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James Deen on The Canyons, Social Anxiety, and Sasha Grey

James Deen. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty

No one in The Canyons is as notorious as Lindsay Lohan, but her co-star James Deen probably rates a close second, and he wouldn’t want it any other way. The self-effacing 27-year-old came to fame as an adult-film star. His exploits caught the attention of writer Bret Easton Ellis, who scripted the male lead in The Canyons just for him: As Christian, Deen plays an icy film producer who seems less than interested in the movie he’s making and far more turned on by the smartphone videos he shoots of his sexual exploits with girlfriend Tara (Lohan). Still, don’t think that Deen has gone Hollywood: On the day I called him to discuss The Canyons, he had just finished up another adult-film scene.

There was a profile of you a few years back that said you work in porn seven days a week. Do you still work that often?
Yeah, absolutely. My job’s not a real job. I mean, it’s a real job in the sense that you have to show up on time, you can’t come drunk, you have to do a good job, be professional, and stuff. But it’s not a real job in the sense that my day at work is still a pretty good day. [Laughs.] So, you know, it’s not the kind of thing that I have any desire to take time off from.

Do you feel like making The Canyons has had any detectable effect on your own adult-film career?
I’m the assist, so I could be the most famous person in the world and it wouldn’t matter that much. Let’s look at sex tapes: Colin Farrell is a good-looking guy, a big celebrity, you’d think his sex tape would do really well. Octomom’s porno sold better than Colin Farrell’s. And it’s just because guys in adult film are the assist, not the star. So, you have this situation where I can be famous all day long, but if I can’t show up and deliver a good scene, no one’s gonna hire me.

You’re pretty self-effacing about what you do, and you’re not comfortable being perceived as the star of your work. Why do you think that is?
I’m pretty awkward socially and I have a lot of … well, not phobias, per se, but anxieties is probably a better word for it, where suddenly in large public areas I get very panicky. I’ve been known to have panic attacks here and there. The idea of being onstage, the center of attention, walking down the red carpet … all those things are terrifying to me. But when I’m performing in scenes, I feel like I’m the assist, I’m the co-star. Like in The Canyons, it was great because Lindsay Lohan is the star and I’m the co-star. I mean, I’m the leading man, but I’m the leading man to her leading lady. She goes and does the TV interviews and all of that, and I just do phone interviews, where I get to talk to people like yourself and I don’t have to be on TV or put on makeup or anything like that.

You don’t do scenes with guys in your porn career, but in The Canyons, you hook up with a man during a four-way sex scene. Do you feel like Bret wrote that with you in mind to push your boundaries?
I don’t think so. I mean, in the movie that scene is very pivotal to the plot. It’s a very, very integral scene where it’s really the only way to push the envelope and show the power exchange between Christian and Tara. I can’t say for certain that Bret didn’t have it in mind, but from reading the script and being part of the movie, it didn’t feel to me like there was any sort of idea like, “Oh, let me try to take him out of his comfort zone.” I had no questions about the scene. It made sense to me. And he was really nervous that I wouldn’t want to do the movie because of it, and he was like, “Are you cool with that? Because we can change it.” And you know, it’s a movie, it’s not real. I don’t need to be stimulated and aroused or anything.

What surprised you about Bret?
I was really shocked that he was so down-to-earth. I even texted friends when I first met him — I was like, “Yo, hey, just in case I get chased down the hall with a chainsaw, this is what I’m doing for the next hour.” [Laughs.] I kind of expected to go and hang out with someone I was a fan of and probably never talk to him again, and the fact that I’m now friends with Bret Easton Ellis, it’s the coolest thing in the world! You know, every time we have dinner and start talking, in my head I go, “This is Bret Easton Ellis. That’s really cool.”

There are some allusions to Fifty Shades of Grey here, which we know Bret was really into for a while: Your character’s name is Christian, and he’s very controlling sexually and in other ways. What do you make of the whole Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon? Why do you think women are so interested in a character like Christian Grey?
It’s sexy. I mean, I can’t speak for women because I’m not a woman, but from what I know of Christian Grey, he’s a dashing, handsome man with a stoic exterior, and there’s a soft side inside of him — he’s Harlequin 2.0, if you will. He’s a man in control, and he needs a woman with a magic vagina who changes him and unlocks him, and unlocks the sweet part inside of this untouchable man. I mean, I haven’t read the entire thing yet — if I got a call saying, “We want you to read for this movie,” obviously I’d read all three books from cover to cover — but from what I’ve read, the 21st-century titillation factor is just a new twist on your classic romance novels. Twilight has the same thing.

You have a healthy skepticism about Hollywood … is that just something that comes with having grown up in Pasadena?
I think so. From a young age, I was offered acting opportunities. I mean, it’s L.A.: I feel like everyone who grows up here runs into some kind of producer, at some point. Or you see the kid who does a couple of commercials and wants to hold onto that life and ends up working at Starbucks trying to get another acting gig because he gave up on school after he made, like, $500,000 before the age of twelve, and now he’s eighteen and has no money and a drug problem. In L.A., I feel like you see stuff like that all the time. I’ve been seeing movie stars since I was born.

You’ve done scenes with Sasha Grey in the past, who capitalized on her porn notoriety with a role in a micro-budget indie — The Girlfriend Experience — that was also directed by a notable auteur. She’s since gone on to an acting career that included a role in Entourage. Have you talked to her about your own foray into Hollywood?
Sasha Grey has not engaged with anyone in pornography for a really long time. That’s, like, the name that is not said in this business. I don’t have anything against her, but in the adult-film world she has a very bad reputation for many reasons. The reality is that she was 18 when she started doing porn and between 18 and 23 her goals changed, and she wants to do different things now. Actually, my ex-girlfriend and her have the same manager, and her manager dropped her because in the Entourage meeting, apparently she had this whole freakout about how porn ruined her life. The second they left the meeting, in the elevator, she was like, “I think I’ll get the part now.” And the manager was like, “Are you serious? You just said that porn ruined your life and you’re just laughing about it now? What was that, fake?” You know, when she was 18, she wanted to be Belladonna, and she pushed the envelope and got dirty and nasty and all of this stuff, and then she wanted to be like Jenna Jameson and be glamorous, and then she wanted to do acting. I’m sure that in the time between I’m 27 and 35, I’m going to have a bunch of different goals and change my opinions on things. Maybe when I’m 50, what’s going to make me happy is making balloon animals on the beach. [Laughs.]

James Deen on The Canyons and Social Anxiety