Chris Schulz is the deputy head of entertainment for the New Zealand Herald.

Star of sinister show The Girlfriend Experience talks his 'despicable' charcter

Paul Sparks was instantly drawn to his latest complicated role, writes Chris Schulz.
Things get complicated in The Girlfriend Experience, when Christine gets mixed up with her married boss David Tellis, played by Sparks.
Things get complicated in The Girlfriend Experience, when Christine gets mixed up with her married boss David Tellis, played by Sparks.

Paul Spark knows his character isn't the good guy in hot new show The Girlfriend Experience. So do viewers.

"People think he's terrible. Which I guess he probably is," Sparks says, laughing. "He is despicable, but he's complicated."

The actor - you may recognise him from House of Cards or acclaimed HBO series The Night Of ... - plays a crucial role in the raunchy Neon show, a spin-off from the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film of the same name.

Paul Sparks as David Tellis in the new television series, The Girlfriend Experience.
Paul Sparks as David Tellis in the new television series, The Girlfriend Experience.

It pulls back the bed sheets on the life of a high-class prostitute by following Riley Keough's Christine Reade, who is a student intern at high-stress law firm Kirkland & Allen by day, but at night begins seeing an increasing number of clients for paid sexual services.

Things get complicated when Christine gets mixed up with her married boss David Tellis, played by Sparks.

He explains: "It's a unique look at a strong, motivated, unapologetic young girl who takes control of her life and sexuality ... she just sort of slams herself into this hetero male-dominated man's world."

Whereas Soderbergh's 2009 movie, which starred real-life porn star Sasha Grey, was roundly criticised for being shallow, the show - which he executive produced - has received rave reviews and is expected to garner award attention.

Paul Sparks and Riley Keough in new television series, The Girlfriend Experience.
Paul Sparks and Riley Keough in new television series, The Girlfriend Experience.

That's due to to a growing sense of unease that builds through the 13 episodes, thanks to its sinister undertones, Keough's intensely blank performance, empty sets that feel more like a sci-fi film set on a spaceship, and and a creepy, brooding score supplied by Shane Carruth.

By episode nine, all hell breaks loose in a mad-cap live action half-hour that sees Christine's two worlds collapse around her, while David watches on in wide-eyed horror.

Sparks, known for playing intensely controlling characters, says he was instantly drawn to the role by the script, which sees David get his dues by the end of the series.

"I thought that this guy was so complicated. There were so many little nuances: he's a brooding, bull-in-a-china-shop type of person, but also he's very proud.

"He underestimates Riley's character, he pays for it and he pays for it in an honest, emotional way."

Like the movie, the show features plenty of graphic sex scenes, but Sparks doesn't reference them as an issue and Keough certainly didn't have a problem with them.

The 27-year-old daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and musician Danny Keough, has seen her career take off since The Girlfriend Experience screened in America this year, and has a series of big-screen movie projects in the pipeline.

Paul Sparks and Riley Keough in new television series, The Girlfriend Experience.
Paul Sparks and Riley Keough in new television series, The Girlfriend Experience.

Her work on the show has been praised, with the Atlantic calling her "fascinatingly inscrutable ... she carries the series with her chilly poise and enigmatic composure".

She was too busy filming to talk to TimeOut, but she recently told the Independent she had no problems with the show's raunchy material.

"I'm kind of like, 'If I'm in it, I'm in it' and that's it. If there's something I really disagree with, then I'll say something. But when you're playing an escort - a prostitute - you kind of have to be very open to how weird it can get."

She also called it a "liberating" role and said she wished she could play more such roles.

"She was a woman who was allowed to have flaws and be a human being. To play someone who has no need to appease people socially and just kind of exist as herself - and be sure of herself and her morals - was actually a very liberating experience," she said.

Sparks isn't signed on for future seasons of the show but he has nothing but praise for his young co-star, and for the show's creators, Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz.

"We shot it very Soderbergh style. There was no trailer culture, there were no lights, we were shooting everything on location and things could move very quickly," he says.

"Everybody was very present, felt very part of what was going on. That makes for a very positive, close-knit, intimate sort of experience.

"It was pretty special."

Low down

Who: Paul Sparks
What: Stars in The Girlfriend Experience, streaming on Neon from August 8
Also: Appears in Netflix's House of Cards and SoHo's The Night Of ...

- TimeOut

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