‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Co-Creator Amy Seimetz On Filming Sex Work Without Judgment

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While The Girlfriend Experience has premiered on Starz to positive reviews, its co-creator, Amy Seimetz, is halfway across the world filming Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant in Australia. “It’s been very strange adjusting to the time difference on the other side of the world and seeing The Girlfriend Experience unfold, and being so distant to a show I had my hands in through every step of the process,” Seimetz told me via email. The 28-year-old actor/director took the time to answer questions over email about The Girlfriend Experience, which stars Riley Keough as law student and high-class call girl Christine Reade.

Flavorwire: Steven Soderbergh approached you to direct and write this series. Had you seen his 2009 film of the same name? What were your initial thoughts on doing a show about an escort?

Amy Seimetz: Steven called me directly on the phone and asked me to write and direct The Girlfriend Experience. It was surreal, but it confirmed this wild path of doing what I want. I MUST give props to Steven for seeking out new visions and directors on this front, because we become so selfish and closed off as we fight for our own turf on the playground. The general rule is, you start with open arms, then get burned a few times and close off from everyone. What I love about Steven is that he has put himself through every incarnation of filmmaking and is still willing to take a risk.

Of course I had seen his film. It was brilliant. Coming from a family that was hit hard by the financial crisis, I was deeply moved by his anthropological approach to how we, as products of a capitalistic society, were/are coping. I think Sasha [Grey] gave an unexpected and human performance. I am always in awe of Steven’s work and performances he gets. But Sasha was really interesting for me.

My reservations about doing the show would be the same as any woman having reservations about doing sex work. It is not a job for everyone. Does it go to dark places? Yes. Is it something, I, as a human, can grasp? Of course. Do I agree with women or men selling their bodies? I don’t know. The “I don’t know” land is where I like to lurk. How else can we test the boundaries of who we are?

I come from a family, luckily, that is very forgiving. That’s given me the ability to stay nonjudgmental. I have never chosen to do sex work, but I know people who have. Whatever topic I explore, I try to be as nonjudgmental as possible—mostly because I constantly question where I will end up with my decisions in life. We are human, after all.

I watched the first couple episodes, then I Googled you and Lodge Kerrigan and I was struck by the fact that the show was made by a young woman and an older man, which mirrors the dynamic between Christine and her clients. Did the two of you talk about that? Would you have done things differently if you were on your own?

Ask me when I am 50 and I may have a different perspective. But from where I stand now, there was never a moment where Lodge or Soderbergh made me feel naïve, or anything less than an adept filmmaker. Yes, Lodge and I had our differences of opinion, but it was always on even ground. I can’t say that for many of my experiences. But in this circumstance there was a deep mutual respect. We both brought insights to the project neither one of us were expecting.

Riley Keough gives an incredibly bold and yet nuanced performance here—she’s so composed, even in very graphic sex scenes. What was she like to work with? How were those sex scenes filmed?

Riley is bold as a person. She, as an actress and now my friend, surprises me with each decision she makes. I am constantly searching for those kinds of people. She rejects everything—not only what the public thinks she should be, but also is questioning her role as an artist, which is the kind of person you want making art. Kate Lyn Sheil [who plays Christine’s friend Avery] is the same. Riley and Kate both have this ability to throw themselves 100 percent at everything in front of them. I like a little darkness and strangeness in my actors. Not to take away from Riley’s performance, because she is incredible, but most of the actors I was working with have had human sex in some form or another and understand the complexity of that exchange.

Were there other films or series that you used as inspiration for the show?

Klute, The Conversation, All The President’s Men.

Was Riley attached to the project before you were, or did you and Lodge cast her? I know she was in another Soderbergh movie, Magic Mike.

Soderbergh told us to meet with her because, he said, “She is magnetic.” Lodge and I sat down with her and felt the same. Riley is so self-possessed and has such an odd sense of humor and acute perception of the world. It’s hard to deny her as a major talent.

Watching the 13 episodes, I kept wavering between feeling that what Christine was doing was empowering, and feeling like it was kind of sad. And it ends on a pretty ambiguous note. Do you have thoughts on this, or are you happy for viewers to feel confused or unsure about it? There is a kind of power in a woman who makes people uneasy or unsure how to feel.

As a filmmaker you choose to show—and more importantly to not show—moments to keep the audience with you on a journey. Both Lodge and I discussed and created a story line we thought would make viewers bring their own baggage to the experience. We play with all the tropes of what people would expect from this line of work and try to turn it on its head whenever possible. We never wanted to create a character that wins or loses according to the norm. We wanted to create a character that wins and loses on her own terms.

Without getting too graduate school here, I want to talk “gaze” for a minute. I like how Christine obviously gets off on watching herself get off, and watching other people watch her get off. But she’s so perfectly poised in her sex scenes, even when it’s just her alone, that it seemed more geared toward male than female viewers. Is that something you thought about when directing the sex scenes?

Lodge and I developed the entire show together, and have had extensive conversations about this. There is a performative aspect to sex and sexuality.

To feel complete, you need to fulfill the role, however momentary your desire is, of that fantasy. Sex is so personal. I am not one to tell anyone how to explore sexuality in a definite context. Filmmaking is a device to explore a subjective vision. I implore those who have a different take on this topic to pick up a camera and show us how wrong I am in depicting it. That’s how we progress.