Even though Tom of Finland’s homoerotic art of beefed up masculine men is known and loved by almost the entire global LGBT community, very little is known about them man who created them. That is all about to change with the arrival of new film from award-winning Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski that tells the tale of how Touko Laaksonen a Decorated Army Officer from a remote country town would become one of the most influential and celebrated figures of twentieth century gay culture.
On the eve of the movie’s release in the US as it is announced that it has been selected as Finland’s Official Submission for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, queerguru caught up with the movie’s star PEKKA STRANG in New York to ask him what it was like to be playing such a gay icon.
QG: Welcome, and congratulations on the movie that we totally loved. Before we kick off, would you like to briefly explain to people who have not seen it yet, what it is all about?
Pekka: The movie is about the artist behind Tom Of Finland who came to change the world with his visionary hyper-masculine guys, He grew up in a small Finnish village and served in the 2nd World War as an Army Officer. In the 1950’s and 60’s where even though there was a lot of oppression of gay men in Finland, through his art, Tom went on to be this iconic figure of the whole gay community
QG: He himself though was very self-assured and confident of his sexuality when most other gay men were still very firmly in the back of the closet.
Pekka: He probably was exceptional at the time. I saw an interview he did for a 1991 documentary Daddy & The Muscle Academy when he was speaking of his childhood growing up in a small village. He said he saw some gorgeous lumberjacks and these bus drivers in their uniforms, and he knew then that his was what he wanted. So he was self-confident of his own identity which he never questioned, even though society always did.
However he led a double life though as his family never knew he was Tom of Finland until after his funeral. You might say that is sad in a way, but that’s the way it was.
QG: To the LGBT Community at large, he is an iconic figure, even more so after this movie, but how is he regarded in Finland?
Pekka: For a long time people had no idea that he really was from Finland, but nowadays he is recognized all over, including from the Art world. That was one of his problems at the time as he came from an Advertising Agency, he was considered too commercial to be a ‘real artist’. People here are now very proud of him.
QG: It is interesting that when he was alive Tom was more concerned about being accepted as an artist than as a gay man as he was so much confident about his sexuality.
Pekka: That’s true.
QG: How has the movie been received in Finland? With open arms?
Pekka: Well, there is stupidity all over the world, and Finland is no exception, and we too have a conservative movement that scares people.
On a positive note the movie did however open up a whole conversation of how LGBT people were treated, and I really don’t think many people knew the history of it. Homosexuality was still considered a sickness until 1981, and although we have come along from that, it is still a process and we have to keep going.
We need to remind people that homosexuality has been around as long as mankind, and if you don’t get it …….well, it’s hard to debate with stupid people.
QG: What attracted you to play the role? Did you know much about him beforehand?
Pekka: I knew his art. I knew the pictures, I had seen them around, but I knew nothing about the man behind them. There was this tremendous history about him starting with the fact that he was a Decorated Army Officer and a hero that kept on going. The more I read and the more I got to know, was amazing for me, especially about him growing into becoming this icon for the leather scene.
He lived a very full and rich life. There is a really nice quote from him ‘I spent almost 10,000 hours alone in my room with my characters just working, but it was a helluva good time.‘
QG: So in the movie you are not just playing a role, but bringing alive an icon which is quite a heavy responsibility.
Pekka: When you go to the casting you go with self-confidence that you are the man for the role. When you get the part, the problem starts (laughs). When you get to play a real human being it must have something to do with reality. At first you gather so much information together as possible, and be really respectful but the most important part is being true to who he really was.
QG: So you were surprised about what you learnt about him, but were you also surprised about what you learnt about yourself playing a gay character for the first time?
Pekka: Every character you play opens up new perspectives, and Tom opened up a whole new world for me. Growing up as a straight man I didn’t have to deal with any struggles with my sexuality. I talked to several of my gay friends to realize that this normal teenage angst we all have growing up, was so much tougher for them, and seemed never ending at times. Even though the LGBT community is still slowly getting more equality, there is also the unshakable feeling that as a gay person you are still an outsider.
I’m not going to say that I am an expert on this, or say that I know what it is like, but I got a good sense of it. I got a glimpse of that world and what it might have been. Now I have so much more respect for people in any minority group who struggle, because as a member of the ‘majority’ you never realize that the world looks different when you are standing a bit on the outside.
QG: Do you think mainstream audiences will get a better understanding of Tom and his community after seeing the movie?
Pekka: I really hope so. I cannot speak for all the audiences as everyone gets their own experience, but the feedback we have got back from Finland and all over the world is as we have a protagonist who doesn’t question himself. He sees himself as a full member of society and he is more interested in art than his own identity, and I think that makes it easier for people to relate to his character. We all have these questions : we are all insecure in what we are doing so in that sense, I hope it helps to open that all up.
I know that one of Dome’s idea with this work is that maybe one day that heterosexuals will understand gay people better. The important thing is that this is not a niche movie only for the gay community, but it is for everyone everywhere .
QG: Now you are headed to Tom’s second home i.e. California, are you looking forward to that?
Pekka: This is like his movie is a grand ‘homecoming’ for Tom. The community there welcomed him with such open arms in the 1970’s, and they were the ones who made him the icon who he is today. It is really important not just for me, the whole crew and the movie, but for Tom himself and his legacy that he gets this premiere in L.A. It’s a huge thing for all of us.
QG: Pekka you are known mainly for your work as an Artistic Director of a Theater Company in Finland, but has this movie given you the taste to make more movies now?
Pekka: I’ve got a lot more offers and calls than I did before so now people may realize that they can use me (laughs). For me this has been a great opportunity, so lets see where it goes. I going to work hard to get this move know for everybody, and we never know what we’ll happen to me after. We’ll see.
QG: Isn’t the most important thing about the movie for you, is the fact that you got to keep the custom made leather jacket ?
Pekka: (laughs) That’s true. I really admire the leather crowd in L.A. how they wear them in that heat, I was drowning in sweat when we shot the scenes there.