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  • Feature: Sasha Grey and The Girlfriend Experience

    Thu, 28 May 2009 11:20:02

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    At 21, Sasha Grey has already scaled noteworthy summits in her professional life, mainly in her medium of choice: pornographic film. The Girlfriend Experience, set in the weeks leading up to the 2008 Presidential Election, is her first foray into “legitimate” acting, and she could do far worse than to team with Palm d’Or-winning director Steven Soderbergh for her mainstream debut. In the film she plays Chelsea, a high-end call girl swathed in designer dresses who provides what Soderberg calls the “GFE,” in shorthand: She offers her Johns companionship both sexual and emotional, however theatrical the latter may be.

    The choice to cast an adult actress as the lead in a movie about sex-for-money was less about the physical parallels between the two careers, and more about the economic ones—in some regards, anyway. The director first became aware of Grey after reading an article in Los Angeles Magazine about the entrepreneurial starlet, and he was intrigued about the calculated workings of her mind from the get-go.

    “The way she talked about herself, her reasons for getting into the adult industry, and the way she planned to navigate the adult industry didn’t seem typical to me,” Soderbergh explains. “There are similarities to escorts who work at [the high-end] level. The ones we interviewed are similar in that they all had plans…That’s not typical in the sex work industry—for somebody to take a macro-view of the business and use it very deliberately as a means to get somewhere else. So I guess, in my mind, those two things connected.”

    Which isn’t to say that Soderbergh overlooked the proverbial elephant in the room: He deliberately sought out and cast a porn star to be his leading lady. “Obviously, [I] wanted somebody who, in sexual situations, was going to feel in control and in command and comfortable, because I think that’s hard to fake.”

    Soderberg trusted Grey and the rest of the cast—largely comprised of close friends and non-professional actors—to form their characters from a very loosely outlined script. The challenge was one Grey, who formally studied acting during her teen years, welcomed. “I prepared in my head: ‘This is what I’ll do; this is what I’ll say; this is how I’ll react.’ You’d get to set and Steven would come up with [a] probability that you didn’t think of. [He’s] like a mad genius and he’s just so methodical in what he does. You could see the wheels spinning inside of his head on set, so it was a surprise every day. It was a struggle of creating this character, but also giving those honest reactions.”

    It’s unprecedented that a woman in the adult industry has been able to play a non-eponymous character in more than just one film. I think the climate’s right.

    The unpredictable environment lent to the film’s emotional verisimilitude, and additionally, both Grey and Soderbergh did extensive research to ensure that they were portraying the world of GFEs accurately. Grey had the opportunity to speak to two women in the business, and she used details from their testimonials to augment her performance. The actress, outfitted in a virginal white dress that stands in stark contrast to Chelsea’s slick professional attire in the film (not to mention her “daywear”—or lack thereof—on porn sets), gives one pointed example of how she wove such information into the story: “[The women's] real-life tendencies heavily played into the film. [Chelsea] writing in her diary about what [each] date was like…one of the women did that because her whole idea was, if you’re really supposed to care about these guys, [you] have to kind of remember, ‘What’s your dog’s name? What’s your favorite color?’ The little things that [a] girlfriend would know.”

    Having been granted the chance to prove her dramatic worth in GFE, the natural question is what the resolute, motivated young star will do with opportunities sure to come her way upon the film’s release. She answers the question calmly, seemingly having rehearsed her response. “Right now I want to do both [pornographic and mainstream movies]. I think that it’s unprecedented that a woman in the adult industry has been able to juggle both at the same time and play a non-eponymous character in more than just one film. I think the climate’s right, and I think that if people enjoy what I do outside of adult films there is room for growth and there is room for opportunity. I’m locked to shoot a film in August; I have the lead role; I don’t play a sex worker,” she says with a cheeky giggle.

    Grey is also shooting an adult feature, her directorial debut. How The Girlfriend Experience will translate into the auteur’s experience, you’ll soon see—provided you’re of age.

    —Heidi Atwal

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