At first glance, the “Bria” portion of The Girlfriend Experience’s bifurcated sophomore year doesn’t appear to have much in common with the “Erica & Anna” half of the season. Where Lodge Kerrigan’s arc, set in Washington, D.C., navigates the impact sex and money have within the corridors of power, writer/director Amy Seimetz’s tale takes place far away from the nation’s capital city, in the desert heat of New Mexico. It’s here that former escort Bria (Carmen Ejogo) has been relocated by the Witness Protection Program after escaping an abusive lover. But she can’t — and, more importantly, doesn’t want to — leave the past behind. Under the nose of the U.S. Marshal (Tunde Adebimpe) assigned to her case, Bria starts to once again provide “girlfriend experiences” even though it jeopardizes her safety.
Although separated by geography and circumstance, “Erica & Anna” and “Bria” are united in the way they depict government intrusion into women’s personal lives. Escort Anna (Louisa Krause) and political operative Erica (Anna Friel) both willingly serve as pawns in D.C.’s never-ending political gamesmanship. For Bria, her new existence is created and rigidly enforced by federal officers, who insist they know what’s best for her. In light of the recent regressive moves by the current administration in regard to issues like birth control and workplace equality, Seimetz’s portrait of a woman fighting a male-dominated system to pursue her own destiny couldn’t be more timely.
“You’re just telling everyone my subtext,” Seimetz said with a laugh when Yahoo Entertainment sat down with her and Ejogo at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss The Girlfriend Experience. “It’s always been that way for women, to be quite honest. This sounds terrible, but I almost had a sigh of relief when Trump was elected because now I don’t have to have all these conversations in my own head about sexism.” Ejogo concurred and added that “Bria” likely wouldn’t have had as much impact if she and Seimetz had tried to tell this story even five years ago: “People are ready now to have this honest dialogue with themselves and the public at large.”
We spoke with the duo about their behind-the-camera collaboration and the complications of telling a trauma survivor’s story.
Amy, you directed my favorite episode of The Girlfriend Experience‘s first season, and I noticed a fair amount of visual continuity between it and “Bria.” Was that episode pivotal to you in deciding the style and content for your portion of Season 2?
Amy Seimetz: Yeah, I feel like I’m really great when women are losing their s**t! That’s my territory. [Laughs] In television, you’ve got to lay the groundwork to earn that. And the first few episodes of “Bria” are a pressure cooker — that’s a term I used a lot when we were shooting. You’ve got to keep the water boiling and the lid on. Then you can have fun. Episodes 5 through 7 are just like, “Woo!” Last season, having not written or directed for television before, I felt like I needed to do something way more traditional. This season, I was like “No, f**k it.” This is the character; how do we get the information across superfast and get the audience to run with us?
This storyline breaks new ground for the series in that it’s a survivor’s story — Bria has endured a traumatic experience and carries that with her even as she continues to work as an escort. How did that affect your approach to the character?
Carmen Ejogo: This is clearly somebody that’s a survivor from the get-go, even if her backstory doesn’t get fully revealed in the first episode. Where does she go from here is the real question, and I love that the answer isn’t so cut-and-dried. There’s something really complicated about the people that I’ve known that are in dynamics that are maybe unhealthy for them, whether it’s transactional relationships or marriages. I know plenty of people that remain in scenarios that are really not good for them, and they know they should be leaving, and it’s a constant battle in themselves. Beyond that, it’s interesting to explore how women’s minds work when confronted with this sort of stuff in any aspect of their lives.
Seimetz: When you go through trauma, your reaction is never clean or rational. We’re dealing with a woman who has definitely been through trauma but refuses to be seen as a victim, almost to the point of her undoing herself. Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s really hard to be treated like a victim, nor do some people even realize they’re victims. I think that’s sort of Bria’s character too: she’s like, “Stop treating me like I’m traumatized. Leave me alone, I’m fine. I want to move on. I want a new boyfriend.”
Ejogo: It’s funny — there’s an assumption that our choices play out in a linear fashion. The truth is, most of us are working with such immediacy in how we make choices. So inevitably you’re making decisions that are not really healthy or smart for you, and that will have repercussions down the road. We’re all survivors in that sense. We’re all just kind of winging it, if we’re honest. We like to think we’re leading these very organized and controlled lives and, in fact, a lot of us would be quite capable of making some very ridiculous decisions. Even now, I make choices where I’m like, “Really?” I think, in that sense, Bria’s a really authentic character in a way that you don’t see often on television.
Bria is also the first biracial girlfriend the series has featured. In your preparation for the role, what did you learn about the racial politics that exist within the escort world?
Ejogo: Just in my own world, I know how fetishized I am every day. My whole career potentially could have gone down that road had I let it. That’s why it’s probably taken me until now to go into territory like this. Had I done it at 20, I’d have had a completely different, exoticized career. I really worked hard not to be put in that space, because there’s a shelf life to that and, frankly, it doesn’t interest me. At this point, we’re maybe more prepared to play with that sort of stuff. We’re absolutely playing with [male] fantasies.
How does race factor into the show going forward?
Ejogo: It doesn’t, which is great. It doesn’t have to be a big issue. Her new boyfriend does have a type, it’s true. But Bria’s picking her clients, so the power is on her side in terms of who is choosing who.
What’s your collaboration like as director and star?
Ejogo: To be honest, I worked with Amy in a way I’ve never worked with anyone else before. I was so entirely trusting and invested in her idea that I would walk onto set and be all ears as to what she was expecting out of that moment, and then attempt to deliver. I would still bring my own spin and my own sense of character, but it was such a complete conceptualization that I was very happy to be her puppet. I’m not often willing, but I appreciated her approach. Having seen her body of work, I knew where she was coming from as a filmmaker, and it meant that I knew this was territory that could be handled in a very messy, nuanced way.
Seimetz: The nice thing is that I cast her before I really wrote anything. So even the ideas that I threw out, I’d share with her during the process. She knew everything, and then on set she’d be like, “That idea didn’t make it into the script, but is it still there?” And I’d say, “Yes.” You have to have something in common to reference: for example, I’ve worked with my director of photography, Jay Keitel, for 15 years, so I can be like, “Let’s do it like that shot in our previous movie,” and he can go, “Right.” There’s a shorthand there.
What can you tease about where the story goes over the course of the season?
Seimetz: The whole thing is based on the idea that we’re living in a time with a shaky foundation. It’s really hard to know what’s going to happen moving forward. The only thing you can do is take control of your own destiny, which is what Bria does. She can’t trust anyone, so she goes f**kin’ rogue.
Ejogo: That’s what we’re saying. She goes way rogue!
The Girlfriend Experience airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: