Before this year, your awareness of adult film star Sasha Grey would likely have outed you as a porn-loving pervert, but thankfully, Steven Soderbergh has made it okay to admire the self-made film star by casting her as the lead in his new movie The Girlfriend Experience. In the movie, Grey plays Chelsea, a high-priced Manhattan escort trying to balance her everyday life with a real boyfriend (Chris Stamos) with her job, which is essentially being paid by various men to be their girlfriend for a limited time.
Made via the same filmmaking techniques Soderbergh used for Bubble, working with non-actors, improvised dialogue and the newest in high-def digital cameras, the results are a far more layered effort than one might suspect. The film spends most of its time following Grey around both as Chelsea, being interviewed and having various lunch meetings, and as her “secret identity” Christine, trying to juggle the difficulties in maintaining a relationship with her desire to be the best in her business. Things get more confusing when she connects with one of her clients and agrees to go away with him for the weekend, something that doesn’t bode well with her previously patient and understanding boyfriend. Soderbergh and his cast use this environment to explore diverse subjects, such as the current economical issues, take a couple shots at criticism via the use of real film critic Glenn Kenny as the sleazy “Erotic Connoiseur,” as well as capture New York City from a very different perspective, one we rarely get to see.
It’s a great role for Grey, who comes across as incredibly mature for someone who only just turned 21 a few months back. Then again, she had already been a huge star in the adult film business since entering it at the age of 18. Considering how few adult film actresses are able to make the transition to real dramatic acting, it’s quite a breakthrough, and we’re convinced that if anyone will break down the wall between mainstream filmmaking and the world of porn, it’ll be Grey. (Bridging that gap, Grey co-starred with James Gunn earlier this year in the funniest episode of his Spike webseries “PG Porn,” which you can watch here.)
ComingSoon.net was slightly nervous about sitting down with Grey, because we’d heard how feisty she can be with journalists, having been rather vocal about her disdain towards past interviewers in the past. We actually had quite a pleasant conversation. (Also, check out our interview with Steven Soderbergh.)
ComingSoon.net: I made sure to check your Twitter feed before coming here to make sure you hadn’t tweeted “The next journalist to ask me about that, I’m going to kill.”
Sasha Grey: (laughs)
CS: I’ve seen the movie twice including the preview at Sundance, so did Steven just call you directly or go through your agent?
Grey: Brian Koppelman, one of his writers, actually contacted me through MySpace ’cause he and Steven had read an article about me in Los Angeles Magazine, and he said, “Hey, Steven’s casting for a new film and we’re interested in talking to you about a role.” (I said,) “Yeah, okay, I’m not just going to come in and meet you at a café. How am I supposed to really know? So have Steven leave me a voice mail when I get home” and lo and behold, there was a message from Steven and I flip out because I’m a fan, so it was really exciting for me. We didn’t meet the same day but within that week’s time frame, I met with him at the Warner Bros. studio and had about a 45-minute meeting, that was it. It was a really unorthodox way of casting.
CS: What did he tell you about the movie? Did Brian already have a script he could send you or did he just say that it was with Soderbergh?
Grey: Oh, no, no. I can’t recall to the best of my memory, but I know he just left it up to the meeting. I don’t think he really said what the movie was about in the Email.
CS: Did Steven have any kind of script or treatment to show you or did he just tell you what he was going for?
Grey: There was no outline or script at the time. I’m sure they were working on one, but they didn’t give me one. We just talked about the film and basically that the girl was in a relationship with a guy, but she was also an escort. Ultimately, she thinks she’s in control, but at the end of the movie, we know that… (sorry, we’re not going to spoil it for ya!)
CS: So he knew what he wanted to do but did he want you to do any research into the character or the escort business?
Grey: The day we met, I asked him “Are there any films on prostitution you want me to watch?” And he said (Godard’s) “Vivre sa vie” but nothing else. He was like, “Don’t cloud your mind with any other films, ’cause I don’t want you to even subconsciously bring those characteristics into this film.” He also said to watch “Pierrot le fou,” not that it has anything to do with prostitution, it’s more about the dynamic between the characters. I actually went home and started Googling “escorting” and “escorts.” (laughs) Surprisingly, it’s hard to find information, unless you want to buy one… but about two weeks before we shot the film, the casting director Carmen E-mailed Steven and I a bunch of links to escorting blogs and that really gave me an interesting insight into some of these women’s lives.
CS: Is it very common for escort to keep a working journal of all their jobs like Chelsea does?
Grey: I think the way she did it was a bit different. The women who have the blogs, I think it’s like an anonymous thing, and they just write about random stuff, where Chelsea or Christine went home and actually kept record of everything.
CS: How did Steven get you acclimated to the themes of the film of Christine being the real girlfriend vs. Chelsea as the fake girlfriend? Was a lot of the ways he wanted to differentiate the two characters in the script or outline?
Grey: Not so much. He kind of left that up to me and the rest of the cast, deciding how we wanted to take things and that was largely because the film was improvised. There would sometimes be key points we would have to hit, but whether or not that had to do with specific relationships, I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the case.
CS: I was curious about the improv, because there are two writers credited to the screenplay in the end credits. Were they on set throwing out ideas before you started filming that you had to incorporate into your conversations?
Grey: We got an outline the day before we started shooting, so that was what they wrote. I know that Brian was on set a few times and so was David, because David is actually in the film. He played the guy I fall in love with.
CS: I guess he wrote that part of the script.
Grey: (laughs) Actually, Steven talked him into that, like right before we shot.
CS: Where did they find Chris? You only have a few scenes with him but were you aware of what was going on with his side of the story?
Grey: Chris was friends with David Levien, because at one point, maybe two years ago, Chris was actually a personal trainer in New York City, and he and David have known each other for ten years.
CS: Why do you think Chelsea falls for David? It seems like she has a very specific set of rules for the men she “dates” but she clearly throws out all her rules when she meets him.
Grey: Yeah, well I think that has to do with her personology. She sees that and thinks this is a perfect match and falsely translates that into their date, you know? She’s hoping and she projects that she wants him to be everything that the book says he is.
CS: Do you know anything about that stuff personally or did Steven have you do any research into it?
Grey: There’s like four or five books on this, and I took them home a couple weeks before we started shooting and I looked into it as much as I could and tried to have a general idea of what it was. But it’s so dense and so involved because it’s over 25 years of research, so I just tried to remember the things that were most important to the character.
CS: Do you know if there are a lot of escorts who use those methods to filter out their clients?
Grey: One of the women Steven and I met with does follow that. She does screen her clients like that. She asks for their birthday, and she says her personal safety has always been fine if she sticks to that, which is odd.
CS: It’s especially odd when you see some of your clients over the course of the movie and some are fairly creepy, even if they’re okay by the birthdays.
Grey: Yeah, exactly!
CS: Can you talk about some of the guys you ended up working with in those scenes? I saw Glenn Kenny earlier and he had shaved his beard so he looked more like his character.
Grey: Obviously Glenn and Mark Jacobson were two amazing characters just within themselves, not just within the context of the film. One of the guys was kind of creepy on set, and everyone was looking around like “Woah, he’s kind of weird,” the way he was looking at everybody, but he was the one exception. Everybody else was really personable and everybody got along.
CS: What did Steven tell the people who you did scenes with in terms of them knowing what was going on, since you’d obviously been involved in the process the whole time and they just came in for a day or two? Did Steven give Mark Jacobson questions to ask during your interview?
Grey: Yeah, there’d be a few keypoints that he’d want us to hit and be sure to put that in the scene, but everything else was kind of up to us, and that was a big challenge carrying the improvisation with non-actors, because they don’t know how to keep that momentum going. But I think that’s also what’s unique about this style of shooting, that’s why Steven wanted to approach it in this way. That’s the beauty in it, but meeting some of these guys was so funny, because like the diaper guy, the conversation he’s having on the phone is very similar to a conversation he was telling us he had earlier that morning.
CS: When you improvise a movie, it can go one of two ways. It can sound really natural but it could also sound forced. This sounds really natural, but I can definitely see a good writer writing this dialogue. Did he stop rolling at any point and feed you any lines?
Grey: No. We did maybe four takes tops per scene and that was it.
CS: Did Mark write the original New Yorker article about escorts that inspired Steven to explore this?
Grey: No, Mark wrote an article on… I don’t think it was Ashlee Dupree but I think it was another girl right before Ashlee, around the same timeframe.
CS: He did mention at Sundance that one of the reasons he casts you was that he thought you’d be more comfortable with doing nudity, but in this movie, there’s no sex in the movie at all, there’s a little bit of nudity, but it’s very innocuous. Was that him just preparing for doing that and then he decided not to have any of that in the movie?
Grey: I don’t know. You’d have to ask him that, but going into the initial meeting with him, I just assumed I’d be naked, and then when we got the outline the day before we started shooting, it said “Sex Scene with Client So-and-So” and “Sex Scene with This” but I think that… just speaking off of my intuition, I think he decided he wasn’t going to do that, at least a few weeks before we started shooting. But you’d have to ask him.
CS: There are obviously a number of shots at critics in this film including Glenn’s review of Chelsea, which isn’t very nice at all and it makes him seem much meaner than he really is. I was curious about some of the lines like the one about journalists being intrusive, was that all from you?
Grey: Part of it was from me and I think the intrusive part was more Chelsea. I’ve been asked all day, “So what are the similarities? You guys are a lot a like, right?” and I’m like, “No, not really.”
CS: You mean that people who’ve just met you think that?
Grey: Yeah, like the one thing I would say was similar was the encounters with the journalists, because Chelsea or Christine is a very paranoid person. We see her buying pre-paid phones, she doesn’t take her ID or any personal information on her dates, so that kind of translates into the meeting with the journalist where she’s like, “Well, I dunno, you can give me up to the police.” She doesn’t know what is going on and she doesn’t know what his true intentions are whereas me, I’ve just been burned by the media a few times (laughs) so sometimes I get defensive. So yeah, I definitely use a little bit of that frustration (laughs)… so it was a little cathartic for me.
CS: There’s a lot in the movie about separating the real person (Christine) from the made-up one (Chelsea), so how do you feel about people seeing this movie and thinking, “Okay, she’s just playing herself.” Do you think that’s just not the case?
Grey: Yeah, I think people think they know me from my adult films and they go in with a preconceived bias of “That’s just Sasha Grey” because they can’t forget watching me having sex, you know what I mean? (laughs) But the one thing I would say, if I was playing Devil’s Advocate, is that Steven did want me to bring my personality and my confidence into the film, while at the same time creating this character. Trying to fuse the two together and being as natural as one can be in front of the camera, since it creates an interesting dynamic and for lack of a better word–interesting is an understatement–but it creates a very interesting film because it is so experimental.
CS: I think a lot of people who see this might not even be aware of your previous work or know that the Erotic Connoiseur is a real film critic, etc.
Grey: Going back to what you said. Robert De Niro has a thick New York accent, so are you going to watch him in “Goodfellas” and then watch him in “Casino” and say, “Oh, I’m just watching Robert De Niro”?
CS: The problem with that example is that Robert De Niro is one of those actors who just basically has this thing he does, and you can never separate his roles from being De Niro.
Grey: I think moreso now maybe. Okay, let’s choose a more recent example of someone like Edward Norton, because his affect or the way he speaks may be the same in one film doesn’t mean that he’s just playing himself just because he sounds the same or looks the same.
CS: I’m really curious to ask Steven if he could ever imagine making this movie with someone like Julia Roberts, if it would even remotely be the same movie.
CS: I was also curious about shooting in New York, because Steven hasn’t really shot here very much. Was he closing down streets and stuff like that?
Grey: No it was total Cassavetes style, just put up a sign “If you walk by here, you might be filmed” (laughs) so it was pretty cool.
CS: Did anyone see you on the street and recognize you while you were shooting?
Grey: Yeah, I actually saw a few friends like walking down the street and they were like, “Why are you in New York?” (laughs) in between takes, so that was pretty funny, but usually, I’d get the double take. People wouldn’t actually say anything.
CS: Ultimately, what was the experience like going from doing adult movies to doing your first mainstream movie–I’m not sure what the proper term would be–with Steven Soderbergh, especially since he was working in a different style than he normally does? Are you going to look for other movie experiences like this one or do you want to go out and create a different character?
Grey: I would definitely love the opportunity to play another character maybe in more of a traditional sense whereas in “The Girlfriend Experience,” it was very liberating as an actor to not having to hit your mark or worrying about running into a light when you’re in the middle of a scene, but at the same time, having the opportunity to just do a traditional film would also be fun as well.
CS: I was reading something about you making a documentary about your life; is that true?
Grey: Yeah, I started it when I was 18 and I’m 21 now. I’m doing it with somebody else, and I’m actually trying to figure out if we’re going to extend it past 21, because time flew, and I feel like there are a lot of moments that we kind of missed I would say, just because I don’t have a camera with me all the time. That I’m still working on.
CS: Obviously, people write autobiographies when they’re much older, but I don’t think anyone’s ever done a self-documentary at such a young age. Do you have a lot of footage right now that you’d eventually have to go through and edit together?
Grey: Yeah, we have an editor. The thing is I did this article… I was only in the industry for maybe about two months and I did this article for the Los Angeles Magazine–actually the one Steven and Brian read–and the guy followed me for three months, but he did a very piss-poor job and flaked out on me all the time, but it kind of gave me the inspiration to “Well, what if I did that and what if I started carrying a camera around?” I did get a lot of B-roll type stuff, which I think will fit pretty well in the documentary, because there are portions that are more relaxed in natural environments, more like a talking heads type scene where I’m just speaking to the camera or speaking to the person asking me the questions. I think finding a way to take in some of that B-roll footage that I took from very early on even up until now.
CS: Are you done in the adult entertainment industry now or still making movies?
Grey: I want to do both, I’m pretty optimistic.
CS: It’s strange that there aren’t more actresses from that realm who jump over. There are obviously a few who’ll come over and do small roles in movies like Katie Morgan in Kevin Smith’s latest, but you’d think they would be more interested in that. Why don’t you think it happens more?
Grey: Well, I think you’re either talented or you’re not and people will see that. The second thing is that obviously the stigma that comes with being in the adult industry, that’s always going to be a challenge for somebody coming from adult into the quote-unquote mainstream world.
CS: I don’t know how hard it is to break into the adult industry, especially with anyone being able to get a camera and post stuff on the internet, but it seems a lot harder to make it in the regular film world. Have you gone through the process of going to auditions and trying to get work that way?
Grey: After I shot the film, I did a couple auditions, even films I knew that even if I got the part, I wouldn’t want to do them (laughs) just for the sake of practice, you know? Because after the film comes out and everybody sees it, I’ll probably try to get an agent after it.
CS: You’ll have to have a separate agent to do that?
Grey: I am my own agent in adult. I have my own agency, but I’m the sole client right now, and then I have a wonderful manager sitting right behind you, so she kind of does it all right now.
CS: Do you have any idea if you’ll be doing more PG Porn with James Gunn? He seems rather fixated with you, since he’s had your picture as his Twitter avatar since doing that.
Grey: He’s hilarious, man. Yeah, if they ask me to do it, of course I’ll do another one. It was fun.
CS: Was that fully scripted?
Grey: Yeah, that was scripted, but it’s funny because towards the end of the day, he would go off and just riff and he would say the end line a few different ways because they didn’t know if Spike would allow them to say certain things. So he would go off and he’d just be riffing and that was actually a challenge for me since I feel my stronghold is in dramatic acting and comedy for me was a bit of a challenge, but it was fun, because he’s so quick, he’s so on point, and that’s somebody you can definitely learn from.
You can see Grey in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, opening in select cities on Friday, May 22. You can read what Soderbergh says about the film and Grey as an actress here.