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Real-life porn star Sasha Grey plays Chelsea, a high-end call girl, in Steven Soderbergh's film The Girlfriend Experience. ((Mongrel Media))

It isn’t easy to spot an auteur amid the summer blockbuster haze, but Steven Soderbergh, the Academy Award-winning director of Traffic (2000), is hard to miss. That’s largely because he’s so prolific, with no less than three films out in 2009. In February, he released his epic biopic Che; this fall, he’s expected to deliver his awards-season hopeful The Informant. His summer entry, as it were, is The Girlfriend Experience, which opens June 26.

'Even though I knew [the film] wasn’t going to be explicit, I wanted somebody who in sexualized situations feels totally in command and powerful.'

—Steven Soderbergh on casting porn star Sasha Grey

GFE (as the film was originally titled) follows the strikingly beautiful Chelsea, a young woman who eats at the finest Manhattan restaurants, shops at the priciest Soho boutiques and frequents the most luxurious Upper West side hotels. Chelsea is a $2,000-an-hour escort, and is always looking to remain in high demand and justify her even higher price. In a world where every service needs to provide added value, Chelsea is more than a hooker. Not only do you get the pleasure of her company in bed, but you get to experience what it feels like to be her boyfriend.

"In that world, there is a surcharge for that kind of intimacy — that’s the most expensive time there is," explains Soderbergh during a recent interview. "You’re paying [these escorts] this surcharge because they will convince you, or try very hard to convince you, that you are actually involved with them."

I spoke to Soderbergh during a roundtable discussion at this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival, where The Girlfriend Experience premiered its final cut. For years, Soderbergh has gone back and forth between big studio pictures with marquee stars and independent films with non-actors and only a rough outline for each scene. Shot for $1.7 million over a period of 16 days, The Girlfriend Experience definitely falls into the latter category.

"People seem compelled to divvy up my career into two parts," Soderbergh states. "They’re both like math problems: one has a different set of integers than the other, but it’s still math." Still, he is not so naïve as to suggest that there is the same degree of financial risk between, say, one of the Ocean’s 11 movies and a low-budget experiment like  Bubble (2006). "What is helpful about the small films is you’re closer to the ground if you make a mistake: If I fall off this rope, I’m going to sprain an ankle; I’m not going to die."

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Director Steven Soderbergh. ((Mongrel Media) )

Soderbergh has been experimenting really since his first feature, the groundbreaking Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989). That film’s frank discussion of sexuality would go unnoticed today, but the honesty with which the characters addressed each other is a form of realism that still seems difficult to achieve in film today. 

Realism is what makes The Girlfriend Experience so fascinating. Shot last October amid the financial collapse and just before the American elections, the film is set in that time as well. "Since the design of the film is that people are speaking for and as themselves, that’s just where everybody’s head was," Soderbergh says. The economic situation added an extra level of intrigue to this story about the sex trade, posing the question: When you’re in financial straits, what parts of your lifestyle are you willing to do without?

While Soderbergh’s indie projects tend to use non-professional actors, The Girlfriend Experience is different — mostly. Chelsea is played by 21-year old Sasha Grey, who has been working in pornography since she was 18. Grey didn’t get into the field because of drugs or booze or a broken home — she simply saw it as an enterprise she could master. In short, she enjoys having sex on camera and decided that she could make some money doing it.

Soderbergh was drawn to Grey’s ambition and uncommon backstory, to say nothing of her baby-doll beauty — but that’s not why he cast her. He did so because she exudes control in situations that are fantastical to mainstream society.

"Even though I knew [the film] wasn’t going to be explicit, I wanted somebody who in sexualized situations feels totally in command and powerful," Soderbergh says. "I feel like that’s a tricky thing to fake." He’s right. On screen, Grey’s character is always in control of what she says and how she allows herself to be seen and treated.

In person, Grey is calm and poised. It’s not that I expected her to be less intelligent or articulate because of her profession; it was more that I expected her to show her age. Grey admits she was giddy when she first heard the message from Soderbergh on her answering machine in 2008. As soon as the buzz wore off, she started preparing for the role.

"Doing this film, I asked Steven a lot — a lot — of questions," Grey admits, almost apologetically. "He wanted me to keep my personality and my confidence and bring that into the film, but at the same time, I’m not playing myself — I’m playing a character. It was mostly finding a way to fuse those two things together."

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Chelsea (Sasha Grey) with one of her clients in The Girlfriend Experience. ((Mongrel Media))

Detractors claim that Grey’s aloof demeanour makes The Girlfriend Experience feel shallow, but Soderbergh begs to differ. He knows the character sometimes comes off as flat, but Chelsea’s affect is what allows her to remain detached. Having done some research of Grey’s previous work, Soderbergh knew he would have one serious hurdle to get over.

"What I noticed about her extreme stuff was her awareness of the camera: she is always aware of the lens, playing to the lens," he says. "I knew it was going to be interesting to put her in a situation where she would absolutely have to forget the camera, because it seemed like she was obsessed with it."

Grey struggled with this, but her preparatory work — which included reading professional escort blogs and writing her own personal character diary — helped her find a comfort level. "Steven would always remind me to try to keep that natural quality — as natural as one can be in front of the camera, anyway."

Grey appears naked only once on screen and is never seen having actual sex. I asked Soderbergh whether he thought seeing her sensitive side would affect the way her legion of porn fans would see all of her other sides.

"Fantasy is about something that you aren’t getting and that you want," he says. "We have the inverse here with Sasha. You can, on her site, within seconds, see her do anything imaginable with her clothes off. What you can’t see is what it’s like to be her boyfriend and hang out with her or be emotionally intimate with her.

"My whole theory is that [The Girlfriend Experience] is the fantasy for the guys who have been double-clicking [on her site], but would rather spend 77 minutes being her boyfriend."

The Girlfriend Experience opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on June 26, and in other cities throughout the summer.

Joseph Belanger is a writer based in Montreal.