James Deen on Surviving Lindsay, Jewish Guilt and Hollywood's 'Weird Games' (Q&A)
James Deen, the porn superstar with 900-plus adult films to his credit, makes his mainstream movie debut in The Canyons, a $160,000-budget, Kickstarter-funded erotic thriller co-starring Lindsay Lohan.
The project, written by Bret Easton Ellis and directed by Paul Schrader, features graphic nudity with Deen portraying a chilly, controlling character named Christian and Lohan his love interest, Tara. Although The Canyons was rejected by Sundance and the South by Southwest film festival over quality issues, it has drawn major buzz for behind-the-scenes drama: Schrader's rant against SXSW, in which he lashed out at the fest for leaking news of the rejection to The Hollywood Reporter, resulting in an apology and alleged punishment for the person who blabbed.
Then there was the deliciously gossipy New York Times Magazine article by journalist Stephen Rodrick about the making of the picture. The piece presented a bleak backstage glimpse with Schrader desperate and unhinged and Lohan unreliable and diva-like.
In a candid conversation with THR, Deen disputes Rodrick's depiction of some events including a scene where Lohan locks herself in a closet. The 27-year-old, who is producing a steampunk western called Cowboys & Engines and has no plans to leave the adult film industry anytime soon, talks about his Canyons experience, how he dealt with Schrader's "weird Hollywood games" and why he hasn't seen the film yet.
THR: How did you get cast in The Canyons? Were you even thinking about moving into mainstream movies at that point?
Deen: That’s my first foray into that. I was not thinking about it. It was nothing I ever aspired to do or ever was like, “When I grow up, I want to be in real movies!” When I grew up, I wanted to do adult films. So that was my goal and I’m very happy to achieve my goal. Bret Easton Ellis, I’m a fan of his and enjoy his work more than anything. He was talking about me on Twitter. ... We emailed back and forth, and went out to dinner and talked. I read the treatment, it was amazing, I didn’t really think anything would come of it. I didn’t care. I just kind of wanted to [meet] the guy who wrote American Psycho.
THR: Describe your audition process: did they see you and think you were perfect?
Kind of. Schrader was very nervous because Schrader was worried that I couldn’t act. So he wanted me to do this, like, standard thing. ... He’s an old man. He plays all these weird Hollywood games and tries to do all that crap. It’s not like it doesn’t work on me. Hollywood, I guess – Hollywood is really gross and the mainstream [film] world is really, really disgusting. It is, or from what I can tell from it. Most people are really -- they’re complete scumbags and they’re really insecure and they’re really pathetic. It seems that the way they, like, overcompensate or whatever [is] they have this whole "we don’t need you, you need me" power struggle. … It really makes no sense to me. But there’s all these, like, weird things where Paul Schrader’s from this old world -- and he’s not "that guy" by any means.
THR: How did you win Schrader over?
I sent my little head and shoulders [audition tape] of me reading for a different character, which is the character everyone had to read … Schrader was very impressed and said, "When I come to LA I want to meet with him." ... So when he came to LA, we met and ... we went through a scene for the Christian character that they did want me to play. So we went through a scene, we tried it different ways – I think that was just making sure we could work together and making sure I can act. After that, I guess the final straw was he was still worried about the stigma of putting [an adult] performer in his movie. And then his wife is really anti-porn, anti-sex and all that stuff. She watched my audition or whatever – my piece versus somebody else’s piece – and she came out and she’s like … "Give it to him. He’s better." She was like the thing that actually got me the role.
THR: It sounds like you dealt with a lot of big personalities.
For the most part, everyone was really cool and everyone was really nice. … Imagine going on a class trip in junior high and you all have to live in the same like hostel in Europe. By the end of the trip, you’re all gonna be really, really good friends or you’re gonna hate each other. And that’s pretty much what it was. It was a bunch of people working really hard, in close quarters, and all the stuff like that. [Producer] Braxton [Pope] held it down. Braxton was the one to make sure that people didn’t kill each other … It wasn’t like anybody was bad or anything was wrong. It wasn’t negative, I can really say. Everyone was stressed and working really hard and worrying about things.
THR: What's your verdict on Schrader?
I have absolute respect for Paul Schrader, I think he’s amazing. He’s an old dude and he has this classic version of Hollywood where [impersonates Schrader's voice] "I'm gonna put you in a movie!" It’s like, who cares? … I have more IMDb credits than you do, Schrader! I’ve been in more movies than f--king Al Pacino! Just because they’re not the movies that you categorize as big Hollywood movies.
THR: You said he freaked out when you couldn't shoot one day because you were booked in advance to work on an adult film.
I have a voicemail saved, it’s hilarious. He’s like, "James, you said that you were going to [honor] your commitments and responsibilities. Maybe we just need to re-evaluate who our lead’s gonna be!" And I just called Braxton and [asked], "Is he serious?" [Braxton said], "If you can’t come in, we understand, don’t worry, we’ll take care of it, we’ll deal with Schrader. It does f--k us over a little bit but we understand the situation." ... I already have a career, I have a life. [Schrader's] not giving me a career. They found me because I was doing the thing that I was doing and getting offers to speak at colleges and stuff like that. That’s how they find me. … It’s just one of these weird, old Hollywood power plays that doesn’t make sense in today’s world. … I think it’s comedic and Schrader’s actually a really good guy and he’s really talented and I really respect him and I think he’s really awesome.
THR: What do you think of that New York Times Magazine story?
It’s pretty accurate! But there’s so many things in there that are just like, that’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true, or that didn’t exactly happen like that, or … I can see [how he may have written it that way], but no.
THR: What things weren't true?
He said something about "James being lonely" because I’m the only person who didn’t have friends come by the set. Now my reason for not having friends come by the set: I’m not trying to defend myself -- "I’m not lonely, I have friends"! I do have friends and I love my friends – but I personally find it very unprofessional to bring your friends to your workplace. I correlate everything to like working at McDonald’s or working at a bank. If I’m working at McDonald’s, I’m not gonna invite my friends over to watch me flip burgers.
THR: What about the part in the article where Lohan gets upset and hides in a closet before a group sex scene?
She didn’t leave the room! She went around the corner and was standing there with her assistant .... . It wasn’t like went and barricaded herself in the closet, was scared, wouldn’t come out.
THR: Paul became very upset when South by Southwest rejected The Canyons from its film fest. Did that bother you too?
As far as I know, I thought South by Southwest was a music festival, so I was just like, of course we got rejected. ... When they told me it didn’t get into Sundance, I was laughing because … the movie wasn't finished until after New Year’s. So there’s no way it could have gotten into Sundance. .... I think that they thought that they would just kind of be like a shoo-in and they wouldn’t have to like even show it. Because hey, Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis! Oh yeah, we’ll take it!
THR: Have you seen the film?
I haven’t seen the movie. I had the opportunity to and I declined. It wasn’t finished. … Really, it wasn’t finished. It wasn’t color-corrected, it wasn’t scored yet … . I know I’m going to be a really hard critic for myself. That one scene [in a teaser for the film] where I’m like beating Lindsay up, I saw it and was like, "Oh my god I suck. I’m terrible. This is like the most horrible f--king thing in the world, blah blah blah. I thought I did a terrible, terrible job. But I’m always gonna be harsher on myself than anybody else. … I don’t want to see it when it’s not done. I want to be able to watch it one time when it’s completely finished and get my Jewish guilt and self-deprecation out of the way and that’s that. Just be done.
This article has been edited and condensed from a longer interview.