Sasha Grey is often seen naked by strangers on her back or otherwise lying down, stretching out a good 5 feet 6 inches, and fans know the particulars of her raw statistics: age 20; 110 pounds; brunette; arched eyebrows that are gothic shadows of Greta Garbo’s. To look at her is to study a curious skeptic who thinks for herself and rubs against the grains of "normal" Americana.
She is a legend in the making, if you believe her believers. Is she the next Jenna Jameson, a queen of porn? But how could she be a queen, so young?
Immediately upon turning legal, at 18, she costarred in her first adult film, during which she asked to be punched in the stomach, not because she hated herself, but because she wanted to feel beyond the bounds of sexuality.
You hear a story like that and you view her compromised positions in porn scenes, and you, of course, come to the conclusion she is submissive. This would be the exact wrong conclusion. She finds it hard to believe, here in 2009, people cannot properly discuss the emotional and intellectual exploration that comes with BDSM. But to be fair, most people haven’t read “The Story of ‘O’” or other literature to be knowledgeable about the freedom and flush of one’s getting her hair pulled.
Anyway, Grey is in control. This year, she is making a notable leap into mainstream film. The director Steven Soderbergh, of “Ocean’s 11,” “Out of Sight” and “The Limey,” has directed Grey in a starring role in the upcoming “The Girlfriend Experience.” She plays a man’s paid girlfriend.
In an interview about his directing Grey, Soderbergh said she was perfect. In a scene with a man undressing, the look on her face was exactly what he wanted: confident and in control.
You hear controlled confidence in her voice. It is steady, almost deep, yet at 20 (turning 21 on Saturday, and celebrating at Tao at the Venetian), her cadence flows easily from gravity to laughing full-throated, never sounding anything but sober, intellectually hungry (she once told a Hustler interviewer her two biggest influences are Jean-Luc Godard and David Bowie), and certain of who she is and what she believes.
You see confidence and control in her eyes. Before she got into porn, she watched her boyfriend’s porn in Sacramento. She looked at adult actors’ eyes. What were they doing with their eyes? What, she thought, should she be doing with her eyes if she were to go into porn? She decided she would peer burningly at the camera.
“It connects to the audience in a very powerful way,” she tells me. “You’re [masturbating]. You want to see that. You want to see somebody making a connection to you. … There are obviously times when I don’t do it.”
Porn directors tell her not to look at the camera for three reason, she says:
“A), because it’s a feature and a plot, so they don’t want you to break the fourth wall, and they want you to stay in character. And B), they think it freaks a lot of people out,” Grey says and laughs unashamed. “They don’t know what to do, like, ‘Oh. That’s weird.’
“Or C), they’re like … ‘I want you to look like you’re into the person you’re having sex with.’ And you know, I’m multifaceted. I can do two things at once. I can be into the person I’m having sex with, but I can also be connecting with my audience.”
She vows her pleasure on camera is real.
“The only time I have to fake it is when I do a softcore movie,” she says, “and that’s usually for cable stuff.
She can crest the peak of pleasure during anal sex in one minute flat, she claims, and mocks me when I question this.
“Try anal sex. You might like it,” she says and laughs again.
Grey does not speak well of people who say they are anti-porn yet indulge in it. Grey is familiar with a two week-old study by Harvard Business’s Benjamin Edelman, and she draws a porn-insider’s conclusions about it.
Edelman scrutinized two years’ worth of credit card transactions on porn sites and discovered: Eight of the top 10 states that are home to porn-buying residents voted for conservative John McCain, while six of the 10 states with the lowest porn-buying residents voted for liberal Barack Obama. Church regulars bought just as much porn as non-church regulars, except on Sundays. And porn sells substantially better in 27 states where gay marriage is expressly banned than in other states.
“It’s a perfect example of hypocrisy, especially conservative hypocrisy,” Grey says. “I’m not one to sit here and judge here. But I think it’s funny that the people that condemn the adult industry the most are the ones consuming the product the most.
“To me, that’s living a fear-based life, and I think that’s complete [crap].”
Grey isn’t, unsurprisingly, conservative. She also isn’t religious. She believes in herself.
“I think people need something to believe in, because they don’t want to have control over their own lives. They’d rather be able to blame it on an unknown being, or a greater god, or a greater spirit of sorts. And I think it’s easier for them to blame it on that."
As for religious people who decry porn but view it: "They say, ‘I watched that porno and now I can repent. And since I’m repenting, it’s making it OK that I watched it.’"
Grey has been a nonbeliever since she was about 5. Her Catholic mother, who is not thrilled with Grey’s career choice, took her to church. Church didn’t take for Grey or her older brother and sister.
“None of us kids believed in God, so it was like pulling teeth to get any of us to go to church. I’d say I went until I was 12 or 13 — regularly. After that, it was really hard to get me to go. Maybe on holidays.”
Even at 5, religion didn’t make sense to her:
“I started to question, ‘What is it?’ You could put it as simple as that: ‘What is it?’ I don’t understand it. If I can’t see it, I can’t understand it.”
Now that Grey has been invited into mainstream film, she is fielding requests to be in more mainstream movies, though she also starred in an indie film, “Smash Cut,” directed by Canadian Lee Demarbre. It comes out in 2009. She is scheduled to star for him again in another movie to be filmed this summer.
She is still doing porn, too.
“I enjoy being able to have a foot in each door. I don’t feel at this point I should have to choose. I enjoy being able to be diverse in many creative aspects. I know many people would say porn isn’t creative. But that’s my entire outlook on it. And that’s my entire outlook on quote-unquote ‘mainstream cinema.’”
She won’t say whether she makes more money in porn than she did acting for Soderbergh. However, she doesn’t earn residuals from porn. Adult actors are independent contractors, paid for a day’s work. Grey could earn more money, theoretically, by producing DVDs or directing porn, except DVDs are losing audience to online porn.
“It would be kind of silly for me to go to a company and say, ‘Why don’t I direct for you?’ when I’m still not gonna make that much money, because DVD sales are down,” she says.
So she’s beefing up her multimedia on SashaGrey.com, set for a relaunch soon.
“I think I’d have a better chance at [earning more money by] getting membership sign-ups on my Web site than if I were trying to sell my DVD.”
Grey is a composed saleswoman. But she doesn’t have to sell hard. As the Soderbergh film signifies, Grey has become a darling of popular and indie-art circles. She’s posed for American Apparel. She’s been featured in New York’s art and culture magazine BlackBook. She posed for still photos and video by underground film hero Richard Kern. She’s appeared in music videos for the Roots and Smashing Pumpkins. At 19, she was the subject of a sprawling L.A. Times magazine profile. On Thursday, she posed for a new spread in Flaunt magazine in a shoot inspired by the 1971 Jane Fonda-Donald Sutherland movie “Klute.”
There is always a backlash. She was presented as a caricature on Tyra Bank’s talk show and on the entertainment magazine show, “The Insider.”
And again, in porn theories, she has at times raised hope she could be the next Jenna Jameson? Is that her goal?
“No,” she says forcefully. “My goal is to be myself, and to challenge stereotypes, and to follow the rules, and break them, and make new rules. It’s not about doing something that’s already been done. That would be silly. Don’t get me wrong. I do respect her. But it’s not who I am.”
How specifically does she plan to challenge stereotypes?
“I don’t think it’s any one specific thing. It’s life,” she says. “In this particular moment, obviously there are the stereotypes of being in the adult film world, and what weight that carries with you.”
So that’s what she wants to challenge, those mainstream climaxes normally kept beyond the bounds of people who perform sex for money — so says the 110-pound, 20-year-old porn star turned movie star who stares into the camera and senses destiny.