Sasha Grey is not the sort of movie star you normally see discussed in these pages. With a resume that includes “Oral Supremacy” and “Sex Toy Teens,” Grey has risen to become one of the top porn stars in the United States, appearing in more than 180 films in a three-year period starting when she was just 18. Yet she was always exceptional: content to rely on her own natural looks (without the implants considered de rigeur in the industry), adamant that her work was a form of performance art, and constantly undermining stereotypes. (How many porn stars can digress on the merits of Jean-Luc Godard vs. Agnes Varda?)
At the ripe old age of 21, Grey crossed over into mainstream movies with her starring role in director Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” a sleek, cinema-verite look at one week in the life of a $2,000-per-hour call girl working in present-day Manhattan. It’s a portrait of ridiculous wealth, sex reduced to a transaction, and a social scene traceable only to anonymous and tenuous connections formed via the Net.
Soderbergh cast Grey after being intrigued by an interview she did with Los Angeles magazine: It was a typically bold move by Soderbergh, whose 2006 handicam movie “Bubble” also opens in Japan on July 17, but it’s also part and parcel of the “porn chic” that has infected art cinema for the past decade or so, from Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” (which featured porn actor Rocco Siffredi, who also starred with Grey in her adult-movie debut) to “Baise-Moi” and “Shortbus.”
The skill set needed for porn may not have much intersection with that of mainstream movies, but Grey clearly brought two things to the role: one, a comfort with appearing nude in front of the camera; and two, a firsthand knowledge of selling one’s sexuality, an added frisson that, say, “Twilight” ‘s Kristen Stewart wouldn’t supply.
In a telephone interview, Grey — fresh off the set of the HBO series “Entourage” (she’s playing herself in the upcoming season) — spoke about “The Girlfriend Experience” and her role as Chelsea, the call girl who specializes in false intimacy. One of the things that Soderbergh’s movie does so well is to explore how difficult it is to maintain a real relationship when one is living so many fictions with clients: I ask Sasha if that’s something she recognized from her own life.
“Not at all,” insists Grey. “As an adult performer, you don’t have to maintain relationships with people. You aren’t pretending you love them, or even feel obligated to be really interested in their lives; we are all there for the same reason. Sexually, however, it was difficult to keep things fresh and intimate in the bedroom the first three months of my relationship with my partner. But we had many talks about it, and he respected my choices. This also got much easier after a few months because I wasn’t performing as often.”
While this is Grey’s first foray into acting — she insists that adult movies aren’t acting because she’s basically playing herself — she acquits herself well. Part of this is due to preparation: “The casting director was very involved in helping me find real-life escorts to interview for the role,” says Grey. “I spent a few hours with two different women. I also read anonymously written escort blogs. . . . This helped me to understand what goes through their minds, their emotions, the thoughts they believed other people had about them.”
But partly, it’s because Grey has trained: “I always enjoyed acting. In fact, I first took theater classes and did plays when I was 12, and I did that until I was 18. But I definitely never thought of pursuing acting in feature films and TV shows as a career until now.”
While such crossovers may be unremarkable in Japan, where former AV starlets such as Kaoru Kuroki or Ai Ijima were once fixtures on prime-time TV, a clear firewall exists between mainstream and adult media in the U.S., where Puritanism never really died (it just moved into mega-churches).
“I think the climate is right for someone such as myself to exist in the worlds I chose to exist in,” replies Grey when asked what sort of reaction she’s received since moving into the mainstream. “Everybody’s been very positive. I haven’t received any comments that would make me feel otherwise, but I’m sure there are people out there who would disagree.”
One key scene in the film has a blogger — known as The Erotic Connoisseur, and played, surely with a touch of irony on Soderbergh’s behalf, by a film critic — give a horrible review of Chelsea’s services when she recoils from giving him free sex in exchange for a positive assessment. Surely, Grey herself has had her brushes with anonymous Internet haters? “Well, of course, yeah,” she says. “Luckily, very early on in my career, I had a couple of celebrity friends who told me not to read that stuff, like, ‘Don’t waste your time. Your energy can be spent in better places than reading gossip.’ And it’s true — it would eat away at anybody if you just sit there and read crap that’s written about you that’s completely false. It’s better just to ignore it rather than feed the flame.”
“The Girlfriend Experience” is a film about many things, but it’s also a movie about acting, about playing roles in situations other than films or theater. Chelsea takes on the fantasy of caring about the men she is sleeping with, and she creates a false intimacy with each of them. Yet Grey is convinced this isn’t unique to escorts: “I think there’s a lot of men in this world that want women to be something that they aren’t. And you get that whether you’re dealing with sex as a commodity or just a regular relationship. I mean, people always put on faces to impress people that they’re dating, and some people try to be somebody that they’re not.”
Grey, like her character, views herself as a commodity. While my own take on “The Girlfriend Experience” was that it was a critique of commodification and alienation, of how capitalism tends to reduce all human relations to mere transactions, Grey couldn’t disagree more.
“That’s something Steven and I talked about over the course of making the film,” she says. “It’s empowering for Chelsea to use her sexuality as a commodity — it’s not a bad thing.”
Regarding her own career, Grey notes, “Instead of just acting like it’s all about the sex, while other people and companies make money off of me, I am making it known that I am not blind to that. I’m business-minded.’
And yet, she also is quick to add: “That’s the great thing about the film — it can be interpreted in so many different ways.”
“The Girlfriend Experience” is showing at Cinema Rise, Tokyo until July 30; it opens at Theatre Umeda, Osaka, and Kyoto Minami-Kaikan on Aug. 7.
While adult video to mainstream crossovers — and vice versa — are much more common in Japan these days, there was probably no more groundbreaking figure than Kaoru Kuroki, an ’80s-’90s AV star who became a fixture on the ubiquitous “variety shows” of Japanese TV. Unmistakable for her unshaven armpits — her attempt to challenge the government censors’ total ban on pubic hair — Kuroki was a glorious mess of contradictions, a porn-star feminist who preached sexual liberation via S&M, and a university grad (with a degree in Italian renaissance art) whose elegant and refined manner when clothed barely hinted at the wild, raw tigress/sex-slave persona she created on screen. Kuroki got her start back in the Bubble days, with a plan to do an AV or two to pay for a year abroad in Italy. Soon she was a hit on the racier late-night comedy shows, but eventually ended up so mainstream — in an interi (clever-looking) commentator sort of way — she even appeared on NHK-G. Her career ended tragically after she jumped or fell from the second story of a Shinjuku hotel in 1994: Since then her only appearances in the media have been for ongoing lawsuits against the tabloid media for invasions of her privacy.
A wildly popular American porn star since the mid-1990s, Jenna Jameson — every bit the boob-job blonde bimbo cliche that Sasha Grey is not, but just as sharp a businesswoman — made an attempt at going mainstream circa 2007, when she announced she was quitting porn to focus on a biopic, her clothing line, a comic book and a “sex simulation” video game, “Virtually Jenna.” Her first foray into mainstream movies was “Zombie Strippers!” (2008), which combined outlandish gore and massive mammaries into one big steaming pile of bad. The breakthrough role has eluded her, but she has been a constant presence on the outskirts of acceptable culture, appearing in shock-jock Howard Stern’s movie “Private Parts” (1997), appearing in an Eminem video and portraying herself in the 2010 comedy “How to Make Love to a Woman” and an episode of “Family Guy.” Jameson’s long-rumored biopic, however, has been stalled in Hollywood since legal action surrounding her canceled reality series made people smell smoke.
Petite Taiwanese beauty Shu Qi may be the first actress to move from doing covers for Hong Kong Penthouse and softcore skin flicks (such as “Sex And Zen II,” 1996) to actually sitting on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival (in 2009). Shu’s breakthrough moment came in Derek Yee’s amusing porn-world comedy “Viva Erotica” (1996), where she starred alongside Wong Kar-wai regulars Leslie Cheung and Karen Mok and won the Best Supporting Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Roles in both art and action cinema followed, including Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Millennium Mambo” (2001) and “Three Times” (2005) and the Luc Besson-scripted “Transporter” (2003). Shu could have been an even bigger star if her management hadn’t passed on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to have her shoot a Coca-Cola commercial in Japan instead; Shu’s role went to unknown actress Zhang Ziyi, and the rest is history.