Talented or tainted: Can a porn star go mainstream?

Keiran Lee
Image caption Keiran Lee is one of the highest paid British male porn actors in the US

Over the past few weeks, movie buffs have been enjoying the new trailer for a forthcoming Lindsay Lohan film.

The Canyons, a low-budget indie production written by American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, and due for release in the new year, has raised eyebrows for two reasons.

Aside from the public's continuing fascination with everything Miss Lohan does, the choice of male lead has also caused something of a stir.

The role has gone to James Deen, a well-known adult star who has performed in more than 3,000 porn scenes.

Numerous adult actors have attempted to break into mainstream acting over the past five decades with varying degrees of success.

But does the decision to cast Deen, taken by the film's acclaimed director Paul Schrader - famous for writing the screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull - represent a shift in attitudes by the mainstream industry?

Derby's Keiran Lee believes so.

The 28-year-old started out filming scenes with a small Loughborough company before relocating to Los Angeles where he is now one of the highest paid British male porn actors.

But the former railway manager has set his sights on an eventual move into mainstream acting and believes conditions are now ripe for this to happen.

He said: "The good thing about the adult industry is it opens a lot of doors for going into mainstream. It's not as taboo as it used to be.

Image caption Mainstream ambitions: Sasha Grey, James Deen and Jenna Jameson have all tried to make the move from porn to more 'respectable' roles

"It's progressed to a point now where it's like 'OK, let's put an adult star in there as well' because they have a fan base already and it creates that little bit of taboo.

"It definitely interests me. I'm quite lucky being in LA, I've got some good contacts out there."

Traditionally the only roles given to porn stars were as strippers, bikini-clad beach babes or exaggerated versions of themselves.

Jenna Jameson, one of the most well-known crossover adult stars, is best remembered for playing a stripping radio guest in Howard Stern biopic Private Parts.

But Lee feels James Deen's high profile casting, twinned with the much-heralded recent mainstream "breakthrough" of another adult performer, Sasha Grey, are grounds for optimism.

In 2009, Steven Soderbergh cast Grey as an escort in The Girlfriend Experience. He explained he had approached her as she did not seem to fit the mould of a stereotypically "damaged" porn actor.

Grey's performance received mixed reviews. Since then she has starred as an exaggerated version of herself in the US comedy series Entourage as well as taking a handful of smaller roles in low-budget movies.

But Gail Dines, a professor of sociology in Boston and author of the book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, argues that while the mainstream is increasingly absorbing porn imagery, it is not ready to embrace the performers themselves.

"Softcore porn has now migrated to pop culture so much of what you see in magazines, on TV and in movies mimic the images in softcore a decade or so ago. Performers on the other hand don't do so well crossing over," she said.

Image caption Steven Soderbergh cast Sasha Grey after reading about her in a magazine

"Sasha Grey was the great hopeful for the industry because she landed a plum role but she has only had minor roles and no breakout career yet.

"Female porn performers carry with them the stigma and sleaze factor because of the sexism in the porn industry and the way women are represented as debased, dehumanised and slutty.

"Mainstream culture may be willing to tolerate some softcore porn but is not yet ready to make big stars out of female porn performers.

"Male performers may have an easier time because they can cash in on their hyper-masculinised image, but it is too soon to tell."

50 Shades suggestion

The Canyons director Paul Schrader admitted his concerns about handing a lead role to porn star Deen in an online diary entry earlier this year.

He said: "Bret [Easton Ellis] promised James that I would screen test him. I was reluctant because I thought it unlikely that I would cast him.

Image caption The Canyons director Paul Schrader was reluctant to cast a porn actor

"James has made over 3,000 porn films - that's an awful lot of bad acting to try to get out of an actor's system.

"It was a revelation when James came in. He was not only solid as an actor and prepared, more importantly he had that hard-to-define charisma that draws viewers to characters on screen."

However, Schrader also told how one of his favourite actors for the female lead had lost interest in the project after being told she could be starring opposite Deen.

Production on the film has now finished with Easton Ellis so taken with Deen's performance, he suggested he should be given the lead role in the forthcoming 50 Shades of Grey adaptation.

But whether a major studio would ever be as willing as Schrader and Ellis to embrace a porn star in a lead role is still unclear.

Jordan McGrath, editor of the award-winning EatSleepLiveFilm blog, said: "I'm pretty sure there was no hope out there that Sasha Grey would ever become a breakout star because, in my eyes, it was never going to happen.

Studios 'not squeamish'

"Which, even though understandable, is a little saddening because it really doesn't matter how hard she tries, or even - as the case may be - how good she is: there isn't a studio in the world that will hire her in any project where they expect to make money.

"Talent doesn't come into it, the film industry is a business and you can't see Fox or Warner's throwing the big bucks behind an ex-pornstar.

Image caption Jordan McGrath argues we are unlikely to see an ex-pornstar picking up an Academy Award

"Will we ever see James Deen in a summer blockbuster? Never. It just can't happen."

But Jeremy Kay, US editor of film trade magazine Screen International, believes major studios will come to employ a more pragmatic attitude.

He said: "Hollywood is a business and the studios don't get squeamish about people's past lives. If the face fits, they're in and they get their chance.

"If the movie does well or audiences react positively to the actor, they could be in it for the long haul.

"Everything is dictated by how the consumers respond to the product."

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites