The first season of The Girlfriend Experience adapted and expanded upon the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film. Season 2 of the Starz series, premiering Nov. 5, takes its cue from another Soderbergh joint — the director’s HBO series set in Washington, D.C., K Street. Debuting to great fanfare in 2003, that show has mostly fallen into obscurity now, available only on an increasingly dwindling supply of DVDs. But writer-director Lodge Kerrigan tells Yahoo Entertainment that K Street absolutely provided a reference point as he started to plan out his portion of the second year of The Girlfriend Experience, which also takes place in the nation’s capital and explores the nexus between the personal and the political.
“He was kind of ahead of his time,” Kerrigan says of Soderbergh’s K Street techniques, which included having actors interact with real-world political figures like James Carville and Howard Dean. “It tried to get narrative close to documentary.”
No politicians appear on camera in The Girlfriend Experience, but the current powers that be in D.C. are specifically name-checked, up to and including Donald Trump. Kerrigan reveals that he rewrote his storyline — which takes place a few months ahead, around the time of the 2018 midterm elections — after the Republican candidate achieved a surprise victory in the race for the Oval Office. The series reflects the profound public cynicism with the political system that’s set in since that divisive election. (It’s not at all coincidental that The Girlfriend Experience is premiering Nov. 5, almost a year to the day since election night.)
“I’ve always believed that democracy is a very thin veneer, and really the country is run by money and has been run by money for maybe centuries,” Kerrigan says. “The level of open corruption now is really kind of shocking. You can see clearly how much money has influenced politics.”
And money certainly plays a leading role in “Erica & Anna,” alongside its stars Anna Friel and Louisa Krause. Friel portrays the Erica half of the titular duo. She oversees a Republican super-PAC willing to go to extreme lengths to put its preferred candidates into office. That’s what leads her to hire a high-end escort, Anna (Krause), in an attempt to ensnare a big-fish donor.
But Erica — who recently ended a relationship — may be looking for her own girlfriend experience as well. “Lodge was very specific about not wanting to use labels like, ‘Erica’s a lesbian,'” Friel says. “This relationship just happens to be with a woman.” As Friel, a former star on Pushing Daisies, points out, she has her own history portraying intense female relationships: In 1994, when she was a teenage star on the Channel 4 series Brookside, she and co-star Nicola Stephenson shared the first-ever lesbian kiss to air on a British soap opera. “To this day, it’s still the most-asked for photography, because it was such a huge thing at the time! It was even used in the London Olympics Opening Ceremony directed by Danny Boyle, because it was part of British pop-culture history,” she says.
As in the first season, the sexual content in The Girlfriend Experience goes well beyond a lip-lock. The first episode, for example, opens with Anna visiting a male client who gets off on getting rough with her. “For me, it was pretty easy, because it’s part of my character’s job description,” Krause says of playing those emotionally charged moments. “It’s even in the stage directions. I created my own origin story for Anna and each of the people she has to satisfy.” Among the details she slipped into Anna’s biography — and which aren’t directly referenced in the show — is her love of Disney movies (particularly Cinderella) and that her all-time favorite song is the 4 Non Blondes favorite “What’s Up.” Krause even dreamed up the scenario that she thinks led Anna into the world of providing girlfriend experiences: “In my head, she ended up sleeping with a visiting professor at her college who introduced her to that world, so she never finished school. I love using my imagination for that stuff.”
When it comes to who holds the power in their onscreen relationship, both actresses agree that they imagine Erica to be the one who’s in control of where things are heading. “She’s the person that Anna falls for,” Krause says. “The business transaction of love suddenly turns into a very real thing for her. She’s got to navigate new emotional territory with this woman who fascinates her.” At the same time, Friel suggests that there will be some reversals along the way. “The dynamic will change consistently, and you’ll just keep being shocked by that. Erica has been the submissive one in her past relationship, so she almost treats Anna as she’d been treated. She’s very cold and suppressed, and I think that’s her covering up her vulnerability.”
Unlike The Girlfriend Experience‘s first season, which told one story over 13 episodes, this edition has parallel storylines that each run for seven installments and deliberately don’t intersect. While Kerrigan wrote and directed every episode of “Erica & Anna,” his collaborator Amy Seimetz oversaw “Bria,” which stars Carmen Ejogo as an escort who enters the Witness Protection Program. (Starz is airing one episode from each storyline back to back each week.) “We really wanted to push the boundaries of the format of television,” Kerrigan says of this unusual structure. “Amy and I were excited by the idea that as the show progresses, the format progresses. And really, it’s a conversation; there’s some mirroring that’s going on. There are no direct crossovers, but you can definitely see connections between the two storylines.”
And one of those connections involves how the Trump era is directly affecting both our political system and women’s individual liberties. “You’ll never see [Trump] in the show,” Kerrigan says. “But there are references to him throughout.”
The Girlfriend Experience airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
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