's an age-old quote that youth is wasted on the young, and we make enough mistakes as human beings and we're learning every day, so while I'm still young I'm just going to let the mistakes be mistakes. I'd rather work hard now while I have the energy and vigour to do so, because I won't always get to do those kind of things. A couple of weeks ago I went diving with sharks and learned how to breathe on the regulator, and I might not have a chance to do things like that when I'm older.
Are these other projects part of establishing a long-term career plan? Have you given any thought to how long you would want to continue performing in front of the camera?
Well, I definitely want to retire as an adult performer gracefully [laughs]. Right now, I don't have any set goal in mind, so I'm really just building the foundations for everything else in the time being.