Sasha Grey on Being Caught in a Russian Propaganda War

The acclaimed ex-porn star turned Hollywood actress and author opens up about her eclectic career, President-elect Trump, and her Russian nightmare.

Vittorio Zunino Celotto

On the morning of February 18, 2015, Sasha Grey learned she had died.

“This seemingly fragile, yet strong young woman, has saved wounded fighters at the front. She was said to have nursed even the most hopeless cases back to health. But she herself did not return from the front,” read her obituary.

It was, by most accounts, a gruesome end. A petite Russian nurse, she had ventured straight into the heart of the battle between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists. While tending to her wounded comrades, she was snatched up by the Ukrainians and taken to a bivouac, where she was beaten, raped, and decapitated with an ax.

The tragic tale spread like wildfire across VK (VKontakte), Russia’s answer to Facebook boasting close to 400 million users. She was hailed as a martyr—a symbol of Russian courage in the face of Ukrainian terror.

Only Sasha Grey, the extreme porn star turned Hollywood actress, is very much alive. “I was Russian fake news,” she tells me, laughing hysterically—or as Karl Marx once said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

We’re seated across from one another at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, where she’s recounting the unfortunate series of events that led to her image being used in Russian propaganda—a harbinger of a presidential election awash in fake news and, if our intelligence agencies are to be believed, a Kremlin-backed hacking and disinformation campaign with the intent of propelling the Russia-friendly Donald Trump into office over rival Hillary Clinton.

What apparently happened was users of the image board 2ch.hk—an offshoot of 2ch.ru, or Russia’s version of 4chan—launched a gullibility campaign to test whether or not Russians would fall for bogus stories of pro-Russian “fallen heroes” of the War in Donbas. In addition to Grey, who was given the name Sasha Serova (which roughly translates to “grey” in Russian), the online trolls also floated a picture of Josef Mengele, the sadistic Auschwitz concentration camp physician, granting him the identity of “Yegor Mangelov,” a field surgeon killed by Ukranian troops.

Grey unleashed the following response:

“It’s strange!” she says of the viral obit. “It’s really strange. But it’s not something you can control.”

Though she’s achieved fame stateside, starring in hundreds of adult films, Hollywood features like The Girlfriend Experience, and a 6-episode arc on the HBO series Entourage, Grey is most famous in Russia, where she holds near-icon status. She’s never met Vladimir Putin, but the 28-year-old has paid many visits to Russia over the years, always greeted warmly by her army of fans.

“It’s imagery,” she says of her Russian popularity, alluding to her name and look. “Social media is a huge influencer. One of the last times I was there, one of the people said, ‘You know, when you first became famous here you were this hipster girl, and now it’s changed.’ That American Apparel thing is why it all started, is what I was told.”She’s evolved from that “hipster girl” into a symbol of sexual rebellion whose raison d'être stands in stark contrast to the conservative Putin regime.“I was there for the movie Open Windows, and the producer told me I was named one of the ‘13 Friends of the Junta,’ and they were all these people that were supposed to be anti-Christ and against the government,” she says. “I’m always told these things, but I never see them. It’s all bullshit propaganda. A few visits before that I was told that there were Christian protesters out there protesting against me, and I’m like, um, no there’s not? I’m here!”

The Sasha Grey mythmaking began early on. Born Marina Ann Hantzis, the Sacramento native dove into the porn industry headfirst in 2006, making her debut at the age of 18 in an orgy sequence opposite the notoriously rough Rocco Siffredi. During the scene, Grey yelled at Siffredi to punch her in the stomach, thus establishing herself as the most boundary-pushing woman in porn.

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“I asked him to do it—but he didn’t do it,” she says of the sex-punch. “It was dirty talk, you know? If anyone who’s into dirty talk hears this it makes sense, because it’s not literal. But at the same time, if I wanted that, who’s to say there’s anything wrong with it?”

As a tiny, flat-chested brunette, Grey stood out physically among her busty, bottle blonde peers—and intellectually as well. She played music, quoted Wilde, and worshipped at the altar of Godard; she was the sole avant-garde porn goddess.

“During that time of my life, I was strongest when I was on set and I was working,” recalls Grey. “That was where all my personal power existed in life. I would always tell the directors what I wanted and didn’t want. So no one tried to fuck with me.”

Though she exuded confidence onscreen, Grey was a mess off it, trapped in a violent and abusive relationship with then-boyfriend Ian Cinnamon. She broke off the relationship in 2011, the same year she publicly announced her retirement from porn (though she hadn’t performed a scene since 2009), and securing a restraining order in 2014 after receiving a series of threats from her ex, including photos of him brandishing handguns.

“There was a restraining order. Things always get taken out of context, and I don’t really want to go into it too much, but it was a very bad relationship. I made a lot of excuses and finally got my shit together,” she shares.

“I just took too long to leave. You know when you’re in a situation and you know you need to leave it but you don’t have the confidence to do it?” adds Grey. “And it was really hard because on the outside I’m super confident—creatively-speaking—and if I’m working with someone professionally I’ll give it my all, and on the other hand, I had this thing that I had to find a way to get rid of. And I was scared, because I didn’t know how.”

Grey quit shooting porn in 2009, the same year she starred as the high-class escort Chelsea in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience.

“I didn’t want it to be a big deal—because it wasn’t a big deal,” she says matter-of-factly. “But it was scary when I decided to, even though it had been two years since I’d done it. I was leaving my bread-and-butter, and something I was comfortable with and good at, and didn’t know if I would succeed. But I had to take the risk.”

In addition to her work in porn, Hollywood films, music, and photography, Grey is the author of soon-to-be three books in her series The Juliette Society—following a woman’s kinky journey into the BDSM underworld. She’s already been commissioned to adapt the series into a screenplay, which she’s completed.

The first novel in the series, released in mid-2013, contains a prophetic passage about Grey’s character’s absolute worst nightmare: having sex with Donald Trump in his private jet whilst flying over St. Tropez.

Now, of course, he is President-elect Trump.

“It really is surreal,” she says of the election result. “It’s scary. The most disappointing thing, for me, is that as a society—as a country—we’ve all become intellectually lazy. That’s why this is happening. People are not looking into things they post and share, especially on social media, so they’re spreading ignorance and false truths, are blind to the reality of what’s going on, and then voting for false promises. People can then argue, ‘Oh, that’s the way it’s always been,’ but no. This is very different.” “People were blind to the most obvious thing: he’s not making a country for you, he’s making a country for himself. And now he’s appointed a cabinet that’s entirely the 1 percent.” She chuckles. “I’m laughing because I’m really fucking nervous.”

You’re certainly not his type, I say in jest. “Oh, I can tell you that for sure,” she fires back. “I’m too strong for him.”

These days, in addition finishing her trilogy of books, trying to direct, and recording more music, Grey is developing a television series that she describes as “an art series that appeals more to young people—that’s not so highbrow, pretentious, and makes you want to yawn.” The first episode was inspired by the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo where the camera tracks Kim Novak around the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and each episode will consist of Grey navigating a museum or work of art, as her inner thoughts play in voiceover. She thinks the show would work best on Netflix or Amazon because it’s dreamlike and soothing.

“I knew I was setting myself up to be an outcast,” she says, reflecting on her professional path. “And in the end, it ended up doing a lot of good for me.”