Stephen Elliott’s Cherry by Elias Tezapsidis

Stephen Elliott folds the sex worker mythos back into the reality it came from. Cherry draws on his personal experience to explore one of the many personal stories of those in the adult-film industry.

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Film still of Heather Graham and Ashley Hinshaw in Cherry, directed by Stephen Elliott.

Stephen Elliott is a great storyteller. He has experienced extraordinary things and thinks in an extraordinary way. Elliott frequently discusses his past via The Rumpus, sharing intimate details about his former homelessness, violent parental abuse as a child, and drug use. As a former sex worker, Elliott felt that the narratives of sex work available to the public are not representative of his personal reality, as seated in his own experience. This was what ultimately compelled Elliott to join forces with porn-performer and writer Lorelei Lee to write a story that provides a different side of the banal ‘girl falls victim to circumstances and finds herself in porn, then drugs’ fable.

The result: Cherry. The film was shot in San Francisco’s Mission Street Armory, the porn-castle that has served as Kink.com’s headquarters since 2006. The protagonist Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) is an 18 year-old daughter in an unconventional family. San Francisco becomes Angelina’s exit destination with her best friend Andrew (Dev Patel), a way to escape her circumstances and the unwanted responsibilities—such as caring for her younger sister—that fall to her as a result of her parents’ profound dysfunction. ‘Cherry’ is the name Angelina uses for billing as she embarks upon an adult film career. Angelina develops romantic rapports with Frances (James Franco), a coke-fueled self-hating lawyer, and Margaret (Heather Graham), an adult film director.

Cherry makes a political statement, challenging the preconceived notions of adult-film performers and the oft lacking of individual agency in the adult films they star in. Angelina’s story does not claim to be a prototype, or the case. It is a case, but a refreshing one in its determined intent to challenge the universal cinematic rationale behind why individuals turn to sex work. Though the viewer may question Angelina’s decision to become an adult film actress, contrition is not present in Angelina’s life, and she does not fall victim to the scoundrels of a porn conglomerate. Thus, the question of cause or motivation lingers, unresolved. In a Daily Rumpus email from last week during the time the film premiered at the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival, Elliott wrote: ‘Of course that’s OK. You have to bring your own understanding to every story. People would ask, Why did she get into porn? Or, Why did he love her? But there is no one answer to a question like that. Motivations are so complicated.’

After attending a screening of the film in New York, I had some questions of my own. I sat down with the director to discuss his Cherry.

Elias Tezapsidis In your story “The Score” in The Believer, you discuss your affinity for dating sex workers “ … because they’re the only ones who understand desire without sex. Real desire. Raw and unattainable and without purpose. Desire that ends there, all-consuming, for nothing.” What about that is appealing to you?

Stephen Elliott That’s complicated, and something I have continued to think about in the years since I wrote that essay. I think sex workers have a language and as someone who has done sex work I speak that language. It is natural that sex workers often end up dating each other when there is so much discrimination against sex work in society at large.

ET It seems like Cherry is an attempt to make the audience view sex workers as individuals who are not defined by their profession. If the fetishized exoticism of porn was eliminated, and the adult film industry was not perceived the way that it is, would you feel the need to make a movie to prove this point?

SE I don’t know if I would or wouldn’t need to make this movie if the world was a different place. It’s definitely true that sex workers are individuals and every sex worker I’ve met has been self-aware and with enough agency to make their own decisions. In mainstream presentations of sex work, almost always created by people with no experience in the profession at all, we see sex workers as victims, manipulated into doing something horrible that will only make them unhappy. I believe it’s possible that this scenario exists, and I’m certainly against sex trafficking, but I’ve never seen it. I’ve been a part of the sex worker community for a long time and I know so many sex workers and not one of them got into it against their will. Because sex workers are individuals, there are a million different stories. Cherry is one possible story.

ET The characters that suffer the most in the movie are the ones who follow a corporate path: Frances, and also Margaret’s partner. Was this an intentional choice?

SE I don’t know if I agree with that interpretation. In particular, I don’t think I would say that Margaret’s partner, Jillian, suffers more than others. In fact, I would say the most brutal character arc probably belongs to Andrew, Angelina’s best friend who is semi-secretly in love with her and works in a bookstore.

ET What triggers the visceral reaction of Frances to Angelina towards the end? What changes that makes him view her so differently and find her “disgusting”?

SE He has a drug problem for one thing, and that leads to erratic behavior. He has been beat up, so he is upset and lashing out. Angelina has just done her first boy-girl porn, and that’s something that many partners of sex workers have a difficult time with. It’s strange, but common, that a woman’s partner will be OK with her doing a solo show and doing girl-girl porn but get jealous when she does boy-girl porn, even though having sex on camera for money is totally different from having sex with someone you love for free. That’s what I mean by a shared language. Just about every sex worker understands this and has dealt with this dilemma.

ET Evidently, I had trouble understanding the motivations of the characters in the film. Do you think this is a result of my expectation to understand more than I should be able to about them?

SE I think the quickest way to be wrong about someone is to think you know their motivations. I don’t like to present simplified motivations, like, This happened to a character and she or he did this as a result. People are more complicated than that. Think of your motivations for doing what you do professionally. If you listed them out, I’m sure there’s a lot more than one, and if you keep listing them you might find some you didn’t know you had. The more important thing, for me, is whether a character’s path is plausible. Asking, Could this character make this decision?

Cherry is a compelling film, ultimately arguing that there is no regular porn story. Sex workers are regular people, whose job is a job, not a telenovela. Their stories don’t have to be the heartbreaking tragedies the audience often expects them to be; they can lead unsullied lives. The actors do a tremendous job of making their characters believable, especially considering the—intended—lack of disclosure pertinent to their motives. Lili Taylor, as an alcoholic mother-monster, and Heather Graham, as the queer love interest of the protagonist, particularly stand out in breathing tactility into their characters.

Elias Tezapsidis grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, prior to attending Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is a regular contributor to Thought Catalog. Elias has primarily worked in finance, which he genuinely does enjoy, but he has also always kept a notebook.

Stephen Elliott by Emily Nonko
​Stephen Elliott
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