Amy Seimetz on the Powder Keg That is “The Girlfriend Experience”

The writer-director reveals the making of Riley Keough’s prostitute heroine, which has more to do with Monica Lewinsky than you imagined.

Riley Keough

When all 13 half-hour episodes of the new Steven Soderbergh-produced series The Girlfriend Experience became available to stream on Starz last weekend, it burdened viewers—and especially reviewers—with no small degree of angst. On the one hand, even if they disliked it as critics, they nonetheless found the series, which follows a high-achieving law student named Christine (Riley Keogh) into the world of high-end escorts, undoubtedly absorbing. (“Anticipation of The Girlfriend Experience curdled early, but I watched all thirteen episodes hopefully nonetheless,” the New Yorker’s Richard Brody tweeted.) But more interestingly, the majority of critics who enjoyed the show also seemed to be conflicted by the politics of pleasure (warning: spoilers ahead, even if it’s not that kind of show): Is Christine, who gets fired from her internship at a prestigious law firm after her side gig is revealed, actually an unwitting feminist? The question seems to be causing reviewers, especially the men among them, fits—not least because one of the show’s two writer-directors, Amy Seimetz, is a woman. While she was in Australia shooting Ridley Scott’s Aliens: Covenant, Seimetz, who is also an actress (she plays Christine’s older sister in the show), talked about the show as a “thinkpiece powder keg” masquerading as binge-worthy TV.

Hi Amy! We ran an interview with Riley before the premiere of The Girlfriend Experience, but I wanted to talk to you now because it’s interesting, and a little amusing, how the show has confounded critics. They’re having a lot of trouble writing about it. Yeah. [*L*aughs] I’ve been a little bit removed from things since I’ve been working, but we kind of knew that was going to happen. By design, what Lodge [Kerrigan, her co-writer/director] and I were trying to do was to make it so that whoever was watching would be bringing their own opinions and judgments to it. We’re not going to tell you how to feel. Sex is such a hot button; everyone has an opinion about sex. And selling sex is its own, even more heightened thing. If you take on that subject matter, you know exactly what conversations people are going to want to have about it, right? The different forms of feminism, the difference between the male and female gaze. And I think it’s confusing everyone because there is both a male and a female director. [Laughs]

It’s very strategic, I have to applaud you guys for that. I think what were trying to do was create a dialogue. The best sort of cinema is the stuff that leaves you talking or thinking about it afterwards. We wanted something that was not only provocative but leaves lingering feelings or questions.

Right, and I do want to return to where you left things at the end of the season, because it is an anthology series. But first let’s talk about the reactions to the first season. There was one male critic whose language in his review was so careful that it might as well be a legal document protecting himself from the wrath of the Internet. And in his review, he called the show a “thinkpiece power keg,” which I think is very true. I don’t know what you view the politics of the character or the show to be, or if you even want to put that out there. You know, for me personally, if there are two consenting adults and they want to interact in this form of prostitution, I feel it’s none of my, or anyone’s, business. The goal of the show is not to tell you if it’s right or wrong. And personally, I’m sort of neutral on the topic. There’re things about it that make me very angry, and there’re things about it where I’m like, “Agh, who cares?” What’s interesting to me is that everybody has an emotion about it. But politically, we weren’t trying to editorialize the topic; we were just trying to be as objective and human as possible. We were just trying to present this as something that exists, and we’re going to try to tell this story. And I think for the most part that makes people very uncomfortable, because in TV, although it’s getting more and more interesting, you’re still so used to the program telling you how to feel.

I think on one hand it could be viewed as a feminist show: Christine does what she wants and doesn’t care what people think about it. It gives her pleasure and power, and she is very good at it. And I like watching characters who are very good at their job. In that sense, it’s a workplace drama. But on the other hand, I can also imagine viewers’ pained expressions when she decides to forgo law school for the escort business. I think that’s why people are having trouble with it. Oh yeah, I agree completely. And intentionally so—it’s not a decision that either Lodge or I are saying, like, “This is what she should do.” It’s just what she does. The show is about a woman who enjoys escorting and enjoys power, or whatever you want to call it—the allure, the rush, the secret world, and how the rush of being attracted to that world is in complete conflict with society. If we had written the story where we’re showing her getting exposed as an escort, and she can still keep her job at a law firm, that’s just not realistic, you know? And Christine is very good at compartmentalizing. There’s that scene in Adaptation [2002], where [Chris Cooper’s character, the orchid hunter John Laroche] said, “One day, I was like, ‘F—k fish,’” and he never fished again. I really think when you compartmentalize to the extent that Christine does, when she failed in that department she was like, “F—k it.” It was to protect herself. Because it was a really hard thing that happened.

That episode, in which Christine gets outed as an escort via a sextape that goes around the office, was one of the most riveting but hard-to-watch episodes of television I’ve seen in a while. I can’t imagine sticking around to work in the office when everyone’s just seen your sex tape. Right. I’m really, or I have been for a very long time, really obsessed with the handling of the Monica Lewinsky situation. Just how sex created this powder keg.

You mean the media’s handling of it? Media, and also internally. This blame game of, “You’re a f—king whore.” It was like opening the lid for everyone to call women these really obscene names, to talk about women sexually in this way that is so disrespectful. And I can’t imagine what Monica Lewinsky was going through, and I guess that was what my focus was on in that episode.

That’s interesting that was your reference point. It makes me want to cry. She does all these TED talks about her being patient zero for cyberbullying. Because at the time, the Internet was very new, and it was the first time that an international news story had “dropped” on the Internet. The Drudge Report reported it, I guess? Ugh, that website. Anyway, it was the first time that everyone was able to comment on the Internet, and it just became this wildfire. But obviously, no one’s going to look at the episode and go, “Oh, Monica Lewinsky.” But that was the seedling of it—how we treat women when we find out they’re very sexual or into sex or open about sex. It’s not very kind.

It’s true I felt very bad for the way she was treated by her co-workers afterwards, but on the other hand Christine, as a character, resists victimhood. You can’t feel sorry for her for too long because she refuses to let us feel sorry for her. For me, this specific character wins. She does not like losing, no matter what.

That’s why she stuck around the office; she was trying to turn it into a win. Nobody else would’ve stayed. Nobody would’ve stayed! I think that’s why it’s so fascinating. Going back to the feminist question, I do think it’s very feminist to create a female character who’s very complicated and doesn’t have to be likable, you know? We have so many male characters who are so fascinating and yet not likable at all. For the most part, with women I find they can be complicated or “the bitch,” but they always have to have a scene where we’re like, “Oh, they’re human.” Whereas I feel like men can get away with, obviously, murder.

Yes, literally. I’m watching the Showtime show Billions right now, and in a recent episode the lead, played by Damian Lewis, asks the office shrink whether he might be a sociopath, which mirrors a scene Christine has in your show. They’re both on the spectrum of psychopathology—he’s a hugely compelling character who is definitely the hero of his show, so why shouldn’t Christine be the heroine of hers? Yeah. I’ve always been fascinated with peoples’ choices, or some sort of character trait which is either their superpower—which is how Soderbergh describes it—or her tragic flaw. I think simultaneously the thing that makes her a superhero is also what is tragically wrong with her.

In that way I think it doesn’t make Christine so different from Dr. Thackeray, in Soderbergh’s show The Knick. Yes, exactly! That character has redeeming qualities, kind of. I mean, sorry to go back to the Monica Lewinsky thing, I think in part too what came out of the writing was being like, “I really wish she had just fought back and said ‘f—k you’ to all of these people.” When she was on trial, she didn’t have someone to stand up for her. So I think maybe it was a response to that. I was never that person; I wish I had a little more Christine in me. And I have friends who are just so good at cutting through the business and winning. I wish I had that, and I might’ve created a monster because of that. [Laughs]

It sounds like you’re somewhat close, in your level of cautious nonjudgment, to the character you play on The Girlfriend Experience, Christine’s sister Annabelle. A little bit. I think I was more playing my own sister, the way she would respond. I hate telling this story because it’s very embarrassing, but I’m an actress, and I’ve acted in a lot of sex scenes. There was this movie I was in, Alexander the Last [2009], that premiered in theaters and on VOD at the same time. And my parents sometimes never see these independent films I’m in or that I direct. So they were so excited they get to see this at home, but I neglected to tell them I had this pretty graphic sex scene. And then the day came, and it was too late and all of their friends were going to be there watching. So when that happened, they immediately called me. They were very angry. And my sister’s response was the same as my character’s response after Christine’s parents saw the sex tape: “Well, what did you think was going to happen?” Whereas I’d be shocked, but I’d also be like, “Whatever.”

After shooting so many sex scenes, have you gotten better at directing them? I feel like I’m immune to sex now. [Laughs] Visually, I mean! I still have, you know, my own time. But visually speaking, it’s interesting for me because I don’t have the same fascination with the female form. I have all the same parts. I guess I’m more comfortable now communicating, and it’s all about clear communication with your actors. Because you never, ever want to tell your actors, “Just go. Just go pretend to f—k.” That’s awful; you never want to do that. And I never wanted to shoot sex scenes just for the sake of shooting sex scenes. I either wanted to learn something about her, or what the other character needed in that situation.

Right, and I think in a show with that many sex scenes, you can’t afford for them not to be narrative in terms of plot or character development. Exactly. In essence, too, we’re watching a woman enter the world of escorting, so each moment we’re watching her test her boundaries of how far she’s willing to go. So each sex act is testing that boundary.

I think the show is very sexy, but I don’t know how erotic you and Lodge wanted the sex scenes to be. I mean, sex is sexy. I had no interest in heightening the sexy factor, let’s put it that way. Her job is to make men feel that this is the sexiest time they’ve ever had, so with that comes a level of sexy. And that is the anthology aspect of it; she happens to be very good at it, but that is just this story.

Which circles back around to what we had touched on earlier. I was a little frustrated by the end of the season, because it ends right when she’s starting to become masterful with her clients. I think it is a little frustrating, but the ending felt right to us. Seeing this young girl transform over the course of the season into this, like, holy shit factor of how far she’s come. Now she’s mastered this art form, if you want to call it that.

That last episode is spectacular. It’s essentially one long sex scene, and the level of control in its direction mirrors the level of control she has over men at this point. Riley’s character is basically directing the episode, in a sense. Yeah, it’s very meta. Because in Riley’s performance, you just see her embracing it and giving herself and executing on such a high level that I feel like that last scene is us watching an actress at the top of her game. In the scene as her character, but also where her character role-plays as someone else in the scene.

Yeah, the levels of artifice are kind of mind-boggling. It’s a great show. I hope you’ll come back in some capacity. [Laughs] Yes, I think if there’s a season two Lodge and I will be back. But in the spirit of the anthology that Steven’s built, I think once we’ve solidified season two, by season three it’s a cool opportunity to pass the torch. I really enjoyed the experience and the creative freedom, but I don’t know how much I can continue to mine this material without it starting to become repetitive.

Right, the show is very limited—purposefully—in its staging. There are a lot of hotel rooms and nighttime shoots. Right, right, and the next time what we’re trying to do is to redefine the format so it doesn’t feel the same every single season. I can’t really talk about it, but my and Lodge’s idea for season two is a wild departure from the first season. And the reason we wanted to do that is when we do pass the torch, it gives the new filmmakers freedom to do whatever they want.

And after you pass the torch, you can go make the next three Fifty Shades of Grey movies. [Laughs] Oh god, no.

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Photos: Amy Seimetz on the Powder Keg That is “The Girlfriend Experience”

Amy Seimetz in 2013. Photo by Craig McDean. Styled by Felicia Garcia-Rivera.

Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience.

Kate Lyn Sheil in The Girlfriend Experience.

Amy Seimetz in The Girlfriend Experience.

Mary Lynn Rajskub in The Girlfriend Experience.

Riley Keough in the Girlfriend Experience.

Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience.