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‘The Girlfriend Experience’s’ Amy Seimetz on Hollywood’s oversimplification of the female psyche

Riley Keough, left, and Kate Lyn Shell in Starz' "The Girlfriend Experience.
(Kerry Hayes Photography / Starz Entertainment)

There’s a moment, early in the first season of the new Starz drama “The Girlfriend Experience,” when second-year law student Christine Reade, played by TV newcomer Riley Keough (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), finds herself taken aback by her own amorality. The reason: She likes getting paid for sex. Christine calls her sister Annabel and asks if her sibling thinks she’s a sociopath.

It’s telling that Christine’s big sister is played by Amy Seimetz, an accomplished actress, writer and director in the indie-film world who shares writing and directing duties on “The Girlfriend Experience” with independent filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan (2004’s “Keane”).

“People think it’s so bold that Christine likes sex and that sounds really sad to me,” Seimetz says. “Of course women like sex. What’s fascinating to me is that element that someone is willing to go out and get paid for it.”

On “The Girlfriend Experience,” sex is a commodity, the market is bullish and morality is nebulous.

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“[The show’s] not an expose on why she does it,” Seimetz says. “It’s creating a character that embodies why we’re so fascinated with women who do.”

The producers made it a point to be intentionally unclear why Christine adapts so readily to escorting after she’s introduced to the world of transactional relationships by a fellow student. By the end of the first episode, Christine has created alter-ego “Chelsea” and entered into “the girlfriend experience,” a world in which women provide sex, as well as conversation or companionship, in exchange for money.

The series zeros in on the moral ambiguity of a character who enters sex work not because she’s forced to but because she enjoys both the profession and the perks. It also provides an opportunity for Seimetz to address flaws she’s perceived in how Hollywood portrays female characters.

Amy Seimetz
Amy Seimetz
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times )

It feels like there’s been an oversimplification of the female psyche in Hollywood and that’s what we wanted to get into.

Amy Seimetz

“It feels like there’s been an oversimplification of the female psyche in Hollywood and that’s what we wanted to get into,” said Seimetz. “I like characters that are a little off from the norm, who don’t fit into this apologetic, nurturing role that women are expected to fulfill.”

When it comes to defining Christine, specifically, Seimetz said it has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with balance.

“The more interesting stuff, to me is, how she can compartmentalize and move through these phases? How can she have these secret lives and not go crazy?”

These are all themes that were present, if not prevalent in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 low-budget film from which “The Girlfriend Experience” is adapted. Created during the height of the recession, it was wholly absorbed by the extremes people will go to to make ends meet.

Even for the normally eclectic Soderbergh — part-time blockbuster director, part-time indie auteur — “The Girlfriend Experience” movie was a curiosity. Featuring adult-film star Sasha Grey in the lead role, it was mostly improvised and barely plotted. It wasn’t a box-office hit, but it had its defenders, including the late film critic Roger Ebert, who celebrated the film for being “true about human nature.”

Beyond the title, the protagonist’s name and the rough premise, the film shares little with the television series it spawned. For his part, Soderbergh had never been interested in revisiting his past effort until a former colleague suggested that “The Girlfriend Experience” might make an interesting TV series.

“This could work,” Soderbergh says he remembers saying to himself, before signing on as an executive producer, alongside Philip Fleishman, Seimetz and Kerrigan. “I think the mandate was take the title and start over.”

Now the film has found new life at a network that, under the supervision of former HBO head Chris Albrecht, has established itself as a venue for underserved audiences with shows such as “Outlander,” the historical fiction fantasy featuring a time-traveling WWII nurse, and the drama “Power,” about a successful New York City nightclub owner and secret drug dealer, shows that also evidence that the network isn’t shy about exploring the more extreme moral quandaries life offers. (Starz is releasing the 13-episode “Girlfriend Experience” on a traditional weekly schedule but made the entire first season available via its on-demand streaming service.)

In taking on the tale of a woman’s entrance into sex work, Seimetz knew that she and Kerrigan would be stirring up controversy in the show’s depiction of females.

Christine is nothing so simple as an angel or a demon. And, no, she’s not a sociopath. As Seimetz playing her sister Annabel says, “You’re not a sociopath, Christine. Sociopaths don’t ask if they’re sociopaths because they don’t care.”

She is instead a woman with focus and drive and a love of her work, which happens to be sex work. You may not like her as she rejects typical moral compunctions. But she’s nothing if not interesting as she evolves during the show.

As the first season unfolds and Christine grows more comfortable with her new employment. She develops more boundaries — things like dropping problem clients or refusing to lower her rates — as she adapts to the profession and rarely seems phasedfazed by questions of what’s right, instead focusing on what’s right for her.

“Christine isn’t seasoned,” Seimetz said, “but she finds out that she’s really good at figuring out the ropes and drawing the line when she needs to. She’s not always making the best decisions but she’s at least handling herself.”

Watching the adventures of this new Christine evolve has pleased the character’s original creator.

“What I’m really happy about is that you feel like you’re spying on Christine,” said Soderbergh. “You really feel like you’re watching somebody when they’re alone, behaving the way people behave when they’re alone.”[The show] isn’t about, ‘Do you like this character?’ It’s about, ‘Is she interesting and do you want to watch her?’”

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Follow me on Twitter @midwestspitfire


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