Oscar-winning writer-director Steven Soderbergh isn't coy about his motive for casting Sasha Grey in his low-budget indie drama "The Girlfriend Experience." In a movie entirely populated by nonprofessional actors, who better to portray a $2,000-an-hour Manhattan call-girl than one of the most prolific and in-demand adult film stars working the so-called San Pornando Valley?
Still, he cops to a certain degree of exploitation. Soderbergh gave Grey the lead role in the film (which opens Friday) fully intending to milk her X-rated fame for all it is worth. "I was very much counting on the fact that the interest in her would be greater than the interest in the movie," Soderbergh said. "We would be drafting off her notoriety rather than vice versa. I needed her. That's no different than getting Brad Pitt to be in your movie, albeit in a different context."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Sasha Grey: An article in Thursday's Calendar section about adult film performer Sasha Grey said that "The Girlfriend Experience," the new indie drama in which she appears, opens today. The movie reaches theaters today but it became available on cable television April 30.
In that regard, it probably helps that Grey, 21, can be considered a porn star only by the same reductive logic that would characterize Kobe Bryant as merely a "basketball player." The actress -- real name Marina Ann Hantzis -- is professionally distinguished by her take-no-prisoners attitude toward the hardest of hard-core sex scenes and consensual degradation. Aggressively staking a claim for herself in the industry from almost the moment she turned 18, Grey's porn oeuvre extends to more than 150 films -- "Sasha Grey's Anatomy," "House of Sex & Domination" and "Teenage Whores" (parts 2 and 3) being among the few titles printable in a family newspaper. For her ambitiousness, she took home the Adult Video News Awards' female performer of the year in 2008, becoming the youngest person to win.
Moreover, Grey is establishing herself as a burgeoning multimedia mogul. She calls herself a "performance artist," is filming a documentary, writing a graphic novel and a "sex philosophy" book and recently launched her own production company with the twin goals of changing the look of pornography and empowering women.
"Part of the reason I got into this business was to change it," Grey said. "I can take my fantasies and ideas and deliver those to an audience. It's all an extension of who I am."
Dan Miller, editor in chief of AVN magazine, explained what separates Grey from her industry's rank and file. "She brings it in her sex scenes," he said. "She means business. Sasha's been able to showcase a way of going about it, a fearlessness, that has resonated with adult critics and made producers take notice. She's in the top 10 in-demand female performers."
Over lunch in a Hollywood restaurant, picking at a salad she variously described as tasting "like ammonia" and later, wasabi, Grey made working with Soderbergh -- the force behind the blockbuster "Ocean's" franchise as well as more personal projects starring non-pro actors such as "Bubble" and the HBO series "K Street" -- seem like no biggie. Never mind that, outside of adult films, she had never professionally acted (despite having studied theater from age 12 to 18). And that working from a bare-bones plot "outline," she was responsible for improvising her own dialogue.
"Steven wanted a natural quality and for things to be spontaneous," Grey said. "So it was about trying to find a way to bring my training into the film and also leaving room for this open-ended, never-ending surprise that came into each scene."
Grey portrays Chelsea, a high-class escort whose upscale clients enlist her for more than just sexual encounters. She provides them a "GfE" -- the titular "girlfriend experience" -- of simulated romance and faux emotional intimacy. While operating in a high-gloss world of posh hotels, pricey restaurants and designer clothing, the men in her life -- customers, potential pimps, her boyfriend, a nosy journalist and a sleazy escort review blogger known as "the Erotic Connoisseur" -- attempt to control Chelsea as she plies her trade against the real-life backdrop of last fall's stock market crash and presidential election.
As Soderbergh sees it, Grey's day job and ambitiousness lent her portrayal the kind of verisimilitude you can't learn at drama school. He first hatched the idea to hire her for the film after reading a 2006 Los Angeles magazine profile of Grey's first few months in the adult movie business, "The Teenager & the Porn Star."
"I needed somebody who in a sexual situation could be in control and in command," he said. "Sasha has a macro vision of how she is going to conduct herself. She has a five-year plan. That was very similar to the escorts we interviewed before we made the film -- you hear a lot of GfE's talk like that. But it's very unusual in the porn world."