Earlier this week, Bret Easton Ellis announced his intention to cast a male porn star as the lead in The Canyons, a new film noir to be directed by Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and director of American Gigolo.
Ellis had long been an admirer of James Deen, who is striking because of his unusual appeal to young women – not generally key consumers of porn. When the two men met in January, they bonded over being unlikely poster boys: “He ordered a salad and we chatted amiably about the unearned feminist hysteria we both received at certain points in our careers,” Ellis tweeted.
Deen, 26, was recently featured on ABC’s Nightline in a segment asking if the nation knows that its daughters increasingly view him as a consort in their romantic fantasies. That Nightline saw fit to give him air time – the show is a rough equivalent of Newsnight – was further evidence either that the mainstream is more ready to accept adult entertainment performers on its turf, or that adult entertainment is itself becoming more mainstream.
“He’s exactly the guy I was thinking of,” says Ellis. “He’s accessible and represents the democratisation of our culture. He’s not some hot-blooded, super-tanned caveman pumping it — he’s a cute boy you could have gone to college with.”
Over the Hollywood hills in the San Fernando Valley, home of the US porn industry, Deen considers the role that could carry him toward bonafide film stardom. And he is not wholly convinced. Porn is regular work, often seven days a week, and the money is good, even if the fees – as with all filmed entertainment – have taken a hit since the collapse of the DVD market in 2008. He has two sports cars in his garage – a Nissan and a BMW – and mortgage payments to make on the house, which is virtually bare of furniture.
Most in Hollywood say the road from porn to acting is impassable; it is still the way out of an acting career, not into one. But one of Deen’s occasional co-stars, Sasha Grey, appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and HBO’s Entourage. The fashion industry has adopted her, casting her in shoots with Glen Luchford and Steven Klein, and the New York Times critic AO Scott praised her for an “unusual degree of intellectual seriousness”.
But it’s not clear that even Grey, with her male fanbase, can keep this momentum going. Deen fears she has become the “porn girl who did a couple of mainstream things” – which is more or less where predecessors such as Traci Lords, who acted in a remake of Roger Corman’s film Not of This Earth followed by John Waters’ Cry-Baby, Ron Jeremy and La Cicciolina got to. However, the latter was elected as a representative in the Italian parliament and did offer to sleep with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to avert the first Gulf War.
Perhaps Deen (he refuses to give his real name but offers that he is a Jewish boy from Pasadena) is representative of a new entertainment phenomenon. The recent Oscars broadcast sounded like a death rattle for the traditional film business. Meanwhile, on TV and the internet, chances are being taken and sexual barriers appear to be coming down. Take for instance the HBO dramas (Hung and a forthcoming pilot by James Frey about the porn industry), Steve McQueen’s Shame and two Linda Lovelace biopics now under way. But a porn star in the Hollywood mainstream?
“It’s eminently possible,” says Derek Hay, a British agent at the agency LA Direct Models. “A lot of the old taboos have fallen away. Look at Paris Hilton. Or Kim Kardashian. She was D-list before the release of her sex tape.” However, another talent agent counters simply: “No way. I don’t think anyone has crossed over successfully though a bunch of the females have tried.”
Hay thinks The Canyons’ producers are wise to take advantage of Deen’s female fan base. He is the first porn star to also embody the traditional clean-cut qualities of the romantic leading man – the Tom Cruise of porn.
Fans point to a certain courtliness and sophistication in his manners. He looks his partners in the eye, holds their hands, offers direction. On the street he is recognised but not mobbed; last year when he came to Britain an immigration official knew exactly who he was. Ellis thinks that Deen’s popularity is an example of a generational gap. Oldsters, Ellis says, “don’t understand how available pornography is”.
Deen is definitely committed to the cause. He is in a career that he planned to pursue from a young age. “I’ve always been hypersexual.” Nor does he plan to retire – some performers keep working into their 50s; some are finished at 30. “I’d like to perform for as long as humanly possible.” He not only performs but produces and directs – sometimes directing himself – and he mostly banks his earnings. “I’m a regular guy,” he says on the balcony of his hillside house. “I don’t go to parties, get drunk and take cocaine. I’m just kinda … normal-ish.”
Perhaps he could channel his popularity into picking up corporate sponsorship? “How would they do it? Do I wear a tattoo on my butt? A T-shirt in the beginning of a scene? How do you sponsor a naked person? I’m sure Coca-Cola knows how to sell its drinks. It doesn’t have to take a risk with me.”
Irrespective of the Ellis/Schrader project, Deen is wary of being accused of courting his young fanbase. The Nightline story, he believes, was deliberately skewed by officials at ABC’s parent Disney to portray him as a threat. “I’m not preying on America’s youth and I’m not trying to captivate that audience so I don’t feel I should be held responsible,” he protests. “I just have a few specific things that are a draw for an underage teenage audience.”
But he is not above speaking his mind. Earlier this week the city of Los Angeles passed an ordinance banning pornographic filmmaking without condoms. Deen thinks lawmakers are misreading porn’s purpose: to entertain, not educate. One place where the legislation apparently does not apply is in the 90210 postcode. “The industry will move to Beverly Hills,” he predicts.
The recent publicity appears to have muted his enthusiasm for the mainstream as much as excited it, and to have ignited an eagerness to defend the industry in which he found his niche. Indeed, Deen’s scepticism would equal that of the sternest critic. “People may say: ‘Oh, he’s dynamic and he’s got charisma and he translates on to the screen.’ But that’s different to saying: ‘Let’s put him in mainstream movies, and give him a Gucci campaign so we can sell more product, because sex sells, and people dig controversy.’
“I don’t want to be ‘that porn guy’ because I’m doing what I always wanted to do,” Deen considers. “The only reason I’m hoping to do this film is because it’s with Bret Easton Ellis and it’s something I can really get behind. If it was Steven Spielberg I wouldn’t do it. I’d say: ‘How much are you going to pay me because I have to work harder to do a good job. And I don’t get to have sex.'”