'The Girlfriend Experience' Is the Boldest Show on Television
We talk with the cast and crew of Starz's provocative and challenging sex-work series.
The Girlfriend Experience may be the boldest series on television. The show's first season set the show apart from most dramas both for its icy veneer, as well as its running time (each episode was only 30 minutes, a welcome rarity). While writer-directors Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan adapted it from Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film starring Sasha, Grey, they took the movie's premise and made something of it that's completely their own—and for its second season, they've topped themselves.
"Steven said, 'Do something that pushes the boundaries a little'," Kerrigan told me when I sat down with the season's cast and crew at the Toronto International Film Festival. He and Seimetz took that to heart; treating the series as an anthology, the two directors both wrote and directed two separate stories that don't connect to each other in any way. The season will air over seven weeks, one episode from each story paired together: "We thought it'd be really interesting to have separate storylines, productions, and casts that never cross over—and we saw certain themes in both storylines."
Kerrigan's story is titled "Erica & Anna," after its two lead characters: Erica (Anna Friel), a shady political fundraiser and lobbyist, and Anna (Louisa Krause), an escort with whom Erica becomes intimately involved. The setting is somewhat familiar to the first season's cold style and high-class setting, but Kerrigan weaves an altogether different kind of story—an erotic political thriller that becomes more wild, paranoid, and at times even scary as it goes. The "erotic" element is especially not for the faint of heart; few shows on television are so sexually explicit, but the matter-of-factness of the sex fits perfectly within the world of brazen political corruption.
To get the precise tone across, Kerrigan shoots almost everything at a clinical distance, often holding entire conversations in a long shot, with the actors' eyes and mouths difficult to discern. "I was always aware of trying to create tension within the frame," Kerrigan explained, the idea being "to make it very minimal and underscore the performative nature of politics and personal relationships. You almost see it as theatre."
For Friel, the minimalist visuals—which she described as like "a series of paintings"—presented a particular acting challenge. "That was my biggest fear. I said, 'Is this not going to be flat?' Because I'm really expressive and bouncy," she said. "It's almost like you're peeking through. It's voyeuristic." Krause pointed out that the writing on the page was similarly minimal, but that it provided a fantastic opportunity as an actor: "There's room to really live. It's so starkly written, and because of that you're able to fill it with so much."
The dynamic between the two characters is fascinating: As the season progresses, facets of each character become more clear, and the twisted way in which they relate to one another and those around them becomes an inescapable source of tension—particularly in the shifts of their dominant and submissive selves. Tracking that development was also a tricky task for the actors.
"Being submissive within the sex scenes, I found more difficult than being dominant," Friel told me. "It's easier to play the stronger character, but when you've got a really strong character who has to then show their vulnerabilities, you've got to layer that so delicately—otherwise you think she's gone from strong to really weak."
Krause found playing Anna's vulnerabilities just as exciting: "She's a powerful, self-serving, confident, and intelligent businesswoman, and she gets to fall in love for the first time. She's used love as a transaction, and then finds herself in love. It catches you off-guard."
The transactional element of sex work runs throughout the show, and Kerrigan's episodes in particular; his story's set in 2018, leading up to the mid-term elections, and as things go haywire in Erica's sex life, they also begin to fall apart in her political world. "It's tracking the power dynamic in their relationship, but it really deals with the fact that they're self-serving, and the consequences from that."
Of course, there's also the strange times we live in politically. "I re-wrote it after Trump won the election," Kerrigan explained, "because I realized that life was going to be much stranger than any fiction I could write. I put the corruption much more in the foreground." That said, the political climate still fits well within what Kerrigan tries to say about self-interest and its consequences. "I think the thin veneer of democracy that existed before has just been shredded and ripped down, and now you see very, very clearly that money and corruption really are the power bases."
If Kerrigan's episodes more closely match the coldness of the first season, Seimtez's episodes blow it apart. Her story, "Bria," stars Carmen Ejogo as Bria Jones, a woman who's entered into Witness Protection with her step-daughter after agreeing to testify against her criminal husband. In her previous life, Bria was a high-class escort; now, she lives in a small house in New Mexico, forced to give up most of the niceties she'd come to know and watched over constantly by a security officer.
Seimetz's episodes are colorful, with frenetic editing, time-jumps, light flares, lens distortions, and a generally more impressionistic feel than Kerrigan's. It's a startling change that fills the episodes with offbeat tension, as we watch Bria come to terms with her new circumstances while attempting to regain a sense of comfort by secretly working again as an escort. "Amy was pretty clear about her approach to filmmaking, and that it was going to be nutty but deep," Ejogo said. "I'll be satisfied if half the audience doesn't really understand what they've just watched at the end of it."
Seimetz took real pleasure in pushing her unique style, especially when it came to using strobing light effects. "I am so excited that we might get a seizure warning, which is like my parental advisory warning," she exclaimed. Filming took place over an extremely short period of time, but Seimetz worked with Ejogo for a year before to discuss ideas and get the story right so they could hit the ground running. "It was chaotic, and the performance had to be rapid."
Bringing sex work into the story in a believable way crucial and necessarily complex. "She's going back to this world to get something she wants. It's comforting. This is the most normal thing in her life right now," Seimetz explained. "Having that need also puts her in a different situation than I think she's used to." Ejogo agreed: "It's quite evident that the sex gives something to her emotionally, where it's nothing to do with the client at all. She's not even serving them, in some ways."
And if the show's lucky enough to get a third season, both Seimetz and Kerrigan hope to expand the anthology in even more new directions. They also want to send a signal to any new writers and directors they bring into the Girlfriend Experience fold that, "They won't have to feel like, 'Oh shit, I just signed up for two years of a Law & Order, fitting into some sort of aesthetic that needs to be established.'" What's certain is that, with the new season, Seimetz and Kerrigan have established The Girlfriend Experience as one of the most captivating shows on TV, one with a genuinely unique ability to surprise its audience.
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