Riley Keough Talks Masturbation Scenes & Showing Her "Boobs & Ass" On The Girlfriend Experience

Photo: Photo: Henny Garfunkel/Redux..
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."
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Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
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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