05.14.09

From Porn to the Multiplex

Porn megastar Sasha Grey goes mainstream, starring in Steven Soderbergh’s Girlfriend Experience. She talks to Glenn Kenny about dirty films, sexual existentialism—and turning 21.

Triple-X star Sasha Grey goes mainstream, starring in Steven Soderbergh’s Girlfriend Experience. She talks to Glenn Kenny about dirty films, sexual existentialism—and turning 21.

“Most girls get into porn thinking, I have to look a certain way, I have to act a certain way. And I have to be what my title says I am,” Sasha Grey explains. I am sitting with the 21-year-old brunette in Regency Hotel, in a scenario that feels straight out of The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh’s new film starring Grey as—what else, some might say—a high-class call-girl. The setting here is a little more Old World-elegant than the glass-and-steel modernism of CraftSteak, where a similar scene in the Girlfriend Experience takes place—there, Grey’s character, Chelsea, is grilled by a journalist who wonders if any of her clients have an iota of interest in her “true” self.

Full disclosure: I’m in the film, though I do not play the journalist—that honor goes to New York magazine writer Mark Jacobson, a real-life veteran explorer of various American underbellies (his multiple profiles of the drug dealer Frank Lucas formed the basis of the recent film American Gangster). My character is a thoroughly unpleasant fellow who calls himself The Erotic Connoisseur. He manages an escort-appraisal Web site and offers to “up [Chelsea’s] profile” if she would be so kind as to give him a “review copy” of her sensuous wares/skills.

Watch The Girlfriend Experience Trailer

Video screenshot

I won’t spoil the revelation as to whether he’s a man of his word, but I will say, from my admittedly less-than-objective perspective, that The Girlfriend Experience, about a very eventful five days in the life of Chelsea as she negotiates her love life and the ups and downs of her career in the midst of 2008’s economic meltdown, is a particularly strong effort from Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who toggles with brilliant deftness between Hollywood blockbusters ( Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 11 through 13), smaller-scaled, edgier fare ( Schizopolis, Bubble, The Limey), and neither (his epic-length biopic Che). Grey’s focused, understated performance as an individual who has commodified herself to the extent that even she doesn’t know the “real” her anymore carries the picture. Is her character a cipher, or a genuine enigma? It’s one of the many questions the film leaves hanging.

“If you want to play with the big boys, then you have to play with them. You can't just be a little toy, a little doll, that shows up to the set and says, ‘OK, I'm ready to have sex now, give me my check and let's go.’ Then, yeah, you are going to get chewed up and spit out.”

By now, Grey has done a lot of press, both onscreen and off, as she is attempting a difficult feat: making the jump from the adult film world to mainstream cinema. She is not only a porn star, but a porn star who’s just turned legal to drink, known for enthusiastic participation in acts too dirty to be accurately described on any website that doesn’t require an age check. She’s already gotten the standard-issue “How could you?” treatment on The Tyra Banks Show; she handles the questioning admirably, almost invites it. Her background and unflappable attitude are precisely what won her the role in Soderbergh’s work. She knows, at least as far as porn stars are concerned, exactly what she’s doing.

Of course, one might have a look at some of the titles in her 150-plus porn filmography and ask, as the very concerned Ms. Banks did, just what the hell she’s been doing. Sexual Freak, Teenage Anal Princess 5 (because so much was left unresolved by Teenage Anal Princess 1, 2, 3 and 4), Sasha Grey’s Anatomy (get it?) and so very many more. Since breaking into the porn industry at age 18 (and no, she says, she did not have an unhappy childhood, and no, she also says, she was not sexually molested as a child—although she did watch a fair amount of porn while underage, and her impression that much of it was lame informed her decision to enter the biz), she’s made it a point of exploring some pretty extreme corners of sexuality. And for the most part she looks quite cool, calm and collected while doing so. Her attitude, expressed in a 2006 interview in Los Angeles magazine is what first caught the eye of Girlfriend Experience co-writer Brian Koppelman, who pointed Grey out to Soderbergh. The director hired her after a 45-minute meeting at his Hollywood office.

When I bring up the requisite question about “going mainstream,” with Grey, I get the sense that she would raise an eyebrow at me if she could. But each of her meticulously plucked brows is made up into a permanent arch; along with her very long, straight, split-end-free brown hair; it’s part of her signature look. She shrugs the question off—she gets asked about switching from X-rated movies to a box-office film all the time, but rarely dignifies it. In fact, the idea of “transitioning” from porn to general entertainment isn’t even something she’s all that invested in.

As far as she’s concerned, everything Grey does is part of the same ball of wax—the creation of (if you will) an artistic persona. From the very beginning of her career, she’s been exceptionally astute at locating the cultural nodes where transgression meets the market. She’s worked with the edgy art/commercial photographers Terry Richardson and Richard Kern. Her co-manager is Dave Navarro, guitarist for Jane’s Addiction and sometime porn director. And so on.

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Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“And I never thought about it that way,” she says to me, referring to the idea of being a traditional porn star, more like the other girls. “I thought that was bullshit. One of the many reasons I got in the industry was to challenge that idea. It’s funny; whenever I get the chance to communicate with my fans I find out that lot of them aren’t even into porn. And working with people like Kern and Richardson…it was a matter of my liking their work, and their liking mine. With Terry, I just emailed him through one of his sites, and his assistant emailed me back, saying, ‘OK, I want to shoot with you. I like your work. I'm a fan of it.’”

Watch Sasha Grey talk about her Tyra Show appearance

Even though she argues for herself as a new kind of adult star, Grey’s track record tends to elicit quite a lot of paternalistic, moralistic clucking. It’s still is a fact that the porn world is a tough one to survive in, and/or escape from, unscathed. I bring up Marilyn Chambers, the ‘70s Ivory Snow girl turned Behind The Green Door gang banger, a porn legend whose own mainstream debut was a David Cronenberg film. Her 17-year-old daughter found Chambers dead in her trailer in April. Before her death, Chambers famously stated that the porn industry “chews women up and spits them out.” Grey looks unfazed, but not necessarily dismissive, as she mulls this pronouncement over.

“The industry—and I mean this only in the business context—is something of an old boys’ network. But people are going to have to learn, and to progress, or their companies are going to fail. When I first got in the business, people didn't want to hear about change from an 18-year-old girl.”

“I didn’t know her personally, so I can’t really speak for, or about, her experience,” she says. “But from what I see, there are too many women who get into this business forgetting, or not realizing in the first place, that it is a business. Often they think ‘it's going to be a good time,’ or ‘I'm going to get off and have a big, happy family.’ But if you want to play with the big boys, then you have to play with them. You can't just be a little toy, a little doll, that shows up to the set and says, ‘OK, I'm ready to have sex now, give me my check and let's go.’ Then, yeah, you are going to get chewed up and spit out.”

She goes on: “The problem is a lot of girls get in this business by accident. And then there's other ones, other young women, like a Belladonna [an extreme-porn icon who’s been something of a mentor to Grey] who became aware that people were trying to take advantage of her. And I don't mean that in a sexual context obviously—in a business context. And she decided to not let that happen anymore…”

Grey, who treats her brand very much like a business, will soon launch her own adult label, Grey Art, which will put out, among other things, her directorial debut. She’s a little reluctant to supply too much detail—like any good marketer, she knows from timing— but she says, “it's going to be sexually different from a lot of the things I've done. I’m testing new waters.” (While she claims to have cut down on performing in adult films in recent months, Grey's porn product is still briskly making its way into the market—not really a surprise, given that even narrative adult films are shot in two-to-five days. Last month saw the release of Throat, an update of the porno-chic classic Deep Throat, with Grey in the Linda Lovelace role. And as The Girlfriend Experience hits theaters, a porno parody of Star Trek, in which Grey plays the requisite sexy Vulcan—typecasting, some might say, given Grey’s oft-aloof aspect—will be hitting the finer video emporiums of Times Square.)

It’s impressive to hear Grey hold forth with such assurance in the interview, and to make so much sense, at least apropos what her place in the industry is, and what she wants it to be. When I was shooting my scenes with her on Girlfriend Experience, she was perfectly cordial and professional, but she also held herself at such a remove that it was very difficult to get a read on her. Given the rather adversarial relations enjoyed by our respective characters, I figured her distance was apt. But I’m a little ashamed to admit now that I wondered if she wasn’t just another glazed-over adult-world drone who happened to be able to drop good highbrow names and concepts.

She isn’t. At lunch, she isn't at all distant; she’s engaged, alert, whip-smart, smiles easily and sweetly (when she does, that’s when you see the Grey who just turned 21), and almost radiates collegial bonhomie. She even has a collegiate air about her, making, in her way, a point of letting the world know that she’s not only better-read than the average porn star, but that she’s better-read than the average 21-year-old.

“It all goes back to existentialism,” she says of her career. “It's about taking control of your own life, and your own past—not letting anybody do that for you. And people in my generation—and I'm guilty of it too—we don't want to work hard. And we give up too easy. So whether or not the industry has changed as far as how women are treated, I think yes, it has changed a lot, because you obviously have women running their own companies. But still, I think the industry—and again, I mean this only in the business context—is something of an old boy's network and it's playing the same game that it did 30 years ago. But people are going to have to learn, and to progress, or their companies are going to fail. When I first got in the business, people didn't want to hear about change from an 18-year-old girl. ‘Who is she? She doesn't know anything about business. Why should we listen to her?’”

From the very beginning of her career, Grey’s been exceptionally astute at locating the cultural nodes where transgression meets the market.

With her very prestige crossover—or whatever you wish to call it—Grey now has more than just the porn industry listening. Exactly where she’s going to take things from here is anybody’s guess, but it looks very unlikely that anybody or anything will chew her up and spit her out any time soon.

Glenn Kenny was a senior editor and chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1996 to 2007. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, FIlm Comment, The DGA Quarterly, and other publications. He writes about film for the website The Auteurs' Notebook and blogs at Some Came Running.