Named one of the BBC’s most influential women of 2016, actress and entrepreneur Sunny Leone is at the Cannes Film Festival where she’ll be starring in Kennedy, a neo-noir thriller directed by Anurag Kashyap that revolves around the corrupt ins and outs of an insomniac cop as he chases redemption. Leone, not unlike other celebrated Hollywood actors, got her start in the adult film industry. She’s open about her past, beautifully ambitious, and remarkably talented. Featured in over 20 Bollywood films before this international debut, her role in Kennedy marks a pivotal point in her career.
Somewhere in her periphery, it stuck. There was an art teacher who took a photograph of the actress as a child and noncommittally remarked that she should model. “She probably said that to everybody. But it still stayed in the back of your mind,” Leone muses. That moment nevertheless catalysed a career in front of the camera and under the lights. While not exceedingly uncommon, transitioning from x-rated entertainment into more mainstream cinema is not the status quo, and the shift, it seems, took Sunny as much by surprise as it did anyone else. Leone’s professional changeover came following her rise to fame in the adult film industry when she was approached by Big Boss – in essence, the Bollywood cousin to Big Brother. Continents away from her comfort zone, hesitation over the reality show was only aggravated by an inbox containing a sizeable amount of hate mail. She reflects, “I had emotionally gone through so much in the beginning of my career. I just thought, why would I want to go somewhere where I’m not welcome?” Unwavering, Big Boss was persistent to a fault, and having talked it through with her husband –then boyfriend–the two of them eventually decided that she would take the opportunity on offer.
Cue India: far removed from her Canadian upbringing, the country varies not only in culture and customs from North America but also in terms of gender stereotyping. For Leone, however, the environment was a non-sequitur. “When I came in, I didn’t necessarily see there was an issue between male and female, or this movement of women’s equal rights or anything like that because I was fighting for my own right to be there. It’s a very, very different journey or perspective.” And this fight wasn’t limited to landing the role and calling it a day. On a molecular level, Leone’s struggle embedded itself into the types of roles on offer to women too.
Acutely aware of the fact that what people see on camera is only a scratch on the surface of the person in front of it, Leone didn’t necessarily shy away from the opportunities facilitated by typecasting. Her situation was (and continues to be) one where, as she explains it, “Sexiness and being glamorous is just a part of the package. In the beginning, I always said ‘I can’t work with what’s not on my plate.’ You know, I can’t choose what I want if it’s not there.” Leone’s acceptance of the plate laid before her helped focused her tunnel vision whereby the external noise, the negative chatter around the rest of the dinner table, fell mute.
The film industry retains a reservoir of work supply for already-established celebrities and their offspring. It’s an obstinate, relatively unforgiving industry that’s not easily cracked by anyone, let alone by those perceived as the personae non gratae of society. This harsh reality was pragmatically confronted by Leone early on: “In every industry there are groups of people who work with their people–which is completely acceptable by the way, from my point of view. So, the question for me became: Can I break into that corner now? I can’t. It’s very difficult. So, what’s the solution? I have to create my own path.”
The path Sunny and her husband have forged is one that feels honest, grounded and, needless to say, far from linear. Convinced she wouldn’t cover Vogue and become the next face of Estée Lauder given her past, she launched a cruelty-free makeup line, Starstruck. Not waiting around for Tarantino to call, she expanded her sphere of influence into other regions of India where the roles demanded of her are bigger and more intense than those in Bollywood. It seems that limitations are there purely to be challenged and broken by the actress, and her success in redefining them has been remarkable. With Southern Indian films coming out over the year, her continued advocacy surrounding HIV and AIDS awareness, and the management of her makeup line, Leone has not “boxed herself in” anywhere. Not by any stretch of the imagination. She’s morphed and merged into all sorts of sectors and been successful in them all.
That awe-filled lens that so many view her through, however, is not universal as of yet, and while optimistic, it would be callously naive to assume that the unnecessary gossip the actress has dealt with in the past has completely subsided. On coping with the nasty remarks, Leone shares, “Personally, I don’t look at the comments. It’s a good start. But I also have this philosophy on how I view trolls on social media. Step one, they’ve come to your page. Step two, they’ve picked a picture or video not to like. Step three, they’ve written a nasty comment. And then after they’ve written the nasty comments, I’ll ask you, what are they doing next? They’re scrolling. Engaging. They’re giving you more views.” This tenacious approach and dedication to her career have led Leone onto the international stage and what’s more, to an augmented international audience, stating “I was thinking about that phrase, “breakout role”, and thought–yeah, this would be it.”
The character of Charlie in Kennedy is not one easily reduced to being a variation on ‘Barbie’. Given this, Leone’s being cast in the role will mark not only a turning point for the actress but for the industry as a whole. Leone is relentlessly proving true the idea that boundaries are constructed to be broken and stigmas are taken up as mandates only by the ignorant. The glass ceiling faced by Leone is neither thin nor light. Despite, or perhaps because of that, she continues. “I’m knocking on this glass ceiling, and I’m going to chip away.”