Need a Porn Star for Your TV Show? Call Howard Levine

Sons of Anarchy adult casting expert Howard Levine, center
Sons of Anarchy adult casting expert Howard Levine, center

We’re all familiar with the off-Hollywood trope: An unctuous man with a thick gold chain around his neck lures naive young women into the porn world by promising them fame and fortune. “Hey, pretty girl, I could make you a star!”

But with small-screen hits such as 14-time Emmy Award winner Game of Thrones upping the ante for acceptable levels of T&A&P, the trope has seen a surprising reversal. High-production, mainstream shows now are specifically casting porn stars to do their dirty work.

You might not recognize them at first in such benign contexts, but they’re there. Picture them naked and moaning and they might emerge: Samantha Bentley in Game of Thrones, Tori Black in Ray Donovan, Jenna Jameson and pretty much every contemporary porn star ever in Sons of Anarchy. Film, too, has seen an uptick: Bella Donna in Inherent Vice, James Deen in The Canyons, the unnamed body doubles in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac diptych. 

Many actors find nude and simulated-sex scenes morally objectionable and/or feel they hinder mainstream aspirations. Porn stars, meanwhile, have nothing to lose and only clothing to gain. And Howard Levine, 60, has become one of the go-to people to whom L.A.- and New York-based mainstream productions turn when they need to source male and female porn stars for racy roles and cameo appearances.

“Working with adult performers is easier, for nudity aspects, because they have no inhibitions about getting naked in front of the camera,” says Levine, who has been working in porn distribution for 30 years. “Whereas if you call Central Casting and go, ‘I need 20 girls to be on a porn set, semi-naked,’ it’s like a really hard order to fill.”

Because Porn Valley is such an insular community, habitually mistrustful of outsiders, it makes sense to delegate adult casting to those already entrenched in the biz. Mention Levine to anyone who works in the porn business and they’ll know exactly who you’re talking about.

Levine is a self-described family man with a strong affinity for Boston Terriers (“All I care about is my kids, my dogs, my wife and riding my motorcycle”), but his appearance indicates an edge. His neck, fingers and hips are adorned with chains and skulls: necklaces, several rings and a chain wallet.

He started selling adult VHS tapes in the 1980s in San Francisco when his own acting and stand-up career didn’t pan out, and has since worked in sales for such porn giants as Vivid Entertainment, General Video of America and Pulse Distribution. In 2011, he launched his own Chatsworth-based adult distribution company, Exile Entertainment.

It was through his clean-and-sober motorcycle club Messengers of Recovery that he got his first real mainstream “in.” Another club member was doing extras casting for Sons of Anarchy, and Levine was recruited for the first season.

“Then what happened is that at the end of season one, they needed girls for [the female groupies] the Crow Eaters, and this guy had nowhere to get these girls,” Levine says. “He knew I was in the adult business. So I would get them for him, and he would take all the credit.”

Levine became one of five guys who made up the “core background” and progressively expanded his unofficial role as porn consultant. When the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle gang gets into the porn business with the fictional Red Woody Productions, Levine started procuring locations and set dressings in addition to female talent.

Eventually the guy who landed him the gig fell out of favor with the show’s producers and everyone who was associated with him was fired — except Levine. According to Levine, one of the producers intervened on his behalf, telling Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter that Levine “helps me get stuff that I can’t get anywhere else.”

Jenna Jameson, left, and Puma Swede in Sons of Anarchy
Jenna Jameson, left, and Puma Swede in Sons of Anarchy

In season seven, the Sons of Anarchy gang returns to the porn business. Levine was called in and finally offered an official job casting all the background women and porn stars for the season.

"Howard's a great guy but not representative of our casting process. He's an independent porntractor who works out of the back of his truck. A truck full of XXX DVDs," Sutter explains, jokingly. "I wanted real porn stars. Howard was very helpful bringing in the right talent. And often in SOA, sex and violence were interwoven in scenes. We needed players who were comfortable enough with the nudity to be able to react to someone's head getting blown off. Literally, not orally. We found that adult talent was the best choice.

"I have a lot of friends in the adult-film world. I know it can be lucrative, but I also know it can devastatingly soul-sucking. Giving some of these adult stars an opportunity to be in more legit — if you can call SOA legit — projects felt like a good way to pay it forward. Or, I guess ... 'pay for play' it forward."

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Levine found many of the casting requests difficult, even uncomfortable. Paris Barclay, the director of the first episode of SOA's seventh season, gave him his first assignment: “He called me up and said, ‘I need one black girl, a black guy having sex with a white guy, and another black guy who’s a preacher and who’s going to be in stockings filming it.’ I went, ‘You've got to be kidding me.’ And every request of season seven was more bizarre than the previous one.” 

(Sutter comments, "I know for a fact that Paris Barclay presented his player needs in a more tactful way. But for Howard, I'm sure it distilled down to size and color. The nature of the biz.")

Levine hasn’t been able to quit his day job to work full-time as an adult consultant for mainstream productions. But he continues to offer his expertise on a freelance basis to shows including Ray Donovan.

Meanwhile, HBO’s Game of Thrones has found a similar need to recruit porn stars en masse for its multitude of fleshful scenes. Mirroring the Sons of Anarchy formula, at least some of the adult casting was delegated to British porn star Masie Dee, who appeared in the show as a prostitute in season two.

Ben Yates, a U.K.-based adult producer who was cast for a simulated sex scene in the most recent season of Game of Thrones, says he responded to a casting call Dee posted on an adult-industry online forum. It explicitly called for porn stars. The U.K. adult entertainment industry is even smaller than its U.S. counterpart, and Yates knows Dee personally.

Yates echoes Levine’s explanation for the porn star–over-mainstream preference: “I think they come to the porn stars because they’re easy about intimate contact,” he says. “Even though it’s not full penetrative sex, it’s still pretty intimate. They trust us to just kind of get on with it and not create too much of a fuss.”

During the shoot, Yates found that those who were cast to do only semi- or minimal nudity were cast through a “proper” agency. For his scene, Yates wore only what he describes as a “cock sock,” or a pouch that covers just the most intimate bits. His co-star was a former adult star who has appeared in several Game of Thrones episodes.

Both Yates and Levine describe their work with mainstream productions as one of the best experiences of their respective careers. They even relish the long hours, explaining that porn scenes are typically shot quickly and sloppily.

But the phenomenon has cultivated its own anxieties. Yates fears that porn stars will only ever be recruited for sex and sexy scenes, with few opportunities to show off their acting chops. In the same breath, he notes that Game of Thrones made innovative strides by casting Sibel Kekilli, a German porn star, as Shae, Tyrion Lannister’s (Peter Dinklage) love interest. Shae is a prostitute, but she’s also a pivotal recurring character. 

Shae (Sibel Kekilli) in Game of ThronesEXPAND
Shae (Sibel Kekilli) in Game of Thrones

Levine states emphatically that he does not foresee a porn star’s full integration into mainstream entertainment, citing enduring stigma. Others, including Yates and porn producer Magnus Sullivan, can imagine an evolutionary trajectory in which Hollywood actually swallows (thereby killing) porn.

“The only thing that separates adult now from mainstream is the ability to shoot hard cock, pink and penetration,” says Sullivan, who has worked for Kink.com and Adam & Eve. “Mainstream goes right up to the edge, and I don’t think it will be long until we see hard cock.”

Levine acknowledges he’s not making the “stupid money” he was making before the age of Internet piracy, but he's still making a decent living selling porn DVDs and VOD content. And while he believes that “it is probably easier for a porn star to become an astronaut” than fully transition into Hollywood, he hasn’t dropped his own mainstream aspirations. He’s currently serving as associate producer for Street Level, a gritty drama written, directed and produced by David Labrava, known for his role as Happy on Sons of Anarchy. The film is slated for release Christmas Day and stars a handful of Sons of Anarchy cast members, as well as Marilyn Manson.

But Levine doesn’t think anything will eradicate porn. “People love porn,” he says simply. “They always have. They always will.”

Editor's Note: This piece was updated to clarify that part of Kurt Sutter's quote was not a literal description of Howard Levine's business.


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