January 2023

Screened | Sarah Jones

Behind The Camera And Getting Into Character With Sell/Buy/Date's Sarah Jones

Photos Martin Rusch | Words Tamara Rappa

Over many years, Sarah Jones would contribute her powerful perspective to culture, developing her craft, honing her creative voice, and ultimately, birthing what would become her one-of-a-kind brand with a message. Influenced by growing up in Queens, attending the United Nations International School, performing at Nuyorican Poet's Cafe: downtown New York's legendary and important forum for the arts, and more; today, Sarah Jones is a Tony-winning performer, writer, and comedian known for her multi-character, one-person shows, the Broadway hit Bridge + Tunnel and the critically-acclaimed play, Sell/Buy/Date. She's given multiple TED Talks, has performed for President and First Lady Obama, and at the World Economic Forum. She recently launched social justice-focused, Foment Productions, and recently acted in Broad City, Noah Baumbach's Oscar-winning film Marriage Story, and in Julie Delpy's series for Netflix, On The Verge, as main character, Yasmin. Given the much deserved title of "master of the genre” by none other than The New York Times, Sarah just made her exciting debut as film director, with her documentary Sell/Buy/Date, in which she, of course, also stars---as herself, and as a handful of the diverse signature characters she's known for: Lorraine, Noreida, Bella, and Rashid. Executive produced by her longtime champion, Meryl Streep, it world premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and is currently available on Prime Video. In a delicate symphony of self expression, self exploration, cultural and individual life experience, Sell/Buy/Date, the 'Unorthodoc' documentary, as Jones calls it, dances between deeply honest and organic discussions with those in and around the sex industry, intimate friendships with familiar faces like Ilana Glazer, Rosario Dawson, and Bryan Cranston, the Greek-chorus commentary and comedy of her characters, and a big peek offstage and into Sarah's own personal life and family. We sat down with Jones for our Story + Rain Talks podcast, excerpted here, to sink into all things Sell/Buy/Date: from the night it went from being performed in her living room, to its very first audience; the backlash that turned what would have been a movie into a documentary, how exactly her hybrid film was made, and what her perspective is now, having experienced it all.

I saw what I think was maybe the very first performance of Sell/Buy/Date at Hunter College. Gloria Steinem was in the house that night. Oh my God, yes! That's right. That was a really special experience and I got to, in front of you and lots of other people, sort of massage this new material. I had a lot of dear friends there, and so it felt like this expansion of my living room, where I had been trying it out. It was my first since Bridge + Tunnel, and it was challenging subject matter. Sell/Buy/Date the play, is set in the future, and it looks at themes of women and sex and power, through the lens of the sex industry today. How do we want to experience commerce and how women make choices about how they want to earn a living?  What is all of that? How do we unpack all of that, from many different perspectives?  There are lots of different perspectives on the topic, and it's so taboo and stigmatized. I think it's a core feminist issue: women, and our bodies being commoditized. Those stories aren't usually in our own hands, right? Whether they're by Woody Allen, or it's Lolita. The stories are so fraught. We don't talk about them. We get slut-shamed if we do. Or we shame ourselves. I believe there's a direct connection between not being able to talk about all of that in an honest way, and what happens when we let politicians take over and take away our rights to basic healthcare, like abortion. I think there's a direct connection between silencing women around our bodies and sexuality. So in some ways, part of what's happened since you saw it back then is, it got to go on this ride. I performed it all over the country, and got lots of beautiful feedback from people who have lots of opinions. Some people think it's disempowering, and some people are very empowered by it. When it was announced that there was going to be a film inspired by the play, we had this massive backlash. People attacked me, saying that I don't have the right to tell the story.  I don't want to give too much away, because it's all in the film, but I ended up making it in spite of some really challenging pushback, and I'm so glad I did. Because now, a lot of those same people are like, 'Oops, we didn't realize what you were going to do. We didn't realize that you were actually trying to be respectful with this dialogue.’

Sell/Buy/Date, like the stage production, explores the idea of whether the sex industry is empowering or exploitative, but takes things a step further by addressing the backlash you faced moving forward with your movie version. The idea that the story of sex workers was not yours to tell got me really thinking about exactly why the reaction was what it was. Is it the topic itself? Is it the current political climate? Is it what's happening right now in social media culture? Is it simply this moment in your rising star and your visibility? You have always portrayed characters outside of yourself, so why were you not 'canceled', as the documentary discusses, before? Now that you've made both the original stage version and your documentary film, and you've experienced a collection of opinions, both positive and negative, with, at one point, producers pulling out—now that the film has been released into the universe, and you've had the opportunity to take in the full reaction, what have you landed on, in terms of why the backlash? Backlash that ultimately caused you to turn what would have been a movie, into a self-reflective and exploratory documentary. I understood why the people who needed to step back, did;  and the way that they did it. It was for their safety. It's really sad; I think what happens, is that there's a chilling effect on creativity, on artists. It was a combination of all the things you mentioned. It's this moment that we're in. People are scared. The topic itself is very fraught. People in the sex industry are often stigmatized, marginalized, and nobody listens to them. People just want to make movies and make a ton of money and exploit the topic, but don't want to pass the mic to the actual people who are living in the life, and frankly, it's not an easy life for the vast majority of the people I've talked to. So I understand why there was a kind of outcry. I do wish that people had looked more carefully at who I am and what my history is, to understand that I'm not the one you should be coming for.

How did you construct this 'Unorthodoc', as you call it in the film? There's a very unique way in which your own personal story is told, the story of your family, the story of your experience with the movie's real time backlash, even a life-changing decision that you make at the end of the film---all presented with your fictitious characters, who are there, all along the way, for the ride. What is real, and what was constructed in order to be able to tell this multifaceted story? How much was dialogue, and how much was scripted? For example, there is a key doctor's office scene; and a scene where you reject a pitch for the movie... So here's the wild part, all of that stuff really happened. In the doctor's office scene, what happened with that was, and I won't give too much away, I met that person, not in a doctor's waiting room, but in a similar circumstance, and the same conversation happened. I was like, we're just going have that same conversation we had, but we're going have it here, on set. It's a retelling. There's some reenacting, but the themes, everything that happened, was rebuilt from something that actually took place. People think that in the film, I scripted everything with my mother. With the things you hear her say, I was like, 'Okay, mom, just say that again'...we got to organically piece it together. And obviously, the stuff with my characters, they're kind of like a Greek chorus following me along,  I scripted a lot of their dialogue or I said it in real time. In terms of the decision I make at the end of the Sell/BuyDate documentary, I did have to make a similar decision. I wanted to make sure that the truth of what I had been through was depicted on screen in this 'Unorthodoc', as we call it; this hybrid narrative and documentary, and very unorthodox approach to telling a story. It really happened, and let's just say I edited out any names to protect the innocent...and especially, the guilty.

Sell/Buy/Date explores that you began to look more closely at yourself and whether or not you knew what you truly believed around sex work. Where are you today on the subject?  At one point in the film, you say something so powerful: 'Is it still a choice, when it's something you have to do to survive?' I would say that I am evolving around it. The more I learn, the more I ask questions of the people I trust on other subjects. I try not to think, 'This is the definitive truth about blah, blah, blah,' because I don't live the life. My job is---when I see people who care about human rights, about women, about everything else; people who

 are thinking thoughtfully about race and class---to keep asking questions of those trustworthy people. For example, trans women who are saying, 'Look, we don't have access to other jobs because of transphobia.' I'm really trying to listen in order to formulate my opinions, and I'm constantly evolving. And so I ask people to watch my film themselves, then find those progressive voices you trust, and follow with seeing where they are on the issues.

I love what Bryan Cranston says to you in Sell/Buy/Date about rejoicing in the uncomfortableness that your film has unleashed, and setting the bar really high, then trying to reach it. Does that continue to resonate? Yes, it does. I will even say, just having him in the film was one of those things, the divine choreography of the universe. There was really some kind of magic there. We all have it in our lives, the things we can't explain, the ways that things come together...or seem to be falling apart...and then come together. Having Rosario Dawson; Bryan, and other people, be willing to be in the film, and that scheduling around it...was a miracle. How so many of those pieces got put together, were miracles.  I feel like his comment is almost like saying, 'Trust your process'. Do what you need to do, and then let go. Allow it to unfold. Those words resonated with me so much. He is such a great, great part of this film.

The film, of course, is not without great humor, a lot of it having to do with the differences between LA and New York, as seen through your characters. I love when the group is at In-N-Out Burger, and Lorraine says, 'You can just feel them making the dirty movies here.' Your character Noreida, is one who challenges Sarah Jones throughout the documentary, with very strong opinions about the Hollywood machine. How do you manage your realness and your authenticity with the artifice that can be a lot of Hollywood? It's not easy, I'll tell you that. I came out here and thought, if you're talented and you work really hard, you'll be fine. That's not how this shit works at all. A lot of it is, who do you know? Who are your parents? Who's your uncle? I had no idea. There's a lot of talk right now about nepotism, funnily enough. There are lots of very talented people who happen to be from established families here in town. What I'm most interested in, is where is the same systemic injustice that we were all in the streets protesting about three years ago? Where is it, still entrenched, in Hollywood? And we're not talking about it. Those power dynamics are still really relevant, still very much operating. Who are the gatekeepers? Who owns what? Who decides which stories get told? And that's Hollywood. My job is do the best I can to be here and work with the people whose work I love, like Ilana Glazer... there are so many people whose work aligns with the vision I want to put out there. I do the best I can to be on their radar, and let go of the machine. Because I can't control the machine.

HAIR: Doug Mengert | The Only Agency MAKEUP: Darian Darling

"Charlotte Tilbury's lipstick in Pillow Talk is a little bit addictive...the moisture! When I put it on, I don't look like I'm making a massive effort, I just look like I'm alive. It's a tiny pop of color."

"Can I just say, being out here in California, I love wearing Clare V. for a little elevation. I can run to the supermarket, or walk around in the Hills, and not feel like I'm in the grubbiest sweatshirt I own."

"I'm supes obsessed with my glasses by Caddis. They look like Lorraine, but they're so me. "

"I'm really obsessed with Brush Beauty Balm Lillie Luxury Facial Oil, which I got on the On The Verge set. It's magic. I'll put a few drops of tea tree in it; it's an oil that is all purpose."

"Rebecca Nadler Designs is a friend and a sculptor who's a jewelry maker, her jewelry makes me feel like a super hero, but like low key. I love supporting a woman's small-owned business, I love her, and so I wear her stuff all the time."

"Living in LA, I don't get to the beach enough. That's one of my big commitments this year. I got this hat swag from black-owned, Ebony Beach Club;  they're surfers of color. My surfing attempts were tragic, but with them, I am committed to getting back into the water. I'm gonna a New York girl from Queens."