Tensions and excitement always coexist when on the verge of something entirely new and hotly anticipated. Such was the energy at the red carpet premiere of the new Starz show “The Girlfriend Experience.” Intimate questions about what to see from characters and in unexpected situations were thrown out the window. In their place, the cast and crew were bombarded by everyone wanting to know just how dark and sexy the show really was. Quite, in fact, was the answer many found at the premiere event.
While it may not be completely original, “The Girlfriend Experience” only takes slight influence from the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film from which it was born. The themes of a woman leading a double life as a call girl are perhaps more relevant in today’s modern landscape of transactional relationships, especially in the world of television, where shows about sex and power — like “House of Cards” — rule supreme. That relevance, along with the star power brought by the filmmaker, was enough to inspire the network to work with Soderbergh on a TV show of the same name.
“The Girlfriend Experience” stars Riley Keough (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Magic Mike”) as Christine, a law student who is balancing a high-pressure internship at a reputable firm with school, and begins to consider an enticing new profession as a call girl. When her best friend, Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil), starts trading sex for money, Christine is intrigued and begins to fall down a rabbit hole of lust and wealth. The directorial team of Lodge Kerrigan (“Homeland,” “The Americans,” “The Killing”) and Amy Seimetz (star of “Upstream Color”) has been formed to make “The Girlfriend Experience” as balanced as possible. Each half-hour episode is a collaborative process with both writers’ names attached. Kerrigan and Seimetz take turns directing episodes, with Seimetz taking the helm on the pilot.
The same name may be the on the movie and the show, but aside from the name and basic premise Soderbergh wanted the show to diverge as much as possible. In order to work, it needed to be original programming. On the red carpet, Kerrigan was emphatic in explaining, “Steven said just take the title and don’t set it in New York. Those were the only two requirements.” So, the show is set in Chicago.
As Soderbergh is known for being extremely hands-on — for example, directing every single episode of “The Knick,” a feat nearly unheard of for television — it is interesting to see him taking more of a backseat approach to this project. However Kerrigan cited Soderbergh as anything but passive and said he was “incredibly collaborative.” On the subject of collaboration, he elaborated, “He comes up with really great ideas and empowers you to do your best work. It’s like three filmmakers having a conversation with one another.”
Collaboration was the name of the game from the starting point, with Soderbergh telling the network that he wanted one male director and one female director working in tandem. Both Kerrigan and Seimetz had worked with him previously. Kerrigan spoke on working with Seimetz as well, who he met directing episodes of “The Killing,” calling her “incredibly intelligent, talented and fearless.”
The creators were not the only ones excited to work alongside such an influential player in the industry. Star Riley Keough was enthused to work with Steven Soderbergh and said, “He’s very supportive of other artists and allowing them freedom. He let us all go together and do our own thing.” This is Keough’s first television role, so she had no idea what to expect, but said the experience “was very freeing.” The two were not unacquainted after working together on “Magic Mike” back in 2012, and Soderbergh remembered her performance. He thought she would be a great fit for the character that Kerrigan and Seimetz had in mind.
“Christine is very different from what you see females play normally on television,” said Keough on her character. Christine is smart, sexy and powerful, but still as complex and confused as real woman. She is close to an antihero in some ways, a role we have seen many male leads take on, but not a place where women are normally allowed to venture. “She’s flawed and controlling and manipulative and likes sex,” Keough said. “Something you are used to seeing men play.”
The role is not only different from what audiences are used to seeing from women, but what Keough is used to doing in her professional life. “It made me nervous,” she said. “You grow in situations where you feel uncomfortable. I’m always interested in that.” Hopefully that interest, along with the passion and uncompromised vision of the directors, will carry “The Girlfriend Experience” to success.
“The Girlfriend Experience” is dropping all 13 episodes via Starz’s on demand service April 10. The show will also be airing episodes weekly on the Starz cable channel.