The second season of The Girlfriend Experience, Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s Starz adaptation of a 2009 Steven Soderbergh film, is taking an approach unusual even in this most saturated moment of TV history. Rather than continuing the narrative of season one, which starred Riley Keough as a law student entering the world of high-end escorts, season two breaks the series in half with two entirely new narratives. (One is written and directed by Seimetz, the other by Lodge.) As a result, The Girlfriend Experience has become something of a cinematic universe, encompassing a disparate group of women all dealing with some element of the titular profession. But if the series is still defined by any one thing, it would be the characters, who give The Girlfriend Experience the continuity it has.
By the end of the second episode, which is helmed by Seimetz, there’s a good chance that one character stands out most of all: Paul, the first john who hires Bria (Carmen Ejojo) after she flees to a small New Mexico town to escape her criminal ex. Bria is in the witness protection program, and has been reduced to a far less glamorous life than the one she formerly led — working on an assembly line, outfitted in Walmart duds, caring for a surrogate daughter she doesn’t want. Her return to providing the “girlfriend experience” is as much an attempt to take back control of her life as it is a way to make money, wield power, and explore sexuality — the dominant themes of season one — but Paul complicates that notion very fast. For a guy paying for escorts, he doesn’t seem all that interested in sex, and he sure does asks about her kid a lot. It doesn’t take long before you start wondering what he’s up to and why.
In stark contrast to the clients from the first season, who generally ranged from “depressed rich businessman” to “cocky rich businessman,” Paul is equal parts sweet and discomfiting, a guy who leads self-help seminars, combining guru leadership in the vein of Tony Robbins with a New Agey infusion of crystals and scream therapy. It’s a remarkable tightrope walk of a role, exemplified by the first scene in which Paul appears: He’s late to his meeting with Bria at a bar, but somehow turns his lateness into a strange mission statement that involves the rejection of the word sorry and a surprising desire for Bria to “get to know him.” The scene requires a different challenge than your typical creepy-yet-charismatic supporting player. On the one hand, Paul seems kind, compassionate, and interested in Bria beyond the exchange of sex for money; on the other, the fact that he is exchanging money for something makes us wonder what that something exactly is. Even among our best character actors, it’s hard to think of many who could pull off the part — which makes it all the more remarkable that the guy who does is Harmony Korine.
Korine is, of course, the gonzo writer-director behind such lunatic classics as Gummo and Spring Breakers; he got his start at 19 writing the script for Larry Clarke’s Kids, about as idiosyncratic a beginning as anyone in Hollywood. But aside from a few small parts in some indies and his notorious appearances on Letterman — in which he seemed to at once delight and confound the legendary talk show host — Korine doesn’t tend to step in front of the camera. Even for those viewers familiar with his work, he isn’t immediately recognizable as Paul.
That’s why it’s such a treat to discover that Korine’s performance on The Girlfriend Experience is one of immaculate control, a precision that goes beyond the performance itself: He’s playing a character who is precise, a character who is manipulative and layered. It’s not just good acting; it’s technically good acting, the kind that belies a deep understanding of how to form, inhabit, and enliven a role. And as is typical of good acting, Korine constantly surprises and beguiles. At no point can you predict what he’s about to do next, even once you start to pick up on Paul’s peculiarities.
When I told Seimetz, the writer and director behind the “Bria” story line, how good I thought Korine’s performance was, she could barely contain her enthusiasm. “He’s so good!” she said. “I think people’s minds are going to be blown, because one, you don’t even have to be familiar with Harmony to watch him — he’s such a live wire.”
Seimetz especially values the directorial eye that Korine brings to the role. Like Jay Duplass, the writer-director who landed a breakout role in Transparent, and whose performance similarly obscures the nature and method of his character’s idiosyncrasies, Korine seems to have an instinctive sense of naturalism. It’s as if all the time he’s spent directing actors taught him how to avoid cliché and affectation.
“He’s such a director, and what was so fun about working with him was, he gets that with a scene, you can talk about it and talk about it and talk about it, but you just have to finally fucking do it,” Seimetz said. “He would be like, ‘Why don’t we just do it?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, exactly, that’s how I feel!’ Because as a director, every question comes through you, and at a certain point, you just need to do it and then it’ll be clear to everyone what decisions need to be made.”
Seimetz explained that Korine’s approach on set was an essential part of making the character work. Any actor playing Paul would have to muster an element of surprise; the character required that unpredictability, that sense of danger. Korine’s filmmaking experience allowed him to accomplish that task in a functional, practical way.
“Each actor’s different in their approach, and for him, because he’s a writer-director, he really needs to play around on the first two takes and go off in these weird directions to understand what makes the scene tick,” Seimetz said. “Not that there was any sort of argument — he never questioned anything — it’s just him as a performer. To get to a place where he understood what the lines meant, it took breaking it open and trying stuff that wasn’t on the page and then realizing, ‘Oh, right, I can get that same energy and put it back into this.’ And sometimes I was like, ‘That was genius, we’re going to roll with that,’ because that character requires such a live-wire unpredictable energy. I feel like I wrote it for him. It’s wild.”
Although the part wasn’t actually written for Korine, it’s not hard to believe that it might have been. And while it’s a total shock to see any relatively unknown actor, much less one who’s also a significant filmmaker, burst out with such an accomplished performance, it does make a strange sense that Korine had this in him. He’s always been a talented director of actors, and his characters tend to be so distinct from those of other filmmakers as to be unimaginable outside of his films — from the heightened rural Americans of Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy to the bikini’d criminals and Riff Raff–esque gangster of Spring Breakers. No one could ever accuse Harmony Korine of lacking vision, even if they found his vision inscrutable. But what’s startling is how smoothly he slides into Seimetz’s world — and that the breakout TV actor of the fall is the guy who made Trash Humpers.