Sasha Grey isn't the kind of girl who does things by accident. No longer barely legal, but still only 23, the former adult film star conqured the porn industry and has earned a reputation for fearlessness that belies her soft features and girlish frame. Since being plucked from the realm of Internet stardom by Steven Soderbergh in 2009, who cast her in the lead role of his meta-realist drama The Girlfriend Experience, Grey has gone legit. She played a key part in the most recent season of HBO's Entourage, starred in a new Sundance indie opposite Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane, and Rob Lowe (I Melt With You), and has taken to surprising anyone who will listen by not being intellectually vacant, psychologically damaged or culturally bankrupt. As Chris Rock once put it: She speaks so well.
In Neu Sex, Grey's new book out via Vice, the crossover star shows off an additional talent: photography. The book is a compendium of photos she's taken (along with her partner Ian Cinnamon) at various points in her adult film career, dating back to 2006. More than just an excuse to show off that signature body (which gets plenty of attention, don't worry), Neu Sex is also part manifesto, a modest proposal for a new sexual awakening peppered with brief essays on gender politics and culture.
We sat down with Grey while she was in town last week and discussed the recent renaissance in American filmmaking, why books will never go out of style, and being slut-shamed as a teenager.
Complex: You’ve emerged as a sort of new breed of icon in the connected age. Aside from your adult films, you rose to prominence with YouTube videos and your blog. And yet, a book seems like such an old school format. Why’d you want to make one?
Sasha Grey: [Laughs.] That’s a good question. It’s sad but true. Well, I started taking photographs in 2006. In 2007 I had a literary agent who saw some of my photos and he said “Wow, these are great! Why don’t you think about putting them in a book?” At that point I was like, “Really?” I had never thought of that. The photos were never really meant to be published, they were more a part of the self-exploration that I was doing when I was making adult films. I wanted something to reflect back on. So when he mentioned the idea it encouraged me to branch out from the sort of snapshot or self-portrait aesthetic I had been going for at the time. I started taking pictures of different things using different mediums, and then, with my partner Ian, it became this sort of complete collaboration. We were able to capture things immediately. And, at the same time, if I had an idea, we could work on more thought out shots as well.
So why a book? Well, I think with photos there’s only so much you can do online. It’s the same reason people will always want to buy magazines. Fashion photography, for instance, looks great online, but I think you get so much more when you can actually hold it and it's tangible. Photography books have always been a collector’s medium. So even though books may be dying, I think [collecting] is their saving grace.
What about photo versus video? As someone who’s been in front and behind both lenses, what do you think you can accomplish with one that you can’t with the other?
Sasha Grey: You know, there’s a lot to that. I thought about it a lot when I was compiling the photos that I wanted to put into the book. I think with a still image, it can be translated in so many different ways. It can capture a moment. It can capture the essence of the person or the thing being photographed, even when it’s abstract. I think photos can be a lot more iconic than films or videos. Even though there will always be these big, iconic movies like Jaws, or Titanic or Scarface, and they may be your favorites, you’re only going to remember bits and pieces. With a photo, that’s ingrained in your memory.
Are there photographers or filmmakers that you look up to?
Sasha Grey: I really love Cindy Sherman. She’s definitely one of my favorites. A lot of people have been asking me if my work in this book is inspired by her, and it’s definitely not [laughs]. There isn’t anything derivative of her work here, she takes a completely different approach than what I did. Nan Goldin has also always been a favorite, and I think at some points in this book there are some similarities there. I was inspired by her.
For film, everyone probably knows I’m a Godard fan [The first porn name she wanted was Anna Karina, after the French New Wave director's muse]. I also really love Cassavettes. And I think it’s really cool that Christopher Nolan’s career has taken off the way it has. As a fan, it’s been great to see him blossom and become widely known. I just think this past year was such a great year for American film. It was the first time in a long time where there were just so many good films as opposed to ones that were just “meh.” I do think Fincher should have won [the best directing Oscar], but even so, The King’s Speech was a great film. It’s been just a great time for film in general. I think the audience really wants that level of filmmaking, not just comedies or easy dramas. So it’s been cool to see more character driven pieces become a large part of pop culture again.
"Growing up I was at conflict with who I was sexually. I always thought there must be something seriously fucked up with me. I felt so guilty."You were exposed to film and art and music at an early age. Why did you pursue pornography instead of a more traditional artistic path?
Sasha Grey: There’s a few reasons. I was 17 and in college working full time. When I wasn’t hanging out with friends or working I used to watch a lot of porn by myself. Watching it I thought, “Yeah, yeah I can get off. But there’s a creative element missing.” I thought that I could do it, and at the same time not succumb to the idea of the “dumb porn star.” I wanted to shake up some of the clichés about it.
It was also a way for me to encourage other people not to be ashamed of their sexuality. Growing up I was at conflict with who I was sexually. I always thought there must be something seriously fucked up with me. I would have a dream or fantasy and if I told my girlfriends about it, they would tell me “That’s fucking weird. You’re weird.” I felt so guilty. When I finally started having sex and read more literature about human sexuality, I realized “What were these hang-ups? Why did I have these?” For me, doing it and being outspoken about it was a way to tell people “You don’t need to feel guilty.” I wish I had someone to tell me that when I was a teenager. We’re all different, we all have different tastes. You don’t have to fit this mold of what society teaches us we have to be.
What does “Neu Sex” mean?
Sasha Grey: It’s really just a play on words. And also an homage to the band Neu!. When I was coming up with a title it was tough because I didn’t really wanna give it a definition, necessarily. I didn’t wanna say “This is what it is.” I wanted it to be left open for interpretation. So I just started writing titles on a white board and tried to visualize them. I thought, “This is going to be forever, so it better be something that sticks with me.” I wanted to use the simplest terms possible.
Throughout the book I describe my sexual philosophy, and with that there is this new idea of “This is the other white meat.” I’m not your stereotypical blonde, fake-boobed cliché porn star. And the title sort of speaks to that as well.
James Franco is another actor who makes headlines for crossing boundaries. He’s been on a tear lately collecting fancy degrees. Do you ever think about going back to school and getting a formal education?
Sasha Grey: Since leaving school for LA to get into the industry four and a half years ago, I feel like my career’s reached a great pace. It’s something I’ve definitely thought about, but I’m learning now through experience and traveling and working with different people. So I don’t know. I want to be able to go to a classroom and have open discussions about whatever topic, but I also feel like I couldn’t do that because as soon as I walk in I’m gonna be recognized. And studying online or at home is just such a solitary experience. I don’t think I would be fulfilled from that.
There are a million porn stars who want to have crossover success. What’s the secret?
Sasha Grey: [Laughs.] God. I don’t know. It wasn’t something I set out to do. It was never my goal. But I was lucky enough to be approached by a wonderful filmmaker [Steven Soderbergh] and I ran with that opportunity. I would be hesitant to sell someone “Oh, you can just switch from porn to acting.” No. That was never my intention. I'm very proud of the work I've done in the adult industry. I have no shame. So if you really want to be an actor, go for that. Pursue that first and foremost, because if you don’t, you’re always going to have resentment toward the adult industry if you don’t get what you want.
What has been the hardest thing for you about breaking into Hollywood?
Sasha Grey: Well, obviously there’s always going to be people who don’t read my book, or don’t read my writings online or interviews I’ve done. So some people will have this preconception of “The Dumb Porn Star.” Showing people that I’m serious and that it’s not a gimmick, that’s been the hardest part. Usually, within a minute of actually meeting people the preconceived notions go away.
You’ve talked, and a lot of people have talked, about your work and whether or not it’s performance art. What do you think is distinct about your approach and how do you pick what projects to take on?
Sasha Grey: Now that I’m pursuing acting, I don’t think of those projects as performance art. It’s a completely different thing. I’ve just been grateful to have some great things come a long. I just did a film that premiered at Sundance called I Melt With You and I was fortunate enough to work with actors like Thomas Jane and Jeremy Piven once again, and Rob Lowe. So I do look at this as my school. Being able to observe such talented actors and take in what I can and just continue adding on to my method.
And for adult film? How does one elevate that sort of performance?
Sasha Grey: Practice.
"I’m very proud of the work I’ve done in the adult industry. I have no shame." In addition to your acting, you’re also in the experimental rock band aTelicine. What music have you been listening to?
Sasha Grey: I’ve been listening to a lot of Brian Eno. I’ve always been a fan of his, but with this new album we were recording [The Falcon And The Pod, due out this month] that’s kind of been a sonic influence. Sometimes those things don’t translate to the audience, but it helps you kind of get in the mood.
Now that your book is out, what are you going to pour yourself into next?
Sasha Grey: I have a little writing group and we’re working on a screenplay with my friend Brandon Stosuy [the Stereogum writer] called I Am The Destroyer. It’s about an all-girl black metal band. We’re not even half way done, but we’ve been telling each other we have to get it made because it’s shaping up to be a great story. I’ve also been working with this up-and-coming director Frankie Latinas on a movie I’m gonna be starring in, and I get to kick some ass in that.
So what do you want to achieve with all of these various works?
Sasha Grey: I wanna be a wrecker of civilization. [Laughs.] No, really I just want to work my ass off and stay humble and continue to prove people wrong.