We’re big fans of Starz’s adaptation of The Girlfriend Experience. And over the past several weeks, we’ve watched as the show (based on the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film of the same name) caught on with friends and coworkers…most of whom were previously unaware they had a subscription to Starz. Of course, you could also watch it online at Starz.com, where all 13 episodes were dropped at once, Internet-style. (We watched it on TV, because we aren’t animals.) Created, written, directed and produced by two female showrunners–Lodge Kerrigan and indie darling Amy Seimetz— The Girlfriend Experience was an atypical look at the world of high-end escorts, through the lens of a particularly opaque protagonist, a young law school student named Christine (Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter). While the usual debates raged on about the show’s artistic merits as well as its depiction of sex work, we weren’t the only ones who thought it was one of the best sleeper hits of the year.
Even after watching the season finale*, we still had some questions about what motivated The Girlfriend Experience‘s aloof and inscrutable central character. Was Christine self-reliant or merely selfish? Shy or sociopathic? Was she a victim or a manipulative exploiter, or possibly both? The show doesn’t offer any easy answers, so we went straight to the source: Ms. Seimetz, who along with being the show’s co-creator, also plays Christine’s older sister.
Observer: What was that transition like, from being an indie actress to a showrunner?
Amy Seimetz: I came from writing and directing as a filmmaker. And even acting was an accident: when I was younger I would just act in my own movies just for lack of resources. I was happy to act for free, while asking people to act for free was not very easy. I met a bunch of filmmakers through my own films and acting in them, and they would ask me to come and act in their work. It kept building and building until I began to take acting more seriously. I come from a background of storytelling; so however I can do that, I will.
I had made a feature a few years ago, Sun Don’t Shine, and directed it, starring Kate Lyn Sheil, who plays Avery in The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh saw that and asked me to direct a TV show. I had started thinking of directing television, or making television, only recently, because the landscape had changed so much. The independent film landscape has changed so much too, it’s really hard to get movies made the way you really want to make them and with decent-sized budgets, so television seems to be the new frontier for anyone that wants creative freedom to make unique things.
Observer: I know Beau Willimon, who created House of Cards, is a fan of your show. And I’m not sure if it’s just because Paul Sparks is in both House of Cards and The Girlfriend Experience, but I did see a sort of parallel between Christine and the Underwoods. And yet, the reception has been very different for The Girlfriend Experience than…well, any other show I can think of, honestly.
Seimetz: I think it’s interesting. Sex in general, and then you add the commodification of sex…everyone brings their own baggage to the table when you represent that. The goal as directors and writers was to try to be as non-judgmental as possible. It’s a hard task. Even as open-minded as I am, there were certain things that we’d be writing and I’d think “Well, that actually hits a nerve in me.” So to actually explore that, but in a really objective way. Not to say who is right or wrong or judge anyone for that. And in doing that, I think we made people really uncomfortable. Because they’re bringing whatever they have to the table, as opposed to being told “You’re safe. This is a far distant universe that is so far removed from you!” Or, you know, saying: “She’s really bad for doing that!”
I think people are comfortable when you tell them characters are “bad” for doing what we would deem amoral activities. So that’s what’s actually really fun, and a real joy, to be creating a character that is going to frustrate people who want to put her into a moral box.
Observer: Well, you probably just answered my next question, but I want to ask it to you straight, because I’ve been arguing about this with everyone who has seen the show: is Christine a sociopath? She worries at one point that she is, and certainly she exhibits some of the traits. But would you describe her that way?
“I feel like we, as an American Culture–and if you want to say that this is a sort of comment on American Culture in general, or how we commodify everything–I think we all display sociopathic tendencies.” – Amy Seimetz
Seimetz: I don’t think she’s a sociopath, but it’s interesting, because it’s a spectrum, right? I think what’s so interesting about her is that she just moves on her own terms. What I want to do with any woman that I write–or any character!–is just watching them move on their own terms. But on terms on sociopath…it’s weird. I feel like we, as an American Culture–and if you want to say that this is a sort of comment on American Culture in general, or how we commodify everything–I think we all display sociopathic tendencies. Just by being products of our environment.
Observer: Right, and we reward certain kinds of sociopathy, or call it “leaning in.” Like the female law partner at the firm who sleeps with a client so he’ll keep retaining their services…is that sociopathy?
Seimetz: Exactly. Men of power, in order to get there, have to be cut-throat and on the spectrum of a sociopath. And you would never call them a sociopath, but it’s there. And what’s really interesting is that I haven’t seen a female character display the spectrum in a way where we’re not judging it. We’re just saying “She wants what she wants, and she’s going to get what she wants, no matter what.” And whether that’s sociopathic behavior or just a product of our culture, I don’t know. I don’t think even psychologists necessarily know what a sociopath is, it’s just become a very popular term.
Observer: So, side point: you guys really nail what it’s like to work at a corporate law firm. How stifling and oppressive that would be for an ambitious and creative intern like Christine. She’s just supposed to copy and paste these documents, it’s very repetitive and the atmosphere is completely anaerobic. How did you capture that so well?
Seimetz: It’s funny, because it feels like we went to law school. Surprisingly, because even though it’s a show about a high-end escort. That stuff was kind of easy, doing that. I mean, we interviewed a lot of escorts, but that stuff was easy to imagine. We actually hired a patent lawyer, this woman Lori Andrews, she’s based in Chicago. She helped us a lot. But we basically went through everything and learned every variation of patent law…and though obviously, we’re not experts, Lodge and I feel like we went to law school.
It’s a side effect of the show that we weren’t expecting. I have this cousin in law school right now, and she says “Me and all the interns love your show!” I just think that’s so funny. I would never think we would gain an audience of lawyers or law students. It’s hilarious.
Observer: The sort of knee-jerk criticism, if you haven’t finished the series, is that this show only glamorizes prostitution. But in actuality, you show that this high-risk lifestyle has extreme consequences for Christine. She ends up being publicly humiliated, with a ruined reputation, and a family who is ashamed of her. For a lot of people, this level of shaming would ruin their lives. But for Christine, it’s a chance for her to evaluate what she actually wants to do with her life.
Seimetz: And it’s funny, because some of the responses…well, look. If this was a bad network show, maybe she’d end-up as a powerful lawyer or something. But that only happens in network lawyer shows. In reality, especially when you’re being true to the character you’re creating–whatever that means, because you’re in control–but she’s so good at compartmentalizing. She doesn’t like feeling powerless, and she doesn’t like feeling emotions that make her feel uncomfortable. So when she makes that decision at the end to completely abandon law–well at least in this portion of the story–she’s doing it because she’s protecting herself. She’s like “Well that’s an area I don’t want to go into, because that was really painful. So I’m just going to ignore it, and focus on this.”
I think that’s much more human and accurate, to show that, at least this phase in her life, she’s compartmentalized it and locked it away in pursuit of something else.
Observer: One of the most chilling moments of this show was when Christine said something that just resonated with me and it made me wonder: Oh god, is she not that different from who I am? It’s when she’s talking to her sister, early on, and explaining why she doesn’t have a boyfriend and doesn’t have any friends. She says people make her uncomfortable, and she just can’t see the pay-off in having them; that essentially interacting with people without a transactional component is a waste of her time.
Seimetz: It’s funny, I have lots of friends and I do love hanging out, but I do go through phases. When I’m being extremely productive, my brain kicks into high gear and I have to get stuff done; there’s something about just hanging out and talking to people then that makes me feel incredibly anxious. I keep thinking “THIS IS TIME WASTED, THIS IS TIME WASTED!” Though you hope you can balance the two, somehow.
Observer: In an interview with W Magazine, you really won my heart by quoting one of my all-time favorite lines from Adaptation: the “fuck fish” monologue.
There’s that scene in Adaptation , 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.
“I wonder if I am a ‘fuck fish’ person.” – Amy Seimetz
Seimetz: I wonder if I am a “fuck fish” person. I don’t know. Some of the personality traits of Christine are facets of other people’s personalities that I’m sort of envious of, and that’s one of them. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up Catholic or what, but I always have residual guilt. But my friends that are able to compartmentalize, to say “fuck fish” and “that part of my life is over”…actually, my sister is a lot like this. She is able to say “That phase is over, now I’m moving on,” without emotion. I mean, she’s not a sociopath! But she’s able to close a chapter and be very focused on moving forward, whereas I’m not.
So a lot of Christine’s personality are little pieces that I wish I had in me. Even her want for revenge and to win; whereas I’m always like “Well, there are always two sides of the story!”
Observer: So that actually brings me to another question I had: are we to assume that Christine, at the end of her evolution, is now willing to go to court to fight Michael’s family for the inheritance he left her under her call-girl name? That since she’s no longer restricted by a reputation to protect, she could use the money she made from her sexual harassment lawsuit to fight the family just because “Screw them?”
Seimetz: I think she loses that money, at least in this phase of her life. And again, I’m not saying that we’re answering that in season 2, because it’s a new woman. It’s more like this story ends at this point in her life, so whether she does go back and try to get that money, I don’t know. But it certainly wouldn’t be outside her character.
*The Girlfriend Experience is still airing its first season consecutively until its finale on June 26th, but all episodes are currently available on demand and on Starz.com. Long live the newTV!