Aug 3 2011: Writings On The Warhol: An Interview With Mary Woronov (Big Issue in the North, 2000)
This interview took place in the Cafe at Lux Cinema on Hoxton Square in early October 2000. No complete transcript of the tape was made at the time, mainly due to the conversation being – I seem to remember – somewhat meandering: Woronov seemed far happier talking about pretty much anything but herself, the very subject we were, of course, meeting to discuss. Places, exhibitions, her asking me questions (rather than vice versa) and lots of other sidelines had a tendency to take over instead. With hindsight maybe that less focused conversation might have told its own story and been interesting in itself but in the event only the parts directly relevant to the article were taken from the tape, which is long since lost or erased. The piece itself first appeared in The Big Issue in the North (Oct 23 – 29, 2000). The text here is an unabridged version, substantially longer than the article as finally published. Still, it was probably (just about) forgiveable at the time to think the long discussions of my bandaged finger and places to go in London could be left safely untranscribed. It’s only 11 years later that I’m less sure.
“… when I see the young me on the screen, she is a stranger, a dark Alice in a demented Wonderland – she’s not really sure of where she is but the audience understands she is their mirror.”
Mary Woronov on Chelsea Girls (in Warhol Films at the Gershwin Hotel)
From Hanoi Hannah in Andy Warhol’s split-screen underground classic Chelsea Girls (1966) to the monstrous principal, Miss Togar, in the Ramones vehicle Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) Mary Woronov’s film roles would probably lead you to expect their creator might be a somewhat intimidating woman. Add in the murderous farce of Paul Bartel’s pitch black capitalism-as-cannibalism comedy Eating Raoul (1982) and Woronov’s role as a ruthless hit-woman in Gregg Araki’s New Queer Cinema benchmark The Living End (1992) and you could easily be forgiven for feeling a touch nervous about meeting the lady face to face.
After all, as cult and underground acting careers go, Woronov’s has covered the ground and then some. From Warhol to Roger Corman, Hollywood Boulevard to Night of the Comet, pretty much the nearest she got to the mainstream was a Seventies turn as a sadistic warden in an episode of Charlie’s Angels that saw her hosing down the crime-fighting trio in a prison yard. So it’s all the more surprising that when I reach the Lux Café, Woronov appears almost immediately, with no affectations, tall and imposing in a dark summer dress but very visibly relaxed. She settles into a chair while smiling a lot and holds forth far more amiably than I’d dared hope.
Because, let’s face it, you really don’t expect nothing-left-to-prove affability and benign attentiveness from a woman whose own amphetamine-fuelled memoir – Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory (Serpent’s Tail) – makes a blackly comic set-piece out of her own, maybe or possibly not entirely fictional, attempted murder of a minor Warhol hanger-on named Vera Cruz on a New York subway track, among many other hair-raising incidents and encounters. So, she’s mellowed, it seems?
“I’m amazed there’s so much interest in all that stuff around The Factory,” she says, “because at the time we honestly didn’t think we were doing anything much at all. I was just young, and trying to get away from that whole idea of role models, so it’s kind of ironic that a lot of younger people now look back on those of us who were there as role models. I mean, that whole Warhol thing about making us into stars, of us becoming film stars, I knew it was sarcastic and I thought the girls there who did believe it were just stupid. It was never about getting famous, it was playing out a parody of all that stuff.”
Woronov first visited the Silver Factory (Warhol’s 1960s New York studio, so called because the entire space was lined with aluminium foil) as part of an art course she was doing at Cornell University. She stayed on at the invitation of poet and Warhol mainstay Gerard Malanga, with whom she developed a friendship (“non-sexual, mostly, which made things quite intense, in that context”) and quickly became a regular feature in some of Warhol’s most inventive films, including a notable Screen Test.
“I’d grown up in Brooklyn,” she explains. “Meeting Gerard when I was about 18 and getting that fast-track into this weird scene, being in films…it just seemed kind of cool, and I think by then I was already interested in acting. When The Velvet Underground played, there were light shows and other things going on, one of which was always Gerard dancing with a black whip, so I’d join him onstage to perform that – a kind of S&M dance routine we had developed, which got pretty intense at times. It was fun but it never seemed very much like it was going anywhere”
“Back then, of course, I loved Pop Art,” she adds. “I loved the way it was saying something, was mocking all these things people held sacred, its sarcasm. Now I hate it, I mean my favourite art these days would probably be stuff like, I don’t know, the Pre-Raphaelites, who I wouldn’t have looked at twice back then but, you know, at that time I just couldn’t have been hip enough, so Pop Art was perfect. These days I feel like I want everything to be classical again, because let’s face it, how radical can you be?”
Despite her reservations about the Factory scene today, she acknowledges that working with Warhol was a process that clearly left its mark on her later career.
“The thing about Warhol as a director is that he was really just this vacuum, who never said anything, so people acted more and more outrageous just to try and get his attention”, she points out. “He was interesting because I don’t know anyone else who had ever approached directing in that way. And nobody had done the gender-switching, the bad sound, even the locations of his films before… the effect was so realistic that everyone thought that the people in them were just freaks, and thought Warhol was just, you know, pointing a camera and paying no attention to what he was doing, but they forget that in something like Chelsea Girls we were acting. They’re movies, you know?”
Woronov’s theatre work was equally boundary-pushing, and for many years after leaving the Factory she worked in the high-camp ‘theatre of the ridiculous’ created by writers like Ronald Tavel (who had previously scripted scenarios for some of Warhol’s films) and directors like Jack Smith and John Vacarro, whose irresistible motto was: “We have passed beyond the absurd: our position is absolutely preposterous.”
“At the time, it was pretty out there stuff”, she says. “It’s all been copied so much, that whole high camp, kitsch and absurd thing, that I guess that’s not as obvious as it once was. I’d be signed up to play some impossible role – you know, “Mary, this time you’re playing the Conqueror of the Universe” – and with this completely ludicrous thing I had to become in mind, the idea was to try and make it impossible for the audience to tell where reality ended and the acting began.”
It’s a method that carries over into Woronov’s Factory memoir, where – rather than simply setting down her recollections, as they happened – she instead delivers a kind of glittering fiction, an extended monologue which plays to the legend of Warhol’s Factory as she experienced it within a half-realistic, half-mythical framework. It’s a dark tale of near self-destruction in the twilight world of the underground-dwelling ‘Mole People’ and at the centre of the chaos is Ondine, the Factory’s own lapsed ‘Pope’, for whom Woronov’s book is a kind of valediction.
“I wanted to create a real sense of the rite-of-passage I went through,” she explains. “The central image I’ve used in the book is that of Hades, the fabulous Underworld Kingdom, which is exactly what Warhol’s Factory was for me and many of the others who were there. It’s a kind of fabrication, on one level, but it’s a lot closer to a deeper truth about how it felt to me at the time than the laying out of a lot of very straight facts would ever get. The literal version would be that it was lots of people taking drugs in various dingy rooms and lofts, which is kind of boring to be around, really.”
Often, though, it’s the most outrageous claims in Swimming Underground which turn out to be true: Woronov mentions at one point that she was born with a tail (“I had an operation as a child to correct it”, she says nonchalantly) and elsewhere personifies her emotions as a “rage rat” and a caged dog named Violet, which she again admits is true: “it was a way I had of mentally dealing with myself at certain points, I think”. The whole book feels driven by a potent cocktail of coolly detached observation and amphetamine-psychosis that plays to the archetypes rather than the mundane truths of Sixties New York.
Woronov’s move to Los Angeles in the early Seventies was a major turning point, taking her from the bohemian circles of New York’s art and performance scenes into the sunnier and more lucrative territory of the Hollywood fringes. The move came about through a call from maverick director and, subsequently, long-time collaborator, Paul Bartel, who promised her work with legendary exploitation producer Roger Corman. True to his word, the first, strange, fruit of that alliance was Woronov landing the role of Calamity Jane, playing alongside Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine in the bizarre chase movie Death Race 2000. Despite that, the move to LA didn’t involve an embrace of Hollywood values.
“I guess there might have been opportunities after Death Race 2000 if I’d pursued them”, she says, “but I could never stick myself into the mould where you become a star and make money. I was always just more thrilled to do independent features, or features that were experimental, or just features that didn’t have enough money and had to make it up with something more inventive because that was the kind of work I was interested in doing, I guess. So I always remained some kind of independent ‘cult star’, as opposed to ever graduating to the big money version of Hollywood.”
While Swimming Underground was an extension of Woronov’s work in film and art, capitalising on the interest in the woman who performed ‘whip-dances’ with Malanga at the Velvet Underground’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows and took part in the New York underground, her debut novel, Snake, published earlier this year, is a wholly different proposition – perhaps one more grounded in her Hollywood experiences?
“The memoir is about New York, but the novel is very definitely about LA,” she agrees. “It’s a kind of road novel with S&M and other things mixed in. In some ways it’s more realistic than the memoir but it’s not about me or my own experiences, mostly, it’s about other people I’ve seen going off the rails and doing crazy things in the many years I’ve lived here.” Given that her debut novel has already attracted such notable fans as John Waters, who called it “a brutal and sexy romance for the criminally insane”, perhaps it’s for the best that Snake isn’t about her own life and times.
Still, the novel and memoir do seem to represent the start of a whole new career path for Woronov or, at least, add new strings to her ongoing acting work and painting.
“It’s strange because I didn’t even start writing until I was 50,” she explains. “The main reason I did was because I had an operation and couldn’t take drugs anymore so I suddenly found myself with all this excess energy and nowhere to direct it. Nothing seemed to satisfy me but writing. Writing became a kind of main obsession with me, I don’t know why. But at this point I suspect I’m actually a much better writer than I am an artist, which is too bad, if it’s true. I mean, it’s actually a lot more fun to paint than it is to write.”