NEW YORK — It’s the world’s oldest profession. It’s very popular with amateurs. With or without money changing hands, sex reigns as a transaction that stimulates no end of longing, curiosity and obsession.
No wonder “The Girlfriend Experience” should seduce viewers with this business of companionship between a high-end female escort and her satisfied clients.
A dramatic series of 13 half-hours premiering on Starz with two episodes at 8 p.m. Sunday, “The Girlfriend Experience” comes from producer Steven Soderbergh, loosely based on his 2009 film, and stars Riley Keough as an ambitious young woman who acknowledges she’s trying to burn the candle at three ends: She’s a promising law student in Chicago who lands a coveted internship with a prestigious law firm at the same time she follows a gal pal into a $2,000-an-hour sideline offering a “girlfriend experience” for men of means and premium urges.
Market value? A fair exchange?
“They’re paying for somebody who’s giving them something they’re not getting otherwise in their life,” says Keough, floating a commonsense reply.
In a recent interview, the 26-year-old actress displays a manner — buoyant, girlish, clad in a gauzy Valentino frock but with her designer heels comfortably dislodged from her bare feet — in stark contrast to her performance as Christine (escort nom de guerre: Chelsea), who is as poised, sleek and elliptical as this sexy show.
But as it glides through its narrative, whether in the office or the bedroom, is “The Girlfriend Experience” really about sex?
“The show to me is about control,” says Soderbergh. “This is a really interesting venue to explore a character who is discovering that she has power and that she likes control. And what’s also interesting is that, as often happens in life, this idea of control, even in a context that SEEMS to be very prescribed, is still an illusion.”
And therein lurk the pressures on a woman who (while keeping up her law-school grades and navigating the gender politics of the law firm where she hopes to excel) is selling men the personal touch while struggling to maintain professional boundaries.
To bring the series to life, Soderbergh paired filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan and actress-filmmaker Amy Seimetz (“I thought the show would benefit from male and female cross-talk”), who began by jointly writing the 13 episodes.
“All life is transactional,” says Kerrigan. “Here, we were very interested in a woman who goes into these ready-made situations to be very intimate with her clients: The question is, how intimate can she really be? And how does this role collide with the others in her life?”
By collaborating on the scripts, line by line, Kerrigan feels he and Seimetz counterbalanced male and female points of view: “We looked at the characters — Christine and the rest — as individuals, not as a man or a woman, then tried to understand their psychological and emotional lives.”
Then, with the literal flip of a coin (Kerrigan won the toss), they divvied up which episodes each would direct.
At the core of their tale is Christine/Chelsea, and tackling this multifaceted role was no small challenge for Keough.
Wed to stuntman Ben Smith-Petersen, she is a grandchild of Elvis Presley and a daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and musician Danny Keough, and already has an impressive list of film credits, including “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Runaways” and “Magic Mike.”
“It’s liberating taking on a female role where she’s doing things that woman aren’t ‘supposed’ to do,” Keough says. “And it made me think a lot about sex: Why there’s so much attention to it, why it’s so secretive, why some people think it’s bad. I didn’t come up with a lot of answers.” That’s not surprising, since the series furnishes few answers to the many questions it poses.
Meanwhile, the sex scenes presented their own challenges.
“You’re not really having sex with the other actors but you’re doing everything else: the motions, the kissing, the being very intimate. And you have to do it for take after take. It gets tiring.” Even all that heavy breathing: “I’d get dizzy-headed,” she says.
“I was thinking a lot about Christine and who she is before we began shooting,” she says. “I don’t want to do something if I don’t understand it, because it feels like fraud. But by the time we started, I had gotten to a place where I was like, ‘OK, I think I get it.”’
Soderbergh thinks she got it.
“Riley has such a sense of security as a performer. She truly seems to behave as though there’s not a camera there. And she had to carry the whole thing: She had one day off.”
This first season of “The Girlfriend Experience” (available in full on Starz’ on-demand channel) will cover Christine’s full story, then bid Keough farewell. But Soderbergh has plans for future seasons focusing on new protagonists in their own experiences in play-for-pay. Kerrigan and Seimetz are already hard at work writing Season 2, he says by way of noting there’s no end of such stories of market forces to be told.