TV Series // Riley Keough Network

Go underneath the covers for a behind the scenes look at The Girlfriend Experience premiere.

Posted by The Girlfriend Experience on Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Wrap published 6 new portrait pictures of Riley from ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Panel back in January.

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Photoshoots > 2016 > January 8 – The Wrap for ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ – Portraits by Robby Klein

“When you have an adult woman who is making a decision for herself to do something she’s enjoying, it’s not right to judge her.”

Sex workers are rarely shown as powerful or autonomous on screen. In most depictions, they’re struggling to escape addiction, poverty, or the local pimp. But the sleek new series The Girlfriend Experience, premiering April 10 on Starz, shows a different version of the job. Based on Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name, the series follows Christine (Riley Keough), a whip-smart law student who discovers she likes having sex for money. As a high-end escort, or GFE, Christine’s clients pay for her to essentially act as their girlfriend, getting from her emotional support, comfort, and, yes, sex. Christine, meanwhile, has the agency to trade on her own sexuality, for her own astronomical profit. Cosmopolitan.com spoke with Riley and Amy Seimetz, who co-wrote and directed the series with Lodge Kerrigan, about sex work, why you shouldn’t judge GFEs, and the challenge of faking it on top.

What sort of research did you do for the show?
Riley: I looked at every kind of documentary or film I could watch on the subject. I talked to GFEs, and I got to Skype with one of the girls.
Amy: We interviewed a ton of women. One of our executive producers would blind email the women, and most of them thought it was a hoax, which was the most interesting thing. They thought we were scarier than men who were emailing them to be clients. Are you a cop? But we interviewed a lot of women and even their johns as well.

What interested you about the role?
Riley: It was a role that you don’t see for a lead female character, particularly on a TV show. She’s not extremely likable, she’s kind of selfish and a borderline sociopath, she really likes sex, and she doesn’t really care to discuss her emotions. She isn’t your normal sort of female. It is more of a role you’d see written for a man.

What fascinated you most about this world of GFEs?
Riley: What fascinated me was telling the story that hasn’t been told, which is the girl who was wanting to do this and wasn’t coming from an abused background. She has a lot going for her, and decides to do this.

How do you understand the difference between a GFE versus a more traditional sex worker?
Riley: Well, the girlfriend experience means you are playing the role of their girlfriend. One of the things I talked to the GFE about is that they are playing a part, and they are adapting to every man and listening to his problems. They really unload on these women, so you are handling a lot of their emotional baggage as well.

In bed, she’s always on top.
Riley: It’s really tiring to fake sex — you are breathing in and out so much that you feel like you are going to faint. And I’m like, “Oh, I just want to be on the bottom.”  It’s a super profound metaphor.

So you interviewed GFEs and their johns for the film — what did you take away from talking to them?
Amy: One thing is that the women are totally normal. The most striking thing is that you would never know. Especially the women that we interviewed. We have this idea of what a prostitute looks like, or what women who want to be doing this look like. [In fact] they just look like a college student or some girl at the gym. Totally normal people.

What was their motivation?
Amy: In their head they didn’t have a stigma against exchanging money for their ability to spend time with men and have sex. I don’t think every woman can do that, but they were totally fine with it. Somebody that’s going to question it is not going to do it. It’s not somebody who’s like, “I don’t know … maybe I want to get into sex work?”

How does that play into Christine’s character?
Riley: I think that she really likes power and control and sex, and we establish that very quickly. She’d always had that [hunger], she was just channeling it into law school, and she found something else that interested her more, and gave her more power and more control. And I think she really gets off on that.

Is she a sociopath?
Riley: My favorite thing about this show is we are not telling people how to feel about things, which is kind of why I wanted to do it.

Why was it important not to take a stance?
Riley: Because everyone’s morals are different, and I don’t think anyone has the right to say what’s right or wrong for different people if they are making their own decisions and they are an adult. If you are oppressed, and forced to do underground sex trafficking and are being abused, that’s very different. If you took a vote with every person in the world, majority would vote that’s wrong. In this scenario, when you have an adult woman who is making a decision for herself to do something she’s enjoying, it’s not right to judge her.

I don’t think anyone has the right to say what’s right or wrong for different people if they are making their own decisions and they are an adult.

Amy: If you consider sex work an industry, there’s good conditions, there’s bad conditions, there’s slave conditions. This is a completely different part of that industry, which is entrepreneurs or independent contractors that are doing this on their own accord, and that’s completely different than many facets of the sex industry, and that’s what we are exploring — not the whole industry but this particular kind of sex worker. It’s sort of fascinating that you find someone who is like, “I want to willingly go and have clients and have sex with them.” There isn’t anyone putting her up to it. No one is telling her to do it, and she is fascinated by it herself.

How common do you think these arrangements are?
Riley: The scenario with Christine is really common, with a girl that is putting herself through law school, who is really smart, and is doing it on the side. It is a huge thing that people don’t realize is happening at the moment.

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The Girlfriend Experience, premiering April 10 on Starz, is an almost claustrophobic look at the life of a law student turned high-price escort, Christine Reade, played by Riley Keough. The 13-episode series is an intense one, not only because it depicts Christine having sex with clients, but also because the camera stays squarely on her during a visit to the gynecologist, as she inserts a tampon, and when she masturbates.

Keough had no qualms about performing such intimate acts on screen. “When it comes to inhibitions and stuff I’m pretty, um —” she began before correcting herself. “Don’t have them,” she continued, laughing.

The Girlfriend Experience is “suggested by” Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie of the same name, which starred adult-film actress Sasha Grey. While Soderbergh exec-produced the show, all episodes were written by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who also shared directing duties. Keough — who, it should be noted, is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter — worked with Soderbergh on the first Magic Mike movie and was recently seen as an enslaved wife of the villain in Mad Max: Fury Road. But The Girlfriend Experience is by far her biggest role to date; she appears in almost every scene.

Christine doesn’t get into sex work out of abject desperation or trauma. Sure, she is a little behind on rent, but she comes from a middle-class family and nabs a swanky internship at a law firm. But her interest is piqued when a friend introduces her to the call-girl lifestyle. Refinery29 talked with Keough, 26, about how she approached this unapologetic, often inscrutable character.

What drew you to playing a sex worker?
“It wasn’t that she was a sex worker. It was reading a story about a girl who was very different from your average female lead. She’s kind of selfish and controlling. She’s not perfect and she’s complicated. I was very interested in telling the story of a girl who ended up in sex work who wasn’t a victim. Because that happens and that is something I didn’t know much about. I was like, Really? People would decide to do this? As their life career? The way that Amy and Lodge and Steven wanted to do that was by showing it in the most unbiased, nonjudgmental way possible, and letting viewers feel the way they want to. You’re watching more than this girl doing sex work. You’re watching this girl trying to figure out who she is, doing all these weird things, and sex work happens to be one of them. That tells a lot about who she is as a person. Because you are like, are you a sociopath?”

Did you do research or reading before starting the role?
“I wanted to watch all the content I could on the subject of high-class escorting or girlfriend-experiencing. I did watch a bit on other sex work, but that’s not the story we were telling, so it was kind of off-topic.”

What did you watch?
“Just anything I could find on YouTube, online, on Netflix. I read articles. There’s a world where very smart girls are putting themselves through college by doing this. And they like it. That’s who we were interested in talking to. We talked to girls who were and are girlfriend-experience escorts. They loved their jobs. Some of them were putting themselves through college. Some of them were retired, but still talked very fondly about it and their clients, and how much they loved doing it… This is what we’re conditioned to think is really fucking weird.”

How important was it for you to have a woman, Amy Seimetz, writing and directing?
“I think it’s very important to have a woman and a man. Steven did that for that reason exactly. You have a woman, so you’re not watching a man’s version of women having sex. It was very collaborative, and they both wrote and directed the whole thing together. We were trying to make it as neutral in every aspect, in terms of color and lighting and opinions and score.”

Did you talk about choreography as far as how you wanted to portray the sex? Christine enjoys sex, so did you want some of the scenes to be sexy and others to be less so?
“By the time I’d read it, the character arc and everything was very clear. So I wasn’t trying to go in and be like, ‘No, I don’t think my character would do that.’ Riley wouldn’t do that, but that’s Christine, and they figured Christine out and I think they did that perfectly. They’re not like porn directors. They’re not trying to get all weird on me. They are all incredible filmmakers. You know what you’re getting into when you’re playing an escort. You’re going to show your boobs and your ass and whatever.”

I wanted to ask you about filming the masturbation scenes. That, to me, seems like one of the most vulnerable things you can show on screen. What was filming those like for you?
“We wanted to show things that you don’t really see, like the girl getting her period or the girl masturbating… You really feel like you’re creeping in on this girl, so it’s a bit uncomfortable. It’s not like we’re showing her masturbate just to have a masturbation scene. It’s showing every part of this person and her private moments.”

You know what you’re getting into when you’re playing an escort. You’re going to show your boobs and your ass and whatever. – Riley Keough

You mentioned wondering if she’s a sociopath. Christine wonders that aloud herself. Do you think she’s a sociopath?
“I think we wanted that to be up to the audience. It’s all very ambiguous. Sociopaths can’t self- diagnose. But, then again, maybe they can ask? Who knows? I think she’s a rare breed of human.”

Do you think she finds being an escort empowering?
“Yeah, I think she finds being in control of everything empowering. Things happen later on where she does everything she can to come out on top again. Everything’s about control for her. I think she’s a control freak and I think she channels that into everything she’s doing, whether it’s getting dressed or working in her law office or her other job.”

There’s been a lot of talk about the decriminalization of sex work. Some celebrities have come out against decriminalization, and have gotten some flack for that. Did you develop an opinion over the course of the series?
“My opinion is that everybody has their own moral code, and no one’s to say who does what. If they are not hurting people around them and murdering people and being super crazy destructive, I don’t think it’s for anybody else to intervene on somebody’s path and moral code. I’m not pro-sex work or against sex work. I’m against people being in oppressive situations or forced to do anything. If somebody has free will and decides to do things, I’m not anybody to say fucking anything about it.”

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Quick pop-culture prediction: Soon everyone will be talking about Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience, the new series on Starz. She plays Christine, a law-school student who, after landing an internship at a top firm, becomes fascinated by her classmate’s work as a high-end hooker providing “girlfriend experiences.” At first, like viewers, Christine is stunned, even a bit scared, by her friend’s easygoing approach to something illegal and degrading. But then she shifts, and the scenes in which she first trades sex for money are so unexpectedly, unsettlingly thrilling that we begin to slip too. Just as Orange Is the New Black uses prison as the unlikely but rich setting to talk about sisterhood, TGE uses prostitution as a way to talk frankly about female sexuality. And that we can get down with. Keough and cowriter-codirector Amy Seimetz tell us how they navigate this complicated ground.

GLAMOUR: This show doesn’t endorse sex work, but it is crazy sexy. How did that happen?
AMY SEIMETZ: [Executive producer] Steven Soderbergh wanted to make a show inspired by his 2009 film but said he didn’t want it to have only a man’s take on female sexuality. He hired me and Lodge [Kerrigan] to write and direct so there would be both perspectives.

GLAMOUR: Christine chooses to get into sex work; in reality, a lot of women are coerced into it. Did you have qualms about tackling this?
AS: My intent wasn’t to say sex work is right or wrong—depicting any sex for a U.S. audience is a hot button! [But] if two consenting adults meet up and have sex, and money is exchanged, I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. Forced prostitution or sex slavery is very different, though. No person should be forced to do anything in any industry.

GLAMOUR: Riley, was it difficult to be that sexually explicit—time after time—on-screen?
RILEY KEOUGH: It was a lot easier than I expected. I thought it was going to mess my head up, but it was liberating. Christine is open and happy with herself—she’s cruising!
AS: [Society] perpetuates the idea that if women like sex, they’re f–ked up. It’s condescending when women are described as “really sexual.” We’re sexual, moving on!

GLAMOUR: And Christine drops the one guy who doesn’t pay her for sex.
RK: I’ve never seen a role like this for a woman: a smart, selfish, successful law student who likes sex.
AS: Women can be all of these conflicting things like a normal, breathing human being. It’s like every male character. Take Breaking Bad: Those guys get to have some sort of Achilles’ heel—
RK: —but not women. It’s just ridiculous, the sh-t you get when you’re reading scripts. It’s like you can either play “the hot girl,” “the homely wife,” or “the hot superhero.”
AS: Women aren’t allowed to be complicated on-screen.

GLAMOUR: Amy, did you fight for any one scene or character trait?
AS: When Christine gets her period. I kept saying, “Women get periods!”
RK: Amy shot more of the stuff that dealt with who Christine is emotionally. It makes sense for a woman to explore that side; we’re complex.
AS: I was only interested in showing sex that serves the narrative. Sex is a form of communication—and a fun activity.

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