Sasha Grey’s role as an expensive call girl in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” represents a breakthrough of sorts. There was Traci Lords in “Cry-Baby,” Nina Hartley in “Boogie Nights” and Katie Morgan in “Zach and Miri Make a Porno,” but Grey is the first adult film actress to play the lead in a serious drama by an Oscar-winning director.
For porn stars, it’s a scenario that gives flight to their Hollywood dreams. “Everybody in the adult film industry would like to think they can cross over into mainstream films, if they can act,” says Michael Grecco, director of the recently released documentary “Naked Ambition, an R-Rated Look at an X-Rated Industry.”
However, Grey’s “Girlfriend” reviews have been mixed. Variety gave the film a rave while describing her performance as “interestingly opaque.” Christian Science Monitor film critic Peter Rainer thinks the film is not a true litmus test of crossover success due to its uncommercial, experimental nature. And arguably, a porn star portraying a call girl may not be a major stretch.
“It’s not really some tour-de-force in terms of showing any kind of real range,” he says. “It’s a very narrow presentation by design.”
Soderbergh says that’s become a familiar criticism of the film, but he shrugs it off. “When people say, ‘I think (Grey’s) affect is X, Y or Z,’ all I can say is, ‘Yeah, that’s part of the point.’ Imagine the movie with a traditional performer or a more conventionally open and emotionally available performer, then the movie doesn’t work as well. Part of that sense of disconnection is really crucial to the movie.”
Grey says her emotionally detached portrayal partly grew out of two escort interviews she conducted with Soderbergh prior to filming. “It felt like there was always this veil,” says the 21-year-old Grey, “something they were always holding back for themselves that they didn’t want anybody else to see.”
Grey’s disconnection doesn’t extend to the porn industry itself. She moved to Los Angeles for the express purpose of becoming a porn star; when she was 18, with barely six months in the business, she was the subject of an exhaustive Los Angeles magazine profile. On “The Tyra Banks Show,” she refused to decry her profession or play the role of abused victim. And while she cites the Nouvelle Vague and Jean-Luc Godard as her cup of cinematic tea, her production company is preparing to release “The Fuck Junkie,” her first porn movie as a director.
Recalling her 2007 Banks appearance as stage-managed (“Like Godard said, ‘every edit is a lie’ “), she nonetheless says the experience was “press you can’t buy… They used me and I used them.”
For his part, Soderbergh says he cast Grey because he wanted “someone who in a sexual situation who could feel convincingly in demand.” And he acknowledges that the taboo nature of Grey’s day job is getting his film much more attention. “I’m counting on her notoriety to help the film clutterbust, no question,” he says. “She has a gigantic following.”
Gray says she’ll continue to straddle adult fare and more legit product. “I definitely have a taste (for mainstream films) in my mouth now, no pun intended,” she jokes. “And I have a couple of other projects coming up in the summer.” One of them, “Smash Cut,” which she calls a “black-comedy horror film,” was shot prior to “Girlfriend.”
Soderbergh says he would work with Grey again. “If I thought I had something she’d be really good for, I wouldn’t hesitate.”
Adds Rainer: “I’d be sort of curious to see her in another movie just because I think she does have a kind of quality, even if it is sort of a negative. I think even though she doesn’t bring enough to the party (in ‘Girlfriend’), you are sort of put into a position of wanting more.”