by journalist Innes Reekie, first published in John Robb’s Louder Than War in 2012, in it's longer unedited version (this is an edited short version).
One of my best friends, Joanna Pickering, has been plying her trade in the acting world since graduating from the Lee Strasberg School of Method Acting in New York City in the mid 2000’s. Years later, and Joanna has just wrapped filming on Alan Mcgee’s and Dean Cavanagh’s new experimental film, Kubricks, and is about to embark upon a remake of revered director, Strinberg’s Dance of Death, with award winning Swedish directors. Additionally, she has offers from interesting experimental independent projects from all corners of the world - and what’s more, she has done all this without an agent. I thought it would be interesting if I could get some of her stories or thoughts down into print.
I recall when her Trans-Atlantic passages became the norm, with visas running out, I became used to the random phone call, then the arrival at some ungodly hour back to UK - but always accompanied by a choice Malt (she was always very generous) - she would ask to stay "just for a little while..."
Nights would always end with some European Cinema – I would always try to think of procuring things she hadn’t seen, prior to her arrival. She always was well-sussed in the movie department.
I remember subjecting ourselves to massive Fassbinder evenings; attempting to watch Berlin Alexderplatz in its entirety – it may have taken a week - it is 23 hours of screening. We’d get through Fox and his Friends, Veronika Voss, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. We watched Germany in Autumn, as she’d become infatuated with Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff, the whole Red Army Faction scenario. We’d watch Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and cry; Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, and laugh; pretty much all of Abel Ferarra’s output in one night. I showed her a lot of French films Le Souffle au Couer, Olivier, Olivier – she became fascinated with Beatrice Dalle’s character Betty Blue – that resonated (and now her blog is written under that nom de plume (http://thebrownandskinny.blogspot.co.uk/). We then poured over Passolini’s early movies, the madness of Jodorowski’s El Topo and Santa Sangre, and marveled at the scope of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
We adored Bunuel’s surrealist visionary method with, oh, almost everything he ever made, and Pedro Almododovar’s gay paens to a Spain, once controlled by Fascists, now made outrageously playful by a master of the game. We also loved Kiewslowski for his Eastern European short films about Loving, and Killing, and his three Colours trilogy; we loved the madness of Leo Carax and the young Juliette Binoche in Boy meets Girl…..Actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Isabelle Adjani. Her favourite actresses?
Easy, she replies – “Charlotte Rampling, Julie Christie, Tilda Swindon, Jessica Lange, Emanuelle Riva, Anna Karina, Francoise Dorleac…for today”
In response to her requests always for something “more disturbing!” - we loved Herzog, so therefore, his bizarre relationship with Klaus Kinski, although the recent child rapist allegations against Kinski would go well to change any admiration. Latterly, we awaited every release by Michael Haneke with childish festive expectation, knowing we would be shocked, like the old Hammer Horror films did to me as a child on a Friday night. Then we saw Lilya 4 Ever, then Import/Export, and I am sure I’m right in saying ‘A Serbian Film’ certainly crossed the line - it was like horror/porn, and deeply disturbing. We also loved old school, like Nick Roeg/Donald Cammel’s Performance with Jagger and Edward Fox; and new school copyists like Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No.1. We liked directors like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but were totally ambivalent to substandard tosh being touted by the likes of Guy Ritchie at the time. Also Shane Meadow’s dark portrayals of urban British life on the streets of Nottingham was something that couldn’t be ignored.
Throughout, we listened to Patti Smith’s Horses, Television’s Marquee Moon and Richard Hell and the Voidoid’s Blank Generation. I introduced Ze Records into the mix - stuff like Cristina and James White/Contortions – It was then I got the impression New York City was calling. Piss Factory playing on repeat should have given it away as an early sign.
The Alan McGee introduction to Joanna, and mine to her, actually, came about through one of these Kevin Bacon ‘six degrees of separation’ situations. I didn’t know it then, but filming and cinema were already on the agenda for ‘the girl’.
I agreed to meet up in Glasgow with what I’ll call the three Joanna's, although, one was in fact a Kylie and I took them to meet Alan McGee who was DJing, Poptones. Roll on a few years later, and I hear that Joanna - having graduated (in mathematics) from Scotland has moved to London. I had also landed there too in 2000.
That’s when we began our ‘occupation’ of Death Disco, Alan McGee’s club. It was originally called Radio 4, again after the Public Image song, along with his then record label Poptones. I DJ’d at Radio 4 a few times, and pretty sure it is where I first met The Hives, and Dan Treacy of the Television Personalities, who has since become a friend, and that is a story in itself.
By now, in a way, she has become a legend in her own right, at Death Disco, and that’s where one chapter inevitably ends. She was hanging out with The Libertines, and all the other faces that were regulars at the time – Bobby Gillespie, Liam Gallagher, Bonehead, Sadie Frost, Jackson Scott, Har Mar Superstar, Rolan Bolan, Kings Of Leon, and even the small one from Take That had taken a liking to her - he came up to her waist, she’s about 6ft 4 inches in high heels.
As I got to know her, I realised she was very quiet, she didn't leave my house for weeks, perhaps it was months - she read every book I had.
She wasn’t too enthusiastic about anything at that time – just consumed in literature, and the odd gig and a film we could actually be bothered showing up for, while she said - she was planning her next move.
From then on, I have watched as she has carved her own path, fiercely fighting for her own identity in art - and adamantly wanting to do it on her own - from Death Disco in Notting Hill, her apartment in the opulent environs of Kensington High Street (yet I seem to remember we had to enter the first floor property by a ladder, and through a window) to Maida Vale, Camden Town, Primrose Hill jet set to Brick Lane (where she let the bath run and the ceiling caved in).
Then it was further afield - it was Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, then it has been New York City.
It has been acting and it has been incredible writing, which amazingly has reminded me of Black-American writers like Charles Perry (Portrait of a Young Man Drowning) - they’ve both written wonderful accounts of living in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. He died in 1969, but unwittingly it seems, she’s picked up that baton – to tell it how it is, no matter how bad it is, and how white she is, and no matter how desperate – someone needs to commentate, and Joanna has that capacity.
What follows is an interview based on my knowing Joanna throughout these adventures and some of the many photographs I have from our times together - me always behind the lens, her upfront....
"Just take another one will you..."
London in 2004/2005 was a pretty happening place – bands were happening, new models were coming onto the scene, films were being made, it all gelled somehow – you and I managed to secure small acting roles on Nathan Barley, a series directed by Chris Morris. It was a pretty vibrant time in London, yet, that is when you chose to leave. Can you put it into words for me?”
“I remember going to a lot of gigs, which were cool, mainly at The Brixton Academy. I saw Television, Iggy, The Stones, and Patti Smith live as well as all the new bands. I don’t recall meeting any acting people. Everyone was in a band, or just hanging around. I realise now actors are pretty focused people, they like to get sleep and like breathe properly. I remember Mcgee saying he had found the next greatest band [ie The Libertines] but the only problem was he would have to find a way to keep one of them alive. It descended into hell. It quickly became time to go elsewhere, to focus on my own work and creativity. Let's discuss my latest films!
Yes we will - but just quickly, Joanna, you went from causing rock n roll antics at Death Disco in London, moving to Los Angeles to work on model shoots, yet landed the job of setting up Death Disco LA – how the hell did that come about?
“Because Mcgee is insane, but he knows what he’s doing. People were queuing to get in. Amy Winehouse was there, not so known at the time, with Kelly Osborne. Mcgee Dj’d. The police closed us down around 4am for noise violation but that’s not so uncommon in LA. It was cool … I recall Mcgee had just seen a UFO. I even suggested Death Disco in Mexico City, but Mcgee said he couldn’t be responsible for that.”
Okay, jumping back a bit, before you moved to the US to be an artist, you had a pretty comfortable life in Europe. Why did you leave the South of France where you were earning so much money, and had a rather luxury lifestyle?
“Same reason I didn’t go and make a million on Wall Street with a degree in mathematics, because where there is millions to make, there is bullshit and corruption. To be able to express myself and try to be honest to who I am, mattered to me far more than anything else, say like money. I learnt this about myself by default by destructing whenever success was happening to me without also having complete freedom with it. That’s when I made the transition into the dramatic arts.
Can you tell me anything about the south of France? It certainly sounded decadent - remind me?
Sure. It was champagne, and yachts, and oysters, and Naomi Campbell’s birthday party in a helicopter to Nikki Beach. You know it was beautiful and glamorous and easy, and sure, in my early 20s I had the best time of my life. But what are you ignoring for that lifestyle? When you really open your eyes? Huge cracks started appearing – I was selling yachts and fast cars – I saw stuff going on every level. . I saw the richest prostitutes in the world – you name it, gambling, casino’s, money laundering, tax scams, corruption. My life is always excellent material for my writing now.
What was the bearing on your choice to Lee Strasberg in NYC from South of France ?
I was selling yachts and high performance cars and it afforded me that I was living at The Ritz Carlton in Cannes. It overlapped with the Cannes film festival. People staying or having meetings in the hotel kept asking me to be in their film. You know, Harvey Weinstein would be at the next table. I am always very skeptical of these conversations. You know the Cannes porn film festival is the week after, and I saw actresses falling for that all the time: "I'm a film director at the festival, wanna shoot on the beach" but they don’t say they mean the other festival. But maybe it gave me the idea that acting may be good for me. I had no idea if I would be good for acting. To find out, I knew I needed to do it the proper way. Since the only experience of acting I could think I had was life experience, I thought I better do Method which relies on past event and sense memory. I was accepted to Lee Strasberg’s school - he was the pioneer of the method - and he plays Hyman Roth in Godfather II and coached Marlon Brando and Pacino….Meryl Streep Paul Newman.
Was it difficult to get into Lee Strasberg ?
“Yes! You have to interview, audition, write an essay to show you’re a dedicated actor, plus send professional acting references. I was in London and meeting up with Johny Brown the playwright and Tam Dean Burn and Irvine Welsh – Johny has backed my ability to act from the very beginning before I knew I could do it myself. "I'd cry, I can't do it Johny”..and he'd say, but Joanna you can…you're a natural…your brilliant" and he'd put me on the radio, on Resonance FM, performing in his plays, and started it all up. He wrote a play called The Thief, and he cast me for this, and it went really well. Confidence then came from that. Johny wrote my reference and I went to New York and trained as an actress, and now I make films.”
On arriving in NYC and taking up your place at Lee Strasberg, you were absolutely homesick and miserable beyond compare – at which point did it start becoming easier, and kinda become a home of sorts?
“The first days were amazing, I felt significantly young, naive. I was about to be knocked over by the traffic every second you know, on the wrong side, and the noise. It was cool, exactly how it should be, like in the movies. This dream of the Big Apple and Gotham, and all this hot steam blowing up over the streets. But I knew absolutely no-one. I was lost in this frenetic metropolis, everyone else had such pace. I tried to connect with the other acting students, but, on the surface it felt they had no ...well I guess life experience, they seemed young after my nomadic adventures. The teachers are great successful performers themselves, but I saw them as teachers, so I didn't feel I connected with anyone. The only familiar faces were coming in from UK. I’d have the greatest time for a few days, and then everyone would leave again. I recall, Razorlight were playing their first NYC gig. Johny Borrell was snaking his way horizontally down the actual bar, off stage, in a pair of skin tight white jeans and his top off trying to be Iggy Pop. That night I was introduced to Liz Vap [Feralcat Production]. I remember they told me, “if there’s one girl you need to know in New York City, this is the one”. Liz and I hit it off and she invited me to all these amazing New York based events. Suddenly it was just the greatest place in the world - fast, lively, opportunity everywhere. The whole scene was around The Dark Rooms then, it was pitch black, I loved it, but soon after, I worked out New York is just one tiny village, for real, you just bump into everyone, all the time. It's a fucking nightmare.
Where were you living, with whom, and how did you deal with your day to day existence?
“I lived all over New York. Starting first in Manhattan, uptown, downtown, and moving further out until I was living in Bedford-Stuyvesant a few years ago before proper gentrification and with very little money now an artist. It was very tough for me. I’ve lived in an RV with no water and electricity downtown in East Village – but it still picked up Wifi! Some idiot sprayed Lou Reed and Patti Smith all over the van and we had to scrub it off. I lived with mice and cockroaches, they are just so vile. It’s been quite harrowing. Finally, model work and European films have helped get me on my feet, but it’s only started to look up properly in the last year or so. Being an artist, especially a self made one, is tough and it takes endless endurance”
You started off doing lots of low-budget films to break in?
“First I made a lot of mistakes. Fucking up auditions. I also seemed to get offered every job that required a full body shot, such is the overlap with model to acting. I got a role with directors for a BBC show in London. I was cast to play a painters muse but had to be topless in the scenes, but there were no lines - even though they kept telling me it was a prominent role. The night before filming I freaked out, and thought I'm not taking my top off if I don't even have a fucking line, so I mailed and said exactly that. The guy wrote back and said I was the most unprofessional actress he had ever come across and I would never work again. It turned out he worked with BBC but this was his own independent project, and actually, in fact no-one has heard of him since. That’s the problem breaking in - how does any actor know anything starting out? There is the internet as a medium, and you post a photo of how you look to strange people online. An agent won’t represent you, not at the beginning, even though they could officially protect you and secure reputable auditions, yet they won’t touch you until you have enough acting work to reassure they’ll make money out of you. The union won’t look after you until you have enough hours added up as a working actor. Catch 22.
Any other examples stick out as a sore point?
“I was down for a character called Lotte playing a Scandinavian in a feature film backed through an MTV company called The Lesbian Vampire Killers but when I read the script - like the title wasn't enough - I thought it was soft porn. The final scenes were topless all girl mud wrestling - so I did not pursue it. About five years later I was flying from LA to London and it was on my Virgin Atlantic inflight entertainment listing. I hadn't eaten for days to the point I was excited for my plane meal and then I saw it and just felt ill. But it was what it was, who's heard of those actors since?”
Okay, a lot of disappointment, and hey, like journalism these days, a lot of time spent, effort etc, but no money. How did you break through this stage?
“After doing embarrassing things stuck in the age bracket of roles 19-24 - completely tedious - I realised I should go for the older roles when younger, and I totally ignored this bull shit and imposed paralysis about how we are told to view age. As soon as I stopped applying, or grew out of the cheer-leading college girl aged roles, everything got interesting. I got handed sides for characters that were real, with problems and imperfections - stories to tell. Sides that I could play with a passion and belief. That to me is what I think acting is about, not this send a fucking full body shot. If anyone had any idea of how much crap behind the scenes in the acting world, I mean mostly for woman and girls, they would despair. There’s no choice but to show you mean fucking business and you’re serious about doing it your way as a professional. I just wrapped playing a 40 year old mother this week, and had wrinkles added in make up, that was a really brave move. Next week I play a 21 year old girl with bulimia, age doesn’t matter, we’re just told it does.”
Okay, and since you’ve returned from Argentina, you are involved in Kubricks, an experimental movie, produced by Alan McGee and written and directed by Dean Cavanagh and his son - just after your Buenos Aires tenure, give me a run through how that came about.
“I recall the landline was ringing in Buenos Aires, which was strange as I had only given it out to a few people. I recall answering and this Scottish voice which sounds ten times more Scottish when your in South America, said "I'm making films, I've got a film company, we want you in." I didn't know what to say - I was excited. I kept asking Mcgee what it was about, and Mcgee kept saying, just be yourself, just be you. To a method actor you’re a lot of yourself from all different times, but you need one concrete decision to play an action. I was thinking how the fuck do I play myself [laughs] Mcgee thought he was making me relax, screaming "just be yourself, you’re perfect" which truly remains the only direction I received from start to finish. I said send the script. And he said there isn't one. And it kind of went from there.”
Was it a good experience?
“Yes! I’ve had so many people tell me, but really you can't keep working like this- referring to experimental low budget work. It'll make you look like the bad actor in the finished product if there’s not a powerful script – and I do know all this, but you see I have a dark sense of humour, I gravitate towards the absurd and the unconventional. I mean, of course, I may never be able to work again [laughs], but I loved working for Dean [Cavanagh], he’s an amazing creative artist. I asked for a script on set and he went out to his car and dug through the boot, and then said there isn’t one, but you should have this instead. It was a painting he had made of Edgar Poe and it said “fucking sick of words” - it seemed apt. Its on my mantle piece.
You’ve been involved in a surrealist film, a friend of Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp, in Paris then Berlin and NYC, tell me how it came about?
“I applied to a casting because I saw the words ‘Dada’, ‘depressed’ and ‘Berlin’, and that was enough for me to apply. They saw my showreel, I did an interview over the phone, and then they asked me to write something about my own life that might relate to the desperation as an artist similar to that of Baroness Elsa Von Freytag Loring. She's a Dada artist and poet who was wearing tomato tin cans as a bra before Andy Warhol was even born. Her poems inspired Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and she wrote amazing poetry before she gassed herself in an oven in Berlin. I really fell in love with her work in my research. So I decided to write to from darker times in life as an artist. It's all a bit embarrassing, as I got the role, but later on set, when we all knew one another and were having a good rapport, the joke was that they'd expected a sentence. They said they'd never read anything like it in their lives. Bearing in mind they had sent me The Baroness’ entire collection of her work. I was mortified. But, I got the role! In my research there's one thing for certain, the Baroness was an amazing woman in her troubles, her work, her way of thinking. She was described as not futuristic, but the future. I also adore Berlin. It is just so cool, yet does stress-free. I had time to see another original Caravaggio, and I went to the Stasi Museum. And later the film screened at The Whitney Museum in New York. I loved making this film.
Where do you call home, being an itinerant, and why?
“New York …New York…definitely, my storage locker waits faithfully for me in hope I shall return and it shall have reason to be emptied.”
What projects do you have lined up for the future?
“I've currently been sent a novel and script called Mersey Boys revolving around The Beatles before they were famous. I have been offered the role of Ginny, and I am interested so far, mainly as it will also run as an Off Broadway play. I am absolutely dying to be on stage again. As a film actor, you give all your energy to the filming, but then its over, there's nothing, no artistic input, and I find that strange. The whole film is made creatively again in editing, at someone else’s discretion. You’re not involved. An actor on stage, it's the closest you'll have to the final say and you can have the emotion to flow unbroken, as it is in real life, not this stop starting every 5 minutes which is the difference of a film set.
I've starting producing a script on Shanghai in 1926 which means I've started studying all about Asia in 1920s - absolutely fascinating history and period in time. I can't stop reading all about it.
I'm also working with directors Fabian Svensson and Jens Klevje and Gustaf Heden again on an adaptation of a Strindberg play that they are writing currently. I adore Strindberg. I have fingers and toes crossed for a few things. It’s still early days - for me, for everything.”
Ok, so, lastly while I have you here - any chance I can I have my Bahnof Meider T shirt back?
No way! You said I could keep that. It was either that or I took it off there and then and you said that would be a fate worse than death. Listen, I'm going now, concentrate on the acting, and try and make me sound cool, if at all possible…
Suppose there’s no point in asking for my Suicide and Richard Hell T-Shirts….
I thought not. But either way, there’s no denying she is an extraordinary individual, with a true vocation, and a mission. Watch out for ‘This Girl’, she currently has 4 feature films in post production - you’re gonna meet her on the big screen very soon.
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