It has been a day since Dr Brooke Magnanti gave the broadsheets and daytime shows an excuse to talk about prostitution without any of the pesky people trafficking back-story they are usually compelled to attach. They are, to a one, quite sweaty with glee that the escorting world has a new (and educated!) spokesmodel.
I am on my way to meet Sasha Grey, star of Steven Soderbergh’s new film. The Girlfriend Experience opens a five day window on the world of a high-end Manhattan escort and a far cry from Belle and her fanciful fiction. You may read our review here. Sasha stars as twenty-something Chelsea, a call girl offering a tailor-made “˜girlfriend experience’ to Manhattan’s elite.
Sasha is an international superstar, an award winning actress and the head of her own production company. Until this latest role though, you may have been reluctant to showcase her DVDs in your public collection.
In person she is pretty and engaging, her welcome warm and smile wide. Can this stylish young woman really be the star of more than eighty hardcore porn features? Indeed she can and she is proud to be so. HeyUGuys are happy to introduce the incomparable Sasha Grey:
HUG: Sasha you have described yourself as a sex symbol with an intellectual stance ““ which we think is fabulous. Chelsea though is obviously less sure of her personal and emotional identity. Who was she for you?
SG: To me she’s completely not about her sexuality, sex just happens to be part of her job. It’s a very small component of her job so she isn’t concerned about or worried about projecting this self confidence of her female sexuality to her clients, it’s more about just being sexy definitely. And she’s a very vain young woman. She uses ‘Personology’ as this escapism, this excuse to be a guideline for her life rather than taking responsibility for her actions.
Which keeps everything one step removed from her?
SG: Oh yeah definitely.
Some of the more extreme reactions to the film seem to dial down the prostitution angle and claim GFE as equivalent to an American Express Black Card – an elite club! Why is there such a reluctance to accept that young women can be sexual and empowered and make their money that way?
SG: I think it’s frightening for people to come to grips with the fact that a young woman can be empowered and make her own decisions and be conscious of “yeah I want to take the right steps and not have regrets that I just went with the flow later”. I think it’s hard for people to understand that you know? Not just men use their minds but women do as well.
As concerns your time on set ““ Steven Soderbergh obviously favours structured improvisation and only the conversations that would naturally occur are included in the film. As the only trained actress on the set how did you find his technique?
SG: It was very stressful at some points because you know how to keep an improvisation going but the other people around you don’t. So sometimes there are these long awkward moments where it’s like “just go ahead and do something, go with it!“ But, in the same vein, that’s what makes it so great, because in real life we don’t have the perfect thing to say all the time, like you see in idealised films. (Laughs)
Everything I say will be right, everything you say will be right and the conversation just flows naturally. Really you go off on tangents ““ I know I do all the time! That’s how conversations usually happen you know, it’s not perfect, so I think that part of it was just great because it added this sense of realism to each scene.
You’ve spoken about the emphasis on conversation in The Girlfriend Experience but there is going to be a presupposition made by people that there will be sexual content. You seem to enjoy eroding the line between art and porn, fetish and mainstream. How important was it for you that the film did not spill over into the more adult areas of your work?
SG: I have to be honest – this was a Steven Soderbergh film. I mean…there was no question for me of would I do it or not! And because the first time we met he was like “It’s a film about an escort, she’s a high-priced escort and she has a live-in boyfriend and she will leave her boyfriend in the film”. That’s all I knew. So I hear escort, prostitute and I’m thinking okay there’s gonna be sex in it. I’m gonna be nude in it and yeah I have no problem with that. Because I knew it would be done in good taste and I knew it would be done in the context of the story. Not just nudity for nudity’s sake or sex for sex’s sake. But in the same breath it was great to be able to dive into a character and just be.
You know in adult films I’m just an extension of myself ““ I’m performing but it’s hyper-me. So in this film it was great to be able to get into a character and to create a character ““ because I had a lot of freedom to be able to do that and work with Steven on that.
When you finally saw the finished product which, in keeping with Chelsea’s appearance, has the look of a really editorial magazine ““ it’s beautiful, it’s glossy ““ what was your reaction to it? Was the film what you had expected it to be?
SG: The thing I was most shocked about was the editing because we actually shot this in chronological order ““ which for any film is quite rare. So we actually saw the rough cut they took to Sundance a couple of weeks before and I was just amazed because I was completely not expecting that. Whenever you perform in anything you can’t enjoy it the way that someone else would because you are watching yourself and you know what’s gonna happen. But this kind of added an extra element of surprise because it’s non-linear so I had no idea when Scene A will be here and vice-versa.
It’s timely you being here speaking about GFE because an author and blogger who wrote about being a high-end escort has chosen to unmask herself this week (perhaps to aid flagging book sales). It seems that it takes an “˜issue’ for this subject to be discussed in the open. When you were researching the role of Chelsea and meeting with escorts was it your experience that it was a hidden world?
SG: Yeah it felt like they were maybe hiding a lot. Because I sat down with them for maybe three hours each and I was trying to ask as many questions as possible in that time as I possibly could. They were all very nice and friendly but it just felt that there was so much more that I could’ve pulled out of them, that they just were not willing to give. And neither of them outright told their families what they did, only their spouses – definitely undercover oh yeah.
Chelsea came across, with her lack of affect, very much like a courtesan or a geisha in that she just seemed to be there for men to project their idea of an identity onto her. Do you think she knew who she was ““ in your mind did she?
SG: I think the film shows…she believes she knows. But as that week starts to unfold she learns “I’m not really in love with this guy. Maybe I’m not too happy”, but she knows how to make her money and I think that’s what’s most important for her ““ making that next dollar and always staying on top and always being the very best at her game.
We touched earlier on preconceptions and obviously you had an experience on The Tyra Banks Show experience. They had an idea of who they wanted you to be, dressed you as a schoolgirl and then took you on stage in front of an audience and said “Oh my God you look like a schoolgirl!”
Is that something you’ve had to confront when you meet and speak to someone for the first time? Do you think your age plays a part in why people are reacting so strongly to GFE, that they project their expectations of what a younger person “˜should’ be?
SG: Sometimes, not all the time though. Spending fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes with someone isn’t long enough to get to know them. So I think it’s less about them projecting their ideas of what a young woman is or generalising “This is what a young woman should be” and more about “We’re going to put you over here in this box. We’re doing that because we want something out of it.” Sometimes I subject myself to that purposely because I want something out of it too! So, as much as I might not like the fact that somebody painted my face up with bright pink blush and put me in a bright pink tee shirt, I still got what I wanted out of it. At the end of the day I can complain all I want but I chose to be there and I knew “yeah, this is probably gonna happen”. But you’re getting something out of it so…
On that show they seemed to need you to be a victim and similarly in The Girlfriend Experience people seem to need Chelsea to have a back story. A reason why ““ why, why, why…
SG: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s the mystery with the film, it especially angers some people which is funny. Most of all it’s great because it gets people to think about the subjects addressed in the film. You can just look at it visually as something that’s pretty or you can dig deeper and pull out everything else that’s there, because it’s still only a week in the life of this girl and her clients and her boyfriend.
We’d like to thank you so much for sitting down with us and wish you the best of luck with the film. In closing, we know you’ve expressed a desire to move into mainstream film and clearly this is a huge tick for that ambition! You also have your own production company ““ what’s next for you moving forward?
SG: Well right now with my production company I’m focussing on adult films but I’m taking a more cinematic approach which really isn’t easy. It’s really fun, the challenge of it is incredibly fun because it’s problem solving every day on set and shooting sex cinematically and adding this absurd surreal element. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing lately because I’m really trying to start small and move into a narrative, start dealing more with visuals and imagery ““ metaphorical imagery- rather than having people deliver dialogue. I actually just executive produced a television show I hosted as well so that will be on in December!
The Girlfriend Experience is released in the UK on 4th December
View the full trailer below