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Stylist exclusive: Pleasure’s Sofia Kappel on her debut acting role and why the film is the most important one of the year

Sofia Kappel is the lead actor in Pleasure, one of 2022’s most talked-about films. She sat down with Stylist to speak candidly about the female gaze, the porn industry and what she hopes viewers will take away from it. 

When it comes to porn and discussions about the porn industry, conversations aplenty are being had, but depictions of such topics are rarely seen on the big screen. That’s part of the reason why Pleasure has garnered so much attention upon its release.

The film initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2020 and is now available to watch on MUBI and in UK cinemas. Even before it made its way to our shores, though, the film was critically acclaimed and hailed as one of the most shocking NSFW films of the year. After watching it, I’m inclined to agree.

Not only will the film’s near two-hour run time fly by in a flash, but it will also enrapture you with the often-sidelined world of the Los Angeles porn industry, providing twists, turns and some stark and painfully realistic moments that will leave you squirming. Resoundingly, though, it will leave you thinking about porn as a consumer product while also frantically googling for more information about its lead actor, Sofia Kappel. 

Pleasure film
Sofia Kappel stars as Bella Cherry in Pleasure.

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The young actor makes her debut in Pleasure and when we sit down to talk, Kappel says: “I actually started my acting career with probably the most difficult part I could do.”

She had “nothing to compare it to”, which is something she’s glad about because it’s a film that director Ninja Thyberg has been working on since the actor was 13 – she’s 24 now. When she got the part, Kappel explains that it felt like she was being handed Ninja’s baby to take care of.

In the beginning, she says: “I didn’t trust that I was a good actor because I didn’t know – I had never seen myself.” But “letting go” of any fears and doing it wholeheartedly “with every little part of me” helped her to make the role of Bella Cherry her own. The film is completely filmed from the perspective of Bella, a small town Swedish newcomer to the LA porn industry, who wants to rise to the top and be the best porn actor she can possibly be – by any means necessary.

The movie is astounding, not least because it manages to explore so many themes – patriarchy, exploitation, fetishisation and lesser-known corners of the industry – in a consumable and surprisingly light way. The humour of the script “helps people take it to heart more”, Kappel says. But the role itself transformed Kappel’s life. It forced her to let go of her fears but also helped with a lot of mental health issues that she had and helped her to overcome a lot of the issues she’s had with body dysmorphic disorder. “It gave me a lot of confidence,” she says. “This movie completely changed my life.” 

Pleasure
Pleasure is now available to stream on MUBI and in select UK cinemas.

It’s a movie that has benefitted from a huge amount of research, by both Thyberg and Kappel. When I ask her about any pre-production preparation, she reveals that she was flown out to the US from Sweden “pretty much immediately” to embark on a year-long routine of auditioning with co-stars, taking “erotic dance lessons to learn how to walk in stripper heels”, going to porn sets, events and venues to meet and interview people from the industry.

Kappel admits: “I think the best research for me was probably building actual relationships with people.” It afforded her the opportunity to build “genuine” connections and “ask all the uncomfortable questions”. She explains that this was integral because coming into Pleasure, she was “very open about the prejudice I had”.

It’s these prejudices around the porn industry that we discuss, and speaking about viewer reactions, Kappel says that she hopes Pleasure allows people to confront their own, as she did. “I think it’s very easy to have a lot of prejudice about things you know very little about. That goes for a lot of very important subjects.” 

The movie “raises a lot of important questions”, she says and “there are parts in this film that are relatable to everyone”. “Whether you’re a woman, non-binary, a man or someone that consumes a lot of porn.”

It’s part of the reason why having a majority female crew and cast was so important but also why considering the female gaze when filming was crucial. Kappel explains: “I don’t have statistics and numbers, but if you go to any porn site, most of it is going to be a male POV.”

She says that if you were to ask someone who consumes porn whether they remember the male in the film, the resounding answer would be no. “The focus is always on the female,” Kappel says.

“But I don’t think that that’s particular about porn. That’s all the media images that we’re consuming; everything is shot from the male gaze.

“It’s very important in Pleasure because it’s a story about a woman – what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated world – and you can’t quit patriarchy, [so] you deal with it. The female gaze in this film was a way for Ninja to expose the male gaze.” 

Pleasure
Sofia Kappel says that conversations on boundaries and camera placement were always had on the set of Pleasure.

She explains how there were usually “quite big discussions” about camera placement with Thyberg having to confront her conditioned way of reproducing the male gaze. In order to remain loyal to Bella, Thyberg employed some clever small filming details, Kappel says.

“I’m always filmed from underneath or straight on; I’m never filmed from above. That’s a really classical way of making someone look more powerful. Everyone has seen images of old white men shot from underneath and they’re CEOs.”

One of the more shocking scenes of the film comes when Bella is on an all-male set having to film a physically abusive scene. It’s her first one of the sort and she has to scream “Stop!” multiple times. 

The scene comes after another where she works with a female director and crew while being tied up and held from the ceiling. They tend to her, get her water, ask her for safe words and ensure the experience is as pleasurable for her as possible. It’s a stark contrast and one that underlines the changing face of the porn industry through female film creators versus the male directors that dominate it. 

In filming Pleasure, though, Kappel stresses the fact that she was never actually hurt and filming always revolved around discussions of boundaries. One of Kappel’s closest friends from Sweden even flew in for the scene with the all-male set “to make sure I felt like safe during it”. The only job for her friends, she explains, was to “always look at me”.

“And if I just made eye contact, that meant cut. Ninja took huge measures to make sure that I wasn’t going to be put in the same situation that Bella is – essentially one in which you can say ‘no’ but you really can’t say ‘no’.”

Working with real-life porn actors for Pleasure also made Kappel feel more authentic in her role. “It helped me feel so much more comfortable when we shot intimate scenes,” she says. Talking about the cast, she refers to them all as “amazing actors” and explains: “It makes me really happy that they are because it kills the cliché that porn actors can’t act – because they can.”

There’s no denying that Pleasure is a confronting film but as Kappel states: “I don’t mind people thinking that it’s uncomfortable or being worried [about me] after they’ve seen the film, I take that as a compliment to my performance.” 

Pleasure
Sofia Kappel and Zelda Morrison as Bella and Joy in Pleasure.

Even though Kappel’s been touring for the film for a while now, she’s still bowled over by the positive reaction. She says simply: “I wish that there had been a movie like this out when I was like 15 or 16; I think it would have changed a lot of things for me.”

When I ask her about what she’d like viewers to take away from Pleasure, she concludes: “To me, the movie isn’t saying that the porn industry is wrong or right. It’s about showing a reality that very few people have an insight into.

“I’m hoping that since the movie is built in a way where the audience always stays loyal to Bella, it makes people realise that everyone in the porn industry is human. They’re not these robots that just produce whatever.

“They’re, first of all, producing what we’re consuming. I think it’s very patronising and harmful, not only to the people in the industry but also to everyone, to dehumanise and distance ourselves from that industry. There are problems within it, but we could be a part of the solution if we just choose to talk about it.”

Pleasure is available to watch now on MUBI and select UK cinemas. 

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