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The Nerve Interview: Sasha Grey

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How does a porn star become an indie-film darling? Sasha Grey, with diminutive features and a melancholy expression, never looked like a typical porn star, but watching her 2006 debut film, Fashionistas Safado: The Challenge, you’d be hard-pressed to pick her out as a future mainstream star. (Her co-stars might’ve noticed something different; the eighteen-year-old Grey reportedly shocked porn veteran Rocco Siffredi by asking him to punch her in the stomach during fellatio.) But Grey’s persona grew as the mainstream press noticed her penchant for discussing Godard instead of blowjobs in interviews. She was a deliberately highbrow anomaly in a genre not noted for elevated brows; she had even debated between Anna Karina and Sasha Grey when selecting her nom de porn, the former a reference to director Jean-Luc Godard’s ex-wife, the latter to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Her mainstreaming continued with an American Apparel modeling stint and an appearance on The Tyra Banks Show.

Now she’s starring in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, an exploration of five days in the life of an expensive Manhattan call girl. Grey’s character offers her clients not only sex, but an entire relationshipthe titular experience. Grey delivers a candid portrait of a prostitute wrestling with the ambiguities of her profession, with economic and emotional collapses hovering on the horizon. Nerve spoke with Grey about working with the Academy Award-winning Soderbergh, what her female fans make of her extreme depictions of sex, and what she plans to do next. — Michael Estrin

How did Steven Soderbergh approach you?
I got a MySpace message from Brian Koppelman, one of the writers. But since it was through MySpace, I didn’t think it was real. Brian wrote me a note saying that Steven Soderbergh would call me, and I was like, "Yeah, right." But a few days later I had a voicemail from Steven, which was a total surprise. A few days after that, we were having lunch and talking about the project. I think they had heard of me because of the Los Angeles Magazine story about me a few years ago.

Very few people in porn can actually direct.

What was it like to work with Soderbergh? How did he compare to other directors you’ve worked with in the past?
Very few people in porn can actually direct. I mean no disrespect, but in porn, if you can white-balance a camera, you can be a director, which is why the industry is so oversaturated with awful content.

Steven was amazing because he was so focused. He knows what he wants. That kind of made me feel lazy in a way. His process is so intense. You watch him do what he does and prepare, and you don’t feel like you work hard enough. Sometimes we did four locations in a single day. We had a very small crew. But with a small crew and a camera, Steven can do anything.

What did you think about the night before filming started?
I was incredibly nervous. We didn’t get a lot of information on the film, so I think I was nervous because I just didn’t know what it would be like. Steven wanted this organic, natural performance for the film. And that was a bit of a struggle for me, to let that be part of the process.

What was it like for you to do so much improv work?
I took acting lessons from [the ages of] twelve to eighteen, so it was hard for me to abandon some of those processes as an actor and to strip it down to something more raw. You know what you need to do in the scene, but you don’t have the lines to get you there, so you need to sort of figure it out. I got an outline. But there would generally be changes everyday because Steven wanted the film to be very real and in the moment. We would get to the set, pick up a newspaper, and talk about what was really going on in the world at that moment. A lot of that made it into the film.

 

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In the film, your character is an escort who juggles her profession with the complications of a relationship. Do the issues your character faces with her boyfriend compare to your real-life relationship with your fiancé?
It wasn’t very similar because I actually care about my fiancé. The characters are vain people just looking for a bigger mirror. That relationship dynamic is different from mine at home. If someone didn’t like what I did for a living, they wouldn’t be with me, so I don’t have that problem. And [in the film] they both use each other as a crutch. That’s very different from my life.

In 2006, Steven Soderbergh told The Believer magazine that he thinks a person’s views on porn are a better indicator of their mindset, than saying they’re Republican or Democrat. Would you agree?
We never talked about that. But I think there’s a lot to that point. There are a lot of people who would say that we are numb to violence — but when we depict sex on screen, or talk about porn, some people get totally freaked out. Like it’s gross, or wrong. There’s this belief out there that you have to be so guilty and ashamed when you talk about sex. That’s not everyone of course, but maybe in a way a person’s outlook on porn does show you who they are, and what they believe.

You’re known for doing extreme stuff in your movies. What’s something you haven’t done that you really want to?
There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t done that I’d like to do. But there are a lot of things I won’t do because I don’t want to go to fucking jail. It wouldn’t be worth it.

Can you name one of those things?
I’ll leave it up to your imagination.

We hear you’re a fan of the late Hunter S. Thompson. What do you think he would make of the term gonzo being applied to porn?

There are a lot of things I won’t do because I don’t want to go to jail

[Laughs]

Why is that so funny?
That’s funny because I did a screening of this adult film recently, and I used the word "gonzo" when I was talking. This girl in the audience asked what gonzo was. And I told her it wasn’t Hunter S. Thompson’s type of gonzo, but she didn’t know who he was. That’s kind of sad.

As for gonzo porn, I have very mixed feelings. It was a great thing and some of the pioneers of gonzo really did some amazing work, but it also allowed an influx of people who aren’t that great. There’s no plot in gonzo, and so people without creativity just call it gonzo and they end up just ripping off what everyone else is doing.

There’s a great deal of media buzz about you, right now. A lot of the headlines are titillation: porn star acts, reads Sartre! Do you worry fans will focus more on you, than on the movie?
I think people will come to see the film with a preconceived bias, and I’m not sure there’s much I can do about that. Some people won’t allow themselves to strip the idea of me away from the character. They’ll just see a porn star, not the character.

Who is the character?
You can’t just boil down the character in a few words. She’s not me, but that’s my point. There are similarities. I have a boyfriend, and so does my character — but almost everyone has a relationship, and they’re all hard. So, I hope that people can see these two characters for who they really are, because that’s what the film is about.

Has being "the smart porn star" become your shtick? Is that a fair way to characterize your persona?
I’ll leave the shtick up to the consumer. I pride myself on being myself. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want a contract. There’s something wrong with confining somebody into one little box — to say, "This is who you are and this is how we market you." As humans, we are allowed to change. I don’t want someone telling me to do this or that. I don’t want to be told that every other word that comes out of my mouth has to be cock or pussy.

I think that’s the first time you said either cock or pussy in this interview.
[Laughs] Well, that’s the point. You can call it a shtick or a persona, but it doesn’t really mean very much. People just don’t fit into those labels as easily as we would like. I mean look at me, I’m a porn star, but it’s not like I fit that classic porn-star image. I’m not blonde with big, fake tits and tons of makeup.

Do you have a lot of female fans? What do they like about your films?
I do have a lot of female fans. You don’t get that one-on-one exchange all that often. But the most common comment I get is that women say they feel unabashed about who they are sexually when they watch my movies. I really like that.

I’ll leave the shtick up to the consumer. I pride myself on being myself.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen happen on a porn set?
That’s a tough one. I don’t know if this is funny, but I saw a girl defecate on a couch by accident when she was filming. She wasn’t even doing an anal scene. I felt pretty bad for her.

What did the guy in the scene do?
It was kind of second nature to the guy. I guess that had happened to him before. He wasn’t grossed out, but he didn’t help, either. He just walked off-camera.

What’s next for you?
I’m working really hard on launching my website, so I’m building content for that. I’m also working on a graphic book but that hasn’t been solidified yet. It’s sort of a coffee table book about sex and philosophy, but a lot more involved.

Would you ever want to direct? What story would you want to tell?
I direct stuff for the website I’m building. But as far as non-adult directing, that’s a few years off. I’ve written a few scripts, but I’m still working on them. I lean toward dark comedies and drama.

How did the sex scenes in The Girlfriend Experience compare to your prior work in porn?
[Laughs] You’ll have to see it.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has written about porn, advertising, hookers, bankruptcy, fake boobs, tech and lawyers. He keeps it all straight with a white board that hangs behind his desk. He only refers to himself in the third person when writing his bio.
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