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Interview With Sasha Grey, star of "The Girlfriend Experience"

Twenty years ago Steven Soderbergh started his career and rebooted Independent Cinema with a film about a lonely guy who got his jollies by watching videos of women talking about their sex lives. This depiction of sex at three degrees of separation, of media engendered narcissism, voyeurism and onanism, was called "sex, lives and videotape." Today, the practices it depicts are no longer very shocking and have been superseded by the internet, where they are called "blogging."

As for straight porn itself, the VHR cassettes of the old days have also become pretty quaint. Instead, much harder stuff is  available in an online industry whose profits dwarf those of Hollywood. One of the hot young talents in that industry is Sasha Grey, who was about one year old when "Sex" came out. She has the wholesome good looks of a Catholic high school girl but has made about 160 films since the age of 18 with titles like "Anal Cavity Search VI" and "We Suck! POV Tag-Team Suck-off."

It was inevitable, perhaps, that their paths should cross and they would collaborate on a film. It's called "The Girlfriend Experience," and in it Grey plays a $10,000 a night call girl whose specialty is making small talk with rich guys -- who have a lot on their minds because the film takes place last October when the economy was in free-fall and Obama and McCain were in the final stretch of their presidential campaigns.

As I discover, talk is something Grey has a talent for in real life, as well.

PK:You started out in the adult entertainment business when you were in college, right?

SG: Uh, well, I started planning for it, yes.

PK: Did you work this out with, like, a guidance counselor or something?

SG: No, far from it, far from it. I was actually 17 at the time, going to college and working full time. I wanted to get in the business, because I saw an opportunity for myself to change the business because, you know, there's not a lot of people in adult entertainment who actually make interesting, creative films. And although I enjoyed them, I thought, "I can be one of those people to change that and, you know, push some boundaries, whether they be sexual or creative."

PK: Have you done that, do you think?

SG: Definitely, and, you know, as a performer, personally, I believe you're limited in the change that you want to make unless you start creating your own movies. Which, at the end of May, I'll be doing, starting my own production company and directing my own films. So that's the obvious next evolutionary step for me, I guess you could say.

PK: Becoming capital instead of labor.

SG: Exactly.

PK: What advice would you give to a 17-year-old with an interest in this business?

SG: I would say, don't just do it for the money. It has to be something you actually want to do for yourself. And, you know, I think, for a good reason, not just for fun, because the novelty of it will soon fade away. Because a lot of people, I think, get in the business thinking it's just fun and forget it is business. You know what I mean? You're not just there for yourself, you're there for an audience and a consumer that, you know, they're either going to buy your product or they're not. You know, "Why should we buy Girl A's movie when we could get Girl B's movie for free on the Internet? They look exactly the same and they sound exactly the same."

PK: That sort of competitive thing's going on in the movie also, that you're trying to get a leg up on some of the other call girls.

SG: Yeah, but, I mean, in the adult business I come from a different perspective. I don't go into it thinking, "Oh, you know, this girl looks this certain way, acts this certain way and has this going on for her." For me it's the business aspect. You know, there's so many of the same exact movies out there, and because of the advent of gonzo adult films there's no storylines. It's not a feature movie: it's just sex. It was great when it first started I enjoyed it when I first started in the business because it was something fresh and unique to me. But once you do that enough times, what separates that from just filming your neighbors having sex?

PK: I've tried that. You get arrested.

SG: For lack of a better way to describe it, it's like, I don't want to see ugly sex. You know, if I'm paying for something and I'm paying to see two people have sex, I want it to look nice, I want it to be titillating, and I want it to be able to be something that I can watch over and over. I think a lot of people have lost sight of that because they get comfortable and you know, something works for them for you know, fifteen, twenty years, and they're fine doing that.

PK: Is it important for an audience to feel for the characters, rather than just as sexual objects?

SG: In adult films?

PK::Yeah. Is that the direction you'd like to go with adult films?

SG: I don't necessarily think in the context - you're just watching the film, should you care about the person that's in it? No, because I think that's just, like, glorifying celebrities. You know, we're not demigods; whether we're in adult films or not, or whether you're a mainstream actress, or you're in a rock band, I think society treats you know, celebrities like that. And I think, I guess it's ok and that's part of the job, it is a business. I think if you want to get to know the people there are ways, like social networking, to do that. You know, a large part of my fan base comes from the fact that when I was brand new to the industry I used these social networking mediums to get out there to my fans and to pretty much self promote, all by myself, without a publicist, without a manager so-

PK: You don't have a manager?

 

SG: I do now, yeah. But I think, do you necessarily care when you see, you know, when you go watch "Changeling" and you see Angelina Jolie's son is missing? You might care for that moment. But you're not going to go home and think about it and worry about it at the end of the day. I think that way of thinking almost continues to vilify the adult industry, like, "Oh, we should care for them because they're having sex on camera for other people," because you don't understand it. And I don't mean you, I'm just saying society doesn't understand it, and you need to feel sorry for somebody because you don't necessarily know how they feel about what they're doing or why they're doing it.

PK: What are some of your favorite  movies....not necessarily adult movies.

SG: Um..."Fat Girl" is a really good film.

PK: By Breillat?

SG: I really enjoyed that.

PK: It's a little grim.

SG: Yeah, it is. Um, let's see, there's a few that are skipping my mind at the moment. Let's go back to that.

PK: I heard that Steven Soderbergh first got in touch with you kind of like a fan...contacting you on MySpace, or something?

SG: One of his writers, Brian Koppelman, who wrote "The Girlfriend Experience" actually wrote me through MySpace, of all places. Because, like I said, I didn't have a manager, I didn't have an agent, so that was the only place you could really contact me at the time. He and Steven had read an article about me in "Los Angeles Magazine" that kind of profiled me for the first three months of being in the business, and they were interested. It was a really unorthodox way of casting, but I met up with Steven after that, maybe for about 45 minutes, and that was it. And he went off to film "Che" and "The Informant," and now here we are with "The Girlfriend Experience."

PK: You were familiar with his work before that?

SG: Oh yeah definitely, I was a huge fan, so it was, like, the geek-out moment for me when Brian wrote me that. It's like, "Yeah, right" and he's like, "OK, I'll have Steven leave you a voicemail," and he did, so...

PK: "sex, lies and videotape" seems so quaint these days.

SG: Doesn't it? It's so normal.

PK: So what was the process like? How different was this from your usual films, in terms of challenge and anxiety?

SG: I would say this was a lot more intimidating, just because it's not something I do every day. I do have acting experience, but I was trained in theater and, you know, I never, aside from one film called "Smash Cut" that I did in May right before this, you know, I didn't have a whole lot of [conventional] film experience. So going into this was a lot different, and you're working with someone you really respect and you really admire, so you always want to do good in those situations. I'd go back to my hotel at the end of the night and think about a scene we did and think, "Oh, I wish I'd done this differently or, you know, maybe I shouldn't have done that." But the preparation, I mean, the whole nature of this film was to bring part of my personality into this character, while at the same time building a character. That I found to be really challenging, because Steven really wanted to create this experimental environment where we don't need to worry about running into a light or making our mark and it was really liberating as an actor because you can concentrate on the scene and that's all you need to worry about. But at the same time, it gives you enough rope to hang yourself. So, um, it was an interesting way of creating a character, but at the same time bringing that experimental nature and quality to the film so that it remained as natural as one could be in front of a camera.

PK: And what was the ratio between improvised dialogue and what was written?

SG: I'd say probably 80-20 because there was an outline he did have, he knew how the story would begin, what the middle was, and what the end was. But we would get to set every day and sometimes we would pick up the daily newspaper because you know, it was either the day before or the day after we started shooting the economy crashed So, you know, that naturally fell into this film because you're dealing with a film where the characters make a lot of money and spend a lot of money, so that was something that was always on everybody's minds during the process.

PK: Are there many similarities between your character's profession and your own?

SG: Uh....not so much. I mean, I think because we don't have the emotional or fake emotional quality that Chelsea has to bring and give in exchange with her clients. In adult films, everybody knows why they're there. You know, yes, you are getting paid to have sex on camera but the situations and the way they work are quite different in that aspect. You don't have to get on set and pretend like you're somebody's girlfriend and care about them and love them and call them when you're done and ask to go on another date.

PK: So you wouldn't be interested in any of that kind of work yourself?

SG: No.

PK: What other differences are there between yourself and the character you play in the movie?

SG: There are plenty of differences, I mean, she believes in these little personology books ...did you see the film?

PK: I did, yeah.

SG: Ok. She uses these...It's a study on 20,000 people and you know, it's based on birthdates.

PK: So it's an actual thing.

SG: Yeah. And your birth date...you can open this book look up your birth date and it's supposed to, you know, give you a four-page description of your personality and your characteristics and you know, what your destiny is in life, what other birthdates sync with yours and those people would make good matches with you. For me, you know, if that's your thing that's fine, that's what makes you happy, that's fine, but to me that's like religion. It's just a way of not dealing with life and not dealing with everyday problems that everybody has to incur and I'm...most importantly I don't use those types of things as scapegoats to you know, avoid dealing with everyday life.

PK: Does it work at all?

SG: I don't think it works. I think you can open one of those type of books whether it be personology, astrology, numerology, you can look at one of those books close your eyes and point to a page and you can find something that sounds like you even if its not your birth date or your sign.

PK: You describe yourself as an existentialist?

SG: And that's why I say I don't believe in these things!

PK: You don't believe in any sort of overreaching religion or ideology or...

SG: No.

PK: What is existentialism? It's a term that everybody uses and nobody knows what it is. I don't know what it is.

SG: I don't think it's something that we could sit here and talk about for ten minutes. There's... for me, it's why I don't believe in personology. It's about control and destiny of your own life and making your own decisions and to put it simply in a nutshell, which you can't really do because I think that's disrespectful to all the people that spend their lifetime dedicated to that philosophy, you know what I mean? That's for any philosophy, whether it's existentialism or not but you know, in short as you can get without disrespecting it that's you know, what I see as the big difference of myself and this character.

PK: Yet the people who are attracted to you are trying to find this hidden essence that's below the surface, like the journalist that's interviewing you - in the film. Do you think that's an illusion, that there is no real inner self?

SG: In the case of Chelsea, there's obviously a lot going on there that you don't see. But again, you're also dealing with a five day period, so you're only seeing a small window into her life and my choices as an actor going into that were to the women [in that trade?] whom I met who seemed very guarded and when we would try to ask them questions, it'd be like, "Everything's fine, and it's all positive and you know, life is just great," and you could just see this veil of "you're not telling me something and I want to know what it is." But personally you know, outside of dealing with the film and this character, me, myself, I try to be as introspective and as reflective as I can. Because I don't think a lot of people in this day and age are. You know, I don't think we, even just dealing with everyday life whether you forget that I do adult films and you know, just going to the grocery store, interacting with people, I think we as human beings in society today we're afraid to reflect and we're afraid to look at the big picture that is life. You know, it goes back to the personology books or, if you're religious - and I don't condemn people for their beliefs because that would be hypocritical of me, but if that makes you happy that's fine  but I do think society today is incredibly afraid to reflect on who they are as individuals and as human beings and how they affect society. That's why I think, you know, we have poverty, we have people that just they decide to become complacent: they might have had hopes and aspirations, but they accidentally get somebody pregnant and then they, you know, drop out of college or they don't do what their intentional goals were as an early 20-something or a teenager.

Next: We leave Existentialism behind and move on to the politics of porn and the porn of politics.

 
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