Interview with Mary Woronov

by Vittorio Carli

(a shorter version of this appeared on www.reelmoviecritic.com)

If Mary Woronov is in a film, it’s usually a sign that it will be wacky, weird and wonderful. The versatile cult icon has had impressive careers in art, dancing, film, writing, and painting. She also wrote the books: Blind Love and Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol. She danced with the Velvet Underground, hung out at The Factory, acted in the experimental Play-House of the Ridiculous, and starred in films by Roger Corman and Andy Warhol. She's worked with everyone from Sylvester Stallone to Rob Zombie to The Ramones. But her biggest triumph may be her irresistibly wicked performance in the cannibalism comedy, “Eating Raoul” as the outwardly ultra normal and psychopathic, Mary Bland. She has been in many TV shows including Charlie's Angels and she even made a cameo appearance with actor Jack Nance (of "Eraserhead" fame)  in “Institutionalized,” a 1983 Suicidal Tendencies’ video as a mean mom who institutionalizes her son (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXK0Hjfkrgw). She will appear at the Music Box on Friday, May 9 at 8 pm after a screening of “Rock’n Roll High School” which contains one of her quintessential cult classic performances as Principal Miss Togar.  It will be followed by a Q and A session with her plus Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kott of “Sound Opinions”). She will also attend a science fiction festival at the Music Box on Saturday, May 10 (see http://www.musicboxtheatre.com). I recently spoke with her on the phone and she was eager to talk about her career and upcoming projects.

 

How did you get involved in art?

When I was very young my mom went out a lot.  She usually couldn't deal with me. But she praised my drawings and   framed everything I did. A lot of my stuff was shown in grade school. Later I went to Pratt School in New York, and then I attended Cornell as a sculpture major. I met the New image people and Andy Warhol. I didn't think I could make a living painting until after I met Warhol. But everyone in the Factory group was getting famous except me.

 

How did you get involved with Andy Warhol and how did you drift away from Cornell?

I knew some guys that were real rebels: Danny Cassidy and David Murray.  They got me to go to a reading at Cornell, and there I met the poet/director Gerard Malanga (one of Warhol's assistants in the factory). Cornell had set up a trip to New York and I ended up visiting the studios of Robert Milton Ernest Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Gerard Malanga set up a screen test and he started using me as his main partner in his films which were becoming more like movies). (They later did "Mary for Mary" together which had Woronov confronting the camera with a whip. After that, I didn't want to go back to Cornell anymore. I stayed in New York for a long time. All my paintings in New York were in black and white, but after I moved to California I started drawing with vibrant colors. But I still only wear black (laughing).

 

You also danced who regularly behind the seminal proto punk band, The Velvet Underground. What was that like?

Gerard Malanga and I danced with the Velvet Underground as part of the traveling Exploding Plastic Inevitable. There was a section of the stage for Gerard and me, and we could do what we wanted.  I guess I was a pretty good dancer (laughing). There were Warhol movies on the backstage and rest of the stage was hours. Dancing was so exciting. It was like being on narcotics.  It made me very high without me taking anything. I just loved Lou Reed and we became very good friends.

Did your active night life make it difficult for you to function during the day?

Well I either took amphetamines to stay up in the day or I slept all day. We all did.

Can you tell me about the “Chelsea Girls” film?

 

I had been doing plays for the Play-House of the Ridiculous (which went beyond the theatre of the absurd), and Ronnie Tavel was involved with it too. The plays were trashy and apolitical. Ronnie worked on the script of “Chelsea Girls and Paul Morrisey directed it. It was shot at the Chelsea Hotel, and I played "Hanoi Hannah," in one of two portions of the film scripted specifically by Tavel.  I knew my lines well, but none of the other girls had read the script, so this gave me a kind of power on the set. I think I like it the best out of the Warhol films I did.

 

How did you start working with Roger Corman?

Well after Warhol, I decided to paint and act, and I didn't want to do it living at my parents’ house. They disapproved of it all but they always let me come back.  I knew a guy who had a crush on me or it might have been on one of my characters--I'm not sure which. This guy had recently done a film in Italy and he knew Paul Bartel.  I had been through a bad love affair and wanted to move away from New York. Bartel basically got me in "Death Race 2000,” which he directed and Corman produced. Bartel told me that I should wear a really short skirt when I audition for Corman, so he would notice see my legs and I would get the part. But the producer, Corman didn't even look at my legs, and he hired me anyway. The cast was like a small family and we would fill in for each other and do each other's jobs if it was necessary. It was not unusual for an actress to do another one's makeup or for Joe Dante would step in and direct a quick scene as a favor to another director. Corman used Bartel and me frequently because we were great camp actors.

 

You also were in one of my favorite cult music films "Rock'n Roll High School." What were the Ramones like?

 They were great to work with. I didn't know their music and didn't like it in the beginning, but I got to appreciate it. They were nice.  They were always there for their takes on time then they would go in their room and eat pizza all day like animals. They also used needed to have a TV on. They had a great sense of humor.

 

Which of your role/roles is your favorite and why?

Well my favorite is “Eating Raoul” which was directed by Paul Bartel.  I played a great character. Mary Bland was so strong and so fascinating and so completely crazy. I also loved working on the horror film "Hellhole" because I could do whatever I wanted in it. I also loved Mrs. Togar inRock'n Roll High School.”  She was a great tyrannical prude. I was hoping that would lead to a big role in a TV series. She wasn't planned that way. I just saw those punk rock kids, and I made her the opposite.  I also loved my role in Hellhole. I was a sneaker wearing, sado-masochistic owner of an insane asylum who liked to torture the patients.

How do you feel about being a cult icon?

I'm not sure I am one. I went to a horror film event with an autograph sign and there were many more people in Barbara Steele's line (Steele was in "Black Sunday.") But I'd much rather be a cult film queen then a mainstream actress that never works
Even though there's not as much money I prefer cult films. I feel more freedom doing them and not everything has to be perfect.  I remember at one point, Paul Bartel was directing a film and he admitted that he didn't have any more money to pay us. He said he wouldn't blame us if we quit, but everyone stayed. It took us a whole year to do 28 days of shooting.

 

 

Do you think Indy, cult or underground films offer better roles for older women?

Well there some good big roles for older women in bigger films. Look at Julie Christie in "Away from Her." But Hollywood has never known what to do with me and they don't understand me. I'm not a method actor; I'm a camp actress. They're attracted to my aura, but they always give me the really bizarre roles. They always wanted to cast me as a lesbian prison guard or some variation, but they couldn't be too explicit about it. For instance, I was the abusive warden in "Charlie's
Angels."

 

I loved your appearance as a therapist on "My So-Called Life," and you’ve done a lot of work in television. Do you have any special TV memories?

No, I've always hated TV. I don’t think my acting style is particularly suited for most TV. The main reason I own one is watch DVDs, although I admit there are some good comedies.

How did you start writing?

 

When I stopped getting drunk and high I didn’t know what to do. I had a lot of free time, so I just started writing. Swimming Underground was a book I wrote about the Warhol years. It got published but it only sold well in Europe. My second book Snake got published too, but the publisher went under. I also did Wake for the Angles: Painting and Stories which included my paintings and drawings. Confessions of a Cult Queen from Warhol to Corman. I think people underestimate Corwin's importance. He was the quintessential B film maker.

 

Can you tell me about your upcoming projects and activities?

 

I have a new art exhibit on July 10 at the Bert Green Fine Art Gallery (there's a web site with some of Mary’s works at http://www.bgfa.us/.) My new paintings are figurative, narrative and darkly psychological.  They always tell a story. I’m going to be in the film, House of Devil.( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1172994). I play a woman who entices a babysitter, so that the devil can impregnate her. There's a great scene that in which my character has a chat with Satan.  Rusty Nails (of Movieside Film Festival) knows the director, Ti West. Of course, I am also doing talks at the Movieside Sci-fi Spectacular at the Music Box on May 9 and 10 (see http://www.musicboxtheatre.com)
 

 

 

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