Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been getting a surprisingly steady stream of e-mails and Twitter mentions from people who want to know if they’re going to be seeing me on the new Starz series The Girlfriend Experience. The answer is no…and that’s a good thing. For a lot of reasons. But let me not get ahead of myself.
The Starz series takes its title and its premise from The Girlfriend Experience, a 2009 film directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Sasha Grey, who was making her first move out of XXX movies here, with her role as a high-end New York call girl. I had a small but pivotal role in the movie as a character who called himself “The Erotic Connoisseur,” the majordomo of an escort-review site. My sleazy character tries to extort sex out of Grey’s escort, and then gives her a witheringly bad review for her troubles. I was one of the movie’s bad guys, in other words.
In interviews, the principals of the series have emphasized more than once that all it shares with the movie is the title, the premise, and the nom de guerreof the high-end-escort main character (Chelsea). So that should be enough to explain my non-return, flattering as these inquiries have been.
Another reason I’m not in the television show should be self-evident: I’m not an actor. I’m a writer, one who mostly makes his living as a film critic, and I like that. The Starz series, which is executive produced by Soderbergh, features a cast that’s stacked with superb actors drawn from film and television. While if you look at the IMDB page for the movie, unless you’re a real showbiz maven, Grey’s name is the only one that stands out. And, as it happens, she’s the only cast member who had any training in acting. (No wisecracks from the porn-savvy peanut gallery, please.)
Although the GFE film was shot only eight years ago, there’s a sense in which it’s from another era—an era in which the notion of a “digital film” was a complete novelty. GFE was the second so-called “digital film” that Soderbergh made for producers Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban. The idea was that these features would be shot quickly and cheaply and distributed on a variety of platforms, simultaneously—theatrical and pay-per-view. Sounds a lot like what the current indie scene looks like today, and there’s still a lot being figured out at the business end, but between 2005, when Soderbergh made the first film for Wagner and Cuban, Bubble, and 2009, when GFE came out, it still seemed kind of nuts to people.
The makers of GFE had the freedom to put it together in an unusual way, and they did. Writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien put together a scenario, less than 20 pages long, I’m told. But only the lead actor, Grey, who’s in all the scenes, got to use it. The rest of the cast, mostly men, were recruited by the filmmakers, given their character outlines/assignments, and some research notes. I was told to look at “hobbyist” websites reviewing escorts, and boy did I get grossed out. I eventually got wardrobe notes, too. Then I’d show up at the set and have the scene outlined for me, and then improvise. One phone call was particularly excruciating—I literally had to wear Grey down to the point where she would agree to meet with my character, and she did not make it easy for me. Because most of the scenes in the movie are one-on-one interactions between Grey’s character “Chelsea” and a man—what theater people call “two-handers”—none of the other cast members met each other, or knew how they fit into the big picture. I only heard a little backstage stuff because David Levien, who also ended up acting in the picture, and I were able to compare notes briefly at a bar mitzvah we both attended.
My participation in the movie got a lot of notice from my fellow critics, in part because of the outlandishness of my character, but also because I was, to them, a known quantity—they got a kick out of seeing one of their own in a movie, and a Steven Soderbergh movie at that. But I’m hardly the only noteworthy person in the cast. Almost every part is filled by someone in the Soderbergh/Koppelman/Levien network, and the parts correspond in some ways to the personalities. The character who goes by the name “Sugar,” for instance—who indirectly encourages Chelsea to play ball with the Erotic Connoisseur—is played by Michael Sugar, who then was Steven Soderbergh’s manager. Michael has since branched out into production—you may have seen him accepting an Oscar for Spotlight at this year’s Academy Awards. The character who plays the high-roller who takes the escort’s boyfriend on a rich-bro excursion to Vegas is played by Peter Zizzo, a longtime music industry player who’s a great songwriter and producer—a buddy of Brian Koppelman’s from Brian’s days in the music industry. One of Sasha’s character’s more awkward clients is played by director Dan Algrant (Greetings From Tim Buckley). The cynical journo who interviews Chelsea is Mark Jacobson, a writer I’ve admired since first reading him in the Village Voice in the mid-‘70s. (These are not tales out of school, incidentally; any curious person can follow the IMDB links to all this info!) They’re all great guys, but when I did my scenes for the movie I had no idea they were in it. Meeting them all at the movie’s premiere in 2009 was like going to a high school reunion of people you only knew from having seen on screen a couple of hours before, if that makes any sense.
The movie was shot during the late part of the 2008 presidential campaign, and newspapers were on the set to encourage actors to talk about what was going on as they improvised their dialogue. The movie is, among other things, a mordantly comedic time-capsule drama, while the TV series, written and directed by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, has the tone of a coolly erotic, dread-filled thriller. I’m still friendly with my colleagues from the movie, and root for everything they do (including Koppelman and Levien’s Showtime series Billions) so I can’t really offer any kind of official, non-compromised critique of the series. But my subjective take is, I dig it, and I think it’s totally worth a watch. And as I said, it’s got an amazing cast of professional actors, starting with lead Riley Keough. It doesn’t need an Erotic Connoisseur—this series’ main character can find her own trouble, trust me.