Sasha Grey: from porn star to leading star

from www.entertainment.timesonline.co.uk – The director Steven Soderbergh compared casting the 21-year-old porn actress Sasha Grey as the lead in his latest film to working with Brad Pitt. The interest in the sylph-slim, smoky-eyed actress, he explained, would be greater than the interest in the movie itself, a useful boost given that The Girlfriend Experience is firmly positioned at the defiantly uncommercial end of the Soderbergh spectrum.

Grey’s might not be a name that resonates through every household, but she has made her mark in the three years that she has been active in the adult entertainment industry. Last year she was the youngest person to win Adult Video News Awards’ Female Performer of the Year gong.

I witnessed the Sasha factor first-hand when I hosted a question-and-answer session for The Girlfriend Experience at the Barbican cinema in London. It wasn’t the stampede of autograph hunters at the end of the evening that surprised, however, rather the fact that about half of them were young women.

The path from porn to mainstream cinema, though not exactly well-trodden, bears the footprints of a few determined individuals. Marilyn Chambers, a sensation from the hardcore film Behind the Green Door, assured her cult status by starring in David Cronenberg’s Rabid in 1977.

The director Catherine Breillat twice cast the Italian stud Rocco Siffredi as art-house beefcake in her feminist-tinged erotic essays Romance and Anatomy of Hell, but Siffredi subsequently focused his talents on the porn sector, directing and starring in a series of self-celebrating titles such as Rocco Ravishes Ibiza and Rocco’s Dirty Dreams (parts 1 to 6). John Waters gave the teenage porn actress Traci Lords her first break in Crybaby but, while she went on to have a reasonably prolific career in mainstream cinema, it’s worth noting that the highest-profile title she has appeared in over the past decade was Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

So making the jump from porn to a wider public is possible. The challenge seems to be staying in the mainstream once the idea of “novelty” casting has grown old. So will Grey be the one to break the mould?

There is no denying that she is different. With her pellucid skin, petite frame and dramatic sweep of nearly waist-length brunette hair, the physical contrast to the porn-star stereotype is striking. The bulging, overripe artifice of her fellow performers accentuates her soignée delicacy and chic.

But it’s not just her looks that set her apart. Grey is smart. She has an autodidact’s appetite for art and literature and an achingly cool list of references. She is probably the only porn star whose MySpace page lists among her interests Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudrillade, Nietzsche, French new wave and Italian neo-realist cinema alongside “my ass and gash”. The Grey mythology states that, when she was choosing her professional name, she originally considered the name Anna Karina in homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s wife and muse.

In addition to her adult work, Grey models, has recently ventured into theatre and, with the sound designer Pablo St Francis, records brooding experimental music under the name Atelecine.

But brains are only so much use in the porn industry and what really caught the attention of the adult entertainment world was the gusto with which Grey approached her scenes, and her vocal appreciation of S&M and consensual humiliation. In her very first film, Grey invited Siffredi, her partner in the scene, to punch her in the stomach. Given that Siffredi’s oeuvre contains scenes in which he forces his sexual partner’s head into a lavatory, one might assume that Grey’s suggestion would be par for the course. It wasn’t — and word of her performance spread through the industry like a rash.

In person, Grey is immaculately poised and put together. She’s articulate and unflappable, even when, inevitably, questions turn to matters intimate. Unexpectedly, she’s also quite giggly, perhaps because one of the hazards of talking to a porn actress is that even the most innocuous question is suddenly sticky with innuendo. “So, tell me about Soderbergh’s directing technique — did he give you your head? Er, I mean, did he use a firm hand?” I’m drowned out by Grey’s laughter.

Grey was brought up, the youngest of three children, in a working-class neighbourhood in Sacramento, California. Her parents separated when she was 5. Perhaps because of her mother’s Roman Catholicism, Grey associated a certain amount of guilt with her nascent sexuality. “Growing up, I was the oldest virgin out of all my friends. When I finally started having sex, I thought, ‘I can’t believe I have been made to feel this way all this time.’ That’s not to say, ‘Teenagers, go out and have sex, it feels good.’ That’s irresponsible. It’s more that when you are ready, and you do start to understand it, don’t feel guilty about it.”

Grey started watching porn when she was 16 and quickly realised that it was something she could do and do well. In the run-up to her 18th birthday she thoroughly researched her chosen career. “When I first started thinking about it, I thought I could put on a British accent and so if anyone said it was me I could deny it. Then I thought, ‘No, that’s ridiculous. If that’s a choice that I’m going to make, I should be 100 per cent proud of it.’ ”

So how do you go about breaking the news to your parents? “My mom and my sister came to visit me about two weeks after I moved to LA. I told them in person. I said, ‘If I want you to respect me and my decisions, I have to respect you and tell you myself, not let you hear it from someone else. I moved to LA to get into the adult business.’

“Obviously my mother wasn’t happy and my sister had a nervous laugh. Now my sister and my brother are both, ‘OK, don’t be a walking cliché and we’ll support what you do.’ And my mother and I still have a good relationship — she doesn’t like what I do, but I don’t like that she’s Catholic. We’re both very stubborn, hard-headed people. My dad said, ‘As long you accomplish what you set out to accomplish, then OK.’ ”

And Grey has accomplished a lot. After reading an in-depth profile of her in Los Angeles magazine, Soderbergh approached her to play the high-class Manhattan escort Chelsea in The Girlfriend Experience, and Grey has two more mainstream cinema roles lined up. She has taken control of her porn work, managing her own schedule, starting up her own production company and branching into directing. “For me, it’s about creating something that can get you off physically and intellectually. Something that’s unpredictable, so you don’t know when to fast forward and when to play.”

After injuring her back in a bus crash, Grey says she has had to tone down some of the rougher S&M scenes. “A lot of those scenes,” she says, smiling companionably over to where her fiancé, the photographer and film-maker Ian Cinnamon, sits. “I really do enjoy them and its part of my sexuality and something I spent a lot of time discovering and developing, but it’s something I want to reserve for home now.”

Having control over her work and her brand so early in her career has to help. But is it really possible for a young woman to enter the world of adult entertainment and come out the other side unscathed? Certainly, the normalisation of porn in popular culture thanks to the X-rated exploits of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian et al means that the vilification that might have greeted Grey’s crossover ambitions a decade ago hasn’t materialised.

Still, there’s a hint of world-weariness that seems a little sad in one so young. “Everything in life is a transaction,” she announces at one point. Even love? “Everything,” she says firmly.

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