‘Tom of Finland’ Star Pekka Strang Responds to Critics Who Call the Biopic Too Tame
Those expecting the new Tom of Finland film, a biopic of the legendary gay artist, to be a nonstop orgy of leather-clad daddies are bound to be a bit disappointed. Far from an explicit romp through the butch leather scene this Finnish illustrator is himself responsible for, the beautifully crafted film — premiering today, Oct. 20, in Los Angeles and San Francisco — presents a story that focuses more on, well, reality.
Today he’s one of the most celebrated figures of LGBTQ culture, but during World War II he was Touko Laaksonen, a decorated military man who served his country valiantly. The film starts here, as we meet a soldier who fights out of love for his country but who is stalled from voicing his love for other men.
Helsinki after the war is as homophobic a place as ever — sans Berlin, where Laaksonen happens to find refuge for a short time. His real refuge, though, is in his art, his true love. The inhibitions that rule his days spent working as an illustrator for an ad agency are nowhere to be found in his homoerotic sketches.
The film follows Laaksonen, who has adopted the moniker of “Tom,” as he’s to the West Coast, and that’s when everything changes for him. Newly able to be the openly gay man he’s always dreamed of, “Tom of Finland” (a name bestowed upon him by legendary gay photographer and publisher Bob Mizer) reaps the benefits of America’s queer sexual revolution while also shaping it. The man was a hero and a revolutionary.
Equally raw and poignant, the Tom of Finland film explores one of gay culture’s most risqué artists but does so in a way that unearths the man behind the leather gear and exaggerated erect penises. He was a gentle soul who cared for his loved ones and felt a responsibility for members of the movement he sparked.
Tom of Finland was directed by one of Scandinavia’s most acclaimed directors, Dome Karukoski, and the film is Finland’s official submission for the 2018 Academy Awards — a testament to its value as both a biographical picture and work of art.
Portraying the artist at the heart of the Tom of Finland film is actor Pekka Strang, a Finnish veteran of stage and screen who has spent the last year navigating the worldwide festival circuit. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Los Angeles only a few days ago, and he couldn’t have been more willing to invite me into his innermost thoughts of what he considers the “role of a lifetime.”
In our conversation below we discuss his (lack of) familiarity with Tom of Finland before securing the film’s lead role (he’s a married straight man, after all), his hesitation in playing a man of such iconic status to the queer community and why he personally considers the artist, who lived in Los Angeles until his death in 1991, a hero. Strang also bravely addresses critiques of the biopic as “too tame,” and we joke about his gaydar, which he reports is shoddy even after making what’s sure to become a piece of classic gay film.
Hornet: Tell me a little bit about how you came to be involved in the film.
Pekka Strang: I heard about the project from a casting agency — that they’re going to do a biopic of Tom of Finland. I got called for casting with the director, and that was of course the first step. Then it was a few castings, another one and another one. Many were eager to do the part. For some reason the director chose me, so it felt great. I can still remember the feeling when he called me. It was great.
What was your familiarity with the work of Tom of Finland before even getting the script?
Well, the pictures of Tom of Finland are so unique, so once you’ve see them it feels like you’ve seen them before. I wasn’t so familiar with his life, and I don’t think anybody was except of course for those really hardcore fans. He lived such a private life, too, so we didn’t know too much about him. But the artwork? Of course. It’s really special.
Yeah. I knew his importance, but I didn’t know the magnitude of it. So I got a bit scared. I remember the morning after I got the role, I got a bit scared. I mean, now the problem starts, I have to do it and I have to sort of carry it. But we had a good time preparing. Then, when you start shooting, you can’t perform like an icon — you have to show off a human being. That way, it’s all the same still.
That fear you mention, was that the fear that you have before any film project, or did that have to do with this artist’s legendary status.
Of course you’re always nervous when you start. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve done. I know actors when they’re 80 years old they’re still nervous, even if they’ve been onstage. But yeah, of course. In this case it’s an important movie and it was one of the biggest ever done in Finland, budget-wise and all that. So I felt a big responsibility, and probably a bit of fear was from that. But then again, when you look at how Tom lived his life — for me it was just doing a movie, but Tom lived the life so ….
That’s a good point. I’m curious what you know now about the legacy of his work.
Well, I know so much more than I did back then, but just the stories of all these men around the world who got to see his pictures. I can just imagine, say in the ’50s, ’60s, before the internet — everything is so much more open now. If you have WiFi, you’re not alone in some way. But you can still feel alone.
I think that was probably the biggest revolution: To show [gay men] these masculine men. There probably wasn’t too much of that in the arts or in discussions or knowledge of people. That you can be whatever you are and love whoever you want to love. That sort of surprised me, or amazed me.
I understand that you worked with the Tom of Finland Foundation here in Los Angeles, and you actually came to L.A. before shooting?
Yeah, I came here in 2016 before shooting. It was my first time in L.A. and my first time meeting up with the guys and going to Tom’s House. I was a bit nervous — to come and say, “I’m going to play one of your family members.” But they made it so easy, and they’ve been so nice to me throughout the process. I’m going to meet up with them tonight, actually. I consider them my friends.
So you’re like an honorary member of the Tom’s Men.
Well, I’m not. So many have done so much before me. We always have to remember as actors you go into the skin of people and you do have to do these scenes that can be really emotional, but then again, the struggle, the oppression, what happened in the AIDS era — people have suffered so much and fought so much for this freedom, so in that way I’m just a free-rider and I don’t feel I’ve done anything else but try to make a good movie that gives him the honor.
You gave an interview in which you called him a hero.
I think he’s a hero. I mean, just looking at what Finland was like when he was growing up, you have to be sort of extraordinary to find the courage and the desire to do this artwork — that was illegal, for one thing. It wasn’t acceptable, and there wasn’t a social network existing when he started working. He couldn’t go on Google and find 60 other people around the world doing the same thing. So, yeah, for me he’s a hero. And probably for many people all around the world.
Think of a small town in let’s say Texas, or in Germany or Poland. Or today in Chechnya or Iran, Iraq. Or Africa. We need these symbols. We need these heroes who are sort of paving the way.
I also read that you’ve said despite working int he industry for years that you have terrible gaydar.
Yeah. I hope people get the humor of it. I’ve been thinking about it lot, because I hope there’s no offense to it.
I don’t think it’s offensive, just humorous.
I mean, I’ve tried to find out like, what does it … I can work with people and just find out, OK, he’s gay, he’s got a boyfriend or, oh, he’s not gay? But I just don’t care. It’s all about meeting people, not meeting their gender or their sexuality.
Sure. But do you think your gaydar is maybe a little better after working on the film?
No, it’s as bad still! [Laughs] I feel people are so different all over the world, so you just have to sort of embrace everybody. It sounds cliché, and it is, but I believe that.
I think that’s valid. So Finland only legalized gay marriage earlier this year. That was probably during your work on the film, right?
Yeah it was actually just after the [Finnish] premiere, but I know many were celebrating that by going to the movies. I get a bit emotional, because I think that was such an important decision by the government. I’ve gotten a lot of Twitter notes that people were sitting in the cinema kissing each other and watching the movie. That’s when I felt there was something special with the movie. That we had done good. I think that’s why it’s really important to get it out into the world and get it to the United States right now.
We have to remind ourselves that this freedom, this liberty — there are people who are fighting against it. One must sort of remind himself. And we must remind ourselves that it hasn’t always been like this.
So there’s been some criticism that the film is maybe a little too tame considering the raw and very risqué nature of Tom of Finland’s artwork. How do you respond to those critiques?
I get it, totally. You can’t make a movie about Tom of Finland without people having their own thoughts of how it should be done. It’s not like making a fictional movie; everybody knows Tom of Finland. But in criticism you always tell something about yourself. We can’t compete with his artwork.
Just look at the drawings. We must remember it’s only ink on paper. That sort of excitement — when you’re getting aroused and horny looking at them — it’s in your mind. It’s not on the paper. They are beautiful, but we could never compete with the fantasy of the audience. This was a story about the artist growing up. There weren’t orgies in Finland in the 1930s, like with leather men and all that, so I completely am OK with the criticism, and I understand completely where it comes from.
But this is our story, and this is how we did it. People have an absolute right to criticize it.
What kind of feedback have you received from audiences? I’m curious how the reactions you’ve gotten from gay people compare to those of straight people who have seen the film.
I think it’s more a question of generation. I think if you were born in the ’90s and you’ve never seen anything like this oppression, maybe now you realize that this happened.
But people were shocked. I think in Finland older straight people were shocked that they lived in these times. And they knew it. They knew of the oppression but kept silent. I think that was a bit of a shock. I think that’s why many have been so emotional about the movie and really moved by Tom’s story. Because it’s not only Tom’s story. This artist, Tom, yeah it’s his story. But thousands and thousands of men all around the world and still today are living in these same conditions. Now we know that it’s happening, so we can’t be silent. I think that hit a lot of people.
Straight people are understanding that we have to step up for the minority if you want humanity in our society. It’s that whole idea of oppressing someone for something they can’t choose must be rejected. You can’t choose your color, you can’t choose your sexuality. It’s so weird to be oppressed for something you can’t choose. I think that’s something even straight people get from this movie.
Before I let you go, I’m curious whether you now own any of Tom’s work.
I don’t, but I’ve seen so many exhibitions. I’ve been around the world, and they’re beautiful. There’s a really nice exhibition in Berlin. Actually, I do have the catalog from it. Its beautifully done, it’s sketches that are not finished. They are unique. I met a lot of art collectors from around the world who are collecting Tom’s art. He’s a true artist.
It sounds like the film was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Yeah it was. Absolutely, that’s what I said before shooting. It’s going to be a role of a lifetime.
The Tom of Finland film opens theatrically in L.A. and San Francisco on Oct. 20 with a national release to follow.
All photos by Josef Persson, courtesy Kino Lorber