The Girlfriend Experience

The rising star of Steven Soderbergh's existential investigation into the commerce of sex talks catholicism, nihilism and killer electro

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Steven Soderbergh's latest offering is a stark, convincingly acted and fearless existential investigation into the commerce of sex and the language of emotional manipulation. Starring the 21-year-old porn star Sasha Grey in her first serious film role it focuses upon the various relationships of a call girl who offers her clients The Girlfriend Experience – supposedly something that offers everything a real relationship could satisfy, for a considerable fee. With the clientele ranging from CEOs and orthodox Jewish jewellers to what one suspects are politicians, the film provides a unique lens through which to explore the politics of intimacy and the myriad weaknesses of the 21st-century male. Considering her controversial and transgressive career in pornographic films, Grey's considered, mature and engaging performance is nothing short of a revelation. On a rainy evening in London we caught up with Sasha to talk about the politics of intimacy...

Dazed Digital: Your character in The Girlfriend Experience appears to be very in control and focused, and yet at one point we see this deep-seated vulnerability. Does she have fairytale beliefs about love that underpin everything?
Sasha Grey:
 In the context of the scene where she's crying, it was more to do with her dependency on her books. She has this really weak relationship with her boyfriend, and she has these ‘personology’ books that happen to match up her birth date with this random guy that’s interested in seeing her. That sparks something new and she projects this ideal onto him  – because the book says it’s true, she thinks it must be fate.

Dazed Digital: Did you have a kind of back-story for her when you formed her character? Did you draw on your own experience?
Sasha Grey:
 I didn’t draw so much on my own experience. I was fortunate enough to meet with two escorts, one in LA and one in New York. But even before that, I kept a very detailed character journal and I shared that with Stephen. The casting director sent us anonymously written escort blogs that really helped me exaggerate the character and who she was.

Dazed Digital: What was it like meeting with escorts? Do you think without prostitution and pornography there would be more instances of rape and so on? Or do you think that they actually allow for an arena where those kinds of abuses can take place?
Sasha Grey:
 I think it depends. You have women on the street who are obviously being abused and they have pimps, I mean all you have to do is watch a few documentaries to see what that’s like and how raw it is. That just perpetuates the negative stereotypes of prostitution, or pimping, or the johns. And then you have the women like Christine – they are like call girls, and they might not have a pimp; they are doing it on their own. I don’t think that those necessarily perpetuate the abuse and the violence, but in the same vein, I don’t think they help stop it at all. But the guys who are paying for the higher echelons don’t beat the girls up – well, that’s generally speaking from the research we did, maybe some politicians are going to go out there and beat some girls up, I don’t know.

Dazed Digital: The film riffs on that notion that sex is commerce, I guess with your background that’s quite interesting? Do you think emotion can ever really be detached from the sexual act?
Sasha Grey:
 (Laughs) I definitely think that emotions can be detached from sex and men are a great example of that! I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just mean, why do men pay for escorts? Because they don’t want that emotional connection, they don’t want that extra baggage.

Dazed Digital: Do you think in our generation there is a crisis of intimacy? Does the film reflect a social breakdown in relationships between men and women?
Sasha Grey:
 I don’t think it’s a breakdown, I think it’s actually a good thing. Maybe people are just learning how to grow and be individuals – for a long time it was come home from work, get pregnant, babies, marriage. In that instance, you end up hating the person you are married to because you share no similarities, you have no emotional connection, and you never did. That’s because for one person it was based on family and another it was based on circumstance. But how does the film reflect on relationships between men and women today? Well, Chelsea and Chris are a vain couple, and are always looking for a bigger mirror. They don’t really love each other, they are just there to make each other look good. Does that reflect our society? Maybe on some levels, but not on a huge scale – it probably does more so with people who are in the public eye.

Dazed Digital: Do you think it’s quite a bleak film in that way?
Sasha Grey:
 No. This is a film about one person, her experiences and the people she encounters. That's not necessarily a reflection on society, but the money and the politics involved are a huge reflection on society.

Dazed Digital: There is an intense loneliness about the whole film. Do you think the more people you know the lonelier you can be?
Sasha Grey:
 Definitely. I’ve met people like that. They have met hundreds of thousands of people and are adored but they are still very lonely because they have never really grown-up, and they haven’t learned how to deal with autonomy, or how to be autonomous.

Dazed Digital: But is that kind of singularity necessarily a positive thing?
Sasha Grey:
 I think it’s good to know how to be that way. I don’t think it’s something you consistently have to be. That’s like never letting a child out of the house.

Dazed Digital: Freud said libido had to be contained within societal constraints, otherwise there would be anarchy, but you’re saying that sexual freedom is the key for a more enlightened sense of being?
Sasha Grey:
 Well, I just think that it’s 2009 and we’re still so afraid to talk about sex. Ignorance breeds fear and vice versa, and the less you know the more negative things can happen, such as teenage pregnancy or the skyrocketing rate of STDs in young adults. It is about sexual freedom, but it's about more than that – it’s about communication and talking and learning. I think people are so afraid to do that; people are afraid of the truth.

Dazed Digital: And there is the commerce of emotion in the film as well, because these guys buy into the idea that they are ‘with her’...
Sasha Grey:
 Yeah. Well, a lot of the johns in the film are actually based on men that these escorts actually talk about; they’re based on real guys. So, yeah, you’re dealing with really high-powered men who deal with hedge funds. They’re CEOs of huge companies, and at the end of the day they’d actually rather pay for something and get instant gratification than seek out a long-term relationship that can provide that for them and more.

Dazed Digital: What’s the acting experience like between this kind of film and pornography? I mean, this frame is more art house, and is more acceptable, but they are both essentially performances…
Sasha Grey:
 I think the technical aspects and the people and the crews are all very similar but as far as performances go... I really hate it when people say, ‘Oh this is reality porn!” No. Because any time you put a camera in front of anybody, even if they have never been in front of a camera, they are going to act differently. For me, pornography is performing – it is what it is and I am an extension of myself, I am hyper me, whereas in a film like this, I am doing character research and I am stepping into the shoes of someone else, and I am thinking about my mannerisms.

Dazed Digital: Do you think that your background in the porn industry gave you authenticity?
Sasha Grey:
 Not so much. Because her job is less about the sex, and more about being there to listen to all their problems.

Dazed Digital: Kind of like a sounding board…
Sasha Grey:
 Right. One thing that Stephen said though was that my level of sexual confidence is stronger than most young women’s, so I don’t have to think about it. It is second nature to me, it is who I am as a human being. I don’t have to consciously be thinking about it as much as I did with other things that I developed into the character. When I was on-set developing her characteristics and her personality traits, I had to continuously think about those things. In any role an actor takes there is going to be a piece of them, and the piece of me is my demeanour, no... not necessarily my demeanour – my confidence.

Dazed Digital: You’re a musician as well, could you tell us a bit about that?
Sasha Grey:
 We’re called Atalecine, we had to put an ‘A’ in front because there’s a Christian band called Telacine… no fighting over names! We make experimental death dub noise and were putting out two new 12-inches, one with Dias Records and one with Pendu Sound who we did our first 7-inch with, both Brooklyn-based labels. We had offers to tour this year but my schedule has been too hectic, so hopefully next year we will be able to do that. The fact that the music is so experimental and there’s a lot of tape loops means there’s a lot of things that would probably never be able to play again even if I tried, it’s more about the performance than the music being played.

Dazed Digital: Are you into minimalist bands like Suicide and Depeche Mode?
Sasha Grey:
 Yeah Suicide, TG, Current 93. I actually did vocals for Tibet a couple months back and I’ll becoming back to London to do a performance with him and the other artists that are on that album as well.

Dazed Digital: So do you see yourself as blooming from this point and going on to other things?
Sasha Grey:
 I just want to do everything, I don’t want to put a boundary on anything I do in life and be able to paint my canvas the way I see fit. You tell me no, and I want to do it.

Dazed Digital: It’s pretty phenomenal, you’re 21 years old and you’ve got your own production company, you're working with a huge Hollywood director... How did that all pan out for you? Do you have a vision that you aim for or is it more of a random trajectory?
Sasha reyG:
 I think that now, more than ever, it’s definitely a wave – things come and things go. I do have my set goals but whereas once they were very solidified and specific, I’ve now realised that life changes every day so you have to adapt

Dazed Digital: Did go to drama school?
Sasha Grey:
 Yeah…

Dazed Digital: Then you went into pornography? How did that come about?
Sasha Grey:
 Acting for me was more of an extra-curricular activity. When I was 12 years old I was kind of a nihilist and my mum said I need to do something – 'If you’re not going to do sports or become a girl scout you’ve got to do something! Get out of my hair for the weekend!''

Dazed Digital: A nihilist at 12 years old?! That’s pretty incredible...
Sasha Grey:
 Yeah… Well, my mum said to start acting at school because that way you don’t have to commit to something after school or on the weekends, and that if I did well, she would start putting me in classes.

Dazed Digital: Do you think it can be a really positive thing to do so much so young, because you learn so much...
Sasha Grey:
 Yeah, over the past few years my learning curve has been huge and sometimes people say, ‘Don’t you just want to be a normal 21-year-old and go party and have fun?’ No. I mean, why do you think great artists of our time have always said youth is wasted on the young? I don’t want to be an old a person in regret and think I should have done this but I was off being lazy. There are enough mistakes we make as human beings anyway, so let the mistakes be real mistakes not chosen mistakes.

Dazed Digital: What do you think of men like the guy in the film who really degrades her?
Sasha Grey:
 I think people like that have too much time on their hands. Their level of self-confidence is so low that they project their issues onto other people.

Dazed Digital: Have you come across people like that in your previous career? Have you been in situations where you have thought, 'This is awful; I don’t want to be doing this...'
Sasha Grey:
 No. The business is so small that those situations are very few and far between. If you did have a character like that, word would spread really quickly. Those seedy characters are more in the underbelly, like people in the Mid-West who are shooting illegally, because technically it’s still only legal to shoot in California and New York. Nobody shoots in New York, though. I don’t understand that. So, I think those type of characters tend to exist in the smaller areas where it is not a collective business. I was also lucky enough when I fist got in the business to have a grade-A agent who was like, ‘This person is cool, but if they say do this and you don’t want to, or that they’ll pay you more, just tell them to call your agent.'

Dazed Digital: What do you think of the scientology movement in America. Don’t they say everybody has to have missionary all time?
Sasha Grey:
 Like, why don’t we poke a hole in this sheet and keep it between us?

Dazed Digital: Yeah, that kind of thing, what do you think of all that?
Sasha Grey:
 I think it’s a shame.

Dazed Digital: It just occurred to me because I was watching this thing on scientology the other day and they only get people to remain scientologists because they get the dirt on them; if you leave, they know all your secrets, so they have power over you…
Sasha Grey:
 It’s like Catholicism. Maybe in another 300 years we’ll have a society of scientologists and some little off-shoot that is basically the same thing, because if you think about it, that changed the world instantly. Before Christianity and Catholicism took over, most people were in poly-amorous relationships.

Dazed Digital: The pagan kind of thing…
Sasha Grey:
 Yeah, and it’s amazing how christianity essentially changed the world for what seems like forever, but who knows what the next movement will be, because I'm sure there is going to be another one.

Dazed Digital: What kind of religious background are you from originally?
Sasha Grey:
Irish Catholic.

Dazed Digital: Oh... That's a motherload of guilt working in porn then?
Sasha Grey: 
Oh yeah, the old Irish family? Definitely. It’s so weird though, because my mum is very Catholic and has all these morals and ideals, but she is also very liberal… which fits perfectly with Catholicism.

The Girlfriend Experience is out on December 4

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