Oscar-winning writer-director Steven Soderbergh isn't coy about his motive for casting Sasha Grey in his low-budget indie drama "The Girlfriend Experience." In a movie entirely populated by nonprofessional actors, who better to portray a $2,000-an-hour Manhattan call-girl than one of the most prolific and in-demand adult film stars working the so-called San Pornando Valley?
Still, he cops to a certain degree of exploitation. Soderbergh gave Grey the lead role in the film (which opens Friday) fully intending to milk her X-rated fame for all it is worth. "I was very much counting on the fact that the interest in her would be greater than the interest in the movie," Soderbergh said. "We would be drafting off her notoriety rather than vice versa. I needed her. That's no different than getting Brad Pitt to be in your movie, albeit in a different context."
In that regard, it probably helps that Grey, 21, can be considered a porn star only by the same reductive logic that would characterize Kobe Bryant as merely a "basketball player." The actress -- real name Marina Ann Hantzis -- is professionally distinguished by her take-no-prisoners attitude toward the hardest of hard-core sex scenes and consensual degradation. Aggressively staking a claim for herself in the industry from almost the moment she turned 18, Grey's porn oeuvre extends to more than 150 films -- "Sasha Grey's Anatomy," "House of Sex & Domination" and "Teenage Whores" (parts 2 and 3) being among the few titles printable in a family newspaper. For her ambitiousness, she took home the Adult Video News Awards' female performer of the year in 2008, becoming the youngest person to win.
Moreover, Grey is establishing herself as a burgeoning multimedia mogul. She calls herself a "performance artist," is filming a documentary, writing a graphic novel and a "sex philosophy" book and recently launched her own production company with the twin goals of changing the look of pornography and empowering women.
"Part of the reason I got into this business was to change it," Grey said. "I can take my fantasies and ideas and deliver those to an audience. It's all an extension of who I am."
Dan Miller, editor in chief of AVN magazine, explained what separates Grey from her industry's rank and file. "She brings it in her sex scenes," he said. "She means business. Sasha's been able to showcase a way of going about it, a fearlessness, that has resonated with adult critics and made producers take notice. She's in the top 10 in-demand female performers."
Over lunch in a Hollywood restaurant, picking at a salad she variously described as tasting "like ammonia" and later, wasabi, Grey made working with Soderbergh -- the force behind the blockbuster "Ocean's" franchise as well as more personal projects starring non-pro actors such as "Bubble" and the HBO series "K Street" -- seem like no biggie. Never mind that, outside of adult films, she had never professionally acted (despite having studied theater from age 12 to 18). And that working from a bare-bones plot "outline," she was responsible for improvising her own dialogue.
"Steven wanted a natural quality and for things to be spontaneous," Grey said. "So it was about trying to find a way to bring my training into the film and also leaving room for this open-ended, never-ending surprise that came into each scene."
Grey portrays Chelsea, a high-class escort whose upscale clients enlist her for more than just sexual encounters. She provides them a "GfE" -- the titular "girlfriend experience" -- of simulated romance and faux emotional intimacy. While operating in a high-gloss world of posh hotels, pricey restaurants and designer clothing, the men in her life -- customers, potential pimps, her boyfriend, a nosy journalist and a sleazy escort review blogger known as "the Erotic Connoisseur" -- attempt to control Chelsea as she plies her trade against the real-life backdrop of last fall's stock market crash and presidential election.
As Soderbergh sees it, Grey's day job and ambitiousness lent her portrayal the kind of verisimilitude you can't learn at drama school. He first hatched the idea to hire her for the film after reading a 2006 Los Angeles magazine profile of Grey's first few months in the adult movie business, "The Teenager & the Porn Star."
"I needed somebody who in a sexual situation could be in control and in command," he said. "Sasha has a macro vision of how she is going to conduct herself. She has a five-year plan. That was very similar to the escorts we interviewed before we made the film -- you hear a lot of GfE's talk like that. But it's very unusual in the porn world."
The actress' literary agent, Marc Gerald, is working with Grey on a coffee-table book featuring photos she took on porn sets over the last few years; it will function as a kind of "manifesto" for her singular outlook. The as-yet-untitled book from Vice/MTV Books has a tentative publication date of early next year. He pointed out that the actress operates "to the extreme" in both her business and creative pursuits. "She has an intellectual curiosity you can't force or manufacture," Gerald said.
For her part, Grey -- a petite Sacramento native who speaks with a kind of flat affect and still possesses the physique of a teenage girl -- seemed more interested in talking about her new production company Grey Art than "The Girlfriend Experience." The plan going forward is for her to act as her own manager, work exclusively for herself (rather than one of the big agencies that represent most porn performers) and even direct her own movies.
"All women have the right to be feminist whether you're pro-porn or anti-porn," she said. "But I think it's definitely about continuing to put the control in women's hands. And sending a positive message to our society that every girl in porn is not abused and cracked out."
Grey continued: "I have this brand, I have my name. And I'm going to do what I want because people will buy it. People will enjoy it. So don't tell me I have to follow this formula and sit inside the box. Because I don't."