The Grey Lady
Sasha Grey is not your typical porn star—not that there’s anything wrong with that most adult of trades. She’s a Godard buff. She says crazy stuff during sex scenes to mess with her co-stars. And she’s got the lead role in Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Girlfriend Experience, a verité-style portrait of an upscale Manhattan call girl. Interview sat down with the 22-year-old California native to discuss her generation of adult-film actresses (not all victims, not all idiots) and why she’d like porn to look more like the movies that play at Cannes.
DARRELL HARTMAN: Sasha Grey is your stage name. Where does it come from?
SASHA GREY: “Sasha” is the name of one of the singers of the band KMFDM. And “Grey” is based on Dr. Kinsey’s scale of sexuality. It’s basically saying everybody, man or woman, is all the way straight or all the way gay or somewhere in between. And that’s the gray scale.
DH: What are some assumptions about porn actresses that you’d like to change or correct?
SG: That you were an abused child, you’re on drugs, you have a pimp, you’re an idiot, and all you can say is, “Cock, cock, cock.” I think more and more, you’re seeing women that actually want to be here. There are plenty of us that are just as perverted as the next guy, and who enjoy doing this.
DH: A couple years ago, you caused a bit of a stir when you appeared on “The Tyra Banks Show.” She told you that you needed to do some “soul-searching.”
SG: That whole show pissed me off. But going into that, I knew they were going to mess with me. And I was willing to let that happen, for the publicity. There were so many things that were said that were not included in the show. Tyra had to get up and talk to her producers to ask what to say, because she couldn’t think for herself. That would have been nice to show on camera. But hey, it’s life.
DH: It was also a hostile crowd.
SG: The PA’s come out and say, “Okay, it’s going to be really dramatic here.” They actually tell the crowd to do stuff. And, you know, women eat that shit up. It’s 2009, and it’s still so hard to talk openly about sex without people twisting your words or not getting it whatsoever. But one of the things I did say—which obviously didn’t make it into the cut of the show—was no matter what, I’m going to leave here today changing one of your minds about me and the sex industry, specifically the adult [film] industry.
DH: And did you?
SG: I got five emails that day from women in the audience.
DH: It seems like you treat your career as seriously as anyone in any creative field.
SG: Right now, I’m working on my own production company. In the past year, I’ve worked less and less for other companies. That way, my movies are in more demand come time for my company to launch. So I really have tried to plan it out as best as I can, because entertainment is a fly-by-night industry, whether you’re in adult or mainstream.
DH: How did doing The Girlfriend Experience fit into all that?
SG: In a strictly business sense, it does benefit the sales of my movies. But I don’t really look at it as just a career. I look at it as my life. This is just another extension of who I am, an extension of my creativity. And I would love to get the opportunity to do this again, because it’s fulfilling for me. And challenging.
DH: What’s the difference between acting in adult and non-adult films?
SG: For me, it comes down to the preparation. This is going to change, because I’ll be directing everything I do now, but going into an adult scene I usually start my preparation the night before. I’ll write some loose dialogue that I want to use in the sex scene, to mess with the other performer to get a natural reaction out of them. With a film like The Girlfriend Experience, the preparation time is much longer and more in-depth.
DH: You play a high-end call girl. Did you see it as similar to being a porn actress?
SG: Well, one’s legal and one isn’t. And one’s a lot more personal than the other.
DH: How so?
SG: In adult films, you don’t have to care about someone and nurture them and talk to them and care about how they feel. You’re there to do a sex scene.
DH: Who are your porn icons?
SG: Kimberly Kane, because she has a sensibility that doesn’t just cater to porn fans. Not a lot of people really get that, I guess. And I really admire Gerard Damiano’s passion for creativity. That’s pretty much lacking today.
DH: What do you mean?
SG: It’s so easy for people to fall into the routine of shooting something because it sells. I don’t mean that in a sexual context. I mean that, you know, these five positions are going to be shot and we’re going to use four Kinos and put you on a couch. Kino lights can be really nice. But that’s why half the time porn doesn’t look so nice. They blast everything out. It comes down to commitment and time, and a lot of people lack that creativity.
DH: In the world of non-adult films, who inspires you?
SG: Edward Norton, Don Cheadle. Just two people very committed to their craft, and I love that.
DH: In porn, the performers often play to the camera. But The Girlfriend Experience has this verité, fly-on-the-wall feel. Was it hard pretending the camera wasn’t there?
SG: Not really. That’s like asking Jim Carrey, who does a lot of physical comedy and sometimes breaks the fourth wall, “Is it hard for you to go into a dramatic role?” It feels very natural.
DH: What was it like working with Steven Soderbergh?
SG: Our communication was really good. If I had some ideas or questions, I felt comfortable enough to ask him. We could riff off of each other and figure out what worked and didn’t work.
DH: Do you get much direction in your adult work?
SG: It’s usually up to you when you’re in a gonzo scene, which is non-narrative. You might be in a nurse’s costume, but you’re not really playing a nurse. You’re like, “Oh, you have a fever! Okay, let me tend to you.” So that’s why I prepare the day before, because it’s up to me and I don’t want to fall into that routine of showing up and checking in, checking out. There are times—I did a film called Pirates 2, and Throat, for Vivid—where you actually get to play a real character. But when it’s good, it’s good. And when it’s bad, it’s bad.
DH: You seem to talk more during sex scenes than a lot of porn actresses.
SG: I definitely talk a lot more than some people. But then there’s times I don’t, because I can’t. You know what I mean?
DH: Um, I think so.
SG: But I’m playing with that at the moment. I’m in the director’s chair now, and doing things completely different than I did them before. And that’s fun and challenging.
DH: What would you like to do to expand the genre?
SG: For me, it comes down to more of a cinematic quality—to make something look good, but also turn you on. It’s not about a circus act, it’s about making the entire film something you really want to watch—kind of taking it back to the late 70s, early 80s, where you went out to a theater and actually watched the movie all the way through.
DH: What films have really gotten eroticism right, in your opinion?
SG: I think Catherine Breillat does that really well. The Lovers was great. Or—I didn’t like the film so much, but I like the director [Michael Winterbottom]—9 Songs. That did a good job, the element of seduction. But I felt the film was too easy, in a way. It could have delved deeper.
DH: When it comes to seducing the viewer, is European cinema still way ahead?
SG: Oh yeah. Americans give you the violence, Europeans give you the sex. I think people have been saying that since the 70s. And I think it’s kind of pathetic that we’re still stuck—on the shock value of violence, when sex is such a natural thing for everybody.
DH: Does any particular movie scene come to mind?
SG: In [Godard’s] Pierrot le Fou there’s this scene where Anna Karina is on the beach and looks over to her lover and says, “Fuck me.” It’s this long shot and it takes forever and it shows her body and it’s dead silent. And she finally says it. It’s those little moments. It’s not hand-held, “Grrrr, put it in your face!” I’ll probably get more turned on watching a film like that than watching an adult film now, just because I know how everything’s done. Or you know somebody. Like, “Oh, this dude’s not so hot.” Or, “That guy smells, man. I’ll never work with him again.”
The Girlfriend Experience comes out Friday.