Why James Deen Will Never Leave Porn

The porn actor’s crossover film The Canyons had many wondering if he’d be leaving the adult film world behind. But for one of the hardest-working men in the industry, porn is more than just a lifelong career — it’s a passion. posted on

On the red carpet at the Venice International Film Festival. Pascal Le Segretain / Getty

Contrary to what you might have heard, James Deen is not an actor.

It’s an understandable mistake. Deen, who has made a name for himself in the adult film industry and recently starred in the non-pornographic movie The Canyons, has cultivated the kind of youth appeal and celebrity status usually reserved for Hollywood stars. But when it comes to being an actor, Deen is as insistent as ever, greeting the designation with an emphatic, “Hell no.”

He’s just a guy who does porn. And yes, sometimes he acts.

There’s no denying The Canyons has raised Deen’s profile: As an independently financed film written by literary Brat Pack member Bret Easton Ellis, directed by Hollywood legend Paul Schrader, and starring Lindsay Lohan in the midst of yet another comeback attempt, the movie was bound to raise some eyebrows.

But even with more name recognition than before, Deen isn’t trying to rebrand himself as a serious actor. From an outsider’s perspective, the mainstream film world might look like an attractive option, but Deen is happy where he is.

“I do adult films,” he says. “This is what I want to do. This is what I’ve wanted to do my entire life. I have no desire to leave. If more mainstream things come up and they’re good, I will happily be involved with them. I don’t think I’m gonna get a lot of offers. I don’t think people are going to beat down my door to be the next Hollywood leading man.”

Deen finds the stereotype that he’s a porn star trying to break into legitimate acting baffling.

“If I want to sing and dance, I’m not gonna start doing movies,” he reflects. “I’m gonna start a music career … I don’t think [mainstream] is the ultimate goal for a lot of people.”

It’s not as though Deen is hurting for work: He’s made over 1,400 adult films and tried his hand at directing. Deen has been able to carve out a niche in the industry, thanks to his boy-next-door good looks and a charming nervous energy he credits to his Jewish upbringing.

“I’m neurotic and overly analytical,” he says. “And I talk like crazy, as you can tell.”

He’s not wrong: When we meet at a Coffee Bean in Woodland Hills, the encounter feels very caffeinated even though he’s not drinking anything. Deen is easily distracted, but he’s also endlessly polite. For every digression, there’s an apology, an endearing quirk from someone whose work is so unapologetic.

“He’s tremendously entertaining,” says Mike Quasar, who has directed Deen in “probably 100 movies.” “He’s also a stereotypical neurotic Jew, which in and of itself is tremendously entertaining.”

As a neurotic, Deen is very much in his own head. It’s that introspection that makes him tire quickly of the typical questions porn stars are bombarded with. He can list them all: “‘What do your parents think?’ ‘What’s it like?’ ‘Can you have a relationship?’ ‘Is sex no longer fun?’”

Perhaps that’s also why he’s so drawn to porn — a job he works hard at, to be sure, but also one that allows him to tune out so much of the noise that distracts him.

“The secret to sex scenes is you don’t think,” he reveals. “You just have sex as if there weren’t people watching, and just kind of be in the moment.”

James Deen as bored sociopath Christian in The Canyons. IFC Films

As comfortable as he is in porn, Deen doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The Canyons wasn’t about taking the so-called next step in his career: It was Deen stepping outside his comfort zone and trying something new. In this case, that meant keeping his clothes on (for the most part).

The Canyons wasn’t a project Deen went after either. Like so many of today’s Hollywood deals, his involvement began rather innocently, on Twitter.

“Everyone told me, ‘Bret Easton Ellis is talking about you on Twitter,’” Deen recalls. “I, of course, thought that he misspelled ‘James Dean.’”

In fact, Ellis was pursuing the porn star — albeit indirectly — with his fantasy casting of The Canyons, a film he was developing with producer Braxton Pope. Once Deen began tweeting back at Ellis, the story was picked up by The Hollywood Reporter and TMZ, and suddenly a casual Twitter exchange was the beginning of an actual collaboration.

After meeting with Ellis and Pope, Deen remained the frontrunner for the role of Christian, the sociopathic movie producer at the center of The Canyons. At that point, Deen still needed approval from Paul Schrader, who was directing the film.

Initially, the director, who’s responsible for classics like American Gigolo and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, had some misgivings.

“It was all Bret’s idea because Bret thought James so personified this character he was writing,” Schrader says a few weeks after the film’s release. “I thought it was unlikely that it would end up being cast that way. As the process continued and I saw more of [James] and tested him, I came to see that Bret was right.”

Deen with co-star Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons. IFC Films

It wasn’t an easy shoot, but that’s not exactly news. The drama involved in filming The Canyons has been chronicled elsewhere, most notably in Stephen Rodrick’s Jan. 10 New York Times piece “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.”

After the article was published, Deen gave a series of very similar interviews, in which he was grilled on his experience working alongside Lohan. Because he believes his words were twisted — one publication said a quote was defending Lohan, while another said the same quote was slamming her — he’s resolved to no longer talk about Lohan.

But while Deen refuses to throw his co-star under the bus, he will talk about the stresses of filming, which extended past a troubled star. The Canyons was shot on a paltry $250,000 budget, a number that didn’t allow for much flexibility.

Given his strenuous schedule, Deen was forced to take a temporary step back from porn. Before shooting, he made sure not to book any gigs that would overlap with filming. Once Lohan signed on, however, The Canyons schedule got shifted, and Deen found himself double-booked.

“I basically demanded — in the most polite way — ‘I need to have my solid days,’” Deen says. “‘Whatever days you want, tell me, because there’s certain commitments I have to keep.’ I can’t just tell the people I’ve worked for for nine years to go fuck themselves because there’s some movie going on.”

And that worked, up until the point Lohan missed a day of shooting. It’s an incident recounted in the New York Times piece, in which Schrader was furious to find Deen unavailable to fill in for his missing co-star.

“It got a little dramatic there,” Deen concedes. “And I still feel bad. But like I said, I’m not gonna quit my job over a movie.”

At the premiere of The Canyons with director Paul Schrader. Mark Davis / Getty

Despite the occasional difficulties during production, Deen maintains that he had fun filming The Canyons. The way he sees things, “fun” is one of the most important indicators when it comes to doing something again.

And yet, while he’s open to the idea of more mainstream projects, it’s not something he’s consciously seeking out. Above all, he’s selective, noting, “I don’t want to just take whatever.”

Porn director Quasar echoes Deen’s sentiment.

“I don’t think [James] has ever had any aspirations to be a ‘real’ actor, nor does he have any illusions that he actually is one,” he says. “He is in the unique position to do or not do any mainstream project that he is offered because, at the end of the day, he doesn’t really care one way or the other.”

It’s not as though he isn’t getting mainstream offers: among them, several different iterations of a reality TV series with Deen as the star. But despite what MTV’s army of increasingly less qualified reality stars would have you believe, not everyone wants to be followed around with cameras.

“I have no desire,” Deen says. “I don’t want to do that. And I feel like I’m supposed to because everyone is telling me I should … The idea is just so foreign to them that like, How could somebody in the world not want to be on TV? That’s insane.”

At the same time, he admits, “I’m very conflicted” — not about continuing to do porn, which is non-negotiable, but about what other side projects he should take on next. Because while the mainstream world isn’t his intended destination, he acknowledges the benefits of exposure to a wider audience.

But mainstream also means understanding certain politics, and knowing how to play the game. There’s an element of compromise Deen’s not sure he’s willing to make.

“I don’t know who I’m supposed to, like, kiss their ass, and I’m not really good at kissing people’s asses,” he says. “I’m a little brutally honest sometimes. And I got really stressed out about it, and really what it comes down to is, I have no idea what I want from the mainstream world because I don’t really want anything.”

As a plumber in 2010’s The Golden Girls: A XXX MILF Parody, directed by Lee Roy Myers. New Sensations Video

The assumption that Deen would be eager to make a go of it in mainstream comes, in part, from a negative perception of porn: If Deen could stop having sex on screen and start making real movies, surely he’d be happier.

While that isn’t true, it’s a perspective that Deen has come to expect.

“Everyone kind of looks down on porn, even if it’s a subconscious thing,” he reflects. “There’s a stigma around the adult film industry. Our society has bred into us for years that sex is something for you and not a public thing. It’s kind of like we’re everyone’s dirty little secret.”

If Deen is offended by anything in the speculation over his future in mainstream, it’s the idea that he would immediately drop the job he loves for something else, just because it’s considered objectively better — as though the dream of Hollywood stardom is a universal phenomenon.

“It’s insulting to a point,” Deen says. “It’s insulting to me in the same way that I would feel if I didn’t do adult films and I worked in Starbucks … and someone from the mainstream world just assumed, ‘You should feel lucky that I’m taking you to Hollywood and making you a star.’”

To be fair, money is also factor. As Schrader says, “Mainstream pays much better.” But then, that’s never been a major selling point for Deen, who turned down several lucrative “gay for pay” offers early on in his career. He’s still courted by gay porn producers who would like to see him with another man.

“The reason I don’t do gay porn is I don’t like dudes,” he explains. “I don’t think that anybody should do anything that they don’t want to do, and I’m a big believer in that. I won’t do anything on camera that I won’t do in my personal life.”

Again, it comes down to genuine passion: Even for the gay-friendly Deen, that’s restricted to women. In the end, he sticks with the projects that bring him the most enjoyment, financial considerations aside.

“If [James] did get into mainstream, he would probably be able to work less and make more, but I don’t know if he’s so keen on it,” Schrader says. “He certainly doesn’t seem that way.”

If his foray into mainstream film was a side project for Deen, porn is a career.

Adult film is his chosen profession, not a stepping-stone on his way to fame. Porn is still fun — it allows him creative freedom and the ability to sleep with countless beautiful women — but it’s also a business, as worthy of respect as any other.

“It’s the most fun job in the world,” Deen reveals. “You get to show up and get naked and have sex. It’s great. But at the same time, there’s still professional courtesy that you need to give. You can’t show up drunk, you can’t show up late, you can’t be rude, you can’t disrespect the director or your co-workers.”

Many young porn performers don’t succeed in the industry because they refuse to grasp these concepts.

“You need to think of it as a career and a job,” Deen says, “and not an excuse to get your rocks off.”

Deen’s colleagues in the adult film industry praise his professionalism. Woodrocket.com’s Lee Roy Myers met Deen on the set of The Office — A XXX Parody, the first porn parody Myers had directed. He recalls Deen being professional and patient.

“I was really apologetic to everyone for not having shot a ton of movies and not knowing exactly how to shoot a porn parody right off the bat,” Myers says. “[James] actually helped me figure out how to shoot a sex scene properly. He talked me through it. … I still direct that way.”

Deen’s hard work may earn him accolades, but it’s not unique to him: Even if the perks of porn far outweigh the negatives, Deen emphasizes the impressive amount of effort put into adult film. As far as he’s concerned, porn is actually the bigger challenge when compared with mainstream.

“I think [with] adult films you work a little harder,” he notes. “You do all the mental and emotional strenuous stuff where you become a character and you do this and you do this, and then after that, you do all the physical stuff as well.”

While a mainstream film director like Schrader may not agree with Deen, he recognizes Deen’s unique devotion to porn.

“If it is possible to have a Calvinist work ethic in the adult film industry,” Schrader says, “[James] has it.”

Deen with Joanna Angel on the red carpet at the 2010 Adult Video News Awards. Ethan Miller / Getty

With hard work comes recognition: Deen has won several adult film awards, including the 2009 AVN Award for Male Performer of the Year. At 22, he was the youngest man to ever win.

As far as The Canyons goes, reviews have been decidedly less effusive, with some praising Deen’s mainstream turn and others panning his performance.

“I read the reviews because I was interested in what people thought about the movie as a whole,” Deen says. “After I read a couple, it was just so mixed. The movie’s technically good. It’s shot well. It’s lit well. There’s nothing wrong with the movie. So then it just comes to personal opinion.”

And that’s not something Deen has much time for. While he appreciates the positive feedback, he’s not motivated by it. There have been times, he admits, when he did feel the pressure: After his high-profile GQ piece in July 2012, Deen felt some anxiety over how best to keep his momentum going before realizing that wasn’t a worthwhile concern.

“Worst-case scenario, everyone moves on to the next hot thing,” he says. “Then they move on to the next flavor of the month, and you’re still you, and you’re happy.

“I try to operate under that at all times, to just be true to myself and do what makes me happy and not really worry about image or what other people think,” he continues. “Because who cares? If somebody doesn’t like me when I’m just being myself — I like myself, so we’re good.”

Deen’s strong sense of self makes it easier for him to answer the persistent questions that have dogged him since The Canyons was first announced: Why not put those movie-star good looks to use as a movie star? When will the nice Jewish boy next door learn to keep his pants buttoned?

It’s important to have a thick skin when you’re in the public eye, especially when you spend so much time fully exposed. Deen has that, along with a willingness to speak his mind regardless of the consequences. It’s easy to imagine a big-shot Hollywood producer telling Deen he’ll never work in this town again — followed immediately by Deen shrugging it off.

“I’m not gonna compromise my values and desires to possibly one day do another movie,” he concludes. “If it happens, awesome. If not, I go back to my horrible life of having sex with beautiful women and doing what I’ve wanted to do as long as I can remember.”

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