PARK CITY, Utah—The sex in Sebastian happens early. Then it happens often.
We first meet a young man in his early twenties—thin, but fit and very handsome—having a stilted conversation in a living room with a man much older than him. He excuses himself to go to the bathroom, where he rubs his crotch area, to arouse himself. He then returns to the living room, after which the film cuts to the pair having sex in the older man’s bedroom. The sequence is framed more objectively and lasts much longer than we’re used to seeing on film, particularly when it comes to gay penetrative sex.
Sebastian premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it steamed up the snow banks in Park City with its frank, unapologetic depiction of sex work, the sheer volume of its sex scenes, and the provocative, somewhat revolutionary perspective through which those sequences unfold.
Written and directed by Mikko Makela, the film stars Ruaridh Mollica, a 24-year-old up-and-coming actor in one of those bold (and extremely naked) breakout performances that will merit mentions in future profiles when he inevitably starts landing jobs in Hollywood blockbusters. Mollica plays Max, an aspiring writer in London. He makes extra money through an escort site, on which he goes by Sebastian, an alter ego as whom he feels more comfortable performing on his dates with typically older, out-of-shape, and often sexually aggressive men.
Sebastian’s encounters are the fodder for the novel Max is writing, basically a mirror of his own experience as someone who moonlights as an escort—but which is he passing off as fiction to his publisher and friends, who don’t know about his own double life. His publisher is titillated by the idea of the book: a novel about sex work that treats it as any other side hustle in the modern gig economy. Max’s novel strips the act of shame, lends it the sex-positivity of the OnlyFans era, and opens people’s eyes to the idea that sex work doesn’t have to be attached to trauma; it can just be an aspect of a hard-working person’s life.
The boldness of that perspective on sex work—and whether it is actually reflective of Max’s experience—is the crux of Sebastian, as the lines between who Max is and who Sebastian is begin to blur, and the pressure takes over to manufacture in his own life the kinds of experiences that would make for juicy material in his book.
The afternoon after Sebastian’s Sundance premiere, we spoke with Maleka and Mollica about the exposing experience of such a graphic, provocative film playing for an audience for the first time, how they feel about redirecting the conversation about sex work and sex scenes in film, and the complicated questions the film asks about who gets to write whose stories.
In this movie, Max is working on a book that’s meant to change the way sex work is portrayed in culture and how people view it. This movie sets out to do the same thing. What were your feelings and trepidations about how people might view this film, given how they are conditioned to think of sex work in movies?
Makela: There have been such amazing sex work films that I love, but there always seems to be a suggestion that sex work is either the consequence or the cause of trauma. I really wanted to make a film where the decision to do sex work wasn’t necessarily questioned in the way where there needed to be a wound. That also was a note that I feel like I had a few times too often in writing the script: What’s the wound that drives him into this? That’s not the kind of story I was looking to tell.
Mollica: Especially when the film is looking at sex work in a frank way about it just being another job that people enjoy. In any other career, you don’t get any [assumption] of trauma.
The film hits on something that I see within my gay community in New York. Things like starting an OnlyFans account and certainly using Grindr and hookup apps to find sex are normalized within those communities. But I think there’s still a stigma to them in broader culture, and certainly in how they’re portrayed on film—which I think Sebastian is combatting.
Makela: I really wanted the film to not problematize sex in any way. Obviously there are situations that might seem risky and dangerous, and we don’t want to gloss over those things. But I hate it when sex is problematized in film.
Mollica: Why hide such a truth of reality? I feel like film, for some reason, keeps hiding this thing about sex, and makes sex in film this culminating, incredible, godlike moment, when it is just something people do every day. It’s another regular part of life. I think it needs to be spoken about in a way that is more normal.
I’m very cognizant of the sheer number of times I have already and will likely continue to use the word “sex” in this conversation. In showing this film and doing press about it, people are going to, as is the usual instinct, really zero in on the sex and nudity when talking about it. How do you feel about that being such a preoccupation as you start discussing the film with people?
Makela: I suppose everyone knows that this is a film about sex work. But I do think that it’s also an existentialist inquiry and character portrait. It’s a portrait of an artist trying to make work within a commercial system. And it’s a philosophical inquiry, really, into the relationship between a writer’s work and their life. I think it’s a great vehicle of discussion for and about sex work and about sex in cinema. But that is definitely just one side of it.
Mollica: Especially for me as the actor, it’s one of the first questions people ask. “How did you do that? How do you feel? What was that like? Was that challenging?” But for me, like [Mikko] said, it’s not actually about that. Obviously, people want to know, because there’s so much sex in the film. It was a process of easing into that word. Building those scenes in a way that makes them feel authentic was a huge part of this. But it is much more about what’s going on as a journey of self-discovery than it is about the actual sex.
The sheer amount of sex and nudity was one aspect of the film and this interesting existential journey was another. Given those two pillars associated with the character, what were the things you were nervous about and what were you excited about when it came to playing this part?
Mollica: The sex scenes were definitely the things I was most nervous about. I’ve not really done any intimate scenes of that nature in my career at all. So it was something that I really was quite scared of at the start. Before you’re in it, you don’t realize actually how safe an environment it is and how carefully put together each scene is. As soon as I was in there, the sex scenes became the scenes that were actually the easiest to do.
Mollica: The journey of Max and the things that he goes through are so human and so relatable. It’s that journey that everyone goes on in their mid-twenties of trying to figure out who they are. It predominantly is a queer journey that I feel like we relate to, but it is still a journey that anyone goes on at that point in life. It’s such formative years. Those career decisions, especially as an artist—that’s something that I was going through at the time. I just moved to London and to do my own journey as an actor. I just began to pursue it. It was all very synonymous with what I was going through.
Given that it’s a central question of the film, has making this movie changed your opinion about how much of a topic a person needs to have experience with—or have experienced themselves—in order to write about it?
Makela: I don't know if it’s changed in the sense of I think that, yeah, you have to have some kind of connection to a story. That kind of direct autobiographical mapping has never been possible with, for instance, period stories, or something like that. But you have to find a way into an emotion, a character, a theme. I do fear that in this moment, where everyone is simply being asked to tell only stories from their own experience, we may end up in a situation where, ultimately, the only stories we can make are documentaries about ourselves. Which really limits the potential of storytelling, which should be founded also on empathy and imagination. Viewers are, I suppose, expected to empathize with the stories. So why do we give viewers the right to do that if the authors don’t have that same capacity?
Mollica: It’s definitely something to think about when someone’s writing a queer story or story about a certain race. If there’s no one involved in that production who is part of that group or demographic, then there’s not a single ounce of truth in that. I think 100 percent, the people that the story is about should be involved in the creative process.
Makela: It’s related very much to the conversation that we’ve been having about queer actors playing queer roles. I think it’s extremely important that someone involved in the production is consulting to ensure authenticity. But I don’t think that we can limit ourselves.
Tandem to the way sex work is portraying being different is film, the sex scenes themselves are different. Could you talk about the considerations you had about how erotic to make them, how frank to make them, how long to make them…those considerations?
Makela: The length of the scene was really just down to—I don't want to say what’s necessary, but in any storytelling form, the scene is as long as it needs to be to tell the story of that scene. I tried really not to question the length of them in that sense of having that voice in my mind of, “Is this necessary?” Or, “Is this too long?” It’s about whatever amount of time we need to capture that psychological journey in that scene and understand the reactions. So I tried not to think of them as different from...
Mollica: Scenes of dialogue?
Makela: Exactly. Because it is a body of dialogue between the actors. Of course there’s an evolution to them in the film. They tell the story of Max’s development from the initial exhilaration and also the sense of needing to prove himself as well.
Mollica: At the start, he has this almost hesitation about this novel experience of being with these older men, or men that have different body types and things like that. He has these moments of experiencing that and feeling that and questioning that. It’s in his head the whole time, and that journey of comfortability and embracing that shows through his body.
Makela: Absolutely. I think it was really important to show the hesitation of touching that type of body that he might not have touched before. And then developing confidence with that. And that he’s also getting to sense his own power. First in the sense of power as an object of desire, but then later on, the power as someone who is able to give closeness and give tenderness and intimacy.
The idea of autofiction and embellishment is really interesting at a time when people portray very curated and often exaggerated versions of their lives on social media. Max is doing that in a more formal realm, with the novel, but it is interesting to think about in relation to our day-to-day tendency to embellish and lie.
Mollica: I do think, especially with social media, it comes from people wanting this validation of seeming interesting or exciting. It definitely drives people to exaggerate. Even if it was an experience that was maybe very exciting anyway, you add something to it. Maybe five more people were there. Maybe 30 more people. I’ve done it, for sure. I’d be telling a story and I’d be like, “Oh yeah, 15 people were all doing this,” when maybe it was just five people. Even if five people were all on unicycles rolling down the street, five or 15—it really doesn't matter. It’s still five people on unicycles!
Especially when it comes to Max writing in his novel about sex. I think people when they’re encountering sexual experiences, they’re definitely more prone to embellishment and being extreme.
Mollica: It’s this needing to prove themselves in the bedroom. Like, “Oh, I have good sex!” But in reality, everyone has good sex and bad sex. Right? It’s so dependent on who you’re with or what’s happening. Everyone’s had bad sex.
Makela: One of the interesting questions I think that the film poses for a writer of autofiction is, if someone decides that they can only write about what happens to them, then will they be embellishing their own life? Or try to lead their life in a more exciting way in order to have that material?
Mollica: That’s present in Max’s situation. He gets certain notes from his publisher and then is more spurred on to take bigger risks to please certain people, when maybe that isn’t actually where his heart is.
I was really struck, both as a writer and also as someone who asks people about their lives all the time for work, by the scene when Max’s mom goes into his room and says about his writing, “Can’t you keep some things for yourself?” At a time when the expectation is that nothing is personal, how do you feel about that line?
Makela: That’s a very crucial question to the film. It is so much about that dilemma between public and private for Max. On the one hand, I think he has this passion for writing something really authentic and wants to communicate those feelings to the world. That’s what he’s living for, really. But I guess it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is the question of what does being so open do to people around you? That was a particularly important line to include.
Mollica: For me as an actor, that line resonates the most. Especially after this film. Even though I was playing a character, I was so a part of it and I feel like I really lived it. It feels so personal. To have that out is something that I think is scary and exciting all at the same time. Then as I do interviews and talk about the film, it is that line of how much of my personal life does come out. It was just maybe a month ago where I had the first feeling of like, oh, that stuff I said in that article, that’s out there now. That’s in the world. That’s stuff that I’ve shared now. The line transitions between what is yours and what is everyone’s.