Ask the nearest critic what “The Girlfriend Experience” is about and you’ll likely get a handful of different answers: power, money, sex, America, human nature, control.
But for the people involved in making the half-hour Starz drama about the world of high-end escorts, much of the show revolves around comfort.
Season 2 of “The Girlfriend Experience” follows a pair of storylines, each written and directed by one of the show’s two co-creators, Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. Kerrigan’s half follows two women’s romance set in the middle of a midterm election backroom battle in D.C., while Seimetz’s tracks one woman’s unconventional revenge story living under witness protection in New Mexico.
Co-creator Lodge Kerrigan made sure there was an understanding between actress and director that started at the very beginning of the casting process. He met with both of the show’s lead performers, Anna Friel and Louisa Krause, individually to ensure that from the outset, they each knew the full scope what their characters demanded.
“A lot of it is what’s on the page,” Kerrigan said in an interview with IndieWire. “I met with Louisa a few times in New York to discuss the project with her in depth, to make very clear that not only is it demanding in terms of the number of sex scenes, but also emotionally. That was really my main focus. Then I went to London to visit Anna for two days, to go over the material and certain questions. First and foremost, it’s always the emotional challenge that I’m most concerned about when I cast somebody. It’s not a role that you can go half-heartedly into.”
From that initial meeting, Krause explains that Kerrigan’s writing and preparedness helped to create an environment where there were no surprises and there was a unified vision that people in front of and behind the camera could unite around.
“Lodge wrote a really strong, complex woman that I could really get behind,” Krause said. “He answered any questions, because he’s such an expert on the topic. If you have the will to want to resonate the truth of what you’re given in a script, a guy who knows what he wants, and a small crew that’s so passionate, it’s amazing. They were all there because they believed in the project.”
That sense of trust extended through the actual filming of Season 2. Any scene that involved nudity was handled in a way that still preserved privacy and a meaningful separation between the on-camera vulnerability of the characters and the actress’ personal safety.
“[Lodge] wouldn’t even come in the room where we were shooting until the camera had cut or the take was over and we were covered,” Krause said. “It was so fast-moving because you’re not waiting for lighting set-ups. Lodge has the whole show edited in his mind already that it was easy to stay in it. I felt like I was in the best hands because he is so specific in his writing. He knows exactly what he wants. I couldn’t have asked for a more luxurious experience.”
For Seimetz and Carmen Ejogo, the director/performer combo for the other half of Season 2, the process of creating that environment of understanding also came well before production started. The two had a chance to meet and discuss the character before also having the chance to work alongside each other on screen in Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant.”
“I got to write for an actress, and she got to see the whole process of the scripts as they were unfolding,” Seimetz said. “I’d give them to her as I was writing them and she’d get to see drafts that changed, but she understood the conceptual ideas that maybe made their way into later episodes. For me, that was part of directing her.”
In addition to reading that on-the-page evolution, Ejogo explained that from watching the first season, she knew the show’s sexual elements were never designed to exploit. In her conversations with Seimetz, the mental and emotional aspects of the character were what shone through.
“She really lived up to her promise in that, allowing me to delve psychologically into this role,” Ejogo said. “I knew that Amy had such a clear vision that she was going for. To get in the way of that would have done both of us a disservice.”
That mutual understanding allowed Ejogo a greater sense of freedom in the many scenes when she’s on-screen all by herself. but when working with other actors, there was a specificity on-set that helped put her and other performers at ease.
“The scenes where it was me with another actor who maybe was feeling less sure, showing up on the day, I suppose in those scenarios, it helped for us to really do it color-by numbers and really lay it out and connect the dots. To know what we were aiming for physically, aesthetically, the whole thing,” Ejogo said. “There are other things with me on my own, for example, I was very encouraged by the idea that we just sort of riff. I’d be very open to hearing what Amy wanted and to be her tool in a way that I’m maybe more reticent with other directors to have done in the past.”
For Ejogo, part of that freedom of physicality came from a very simple place: her voice. Seimetz wrote the part so that Ejogo could use her natural British accent, one that she gets to use on screen less often than not.
“It shifted the performance in a way that was interesting to me. I normally play American characters, so there’s something weirdly liberating about going back to your sound, your tongue, your dialect. It pulled out some deep-seated parts of my own persona that maybe I don’t get to exercise very much,” Ejogo said.
Regardless of the kind of scenes that happen on screen or the emotional depth tied to them, it comes back to these actresses playing parts that they want to inhabit. Krause didn’t feel like she was being forced to accept a role that was less than what she was striving for in her other work.
“I really as a human just want truth. This show is going to give you raw, unapologetic truth. That, I can get behind. I’m all about committing fully, no reservations and just going for it. This show is provocative and edgy and it’s artistically satisfying. It’s a real treat.”