EXCLUSIVE: Ruaridh Mollica says he had a year to prepare for his “role of a lifetime — so far” in Finnish filmmaker Mikko Makela’s powerful new film Sebastian, which premieres at Sundance on Sunday.
The film follows a culture journalist who goes undercover and leads a double life as a sex worker to research a debut novel. The 24-year-old Mollica, born to a Scottish mother and an Italian father, gives a superlative performance in his first feature film lead role, as he assumes the split personalities of Max, a young wannabe literary sensation, and Sebastian, who hires himself out to desirous older male clients.
More from Deadline
The intimate moments, though at times full-on, actually serve the narrative to reflect Max/Sebastian’s state of mind.
Between his initial self-tape, first audition and screen tests, Mollica had 12 months to enter into full character research mode before officially being handed the part, and the experience helped him become a champion of Makela’s vision. “Yes, I wanted the role, but I just wanted to see the film made,” he tells me, modestly. “And I think that’s the most beautiful thing: When you can detach the ego and the competitiveness of wanting a role and just being like, ‘Whether I get this or not, I want to see this film.'”
He dived in, read and re-read Makela’s script, highlighting “every single” book, author and single film that was mentioned. “If I didn’t know them, I got to know them. If I hadn’t seen the film, I saw the film.”
The booklist included every novel and short story Bret Easton Ellis has ever written, all for plot reasons that will become apparent when you see the film.
In a smart move, the actor asked Makela what he had read while writing the screenplay. The director’s response led to Mollica devouring Albert Camus’s 1942 novella The Stranger and John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night, about male prostitution and a ceaseless search for love: Two of the many themes that underpin Sebastian.
There were a ton of other tomes as well. In fact, during our meeting, the actor empties his bag onto our table to reveal some of the titles he studied for Sebastian. We discuss Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ over breakfast.
Mollica says it’s weird how much of Max’s life pursuing his art correlated with his own. Sebastian “is very meta” he says, likening this to Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria with Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoch. “There’s so many points where what they’re talking about or what they’re reading reflects exactly what’s going on in the film. Mikko wanted Sebastian to also be like that, and Max was also reflecting what I was going through too.”
Mollica had just moved from Scotland to London to pursue his creative endeavours as the role came up, something that arguably helped him with Max/Sebastian’s mindset. “My sexuality was completely coming into itself and its own in London, in a way that it couldn’t when I was in the confines of Edinburgh, which I feel is a much more conservative, close-minded city,” he says.
Indeed, Mollica had a lot of time on his hands to understand Max’s determination and Sebastian’s dreams. That first audition was in 2021 and he got the part in early 2022. “Then we didn’t shoot until February or March 2023,” he tells me. He did so much prep in the long months before the shoot that Mollica feels “I really became him.”
Makela agreed, so much so that he rewrote the character, dropping the planned English accent and using his lead’s Edinburgh one instead. Mollica looks up from sipping his coffee at the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho, smiles and says, that that change ”blurs the lines even more, right?”
Mollica says that he had intended to talk directly with real life sex workers but ended up watching “lots of interviews on YouTube, mainly to understand the stigma that they go through, and the kind of miseducation around the topic.” He also learned the majority of sex workers are proud of their work. “They love what they do, and what better thing is there in life to love what you do?” he questions.
Also, with Max keeping secret his double life, the discovery that many sex workers keep their jobs under wraps in the early stages of their careers was helpful. “Perhaps that’s due to societal views and family and things like that,” he ponders.
Filming intimate scenes
Mollica was nervous of filming intimate scenes for Sebastian. ”I mean, I bare all in this film,” he says. “It’s something that I was nervous to see on screen for the first time ,especially doing it so vulnerably, both physically and emotionally. It was something I was worried that I’d watch and not be able to relax.”
However, the director and cinematographer Iikka Salminen “made it all beautiful,” he recalls. “It was all a character study, a study of the mind, and it all felt very honest and just frank.”
The fact it ultimately felt “natural” was down to an “amazing” intimacy coordinator, Rufai (Roo) Ajala. “Roo made me feel so safe and so held,” says Mollica. “Using their techniques I was able to feel comfortable and completely bonded with the other actors in scenes. It was really quite amazing how much you could trust someone, after even just 20 or 30 minutes of working them.”
Having crew like Ajala on set is vital, he says. “I personally think intimacy coordination is very important and can facilitate the creation of authentic and alive intimate scenes that actors feel safe making.”
Learning the trade
Mollica got into acting when he joined the Strange Town theatre company in Edinburgh. His first role, at the age of 12, was a part in Case Histories with Jason Isaacs and Mark Bonnar. “They really taught me a lot of what to do and how to be — Mark taught how to learn lines,” he says.
Last year, he ran into Bonnar at the Scottish BAFTAs and thanked him. “I finally got to say that to Mark, ‘You taught me so much and thank you.” He’s waiting to bump into Isaacs too.
After Case Histories, he worked “on and off” until he was around 15, often landing work as a nine- and ten-year-olds as he looked younger than his years. Ruth Hollyman, who represents emerging talent at Strange Town’s agency, found him other gigs.
He’s now also co-repped by Greg Herst at Conway van Gelder Grant, an agency known for developing and sticking by its clients. That’s where the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bella Ramsay started their careers — and it’s where they’ve remained.
Drifting away from acting, Mollica took a four-year course in Computer Science at the innovative research facility at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. During his final months on campus, Hollyman, who he describes as “almost like a second mother” got him an audition for a role in Sean Lionadh’s short film Too Rough. He won the part.
Working with Lionadh and co-lead Joshua Griffin “really awakened this flame inside me again,” he says.
The project filmed over four days at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Glasgow, pretty much in one single bedroom. “An entire crew squeezed in,” he recalls. “That got me thinking about acting again, not necessarily as a career path, but the feeling that it made me feel. I didn’t actually get that feeling from computer science. It’s just a liberation, and that something has just slotted into the right place.”
Then he got cast in BBC TV horror drama Red Rose, right at the same time he was applying to do a masters in Cyber Security, after which he figured he’d try for a job as an intelligence analyst at the Government Communications headquarters, known as GCHQ.
“That was just a big fork in the road moment,” he says, noting that GCHQ was the “safe option — probably a guaranteed career versus something new,unpredictable and dangerous that would make me feel fulfilled.”
Aged 21, Mollica was about to make” the biggest decision” of his life. “The scariest decision,” as he puts it. He declined a place at university in London, shot Red Rose and soon played a menacing thug in gripping Channel 5 drama Witness Number 3.
Meanwhile, Too Rough took off like a rocket, winning Lionadh an array of prizes, including trophies at BAFTA Scotland and the BIFAs. The biggest thrill for Mollica was accompanying the film to SXSW.
He still needed to enter “the beautiful world of retail” at Selfridges department store on Oxford Street to make ends meet after landing Sebastian, but after Makela’s team secured funding for the film, shooting was set for Dalston in East London, Glasgow and a short stint in Brussels.
The film’s produced by James Robert Benjamin Watson, who produced Makela’s breakthrough feature, the acclaimed A Moment in the Reeds. Executive producers are Mike Goodridge and Lizzie Francke and the film’s co-produced by Aleksi Bardy, Ciara Barry, Rosie Crerar, Erik Glijnis, Severi Koivusalo, Leontine Petit,and Dries Phlypo. Level K is handling worldwide sales with Tine Klint as the contact at Sundance.
Characters either side of Max’s double life in Sebastian are played by Hiftu Quasem (Killing Eve), Leanne Best (A Town Called Malice), Lara Rossi ((Military Wives), Marcus Macleod (The Buccaneers) and Jonathan Hyde, who gives an outstanding performance of such warmth in a part that I’m loath to give away here.
I will say, though, that the scenes that Mollica and Hyde perform together are at the heart of the film, and there’s poetic chemistry between them.
Enjoying our hot drinks, we chat some more about acting and I remark about how proud his parents must be and how much they must love watching his work.
Then he tells me that his father, who lives in Italy, has never seen him on screen, stage or in real life because he lost his sight when he was in an accident crossing the road. This was before Mollica was born. ”He was knocked over and lost his sight from that. He was a photographer as well as a painter.”
They have a great relationship, he says. He often visits his dad, which also serves as time to improve his Italian. ”He’s the reason I’m so joyful and so — even walking along here today,I saw a lone shoe just by Soho Square and that makes me happy. That makes me see the beauty and the little, everyday things, because he’s so positive and happy despite having lost what was his career and having a complete life change.”
Mollica has four rolls of undeveloped film his father shot before the accident. ”They’re probably weddings,” he says, laughing.
The actor has already directed and produced a couple of videos that are online. One’s about climate change and he has written a script that he performed on Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre stage.
Now he’s mulling over the idea of writing a feature his father’s life, “and what that must be like,” telling me: “It’s about embracing the hand that life deals you and still being able to keep going.”
Recently, he shot some scenes for an episode of Sexy Beast, a fabulous Paramount+ drama series that serves as a prequel to Jonathan Glazer’s seminal film of the same name that starred Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Amanda Redman and Ian McShane, who played crime kingpin Teddy Bass. Mollica plays a youthful version of Bass.
He also has a role in the pilot of Sam Mendes directed HBO comedy The Franchise, created by Jon Brown, Armando Iannucci and Mendes.
More pressing is figuring out how cold it’ll be at Sundance — we meet in the weeks leading up to the festival. As he bids me farewell, he jokes that his mother bought him thermals for Christmas.
I’m in no doubt that Ruaridh Mollica will receive a warm welcome in Utah.
Best of Deadline