Like much of the world, I’ve been captivated by adult film actress turned director Stormy Daniels—but not for the usual reasons. Her encounter with former President Donald Trump is the least interesting thing about this otherwise brilliant, original, and deeply fascinating person whose single-minded pursuit to defend her dignity is mostly lost amid a rage of salacious headlines.

Daniels complicates the narrative about who is afforded rights and respect. She makes no apologies for who she is, while demanding her place in the public forum as an honest and decent person. She’s also unbelievably witty, and like Mae West before her, exposes the hypocrisy of our laws and mores by landing perfect one-liners on her critics. Four years after her unsuccessful lawsuit against Trump for defamation (see my February column), some of those laws are now working in her favor (see her former attorney Michael Avenatti’s conviction for stealing over $300,000 from her), but Daniels is still fighting for her place.

People generally aren’t interested in her outside of the infamous Trump scandal, and there’s very little written about her interests in and ideas about the thing she says she cares the most about: her work! But over the years, she’s left little breadcrumbs in interviews that I wanted to hear more about on sex work, feminism, porn, and identity. More than just her role in the biggest political story of the past decade, she’s a complex and thoughtful person. No doubt.

—Alexis Grenell

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alexis Grenell: I’m so excited that you could make time for this because I’ve wanted to write about you for four years. There’s a lot out there, but there’s very little written about your work and your priorities. Even doing my research for this interview, I had to go through 11 pages of Google searches.

Stormy Daniels: Really?

AG: Yeah, to even get to your work. It’s so much.

SD: Trump.

AG: Totally. You’re literally buried. So I wanted to open up the mic to talk a little bit more about what you care about right now and what you’re excited to work on.

SD: People [often assume that] you must have done this to further your career. And I was like, actually it had the complete opposite effect. So in the adult industry, there are so many fabulous female directors now. I mean, Kayden Kross just won best director, again. And you know, we have Joanna Angel, like all of these amazing female directors. But when I first started directing big features I was kind of the only one. I would make these movies and reviewers and people would think that I didn’t do them. If you don’t like my movie and you give it a trash review, that’s cool. That’s totally fine. But don’t say I didn’t do the work. It took me so long to be taken seriously. And I still haven’t won best director from [the Adult Video News (AVN) awards]. It’s the only one I haven’t won.

AG: That’s a great point, because so much of what’s annoying to me reading some of the criticism (and Trump’s legal arguments) against you is that you’re [accused of] doing this for your career. In watching some of your films to prepare for this, your work wasn’t actually that accessible.

SD: I worked so hard and I fought so hard to be taken seriously as a director, and I had already stopped performing. I was transitioning into a director, and I directed a bunch of music videos, I was gearing up to direct my horror movie, and suddenly the Trump stuff happens. And it all went away. Right? And so it had the opposite effect and nobody understands that. So for the rest of my life I won’t be director Stormy Daniels. I’ll be “Oh, the girl who fucked Trump” Stormy Daniels. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and they’ll say director. But usually it’s porn star Stormy Daniels. And I love porn; like, it gave me my life, but what I fought so hard for for so long, I don’t know if it’ll ever be connected to my name the way that it should have.

AG: You’ve obviously been on both sides of the camera, and I’m kind of curious: You’re a writer and director. How much of the scenes do you choreograph? And how much do you let your performers improvise?

SD: That’s a great question, actually. So when I write the script, before we even talk about or before we even get to the sex part, I’m writing the scripts for women. I have to keep in mind that my audience, the guys, are going to watch porn no matter what. I need to focus on the couples and women who are watching the films. Men just want to see attractive people have sex—or what they perceive to be attractive, of course, or what they’re into. And women like that as well, but they want to know why they’re having sex. So if you try to pop in a movie with your wife as a marital aid—which is what I consider the company I work for to do—It’s not “one, two three, fuck!” or like, “Oh my God, I don’t have money for the pizza!” No, like your wife is gonna get up and walk out of the room. That’s not gonna happen.

So for me, I try to start with the script and say to myself, if there’s no sex, absolutely no hardcore sex in there, is the story still cohesive? Does it make sense? Is the continuity good? Is there something weird in the background that your wife’s gonna be like, “Oh, my God, the dishes need to be done.” So it’s all about this whole picture with no sex. So the story needs to be cohesive, it needs to be engaging, and it needs to be funny, if it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be not cheesy. And then the flip side of that is, if I take out all the dialogue and your husband is fast-forwarding to just the sex, is it still hot?

And then when it comes down to directing the actual sex scenes, I talk to the performers. I let them do it mostly on their own. I think the connection, especially if you’re watching it with a female partner, they’re gonna know if the girls are grimacing [or in] pain[or] being degraded. As a woman, you know that certain positions feel better than others. So I’m not gonna make you do standing doggy if it feels like you’re gonna cough up your cervix, you know what I mean? So what positions do you feel the best in? And then if there’s a certain reason in the scene, like they need to be facing a certain way because someone walks in, then I’m like, “Hey, can we just make sure that we get at least a little bit of this position? What do you guys want to do?” I definitely leave it up to the performers in that aspect. And then when I’m sitting at the monitor and the sex is happening, I try to be as quiet as possible, unless something is wrong.

AG: Do you find yourself talking to your female performers in more detail because you’ve been in their shoes?

SD: Yes.

AG: Was that something that you experienced when you were on the other side of the camera as a performer? Or is that something you’d try to bring as a director to the set?

SD: I think it’s what makes me good as a director, because no one knows how we look the best more than ourselves. And if a male director is like, “I really want you to do doggy,” and you’re like, “Oh my God, if I do that, I get a fat roll right here,” that’s all you’re gonna be thinking about. Or, “Oh, I have a bruise on my left butt cheek. I really don’t want that.” No one knows that more than that female performer. So I let them pick because the best way to get the hottest, sexiest, most connected, dirtiest scene is for the woman in the scene to feel like she looks her best.

AG: You are obviously a master of image-making: You have a great sensibility of what you want to communicate visually. Right after the Avenatti verdict came in, you posted a photo of yourself on Instagram, without a caption, in a gold dress holding the scales of justice and a sword. No comment was necessary.

SD: The thing that I love about that picture, that a couple of very insightful people caught, was that she’s not blindfolded. Because they say justice is blind, but in my case, it’s not. I’m judged, and I wouldn’t have been on that stand [at the Avenatti trial] for five and a half hours and been allowed to be called names and made fun of if I was somebody else. I mean, I wasn’t the defendant, and I wasn’t the prosecutor. I was the victim and a witness. I didn’t press charges against him. I would have, but they beat me to it. Can you imagine if the crime against me had been violent in nature?

AG: That’s such an amazing point, because under New York’s “rape shield” law, if you have been raped, at trial you can’t be asked about your prior sexual history. Except there’s a carve-out for sex workers, [which] says that if you trade sex for a living, you can be asked about your sex life. I would love to hear from you, because under the law and in your own lived experience, being considered a sex worker makes you less entitled to certain rights.

SD: There’s so many points that I want to hit on. The [Avenatti] trial had nothing to do with [rape]. It was theft. It was embezzlement, it was wire fraud, it was a forgery. [My sexual history] was still allowed to be brought in because of what I do and who I am.

One of the things I want to do, because of what happened to me in court, is to use [my] platform to lobby to change the rule about being able to discriminate against sex workers. Because as a director, all these years in the business, I saw so many girls come in and not want to be stars. They just wanted to make money to go to school, and they didn’t buy purses, they didn’t do drugs, they didn’t party, they didn’t do anything fucking stupid, right? I really got to know these women on a personal level because I was directing at least once a month for 10 years. And so I saw these girls come in, do everything right, get a degree in nursing, leave the business—but then a year or two years later, they’d come back because they got fired over and over and over because they got recognized at work.

And when they came back, that’s when they were broken. That’s when they did drugs. That’s when they died. That’s when I saw them commit suicide, not the first time around. I can name 50 girls right now who have gotten fired because they used to do porn. And that’s got to change and [the rape shield carve-out] has to change. And what they did to me has to change. Because it’s bullshit. You don’t want us to do porn, but you won’t let us do anything else.

We are thought of as less than people. When every story about me broke, it was “porn star Stormy Daniels, real name X,” and they printed my real name everywhere. Every time you see Whoopi Goldberg’s name, or Nicolas Cage or Bruno Mars, they don’t put their real name in parentheses behind it. I had so many female journalists do it to me. And when I said something to them, [they’d say,] “Say her name. Say her name. Her name is Stephanie Clifford, say it! She’s not just porn star Stormy Daniels!” But they never paused to think that maybe that’s the name I wanted. And you just outed my family. I guarantee you wouldn’t misgender me, so why would you use a dead name? And they thought they were doing the right thing because they’re on their big high feminist fucking #MeToo horse and they never even stopped to do the most basic feminist thing, which is ask the woman in the center of the storm what she wants to be called. And nobody did it.

AG: Within porn there’s this divide about whether you’re going to call yourself a sex worker or not. And certainly within feminist discourse, there’s a big schism between those of us who are for decriminalizing sex work and centering the voices of sex workers and [those] that sees sex workers exclusively as in need of saving, not able to speak for themselves, [which] I always find really offensive. I’m curious if you can speak a little bit to why you think there’s that divide in porn?

SD: I’m gonna piss off somebody no matter what I say. But I think porn stars are sex workers. Break it down: sex, sex, work, pay. So I am a sex worker. I think they think that it is a direct translation of prostitution, which is not legal. I would say all prostitutes are sex workers, but not all sex workers are prostitutes. And I think that that’s kind of where that comes from, because they don’t want to get in trouble or don’t want to be thought of as doing something illegal. In the adult industry, a lot of girls escort and see clients privately and a lot of them don’t. And even the ones that do, they don’t want to draw attention. So I think it’s just something that’s lost in the translation, that’s my opinion.

AG: You yourself feel comfortable calling yourself a sex worker?

SD: Absolutely. Yeah.

AG: I was looking at some of your work and I noticed Marcus London comes up quite a bit. You’ve talked about how he’s your favorite co-star. His whole persona is being sexy over 50. I want to hear a little bit more about why you choose to work with him and why he’s your favorite co-star.

SD: I have a lot of favorite co-stars. I think he and I have done the most big-budget stuff together and he’s been kind of my ride-or-die co-star, you know what I mean? Is he the best-known for the wildest sex scenes or whatever? No, he’s not. That title would go to Manuel Ferrera or Keiran Lee, who are just known for their big-dick energy. But Marcus used to be my neighbor, and he cares so much about actual filmmaking and movies, and he will do whatever it takes. He’s always given 100 percent. He’s been married to a friend of mine for a really long time and he loves beautiful women, so he’s also not about trying to make himself look great on camera. If something’s wrong, he’s looking out for the girl.

Another one [is former pornographic actor] Eric Masterson.But he’s been married to the same woman for, gosh, I don’t even know, definitely over 20 years. And he was just well-trained. I like working with the guys who are in long-term relationships because their wives train them. You know what I mean? They’re not gonna let you go out there with lipstick smeared on your face.

AG: So what now? What does the sort of film you’d want to make in your wildest dreams look like?

SD: Oh, my God. Of course, everybody wants me to do a Trump movie, but I just don’t want to. I don’t think I [could] handle the PTSD unless I made it like a really satirical political comedy.

AG: Obviously, you’ve been in a position where a lot of people are projecting their hopes and fantasies onto you, whether they’re political or emotional. You mentioned feminists projecting an idea on you. You’ve rejected that term before, but I was reading some of your statements after the trial where you said, “I want to be a voice for others. I want to speak up for everybody who can’t.” This is to some extent, a very feminist idea.

SD: I know, I know!

AG: What’s your thinking on this now? I’m not asking you to own a label or reject it. I just want to hear what your thoughts are.

SD: I mean, in the beginning, it turned me off so much. Historically, I haven’t had a great track record with women. You know, because I was a porn star, they were threatened by me. And then within the industry, this includes both adult movies and dancing, how much money you make is directly related to how pretty you are. That’s a recipe for a female friendship disaster. So most of my friends are men.

So when this stuff first blew up, all these hardcore feminists tried to use me to further their own agenda. They tried to say I was raped and they tried to do the whole #MeToo thing, which got way out of hand, in my personal opinion. But slowly, after everyone beat it into me “You are a feminist,” I was like, “I’m not a feminist. I’m a humanitarian. I’m a peopleist, not a feminist.” But I guess I just kind of have to deal with it at this point. I just love men so much.

AG: I mean, there’s nothing antithetical about that. To me, a feminist is somebody who believes that women should have the same rights and opportunities and respect as men. Period.

SD: It was the women, like I told you earlier, who were like, “Say her name, she’s not just a porn star.” They’re the ones that are printing my name. I just didn’t want to be associated with that set of feminists, that idea. And I didn’t want anybody using me for their own agendas. I got accused of working for the Democratic Party, that they were paying me. I’m a registered Republican!

AG: So you’re going to be your own kind of feminist. I would think you’re your own kind of Republican, right?

SD: Yeah!

AG: You’ve said before that you identify with Jo March in Little Women. I would love to hear more about that.

SD: I remember when I was in school, we had to read Little Women. And we had to pick one character from the book to write a paper on. And that’s who I picked and I had all my reasons. And the funniest thing about that story is I got a zero on the report because I didn’t know until that day that it was an oral book report. And I was so, so fucking terrified to speak in public that I just would take a zero. I never spoke in public, ever, until this stuff happened. And, you know, I still can’t believe I do it. I know that I spoke at the Oxford Union. It’s on YouTube, but I don’t remember anything I said. I’m speaking at Cambridge in two weeks and I still haven’t written my speech, because if I write it then I have to deal with the fact that it’s really happening and I might not get on the plane.

AG: What are you going to speak about at Cambridge?

SD: Well, I have no fucking idea. They said I can talk about whatever I want. When I spoke at Oxford, I just talked about the problem with not being open sexually in the media. I was talking about how a lot of problems [could] be stopped if we were more open. Think about a 2-year-old child. Like, they know what guns are. Every other part of human existence is portrayed in media and entertainment: death, birth, marriage, war, birthdays, all of these things! But a child doesn’t know how they were made. And so there’s this big hush-hush and cover-up.