She’s probably one of those girls you talk shit about,” says Riley Keough. The 26-year-old actress is huddled on a couch in a Soho hotel room, a coat spread across her lap and a cup of tea nearby to stave off some overenthusiastic air conditioning. She’s thinking about how she would have reacted to Christine — the character she plays on Starz’s half-hour drama The Girlfriend Experience — if they’d met as teenagers. “She’s the type of girl that you go to school with that you’re threatened by their sexuality and ability to steal your man.”
Which makes sense, given that the anthology drama (which premieres April 10th) flips the bird at the idea of “sympathetic characters” right off the bat. It begins with Christine meeting her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) in a fancy hotel room. They call room service, whip out a credit card that belongs to neither of them (it’s from one of Avery’s “customers”), ask for the price of the most expensive bottle of champagne on the menu — and then, dissatisfied with the result, order an even more costly bottle of wine instead. With a side of French fries.
“That’s a scene that Amy wrote late in the shoot,” says Steven Soderbergh. The Oscar-winning filmmaker serves as an executive producer on the series, which was “suggested” by his chilly, experimental 2009 character study of the same name (starring ex-porn star Sasha Grey) , but entirely co-written and directed by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. “She was saying, ‘I want a scene to indicate that there’s a part of Christine that really doesn’t have a problem taking advantage of an opportunity.’ There’s no part of her that’s like, oh, that’s not really cool, to put a $900 bottle of wine on some guy’s card.”
Juggling an internship at a prestigious Chicago law firm and college classes, Christine is already overbooked, but when Avery introduces her to the business of “girlfriend experiences,” she’s intrigued. The women don’t just have sex with their clients (and sometimes, there’s no intercourse at all). They’re paid a lot of money, often by wealthy and successful married men, to enter into “transactional relationships” — going on dates and vacations, providing the experience of emotional intimacy along with a physical connection. Soon overcoming her initial skepticism, our heroine discovers she has a knack for the work, and likes it: the money, the sex, the power, and the performance.
Set in swank hotel rooms and apartments, glassy offices, and pristine restaurants, the show’s sleek, emotionless aesthetic matches Christine’s growing confidence as both her internship and her side business take off. “We’re not really interested in exposition or people going on about their feelings or thoughts,” Kerrigan says later, between gulps of coffee. “We prefer to show how people actually interact with each other rather than talking about it. Which is very antithetical to traditional television.”
There’s almost nothing traditional about The Girlfriend Experience. After series co-producer Philip Fleischmann floated the idea of developing the film into a TV series, Soderbergh (who describes himself as being “the uncle” of the show) came up with the idea of pairing a male and a female director. He’d known Kerrigan, a TV veteran, for years — Soderbergh produced his 2004 feature film Keane — and met the indie-cinema triple-threat Seimetz through Shane Carruth (who also scores the show) when she starred in Carruth’s 2013 film Upstream Color. The duo had actually worked together briefly on the AMC series The Killing, but had never formally met — so Soderbergh arranged what he calls a “real shotgun marriage.”
Their matchmaker only handed over two conditions for the project: They had to take the title, but nothing else; and they couldn’t set it in New York, where the original film took place. (The series takes place in Chicago.) Soderbergh gave notes on early scripts and connected the pair with Keough, an up-and-coming actress (and daughter of Lisa Marie Presley) who had a small part in Magic Mike. But the show is all Kerrigan and Seimetz — and luckily, they worked well as a team, writing the whole 13-episode season together and trading off directorial duties by flipping a coin. (Keough says taking direction from each was very different: Seimetz is an improviser, open to experimentation, where as Kerrigan is a “brainiac, smart freak” who is particular about everything — “he’s a different breed of human,” she says with affection.)
While researching the movie years ago, Soderbergh interviewed eight or nine women who ran girlfriend-experience businesses, most of whom had college degrees, accountants, and five-year plans to use their earnings to pay for school or future ventures. Keough did similar prep: “We only spoke to girls who were doing it because they liked it. That’s a world I never even knew existed. I hear about prostitution, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’ Then they’re like, ‘No, no, no. There’s this whole other world of girls who are putting themselves through college who really enjoy this, like really like it.’ I was interested in those girls. I couldn’t wrap my head around that, because I just wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Furthermore, The Girlfriend Experience challenges whatever expectations we bring about Christine’s past — mostly because she is educated, successful, and has no history of abuse; the show even goes out of its way to depict her healthy relationship with her father. “Typically we’re told the story of somebody who’s oppressed, and it’s very dark, and they’re forced into it,” says Keough. “Steven called me and was like, ‘I want to do a show about a girl who’s not a victim and decides to do this. Because that happens. A lot.” Soderbergh says that he’s talked about doing projects based on the opposite experience — forced sex labor and human trafficking — but that with those stories, “There is no other hand. It’s just bad, and everybody knows it.” What intrigued him about telling a girlfriend-experience story was that “this is a gray area. It’s been a gray area since the beginning of recorded history. It’s still something that people are trying to figure out … and it’s just a bad idea as a filmmaker to judge any of your characters.”
Kerrigan agrees. “We weren’t going to comment on the sex industry, [and say] whether it’s good or bad,” he says. “We also wanted the audience to really participate in a way that they have to make up their own minds about…the decisions that she makes.” When asked if that non-choice was a choice in itself, he shakes his head. “I think Amy and I are both very non-judgmental people,” he says. “I think we have tremendous respect for the character, and that’s reflected in the work. At least I hope so.”