Yesterday I posted the first part of my interview with porn star Sasha Grey. Grey, the 2008 AVN Female Performer of the Year, plays an upscale New York prostitute in Steven Soderbergh's new movie The Girlfriend Experience. The film is set amid the Wall Street meltdown just before the election last fall. About the same time, I wrote a story about local prostitutes, prophetically titled "The Real Girlfriend Experience."
Grey was in town over the weekend to promote the movie at Exxxotica Miami Beach. I watched the movie last week (it is tentatively scheduled for release in South Florida on June 5), and I met with Grey at Hotel Catalina, near the beach. Though I wouldn't ever say I'm any kind of expert on the subject of prostitution (Hi, Mom!), after my story was published, I was asked to consult on proposed legislation regarding the sex trade. And I was curious how much Grey knew about the same topic.
She says she and Soderbergh met with two escorts: one in L.A. and one in New York. She also read from a blog written by anonymous prostitutes -- mostly GFEs like the one she plays in the movie -- from around the world. A GFE, vice parlance for girlfriend experience, is a prostitute who offers her clients not just her body but her attention and companionship. Think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
Grey says she started researching very early in the process because she was so excited to make the movie. Not just because the movie will be one of the largest mainstream crossovers in the history of American porn but because of the chance to work with Soderbergh, the director who brought us Sex, Lies and Videotape, Traffic, Erin Brokovich, the Ocean's Eleven series, and most recently, Che.
"I'm a huge fan of Steven's," Grey says. "It was less about the subject matter and more so about the fact that I actually got to work with him. Had it been a director that doesn't have his résumé and I wasn't a fan of, I probably would've said no."
"Really?" I ask. "You really would have turned down a role in a movie like this?"
"I know he's not gonna vilify this," she says. "He's not gonna overglorify it. It's so easy to say, 'Hey, here's a porn star, we're gonna make her a hooker.' Knowing Steven, I knew he wouldn't do the clichéd things that most people that would approach me or another adult star would do."
I tell her it's ironic. "It sounds like you were worried about being exploited."
"No!!!" she says quickly. After all, Grey wants to empower women with her work.
The film doesn't have a plot, per se. With a runtime of 77 minutes (when's the last time you saw a 77-minute movie you liked?), it's a series of events in the life of Chelsea (Grey), a $2,000-a-night call girl. We see her with her wealthy-but-emotionally-stunted clients, her personal trainer/boyfriend, a prostitute connoisseur who claims he can help her business, and a fellow working girl. The dialogue is "natural" (read: mundane about half the time), like a Slacker-era Richard Linklater, and the characters are distant and abstract. But the visuals are fantastic. Most of the scenes take place in the stylish New York lofts of the people who benefited most from the toxic, inflated economy of the past decade. In that way, Soderbergh is Kubrikian.
As most sex workers eventually become, Chelsea is cold and emotionally shut-off throughout the movie. Though Grey is thoughtful, polite, and interesting, she definitely seems guarded when being interviewed. Anyone who sells themselves long enough builds an emotional shield from the world and a cautiousness verging on paranoia -- skills of the trade that don't translate well outside of a few occupations.
But Grey says she isn't very similar to her character in the movie. "I'm a pretty open person," she says. "I'm really goofy. Once you really get to know me, I'm a dork. I think the thing we had most in common is our distrust for journalists, no offense." I laugh awkwardly. "Earlier in my career, I dealt with some bad situations," she says.
In one scene, Chelsea is interviewed at a restaurant by a rather large, rather prurient journalist who wants to write about her life. He asks questions she calls "invasive," and at one point, as the reporter is probing for something emotional for the readers to chew on, Grey's character simply waves her hand and, in the same disconnected way she says everything else, tells him "Next question."
As Grey said that, I realize I'm dripping sweat into my notebook (the air conditioning hadn't been turned on upstairs yet, we were later told), asking her possibly pointless questions about how she connected with this prostitute. I felt the need to apologize for some reason.
She politely eschews my apology and tells me more about her research. In addition to the blogs and hooker meetings, Grey says she wrote a character bio -- a back story. "Each and every day, I would try to take of what I knew of this person and throw it into each scene. So some of it was method, but not full course. It was such an experimental film that you can't throw yourself into it that deep. The very nature of how Steven shot the film, it was impossible. He wanted this natural quality to each scene."
Soderbergh shot three or four takes for each scene. "He wanted to take some of my natural confidence and personality into this character," she says. "I had to find a way to do this every day."
Ultimately, as interesting as Grey is in person in an interview, her acting evokes no empathy whatsoever. It feels as if even Grey doesn't care much for this woman as she recites her lines like, well, a porn star. There is essentially no single moment in the rather short film where I felt I was looking at anything other than porn star Sasha Grey on screen.
This isn't to say it doesn't work either. It's hard to say. And as much as casting Grey may have been a mistake based on a fascination with the smart, bohemian porn star, it may also have been genius. Chelsea is an incredibly cold person (except when she's making out with clients, perhaps) and the way Grey says her lines -- devoid of feeling -- is utterly appropriate. While watching, though, it is at times hard to believe Grey knows how coldly she comes across. Either way, it makes an accurate sex worker.
Grey says that, for any similarities, there is one large difference between Chelsea and her. Grey has said that her goals are beyond that of the almighty dollar. She'd like to encourage people to feel comfortable liking what they like, as long as nobody gets (too) hurt.
"[Chelsea's] end objective is always money," she says. Not Grey, though. She wants bigger, better, with more creativity and more beauty in the world, she says.
The Girlfriend Experience is something like that.
Tomorrow I'll post the last of the interview, in which Grey talks about what it's like to have a relationship while working in porn.