Sasha Grey is glowing. And not that after-sex glow, but the radiance of contentment. The 25-year-old porn provocateur turned film and TV actress is fresh from a photo shoot, and proceeds to de-glam herself, peeling off a pair of faux eyelashes and scrubbing off her mascara with a paper napkin. We’re at a West Hollywood Mexican joint called El Coyote, which looks like the type of place you’d find in a Tarantino flick. She picked this spot for our interview—our fourth, I think—because she digs the pork tacos, but we both have dinner plans after, so instead just opt for margaritas.
After starring in a bevy of porn films between the ages of 18 and 21—a career which A.O. Scott, film critic of The New York Times, described as “distinguished both by the extremity of what she is willing to do and an unusual degree of intellectual seriousness doing it,” she retired from porn, and segued into film and TV roles, including the lead role in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and a long guest arc on HBO’s Entourage. Her latest endeavor is an erotic novel called The Juliette Society, about a young, sexually unfulfilled woman named Catherine who spends her days indulging in sexual fantasies. Her thirst is finally quenched when she gains entrée into a secret society where the rich and powerful bump uglies.
Grey wrote the novel—her first—in just 10 months, and envisions it as the first in a series (she’s at work on the second installment now).
There’s a great line early on in The Juliette Society that says 120 Days of Sodom is the only book that outdoes the Bible for sexual perversion and violence.
[Laughs] It’s funny because I’ve spoken with you a few times, and I wondered if you were going to ask about that. Yes, it is a viewpoint I share. I guess some of that comes from the fact that I’m a reformed Catholic—as in I’m no longer a Catholic, but was raised one.
Is The Juliette Society based on some insane sex party you attended?
I wish. I guess I’ve always been attracted to secret societies and the mystery surrounding them. Eyes Wide Shut was obviously a huge influence, but I tried not to muddy the book with that as a reference. It’s also very relevant today. You can’t go one week without hearing about some sort of sex scandal. But it’s more about Catherine’s fantasies and dream state. And I didn’t want to give too much away, because my hope is to write a sequel.
Another line that I enjoyed is when you say that the grossest thing imaginable is fucking Donald Trump in his private jet over St. Tropez.
Well, outside of the hypocrisy and corporate greed, which is very unattractive in and of itself, physically, he’s very unattractive. But that was an inside joke. People are going to compare this to Fifty Shades of Grey, and I’m OK with that, but it’s not that—it’s an erotic novel. Someone read a galley of the book before it was finished and said, “This isn’t the book I thought it was going to be,” so this was me venting my rage about that.
The character of Catherine is brought up Catholic and taught sex was “something you weren’t supposed to seek or experience pleasure in,” which mirrors your own upbringing.
While my mom was very Catholic, my dad wasn’t whatsoever, so I felt torn because I had this idea from my mom of what sex represented, which was that sex was meant for marriage, but also received the blunt truth from my dad which was, “Don’t ever believe what a boy tells you, because they’re just trying to get into your pants.” One time, I remember asking my mom if she ever had anal sex and she was hysterical. Oh, my God! Why would you ask me this?! Women and young girls aren’t taught to be proud or confident in their sexuality because they’re easily labeled as “sluts” or “whores,” which is both good and bad, because 14-year-old girls shouldn’t be running around like, “Let me get that dick!” but shouldn’t be demonized, either. I knew, for myself, that the first time I ever had sex I didn’t want it to be with someone I was in love with, because I’d watched all my friends fall for some guy and have sex with them, and two months later they’re heartbroken. I knew I didn’t want to have some boy manipulate me. Once I started to have sex and become sexually active, all that guilt and shame vanished into thin air, and it was this physical experience that told my mind that it was OK.
Most girls that I’ve talked to say their first time was with some awful 60-second assassin, but that wasn’t the case with you.
Not at all. I didn’t have an orgasm, but it was pretty fucking awesome. It was at my house—my mom’s, since I lived with her and only saw my dad on weekends—so I tricked her into leaving. I was 16, and it was with a guy a couple of years older than me who I’d known for about six years, and we’d only see each other every year or so. I knew that he wouldn’t be too fast or too rough, and I wouldn’t feel weird saying slow down, or speak up if I needed to. My interest in sex was pretty instantaneous, and we just continued having a casual sexual relationship. But I had had BDSM fantasies even before I had sex and I couldn’t really explain where they came from, so that was important for me to put into Catherine’s story as well.
Catherine’s recurring fantasy is having sex with her political-staffer boyfriend in his office. Did you have a recurring fantasy?
I did. I was chained up—in chains—and supported and carried by that chain, and you know the circular hole where the firemen go down a pole? It’s a circle from up above, and that was all the light you could see in this dark room. So, I would be cranked down in these chains and go down through the small hole, and because it was a dream, I could see both my perspective, and the perspective of the person lowering me. So I would be lowered down, and that’s where it gets blurry. But it was always the same fantasy.
The first big fantasy scenario we’re privy to in the novel is with the character of Anna, who is ordered to have sex in a closet with her kinky teacher, Marcus, in his mother’s clothes. What’s the strangest sexual scenario you’ve been presented with?
I really can’t recall anything! Not even when I did porn. Although when I was in porn, I was willing to try almost anything. Speaking of limits, somebody asked me to do stuff for this website Kink. They’re some of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with, but there were a few times where I didn’t play the submissive role, and there were girls who had to be submissive, and I could tell that they weren’t into it.
Right. I saw the documentary Kink at Sundance that covered the site. They can push their subjects to the extreme. Did you ever tell them no?
Once, but only because there was an accident. It was in a hot tub and I was tied up—naturally—and I was being dunked underwater. I was five minutes into it and I didn’t catch my breath before I went under, and I was shaking my head and my face smacked the bench in the hot tub, and I came back up for air and it felt like that moment I’ve had when I had a concussion, where you immediately come out of it and you’re on an adrenaline rush. So, I popped up so full of adrenaline and they cut the rope off me, and we took a break, and I took a breath and told them I was good, and the makeup artist told me to look at myself in the mirror, and the left side of my face had stated to swell and I saw my own blood, and had the feeling like I was going to faint. So, we canceled the scene. But the craziest thing I did was the stuff I did for Device Bondage, which is actually super fun. No one was actually fucking me, so it was a prime example of getting off without penetration. I wish I had that shit at home.
Did you see the VMAs last night? Miley Cyrus is getting a lot of shit for her routine.
I didn’t, but people sent me some pictures. Honestly, like, who gives a shit. She’s a 20-year-old pop star.
The criticism seems to be getting pretty out of control. Speaking of pop culture figures, your character in the book calls Kim Kardashian “liver and mashed potatoes.”
[Laughs] We come from the same place: porn. But alas: the power of perception.
Catherine has an inner monologue where she says that the only acceptable word for a guy’s you-know-what is “cock.” Now, I’ve had this conversation with many women before, but why isn’t there a solid name for the vagina?
I’m a fan of pussy. Vagina sounds so clinical.
I think we can do better.
I’ve thought about this a lot, actually. I can think of really raunchy, dirty shit, because I’d like to do that in porn—trip people out. I’d call it “gash” or “sweatbox,” shit like that. It’s not sexy, but it’s fun to say.
What is this shit with James Deen? He basically called you the Voldemort of porn, and claimed you’re the most hated figure in the industry.
I have no clue. My old manager was one of the first people to write me because someone sent it to her, and we had a good laugh about it. The clearest explanation to me is that he had a new movie coming out. I’m not 18 anymore, so I’m not into starting unnecessary beefs. It’s tacky. Strange how you can get along with people professionally, and then ... but the world’s too small for petty stuff like this.
What’s your take on the state of porn right now, and how it’s evolving or ...
... Devolving. You know, it’s been four years for me now, so I’ve been out longer than I was in. I actually realized that the other day. I don’t keep track of it that much. It seems like the model is changing just like a lot of other industries, like the music industry. Most of the money on porn seems to be coming from Tube sites and ads. Who knows where it’s going.
How’s the acting journey going?
It’s a struggle, but the past year I’ve felt better about it than I ever have. I shot this movie Open Windows in Spain with Elijah Wood, which was so much fun.
Any issues you’re passionate about these days?
Gun control. I was just down in Texas for the first time where I could actually go out in the day, and I like vintage shops, so I went into this pawn shop and they had this jewelry case of guns, and I asked about buying one and they said, “We do a 24-hour background check, and that’s it.” And even Walmart sells guns. And the Read Across America thing in Compton was important to me, even though it turned into this big controversy, because I’m from a lower-income neighborhood where teachers and the community sometimes don’t really give a shit about education.
You’re pretty active on Twitter. And I’m sure someone like you, as a celebrity, gets love and hate on there in almost equal measure. How do you deal with the trolls?
I’m so used to it. It’s really hard for me not to respond because that’s how I’ve built my fan base—responding to, and communicating with people. So now I just retweet the evil stuff and let my fans attack them. The best ones are where people try to insult me and spell something wrong, or they’ll say, “Shut up, you licked a toilet seat—you’re disgusting!” And I’m like, “You watched it!”
Are you happy? You seem happier than I’ve ever seen you.
Yes. I think I’m happier than I’ve been in a really long time. Blame it on love. I’ve really been trying to go back to when I was 18 and rediscover the things that drove me, and my passions. How do I get back to being that strong? Because I feel like as I get older, I’m not as fearless as I was when I was 18. I sacrificed a lot, in terms of friendship and family, from working so much at such a young age, but I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t.