#7. JAMES DEEN - “A porn actor.”
“I’m just gonna go to his house,” I told a few people when they asked where I’d be interviewing James Deen. I tried to seem as casual as possible. The responses ranged from people thinking I was walking into a rape-trap, to wrinkled noses, to one friend who was convinced we were going to hook up.
His assumption wasn’t unfounded. For months I’d been telling people I knew of James Deen, the young Jewish porn ingenue, from a Heeb Magazine article I’d read about him. This was a bold-faced lie. I knew of James Deen because I’ve watched his movies. In college, my friend Lee (the same one convinced James and I were going to bang) realized I liked nerdy Jews and directed me to James’s filmography. He definitely has his niche audience, uh, nailed.
So I have a long-standing crush. Fine. I’m a journalist. I can be professional. Way in the beginning, I knew I wanted James for 100 Interviews because I think he represents a new kind of porn star, but I also worried about the personal aspect of the pieces I write here. I’d be lying if I wrote like I only knew of James from “reading the articles” to borrow a Playboy excuse. A few months ago, I decided to go for it anyway, tweeting at him, “What’s a girl got to do to get your email address?” I expected nothing. He’s got over 23,000 followers, most of them women. Within an hour, he direct messaged me. I told him I’d be in Los Angeles in June and we agreed to meet up and do the interview.
Friday, I had my friend Charlie drive me to James’s house, where he was actually packing up to move. Charlie had concerns. “I’m just gonna drop you off?,” he asked in the car. The conversation occurred in various forms in the days leading up to the interview. Charlie didn’t want to come inside with me and play ‘big brother,’ but he grappled with the idea of leaving a female friend in the clutches of a porn actor. Eventually, I convinced him to let me go alone.
But despite being so sure of myself and indignant about other people’s assumptions, I start to get nervous as soon as I spot James in 3D, real-life. My brain has a little “I’ve seen you have sex!” party. For the first time, as Charlie drives away, I worry this could get weird.
James is 25 years old, and boyish, with curly brown hair and really blue eyes. He looks like any number of dudes I went to Hebrew school with. He’s wearing plaid shorts and a white shirt with the periodic table of elements on it. James is not his real name; he uses it because it’s what friends in junior high called him when he started smoking cigarettes and wearing leather jackets. As we walk up the sunny driveway, I tell him my friend had qualms about leaving me with him. Instead of being offended, James agrees. “I thought he’d at least want to come in,” he says.
We go inside and it’s just me and him. Alone. In his house. To cope with my anxiety, I rev my usual defense mechanism; when I find someone attractive, I tease them mercilessly like I’m Helga from ‘Hey Arnold.’ James 1) sees right through me and 2) seems to find it wildly amusing.
For instance, when he pulls out a SEGA Genesis gaming system to pack into a box and wonders aloud why he even has it, I suggest it’s because he wants to be like Biggie, who sang the praises of the outdated technology. James laughs. “I could tell from your face you’re a girl who loves Biggie,” he quips.
Later, he tells me when fans ask him if “James Deen” is his real name, he says it is and that he also has a sister named “Oprah Winfrey.” Three people have believed him.
In sarcasm, as in porn, James Deen gives as good as he gets.
James grew up in Pasadena. He remembers seeing porn for the first time in kindergarten because a neighbor ditched some magazines along the horse trail he walked to get to school. He was already getting into trouble for kissing girls on the playground and the magazines painted a fuller picture of what came next.
“I thought, ‘Dude, this is awesome. This is what I want to do for a living,’” he says, describing himself as a kid who loved attention. “I always liked if something shocked people or wasn’t what was considered ‘right.’”
In the third grade, James says he was suspended for telling his classmates and teacher he wanted to “do porn” in a roundtable discussion about what the students wanted to be when they grew up. “It just made me want to do it even more,” he says. His childhood wasn’t troubled, he says, despite being “an angry, trouble-making kid.” He describes his parents as “awesome and supportive,” though his dad tells friends his son is “in the entertainment industry,” if they ask.
The origin story I’d read online about James’s porn career was that someone gave him the advice that if he could have sex in public, then he could do porn. James says this is mostly true.
It actually started one day when he was listening to ‘Love Line’ on the radio. The guest was porn legend Jenna Jameson. When they opened the lines for callers, a bunch of men called in to say things like, ‘I could fuck you better’ or ‘I could do porn. I have a huge dick.’ Eventually, Jenna snapped.
“If you wanna do porn,” she said on air, “get a folding chair and jerk off for 45 minutes with twenty people around you. When one of them yells ‘Come!’ then you have to come within 30 seconds.”
Instead of being intimidated like Jenna probably meant, James thought that was something he could do. He started going to parties and hooking up with girls in full view of the rest of the party-goers, sometimes having sex right in the middle of the action. He considered it practice.
But that was still a far cry from the actual industry. James says a lot of the people he told about his goal were skeptical. “It’s not all fun and games,” they warned. Once he turned 18, he went out in Hollywood and started meeting people involved in porn, particularly a stripper friend who put him in touch with some important people.
Soon, he was shooting his first scene.
“It was easier than I expected,” he says. “They weren’t yelling like, ‘YOU’RE TOO JEWISH AND SKINNY!’ at me.” In the beginning, he says he had a difficult time getting hard because he was so nervous. In a moment of panic, he asked if he could have a second to figure it out. Obligingly, and to James’s surprise, the cameramen turned away and let him and the girl make out until his dick got hard. The rest of the scene went smoothly.
“I was pretty proud of myself but I was still going around asking, ‘How’d I do?’,” he says. “People were like, ‘You did fine.’ I said, ‘Really? It was my first scene ever.’ Then, they were like, ‘Wait. First ever?! That was fucking amazing then! Holy shit.’”
His reputation is well-deserved. Usually, in porn, the girl takes center stage and while that’s still mostly the case in James’s movies, there’s something undeniably compelling about him. He’s not just a prop for some lady’s vagina; he’s got a distinct style that’s won him awards. There’s the lightly forceful hand around the throat and his penchant for whispering dirty, so the camera can’t hear every word, making it more intimate and sexy. You might be there for the girl, but you notice James. When I tell him this, he waves it off.
“I mean, I’m young and not ugly,” he says. “I don’t want to seem like a narcissist. I don’t know. I really do think guys in porn are just props. People want to see girls having amazing sex with guys and I don’t think it really has to do with the guys,” he pauses. “Then again, I have no idea what girls are looking for in porn so as long as I’m having fun, I don’t care too much.”
I tell him I don’t entirely buy that. Porn is a small community, which James estimates is about 100 guys and 500 girls - 50 of them consistent. James is prolific; he’s made around 3,000 movies in seven years. But there must be something else about him that causes 23,000 people to be interested in his tweets.
“I’m not a douchebag?” he suggests. “If you bang chicks for money, you might get a douchebag complex.” Plus, he says, it’s more socially acceptable to outwardly appreciate his work than that of a female porn star. For example, he was just in Budapest working for a site called PublicDisgrace.com (which is exactly what it sounds like) and the girls he was working with got jealous that he was getting recognized more often than they were.
“But it’s not that I’m more famous. It’s that I think a dude is more inclined to go up to another guy and say they like his work in porn rather than to a girl, because then it’s like, ‘Hey, I masturbated to you,’” he says. “But me? I’m not an object of sexual desire.”
My red cheeks disagree, but er, anyway. In my initial email to him, I congratulated James on “living the dream.” His blog consists almost entirely of photos of the food and women he’s eaten. I ask him if he’s really got the best life ever. I expect some kind of “it’s not all glamor, burritos and shaved pussies” lament. There is none.
“I am happy-go-lucky,” he says. “It’s a misconception that porn is just a lot of drugs or that everyone is doing it out of necessity. I mean, people do jobs they don’t like no matter what their job is but it’s really rare that someone is doing porn because they have to. Most of us are having a lot of fun. I’ve never been on a set where if a girl doesn’t want to do something, she was forced to.” Like any movie, he says, the director would have to replace her. Even if she changed her mind, James says he would feel uncomfortable going forward knowing his partner had reservations. “I might then say, ‘I’m not doing this’ because then I’d be a creepy rapist with some girl who doesn’t want to do it,” he says.
Porn is changing a lot these days. James says it used to be that contract girls were handpicked for fame by “porno gods,” but now, because of the Internet, there’s a revolving door of newer, hotter girls competing every minute. James is clued in by working for the alt-porn site ‘Burning Angel.’ He keeps track of what aspects of the site keep visitors hooked, which girls are the most popular, what kinks subscribers prefer. “A DVD couldn’t do that,” he says. There are new Internet-age problems too, starting with the advent of Napster. James predicts in five years, people will no longer pay for anything online and porn will lose a key demographic, becoming unprofitable. He’s young, he says, and he can’t imagine going to a typical, real-life porn store.
I’m instantly more detached and comfortable with the business part of this discussion. ‘See!’ I think. ‘Those haters were wrong. This is just another interview with a normal person.’
Then, James starts making a point about how even he feels dirty in a porn store. He says, “I have no shame. Name it, I’ve done it. If you want me to do it, I’m probably down.”
The next words out of his mouth are: “Why are you so red?,” while fucking smirking at me.
James and I are around the same age and actually come from similar backgrounds; Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp. As he’s packing up his closet, he pulls out a prayer shawl (tallis) from his bar mitzvah. Later, he reads the Hebrew tattoo I have between my shoulder blades by running his fingers across it through my apparently see-through yellow shirt without warning me. I want to sing the chorus of ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ by the Police.
“Oh my god,” I reply, bringing my notebook up over my face. “Stop. I am trying to just get through this interview.” My tone is girlish, unconvincing and for me, unusual. What is wrong with me right now? It’s this false sense that we know each other when we totally don’t. There’s a line that just…isn’t there, but I never feel uncomfortable. Just torn. “Ugh, you are the worst,” I say, but I don’t mean it and it only makes him smile bigger.
Because being mean is the only way I know how to react when I’m attracted to someone, I point out a couple teddy bears he’s yet to pack. “What are those?” I ask.
“Those are my teddy bears,” he says simply, shooting me a look like, ‘Try and make fun of me now.’ I’ve got nothing. He is standing way too close to me. I ask if having relationships is hard, being in porn.
“No more than in real life,” he says, for the first time hesitating and thinking over his words. “Well…I don’t want to be creepy, but like, okay, take you and me,” he pauses, gesturing between us. I tell him it’s cool when he seems unsure about asking: “Would you date me knowing I’m in porn?”
It’s a good question. I’d thought about what it would be like to sleep with him, I think that’s pretty clear. But date him? At first, I want to say I would. So far, I like him as a person. He’s quick and self-deprecating, the cornerstone qualities of sexy Jews. Despite what he thinks about himself on the job, he’s not just a dildo with a mouth. But he’s in the business of fantasy; Where’s the line between porn’s James Deen and the cool guy my own age talking to me in person? Before I can answer, he tries to diffuse the tension by joking, “I mean, I’m wearing a periodic table shirt and I’ve been wearing it for three days straight while packing,” he smiles. “Are you sure you don’t want a piece of this?”
I laugh like I agree that I don’t but I’m pretty sure I’m lying.
“I go to work and have sex with a different girl every day,” he says. “Honestly, I usually have sex with them when we hang out off-camera because I’m not very interesting.”
“You calling it ‘work’ is pretty telling,” I say, wondering if it’s weird for him to be talking to a girl and not having sex with her. It seems like he’s as flustered not having sex with me as I am not having sex with him.
He shrugs, “Sex is sex. Emotions and physical are very different.”
“You compartmentalize it?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sex feels good and it’s really fun but there’s all that crap behind sex that doesn’t need to be there. I get the whole sex is emotional thing but hanging out and actually talking, seeing a movie, whatever, without having sex? That’s way more of a connection for me.”
I ask him to elaborate.
“Like, I fuck people I hate too. Sometimes it’s even more fun to fuck someone you hate,” he says. “But what is sex? You open your legs and I’m going to put something in there? There are so many other things more emotional than sex.”
On a basic level, I don’t disagree with him. Sex isn’t really a deciding factor in whether or not I feel close to someone. He adds that he wouldn’t care if his potential girlfriend also had sex with other people as long as she was safe and she made him a priority.
“If I feel special and she gives me attention and she loves me and she’s just getting her rocks off, then I don’t care,” he says. “I actually like making out way more.”
I’m surprised, “You’d prefer just making out?”
“I am all about the making out,” he says. “It’s so innocent and amazing. Sex is like, so 2000s. If you can find someone good at making out, that’s the real trick.”
I’m too busy babbling a response and I miss him jokingly asking me if I want to make out with him to prove it. I don’t ask him to repeat it because, if he did, I do not trust what I’d say. It’s the way it’s phrased, “Do you want to make out?” because: Yep. Yes. I do. Am I going to? Nope. He doesn’t come across as predatory or entirely serious. He’s making fun of me in a different way than I’m making fun of him. But we’re both just…making fun.
“I just like making out with girls,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter if they make fun of me for having a bear.” I roll my eyes.
Before coming to this interview, I thought about what I’d do if something happened because of the same stereotypes of the people I resented in the beginning. Is this my life or just the beginning of a movie that ends with the bespectacled female journalist on her knees? It’s a porn cliche so inherent that it’s laughable. Sleeping with him right now would be the ‘Inception’ of fucking, where all I’m worried about is what’s real and what isn’t real or if it even matters in the end. We both understand that, and we’re both out of our comfort zones because of it. I can’t just mindlessly ask questions; he can’t fuck his way out. But damn, are we both going to try.
“Do people ever give you shit like, ‘This is wrong!’?” I ask.
“I never paid attention to shit like that,” he says. “Honestly, they can fuck off. If someone came in here like, ‘What you do is a sin!’ I’d probably just start getting naked and if they wanted to stay here and yell at me, I’d start jerking off. ‘You wanted to make it awkward for me? Now I made it awkward for you,’” he says. I’m laughing pretty hard. “As long as you’re not hurting anybody? Who cares?”
He starts to say something about playing basketball then, but he fucks up the metaphor in a really obvious way. It’s clear he doesn’t know anything about sports.
“Go sports!” I say, making fun of him, back to a place where I feel at ease.
He picks it up right away. “Yeah! Go local sports team! They’re so good, that team!”
“So much better than that other team from the other town where I don’t live!” I say. And then, we’re both giggling insanely. It feels way more like the friends we might be at a Jewish summer camp in another dimension. “This is like, an Onion headline,” I say, through my laughter. He cracks up, echoing my earlier teasing, “Go sports! Yeah! Whatever guys do when they hang out!” He clearly has no idea. Earlier, he’d told me he doesn’t really see friends ever.
While he’s giggling, I tease him that my friend Charlie’s worries about him were totally unfounded. “You’re not dangerous at all,” I say. “You’ve got teddy bears and you don’t even know what basketball is.” James shakes his head, “Just for that, now you’re getting finger-blasted,” he threatens, pretending to be tough. “Oh, sure,” I say, because now that we’re joking about it, it’s somehow less likely?
Downstairs, I ask if I can take a video of him with my Flip camera. What I don’t anticipate is the absurd, direct similarity the situation has to the porno I keep worrying I’m already in. Even with some of my more attractive interviewees, I’ve remained friendly, but stone-cold. But watching James through the viewfinder of the camera was oddly familiar, even if it wasn’t particularly sexually charged. It’s how he looks in his films, only he’s talking to me, interacting with me. I’ve only ever seen this end in sex.
But now, we’re also joking like any normal twenty-somethings would. Him doing porn doesn’t make him not a person. He’s putting cleaning supplies in a box while I talk to him. He’s moving houses; something we’ve all probably done. It’s strangely neutralizing, but no less surreal.
After he tells a story about some radio DJs using a clip of him joking that he got fucked in the ass as a soundbite, I ask if he has a PR person. He says he doesn’t. I tell him I was surprised by how easy it was to get in touch with him.
He smirks and it’s totally killer. “I looked at your pictures first,” he whispers. I don’t hear him right away and then when I do, I gasp and get tongue-tied. He’s got me again. He laughs, “I am that sleazy. I totally am.”
And then, just like in a porno, I gesture to myself, “How does it live up to real life?” I ask, all sirens firing off in my brain. (Picture old-timey footage of Russian missile launches.) ‘Come on, Gaby,’ I think. ‘Cut it out.’ But even then, it’s not ever real. I’m testing myself on his playing field. I’m trying out being him.
James gives a thumbs up (and later calls me “a babe, duh”). I feel bad but I’m kind of enjoying the attention. I wonder if inviting young female journalists over for flirt sessions is a common occurrence. I don’t think it is, just from the way we’ve been trading off who’s more flustered. I push through with starting to ask the next question but I end up snorting and laughing. “Oh my god,” I whine. “I don’t know how I can simultaneously hate and enjoy you.”
James grins, “I get that a lot,” he says. “So much.”
Later, outside, and visible to Charlie, James sticks out his hand in a firm, professional handshake.
I shake it, laughing. “Is that for his benefit?” I ask, tilting my head toward the waiting car.
“No!” he says, seemingly hurt I’d think so. I tell him I was kidding.
As he walks away, he makes a face at me and points. “I’m so gonna make out with you,” he says.
“We’ll see!” I reply and then, practically skip back to the car. Charlie only mocks my blushing for the first ten minutes, like a good friend would.
I haven’t tried, but I’m wondering if I can enjoy his work in the same way now that I know him off-camera. Was his flirting even real or just a part of his natural interaction with women that he can’t actually turn off? Is the only way either of us knew how to act around each other as if we were the first five minutes of one of his films? Did I just cross some kind of fourth wall never meant to be broken? Does it make his movies better now that I know he’s an awesome person — or does that make it weird?
During the interview, I ask James about the old porn warning; what if you don’t always want to do porn? What if one day you want to run for President? It’s a stupid thing people say out of fear. James says that’s not the way his life’s going; if he wanted to run for President, he would be planning on running for President. Plus, he says, it’s actually more common for people to get into porn, do it for a little while and then decide it was fun but not for them, than it is to become a staple of the industry. There are always a million reasons not to do something, and I strangely admire his certainty.
“I don’t really know what people think and if I did, if people are like, ‘Oh, what an asshole’ or ‘Oh, I totally expected that from him’ or ‘Oh, I’m so happy for him. I’m gonna call him and be his friend now when I wasn’t before,’ I mean, is it really gonna change anything at the end of the day?” he says. Later, he adds: “I don’t think anyone should be restricted from what they want to do.”
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