As a bright, self-possessed 18-year-old, Sasha Grey entered the adult film industry like a post-feminist warrior, determined to break taboos and explore the extremes of her sexuality. (She considers herself less an actress than a performance artist.) In the process, she’s carved out her own niche as a natural, aggressive porn star with a reputation for fearlessness and vigor. She’s also become a cult figure on the Internet, thanks to savvy self-promotion on sites like MySpace and Facebook, and her refined taste in film, music, and literature. In addition to her work in adult film, Grey modeled for the cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ Zeitgeist (and their “Superchrist” music video), American Apparel, and a Richard Kern anti-fashion Vice layout. She’s taken roles in independent features and collaborated with Pablo St. Francis on an industrial band called ATelecine.
In Steven Soderbergh’s new digital feature, The Girlfriend Experience, Grey brings her perspective to the role of Chelsea, a high-priced Manhattan escort who tries to satisfy her clients’ fantasies while maintaining a relatively normal life with her live-in boyfriend. All the action takes place against the backdrop of the 2008 Presidential election and the current economic collapse. Grey recently spoke to The A.V. Club about adult film, Method acting, and compartmentalizing a sex job and a personal life.
The A.V. Club: Your profession as an adult-film star is obviously related to your casting here. What connection do you feel with Chelsea?
Sasha Grey: It’s a really tough distinction, because on the surface, it would seem that we would have a lot of similarities. At the end of the day, we’re both just businesswomen. But I think I’m more artistically driven, and she’s more monetarily driven.
AVC: There’s also a certain naïveté to her that you don’t seem to have.
SG: Yeah, she definitely uses things in life to avoid the real truth, if that makes any sense. Like her Personology books, which she depends on for screening her clients and for giving her, I guess you can say, a reason for doing some of the things she does. I don’t believe in a God. I don’t believe in any of that stuff to determine my life or my goals or my direction. I just depend on myself.
AVC: And you have motivations other than money?
SG: Definitely. I mean, where do we start? [Laughs.] Let’s start with the adult-film business. I got in to continue to explore my sexuality in a safe and controlled environment, and to challenge the industry creatively, because I saw a void. I also got into it to encourage men and women sexually to not be inhibited by who they are, or be ashamed about who they are. I also make music, and that’s definitely not a monetary venture for me at all. I’m writing a sex philosophy book. Again, that falls into the category of encouraging young men and women to not be ashamed of who they are as sexual beings.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve made headway? Are there forces within the industry that are resistant to your ideas?
SG: I’ve definitely made some changes, and I believe it has shown as well. I think the big evolutionary step for me is directing my own movies. I just created my production company, so I will be shooting my directorial debut in the adult business in two weeks, and we’re releasing it in June. I’ve said this to a lot of people, but if you want to make changes, you have to start at the bottom, unless you know people or you are born into money. I’ve definitely paid my dues. I’ve made a name for myself, and I’ve challenged the idea, I think, of what a young woman or what a porn star should be.
AVC: What can people expect from this film that you’re going to be working on?
SG: I guess the biggest difference from the things I’ve done in the past is that my work will be more narrative-driven adult films or vignettes, not just “gonzo” scenes, which are straight sex, no storyline. I want to bring it back to the golden era of porn in the late ’70s and early ’80s, where people actually wanted to watch the whole movie. There’s rarely any titillation when you watch porn, because it gets straight into it and people are like “I just want to get off.” You go watch a non-adult film, and if there’s a love scene, I still get turned on. I think that’s something adult films heavily lack, the build-up and the tension. Also, on a visual level, I just want to… I hate to say this, but I’m going to put this really simply: I want it to look fucking pretty. I don’t want to watch my neighbors having sex, you know what I mean? It’s so easy to pick up a camera, white balance, and shoot people having sex, but I don’t think there’s anything very interesting about it. You might get off, but that’s it.
AVC: When you talk about “the golden age,” is the idea to bring women or couples back into watching these films? It seems like these straight-up, “gonzo” shoots you’re talking about are pretty mechanically directed towards men.
SG: I wouldn’t necessarily say that, on a general level. If you just take an average woman and try to give her just a straight gonzo scene, she might not be able to take it in, especially if she is not a fan of porn. But I know a lot of girls my age who enjoy that type of porn movie, you know, because just like anybody else, they just want to get off, so that’s what they watch. From a creative standpoint, I’m interested not only in the idea of helping couples and women, but challenging myself creatively, and doing each one better than the last thing I did. I think by doing that, by adding a visual element to these films, it really makes a huge difference.
AVC: You’re well known for having a strong knowledge about film in general. Are there filmmakers you’re looking to as models?
SG: After working with Steven, it definitely inspired me to take adult films into a new direction visually. We didn’t have very much to work with on set [on The Girlfriend Experience], and it was a very small crew, yet the film is undeniably beautiful, whether you like it or not. So that definitely inspired me to be able to use all the resources I have to my advantage.
AVC: One of the things Chelsea is able to do in The Girlfriend Experience—what all sex professionals are supposed to do—is compartmentalize her job and her real relationship. Is that difficult to pull off?
SG: It’s hard to say, because I don’t know 100 percent what that is like. I was Chelsea for 16 days, you know what I mean? That question would be better suited for someone who really lives that life. One of the escorts Steven and I met with was married, and another one had relationship troubles. That’s a tough question for me to answer clearly.
AVC: You describe yourself as a Method actor. What lengths did you go to in order to prepare for this role?
SG: I obviously wasn’t on 100 percent the entire time, because the nature of the film was so experimental that there was no way I could have done full-on Method acting. In a lot of the scenes, Steven just wanted me to be very natural, but I did pull from Method techniques. To what extent, I couldn’t really say. Every day was so new and so different and always evolving.
AVC: That’s an interesting point, because the economy was collapsing as the film was being shot, and Soderbergh incorporated that into the finished product. What did that mean for you as an actress, day-to-day? Were you having to prepare to go off script all the time?
SG: It was really difficult, because I wanted to prepare-prepare-prepare, but Steven wanted me to bring a very natural quality into the film. We had an outline, there was no formal script, and we would get to set and look at the daily newspaper, and if there was something that would jump out, we would talk about that in the context of the scene, if it was appropriate. And sometimes, Steven would give maybe one or two objectives within the scene. [Laughs.] You really have to roll with it but be able to stay in character; combining the two and marrying them was really difficult. Steven doesn’t want you to act, but you are trying to act. [Laughs.]
AVC: It would seem like one adjustment you have to make between performing in adult films and acting in features like this one is your awareness of the camera. Did you have to discipline yourself to not play into the camera, to not be aware that it was there?
SG: No, that was the easy part. But being comfortable acting in front of a camera… the first few days were really tough, because you feel so stiff and rusty. It’s not like having sex on camera, because that comes so naturally to you… Well, to me, at least. [Laughs.] So not playing to the camera was easy, but being comfortable performing in a new way took some time.
AVC: What do you think when you see the film today? Are you happy with the performance? Can you see yourself maybe getting better as the shoot went along?
SG: I don’t think any actor can be happy with their performance. There’s always something you wish you would have done or said differently. But overall, I am very happy with the film itself, and again, I go back to the visuals. I think it turned out amazing, and I really wasn’t expecting it to be nonlinear, because we shot it in order.
AVC: So Soderbergh gave no indication that it was going to be put together that way?
SG: No, no, not at all. I was on a panel with Steven a couple of weeks ago, and he did say that within the first week, he knew he wasn’t going to cut it linearly.
AVC: You have this reputation as a thinking person’s adult-film star. How did you get into books and films and music at such an early age? That MySpace page went up when you were 18, didn’t it?
SG: Yeah, it went up like my first week in the business.
AVC: How did you get into all that art?
SG: As far as music goes, I have an older brother and an older sister who are seven and nine years older than me, so I was fortunate to have them to kind of look up to, because they both like very different types of music, and obviously my parents like different types of music. I had an abundance of different things available to me at a young age. Whereas most young kids, maybe their siblings are all the same age, and they all like the same song on the radio. When I was 12 or 13, I discovered Brainwashed.com. Jon Whitney should definitely win an award for that website, because it taught me so much about music, and opened me up to people I would have probably never heard of. As far as films go, I was always into music and film, from a very young age. I think most children mostly are, especially of my generation, but I think what really stuck with me was a theater teacher I had who told me that I should watch one film per week, and study film, and study actors. So I asked him for a list of films, and I would try and watch two or three of those a week. And from the list of films he gave me, I discovered Criterion, so those two made big impacts on my taste, I guess you can say.
AVC: You’ve expressed admiration of filmmakers like Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noé, though movies like Fat Girl and Irréversible are about sex as a tool of power, destruction, and exploitation. How much do you connect with their ideas about sex?
SG: I don’t know if I necessarily connect with their ideas and viewpoints on sex. It’s just so refreshing to see a film that explores negative and positive sides of sexuality in a very open way, because in this day and age in America, it’s really hard to make a film like that and have people able to see it.
AVC: So what have you seen lately? What have you been liking?
SG: I haven’t had any time to see much lately. I got off a plane from Miami and I went and saw Star Trek, and I was actually really impressed. I was a little wary going in, but I was very, very impressed with it.
AVC: Are you a fan? Did you know the series well in any form on TV or the movies?
SG: I watched Next Generation growing up, and then I watched some of the Next Generation films, and I know my best friend’s dad has every episode of the original series on VHS, and we would watch those. But I never followed it religiously, I guess you could say.
AVC: What’s next for you?
SG: In August, I’m going to shoot an independent film, and I have the lead role, and it’s a really good, challenging role for me. I was actually given two other scripts to look at, which were again, different, challenging roles. So I’m really excited about taking those opportunities on, and doing something new. I also have the sex-philosophy book, a graphic novel, and an array of projects coming up, so this is an exciting time for me.