Starz CEO Chris Albrecht and actress Riley Keough tell Michael Pickard why viewers should get on board The Girlfriend Experience.
It’s not often that a writer or director can demand free rein on a new television show. But that’s what happened when Steven Soderbergh first approached US premium cable network Starz about a new project.
The Ocean’s 11 director, who won an Emmy for HBO movie Behind the Candelabra in 2013, had wanted to reunite with Starz CEO Chris Albrecht since they worked together on HBO’s political drama K Street in 2003.
“So he came in and said, ‘Here’s my vision, two filmmakers, all the scripts, you’ve got to give me the money, we’re gonna go shoot an entire film and I’m gonna bring you back the stuff,’” Albrecht recalls of Soderberg. “I was like, ‘OK.’ Not a lot of people would say yes to that deal.
“There are few people as talented as Steven Soderbergh, and any chance to work with him I’m going to take.”
The project was The Girlfriend Experience, which stars Riley Keough as Christine, a law student and an intern at a prestigious law firm who is introduced by a friend to transactional relationships and becomes involved in the world of the ‘girlfriend experience,’ which sees women provide their clients with more than just sex.
Based on the 2009 film of the same name, the 13-part half-hour series is produced by Transactional Pictures. Soderbergh, who directed the original film, and Philip Fleishman executive produce with filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who wrote and directed.
During that first meeting, Soderbergh knew he wanted to bring Kerrigan and Seimetz onto the show and also that he wanted Keough to star, having worked with the Mad Max: Fury Road actress on 2012’s Magic Mike.
Albrecht continues: “Steven said there was this girl he worked with on Magic Mike, she’s fucking terrific. She’s going to be a big star.
“I think when people see this young actress… I got so excited when I watched all the episodes because it’s a brilliant, brave performance and she’s astonishing in it. I think people are going to be blown away by her. I watched all 13 in a row. I said I’d watch some and then go to lunch; six hours later I’m starving.”
Sex might not be an unusual theme for a show on a premium cable network, but Albrecht explains that the subject matter goes far beyond the initial implications of someone providing the girlfriend experience.
“In Steven’s mind, it’s what price intimacy?” Albrecht says. “The girlfriend experience is ostensibly different from just paying someone for sex; you’re paying someone to be your girlfriend. Whether you’re married or not, it’s someone looking for that connection. The other side of it is here’s this young woman, this character who tries to do everything she does in the best way possible. She’s an intern, a law student, she’s working her ass off and she gets introduced to this world and approaches it in the same way she approaches everything else, which is ‘I’m going to be the best at this that I possibly can be.’
“It’s a way to look at the relationships that people seek and to ask whether this is any more honest than many marriages or relationships out there, with both people getting something they want. So Steven had all that in his head, and that’s fertile ground that so many people can relate to – not necessarily the girlfriend experience, but the search for intimacy and the connection with another human being. When you’ve got a guy like him and an idea that could be pretty universal, those are two pretty good starts for doing a film or TV show.”
Soderbergh was also the reason Keough was drawn to the series. The actress hadn’t appeared on TV before, preferring big-screen roles, but she says the director was a big influence on her move to television.
“I don’t think he’s going to make anything that’s shit,” says Keough, who is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter. “Also, there’s a lot of really cool stuff on TV. The content’s getting really interesting and I actually really like watching TV more than movies. The character is really interesting. I liked how shameless she is – she doesn’t care about other people’s opinions and will do anything. She gets into a lot of sticky situations but doesn’t ever think she’s wrong, and that was really funny. I thought you would want people to really like the main character and have someone people aspire to be like, but she’s a realistic person – strong and opinionated and different to anyone I’ve seen.
“I kept reading the scripts thinking there was going to be some big drama, but there’s not. It’s very realistic and naturalistic and that’s the kind of thing I like to watch. When I spoke to Lodge, Amy and Steven about how they wanted to shoot it – the style and the tone, the vibe – I just found it really interesting.”
But that’s not to say Keough had no reservations about the series: “I didn’t want to be promoting sex work; I didn’t want to glorify it or make it look bad. I just wanted to make sure it was very honest and non-judgemental, and that was one of the biggest things all of us agreed on, that we are just showing a piece of this girl’s life.”
Keough also didn’t want it to be “some sex show,” and although she admits the script called for a lot of sex scenes, she says they weren’t gratuitous. “Surprisingly, when you watch it, it didn’t feel like a lot at all,” Keough adds. “And there aren’t sex scenes for the sake of sex scenes. It’s part of her job. Everything I was concerned about or thought would be difficult, I talked through with Amy, Lodge and Steven beforehand. Christine’s not very emotional or self-indulgent. She’s very real. I didn’t have a hard time with it.”
But what about the show’s potential audience? Albrecht believes The Girlfriend Experience will attract young women to the premium cable channel.
“They’ll be really attracted to Riley and her character, and it’s an audience that’s pretty tough to get to premium television,” he says. “Between (forthcoming ballet drama) Flesh and Bone, The Girlfriend Experience and some other things we’re thinking about, we’d like to continue to reach out to audiences that aren’t really coming to premium much and see if we can get them to be Starz subscribers.”
As well as Flesh and Bone, Starz’ ever-expanding original drama slate includes Ash vs Evil Dead; an adaptation of Neil Gaiman novel American Gods; and The One Percent, a 10-part drama about the world of organic farming from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) and starring Ed Helms, Hilary Swank and Ed Harris.
“We just respond to the stuff that comes to us but we do have a pretty big variety,” says Albrecht. “The idea that people can binge on these shows is something that’s also fun about premium. We have an on-demand platform, and for Flesh and Bone and (the third season of) Da Vinci’s Demons, we’re putting all the episodes up when the first one airs, so if people want to watch them all, they can – like I did with The Girlfriend Experience.”
Amid the ongoing debate over whether there is too much TV drama, Albrecht jokes that his job would be easier if there were less content. “But that’s why I get excited about a show like The Girlfriend Experience, because even with all the stuff that’s on the air, when you watch this show, you say to yourself, ‘I haven’t seen this on television before,’” he adds.
“I respond to talent, I get excited by talent. My faith in Steven has just been even more solidified by the team he has and him saying to me, ‘I think this girl is going to be a big star.’ Seeing the result at the end, he wasn’t kidding.”
The Girlfriend Experience is due to air on Starz in early 2016, and while the anthological nature of the show means a second season would involve a different cast and a new story, that doesn’t mean Albrecht is done with Keough.
“Everybody’s going to be talking about Riley’s performance,” he says. “I’m definitely going to try to convince her to do something else on Starz.”