Tom of Finland is one of the most influential and celebrated figures in twentieth century LGBTQ culture. This year, his story finally hits the big screen.
Touko Laaksonen, the man who would be Tom of Finland, was a decorated officer during World War II but in post-war Helsinki full of homophobic persecution, he found refuge in his liberating art: homoerotic drawings of muscular men, free of inhibitions. His life changed when an American publisher invited him to the West Coast, eventually becoming the emblem of a generation of men.
On the eve of the film’s Tribeca debut, I sat down with filmmaker Dome Karukoski, and actors Pekka Strang (Tom), Jessica Grabowsky (Kaija, Tom’s sister) and Seumas Sargent (Doug) to talk about bringing Tom’s legacy to the big screen and why the film’s universal message is love.
You all have been a part of making something that will mean so much to so many. Tom is an icon for many men and he challenged people’s perceptions of what it meant to be gay. How did making this film challenge you as artists?
Pekka: I think what’s challenging about playing Tom is that he’s a real life character and he’s an iconic character. You can feel the pressure in that, but when you start shooting, you just have to forget about it. I decided to enjoy every day of shooting as if it was my last. I have a rule in acting: I always act with people who are better actors than me. So it was great fun. The physical challenge was aging; doing the role of a man who ages from a twenty-something to a sixty-something. I’ve been a twenty-something but I’ve never been sixty-something so that was the most challenging part.
Seumas: To piggy back on that, the big challenge doing a biopic of this scope is that you’re not just basing the characters on the research and books you have available, but you’re hoping you can do justice to the person who is living. I have a little bit of pressure knowing this is a meaningful person and it’s a story with weight and clout.
Jessica: For me, everything was a challenge. I find acting to be a challenge and I needed to rise to the level of these other actors.
Seumas: For me, another challenge was being thrown in after the film has already been filming. You know, I come in at a stage where the engine is running and has been gleaned and people are figuring each other out. Thankfully, Dome made the decision for me to be a part of the cast.
Dome: This is my seventh film but doing a biopic, there are so many elements that make it difficult. If comedy is the most difficult genre, then biopics are a close second. You have a responsibility to the real life characters but at the same time you can’t make a Wikipedia film.
Right. Like a minute-by-minute, play-by-play account of his life.
Right. You’re building a feature film so you have to make it work as such. It took four years to write this script, adapting as much truth into it as we could. In a fiction story, you can make up where they go to move the plot along. But in a biopic, if they didn’t go there, they didn’t go there. We can build in the fictionalized scenes and moments but they have to be true to the character. Tom’s life gave us so much material. The wildest stuff in the movie all actually happened.
Jessica: See, that’s why your quote from Mark Twain doesn’t work. You said that his life gave you the material but you also said, “Don’t write life, it’s boring.”
Dome: When we were putting together this story, we kept saying, “Don’t write life, it’s boring.” But here’s the thing, that quote doesn’t actually mean you don’t use the events of their real life. Life is boring if you tell a story like, “This happened then this happened and his Saturday was like this and his Sunday was like that.” Of course Mark Twain or whoever said that, meant that you use real life events but you build your own way to tell the story. So many biopics just tell us what happened but that doesn’t make them good feature films. That’s why it took four years to write this film.
Having seen the film, there’s such care taken to tell a fully-formed story about Tom and his circle of influence. What sort of homework did you guys do to prepare for telling these people’s stories?
Pekka: Of course I got all the books about him and I looked at his pictures, but also I met people he knew, his friends. I also used the Tom of Finland Archive, looking at photographs and letters and I tried to get a picture of the young Tom. The people living today knew the older Tom; the Tom of the 1970’s and 1980’s. But there’s not a single person who could tell us about how he was in his 20’s. We just had to make our own interpretation of it. Something else regarding getting a grasp of Tom – within the same year there are different versions of his story. For instance, when he met up with his siblings in Finland in the 1980’s, he looks like a really old man. Like someone who would move to Florida to retire. But from that same year, there’s a picture of him in Los Angeles without a shirt on and he’s in leather pants and with all these young guys and he looks twenty years younger. I love that about his life.
Dome: We started working on the screenplay and story for film in 2011 with Aleksi Bardy. During those five years, we dug through everything. We read letters, we looked at photographs – it tells you a lot about someone not just in how they pose in photographs but it also how he shot those photographs. We interviewed people who worked with him in the ad agency and who were friends in his later life. Of course the Tom of Finland Foundation was incredibly helpful because they opened up all the archives for us and told all the stories and anecdotes they’ve heard. Aleksi did thorough research in how the society has changed over time as well.
While Tom is a figure in LGBT history, he may not be as widely known to people who aren’t in those circles. In your opinion, why is this film important viewing for someone who isn’t gay or doesn’t have any association with Tom of Finland?
Jessica: In getting feedback from a lot of people who’ve seen the film, they didn’t know that Finland had this sort of history. That’s a big reason to see it. People didn’t know it [being gay] was still a crime in the 1970’s and considered a disease in the 1980’s. That’s not that long ago.
Seumus: There is a colossal current of love that runs through this movie. As cliché as that may sound, in the trailer it says it’s about courage and it’s about liberation. It really is about that. I’m a straight guy and I played a gay role. The joy of reading the script was being a part of a story about love and liberation. One of the successes of the film is the universality of the theme that people want to be loved. The sexuality and uber-masculinity is all a quintessential part of Tom’s artwork, but the current is about love. If you’ve been bullied, which I’m sure many of us have been whether we’re straight or gay, if you’ve been a bully, if you’ve been looked at the wrong way – this film is about that. The idea of standing on the street and not being able to kiss the person you love because it’s illegal – you might be beaten or thrown in jail or in a psych ward – is terrifying. It’s terrifying. Unfortunately it’s apropos to 2017. We are still dealing with this. Why it is a problem? Why is it a political discussion? Why is it a Presidential platform? Why do we still have to talk about whether two men can hold hands or kiss each other? It is a universal thing and a really important one.
Dome: I think one of the later quotes in Tom’s life was that he hoped heterosexuals would understand his fellow men through his work. I think the film very much is that. It’s a film that plays to everyone, a platform anyone is invited to. It’s not just a political film but it’s also about Tom’s message which is about not having any shame. It’s a theme that matters from generation to generation, regardless of your sexuality; the notion of not carrying any shame about our fantasies, our sex life or who we are. That’s important to everyone.
The film is going to affect many people who view it, but how did making this film affect you as a person?
Dome: It changed me enormously. I was like a kid riding a bike before I started making this film. I had done films before but this was basically me taking my driver’s test and now I can drive a car in terms of being a director. Those five years of film-making and the year of promoting it, the amount of endurance I learned, digging into my own shames and insecurities while learning about Tom who was so self-aware and determined – going through that, I’ve become a different director.
Jessica: Personally, comparing me to Kaija, when you dig into a person, you always reflect it, or at least I do. She never believed in herself and pushed herself down all the time. Mirroring that to myself, I should be more proud of myself, believe in what I do and know that I’m my own worst enemy.
Seumus: I’m grateful for a lot of things in life but I certainly gained an exponential amount of gratitude for being a part of this. Sometimes as an actor, you play a role and you look at it and think, “Okay, it’s good and it’s interesting,” but this is so much larger than a role in a movie. It’s the type of project where you not only get the joy of making the film, but once you let it go, you stand in front of an audience at Tribeca and see people crying and laughing. That is the ultimate reciprocal gratitude you can have for being a part of something like this.
Pekka: I’ve never done anything with this size of a role. I’ve done a lot of theatre acting but to be working with this talented director and our DP, I’ve learned so much about making movies. I was told before we started shooting that one of Tom’s last wishes was to be recognized in Finland. He died before he got recognized but I’m really proud that our film opened with 120 screens around Finland and he’s celebrated. We had the biggest opening ever in Finland. To have the honor to play him was a great one.