Zora Burden: Will you give some insight into what growing up was like for you?
Mary Woronov: My dad was a doctor and my mom was a regular mother. I went to a private girls' school in Brooklyn called Packer. Believe it or not, in 3rd or 4th grade we had to write a play. No—we did David Copperfield first and I played Uriah Heep. Not only is this character a male, but he’s a really unsavory character…so I had a lot of fun doing him! That was my first acting.
My second role was in a Christmas pageant; I had to be one of the Three Kings. When the two kings behind me bowed and I looked out into the audience, I felt this immense sense of power… which I have never forgotten. The school thought I was talented, so they sent me to the director to be in the next play (they did one play a year). The director cast me as Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and I fell in love with the role—I loved being a monster! Well, he was more than a monster: he had words, he talked, he loved the trees and the music… but they took his island away from him. And when he faced destitution and slavery, he could not control himself…
My mother was an artist, but when she married my stepdad, she stopped being that. So she was very "pro-" my art, and so was my school, Packer. I was already doing painting and little pictures—you know, like, of kittens. They published a magazine and I often wrote the short story in the magazine, so that was the beginning of my writing career. It was an all-girls' school—it was fabulous.
ZB: Were you acting in college?
MW: Yes, in college I was put in several plays. Don’t ask me why—I did not volunteer! One was Ionesco’s The Chairs. They dressed me in a man’s uniform; I had a moustache. Actually, the director was in love with me; he insisted on putting the moustache on me every time I performed—it was really peculiar. I loved being a man. I only came out for five minutes at the end. I kept getting called on to do these roles.
One day I was at a poetry reading where I met Gerard Malanga. He’s responsible for bringing me to Warhol’s studio.
ZB: I read that when you were at Cornell, you were sent to visit artists’ studios and Warhol’s was one of them--
MW: Yes—that’s how I got to Warhol’s studio! I had gotten to know all these poets at Cornell—they were great and Gerard would come read with them. So… the Warhol studio was the opposite of everybody else’s—it was all black and dark. And then out of the shadows comes Gerard—he didn’t know I was going to be there! Almost immediately he said, "Warhol is going to do a screen test, and I want you to do it with me."
So my class left and I stayed. Gerard’s plan was not to hop in bed with me like most girls he knew (he was very sexy); his plan was that I should be his co-actress. He wanted to act in Warhol’s films, but felt that he would like to be partnered. He's a very "planning" type of guy, you know—even at Cornell he had planned this—like, he took pictures of me walking across Triphammer Bridge. So all of a sudden I did a screen test and that’s the beginning of my career with Warhol!
ZB: What were your original career aspirations before attending Cornell?
MW: I felt I could not get into Cornell because I didn’t feel that "smart"—well, I was, but you don’t really know it, you know? I felt the only way to get into a school like that was to be an "artist," because there wouldn’t be that many people…
I knew I was talented as an artist, really early. So I went to Cornell under the art program, not under the acting program. But these people would nab me for acting and pull me out of whatever I was supposed to be doing.
I was good friends with Susan Rothenberg. When I got out of Cornell, she was already ensconced in the The New Image Group in Manhattan, and I met all these people through her. She had a big loft; her daddy was rich. I had no place to paint, so all of a sudden I was relegated to non-painting, and being an actress, and writing. It was kind of annoying for me.
ZB: You had talked about enjoying roles that were powerful—did your dominant roles reflect your sexuality at all? Did you prefer to play masculine roles?
MW: My mother had a vicious temper—she was like an animal. In other words, she was never wrong. If someone hit me, she’d rip their f*cking heart out. I was in love with her.
First of all, I’m built the way I’m built, which is quite powerful for a woman… and I copied my mother. I thought that was an additive, a fabulous thing to be, and I became in love with power. I was taken out of kindergarten because I threw a block at a boy and tried to kill him. I never stopped this feeling I have—I like power. I’m more interested in power than I am in love or in sophistication. Most of my roles are powerful—almost all of them are; I don’t have… no victim roles, unless maybe in Eating Raoul.
In grade school, nobody understood. They didn’t stop me. I used to beat people up—I thought nothing of that. Then what happened is: sports came along, and I put most of that power and emotion into sports. Then, in acting, I let it out. That was the beginning, and I’ve never changed.
As far as my sexuality, I’m sorry to tell you: I’m not queer, and I don’t want to be a man at all—they’re basically driven by their sexuality and they have no mystery. I like men as an object that I’m attracted to—that’s all! On the other hand, I really hate weak women! I think nothing of insulting them; I have very little patience with them. That’s bad—I try and not be like that now. When I was young and not screaming on amphetamines, I had a temper that went along with that drug. Put them together and I was vicious.
ZB: When you beat people up, what age were you? Was it men or women?
MW: I went to an all-girls school—all female, I had no connection with men. You know, they’d have a dance and I would date somebody. I had to go to dancing school. I was forced to join this church and they had a youth group. At first we’d play dodgeball, which I loved. The boys were stronger but I didn’t care; I didn’t care if they slammed me—I’d slam them right back. Afterwards, they’d turn all the lights out—these people are so weird; this is Grace Church, I’m telling you they’re little freaks. They’d put things like Johnny Mathis on—you know: black R & B, slow and sexy, and these boys that you had just finished trying to kill would now dance with you to insanely great music. It was horribly sexy and horribly frustrating because I was so far from being sexual. I mean, my parents—if they ever caught me doing anything—they’d kill me. My mother would kill me. She didn’t want me to get pregnant; it was illegal.
I was very athletic; I swam. My mother saved my life—she was a champion swimmer. We swam into a riptide and I’d be dead right now, but she managed to drag me to shore. At first I didn’t want to swim, because I’d be too much like her. But then I started swimming—I’ve never stopped, but I’m afraid of the ocean. I’m not good with competitive sports, though.
ZB: When you were at Cornell, what was your focus in art?
MW: Sculpture, because I thought that's how I could get in. Nobody wanted to be a sculptor then—especially a girl sculptor. Susan thought the same thing. There were only two girls there—that’s kind of funny 'cuz it’s how we met (and she’s a painter, not a sculptor). I’m not a sculptor, but I can be! A friend of mine had my (astrological chart done), and when it came back it said that I’d be a fabulous bookkeeper. [laughs]
ZB: Are you good with math? Usually, creative types aren’t.
MW: No, I’m terrible. [laughs]
ZB: Will you talk about your paintings?
MW: I’m a figurative painter and that’s terribly out of fashion. I’m not conceptual at all. Not only am I a figurative painter (which is very, very low on the want list) but I’m also narrative. Most of my paintings tell a story—it’s so unfashionable, people call it "illustration"—they don’t call it painting. I use oils, sometimes acrylic. It’s always figurative, it always has a story, because the story makes me continue the painting.
I don’t understand the other kinds of painting—I really don’t, from Jackson Pollock on. I love stories. I think up stories in my head all the time—it’s why I write books. I always have.
It’s never abstract, it’s always figurative. I don’t see the point of "abstract." It just doesn’t relate to me—that’s the way I am. Abstract art is more on a logical level; it has to do with design.
Subconsciously, you always make stories in your head. The subconscious is emotional, and my paintings are about emotions… to make the emotions seen. To make the other person understand the emotion you put into the painting, you make up a story—it’s the easiest way.
When you make up a figure, you have to show her being affected… and the person looking at the picture gets affected the same way. It’s horribly emotional. That’s the reason why people don’t like it—because it’s too emotional. They don’t want to see emotional. I mean I have some very grim paintings about war and things like that. Nobody wants to see that—like Picasso’s Guernica.
ZB: Have you shown them anywhere, or do you just create them for self-expression?
MW: I’ve always wanted to be shown. I love it when people look at my work, but I just don’t have the patience to do the "book work." It’s highly political—and I’m not really interested in the politics, I’m interested in the painting.
I’m not interested in what people think of me. In New York when I was with Warhol, I had no place to paint—not until I came to California. When I did put paper on the wall and do drawings in New York, it was always black-and-white. In California, something happened to me—I used insane colors, and "the figure" happened. But I had never really left it.
My early paintings: I had a show and they all sold out. I was terribly annoyed that they did, because I don’t have any left—I didn’t even have photographs of them! Oh yeah, I do have some—in a book called Wait For the Angels. Some of my early art is in that.
ZB: When you left to become part of the Warhol Factory, what happened with Cornell?
MW: I didn’t finish college; I didn’t finish the last two years. College was so f*cking boring—I mean, I liked high school better than college! (I’m simplifying it.) Also, I didn’t like the guys—I really didn’t like being pestered by them. They were mean; they were worried about themselves; they were immature. I really didn’t f*cking like them—they weren’t friendly. It’s a man’s world.
ZB: So much has been covered about that period, I’m not sure what’s left to ask about your experiences with Warhol--
MW: Do you know Artillery magazine? It’s California-based. I’ve written four articles on Warhol—they express what I later think of him. My feelings and knowledge of what I did are truly expressed in them.
The articles cover have everything I’ve done. The Theater of the Ridiculous was great—the minute I was working with Warhol, the Theater picked me up. So I was acting along with Warhol and the Theater of Ridiculous. It was Ronald Tavel’s plays, and John Vaccaro was the director. It was very vicious, and about absurdity. I’ve written about that in the Artillery articles. This was the best theater I’ve ever done.
Later, I got the Theater World Award for In the Boom Boom Room by David Rabe. My acting in the Theater of the Ridiculous was sublime—far better than Joseph Papp could ever imagine. Yet Julie Bovasso who directed us was fired—Papp fired her! She is a good director; she’s from Theater of the Ridiculous; she was fabulous and Papp was just jealous of her—that’s all. Madeline Kahn was in it; she played Chrissy, the lead. I played a lesbian—the beginning of my actor-career-as-a-lesbian.
I became famous especially with the gay crowd, in a performance called Kitchenette. I played a woman who was married to a man who was so sexually frustrated with me that he was having affairs in the shower with other men. He was trying to tell me, and throughout the play I completely evade what he’s trying to tell me. Finally, he gets so insane that he kills me and they all sing about "matricide on a mattress." It was fabulous; it was just really great.
My anger was just insane, it was so intense. What the drag queens did in the Theater of the Ridiculous (and there were a lot of them) was to mock what women thought or did. (I mean completely mock their sexuality.) I also mocked… but I didn’t mock women. I would mock other things in the same fashion. In other words, it’s not just "you act stupid and people laugh at you"—it had nothing to do with the "comedic" thing—it had to do with the morals of the time. It’s satire—it was like the Theater of the Absurd in France—it was ripples of that. Only we were very sexual—I mean sex was a joke, it was insane.
My greatest role was, once again, a man's role: I played The Conqueror of the Universe. I hated my wife; when she sang I got such a violent headache I would try to kill her. I hated almost everybody; I was vicious. There was one scene where my minions (should we call them that?) all sh*t in a bowl and tried to give it to me for dinner. It was so great, this role—I loved it so much.
Anyway, that was my best role, ever.
ZB: Did you prefer stage work to film?
MW: Yes—only with the Theater of the Ridiculous. I was the mocking answer to a “queen”.
ZB: You’ve talked about the East Coast vs. the West Coast… that the East was more “intellectual” and “angry”. You didn’t see the anger manifest in the West Coast until the Punk scene happened: you thought it was ironic that it was “straight white males from suburban neighborhoods”. Then you moved out here--
MW: That’s because I did this movie and… then I did three more on the East coast and they were nothing like what I wanted. Then I met this guy Paul Bartel—he did a movie called Secret Cinema that blew my mind, it was so vicious. He called me up (because he had seen me in Theater of the Ridiculous) and said, “I am going to do Death Race 2000. Please come out here; I know Roger Corman will hire you.” So I divorced my husband and came out!
ZB: What did you think of working with producer Roger Corman?
MW: I thought he was the Warhol of the West. I really liked him; communication with him was just as difficult as it was with Warhol! He had a certain idea—in other words, sex was not like with Warhol where it was scary because you saw “gay”; sex [with Corman] was very cute—you know, all tits-and-ass. Then these movies became icons—people loved ’em. It was like “B movies”. It’s like: “Forget intellectual art, let’s just look at a Corman movie!” He was brilliant at it—he really was. Also, he did things that were so absurd—and his absurdity is what I loved. The directors were so young and they were so self-conscious; they didn’t dare tell you what to do! So you could do whatever you wanted. Death Race 2000 was political—it doesn’t say such great things about America—it’s really loved in Europe. I don’t think Corman had that as an objective; he wanted to make movies that were not “offensive” yet had plenty of violence and humor. In Death Race 2000 he didn’t want to spend much money for the cars—that’s another thing, Corman was cheaper than Warhol… and that’s hard to do! But he’s so American, he’s so friendly: it’s just tits-and-ass… not there to make you paranoid or turn you on in some weird way that you don’t want. Some of Corman’s space movies are just absolutely not good—but they’re watchable because they’re so f*cking dumb. But, also he brought in movies from Europe that were brilliant—he brought in Fellini! I mean, he’s a smart man. Also, he hired people and gave beginners their very first break. Nobody wants to do that now; they want to only hire “the best.”
ZB: I’ve read that you ad-libbed a lot… and that were allowed to do whatever you wanted. How much was ad-libbed in your films?
MW: Paul allowed me to do anything I wanted—that’s why Eating Raoul works. When I was on the set of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, I told Allan Arkush, “Look, Allan, I really need to be an Our Miss Brooks—I need a TV series, because I really need the money.” He said, “Fine, you can play the head [Miss Togar] of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” What happened to me is: I didn’t play Our Miss Brooks, but this absurdity that mocked everything anybody ever thought about teaching… and it was great because they let me do it!
ZB: What about in Death Race 2000?
MW: I was very self-conscious, mostly because I couldn’t drive! I tried to imagine what they wanted and then do it for them, but quickly learned that they really weren’t paying attention to me at all—it was “Just drive this car and leave us alone.” That’s the last time I tried. You know, in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School I had wanted to be Our Miss Brooks, but when I hit the set and saw those screaming kids, I just changed into a Mothra character! In Eating Raoul, I had Paul Bartel to play with—a master. He would set up the shot—yes—but I didn’t think about it until I was on the set and walking into the camera range… There’s another really good one called Hollywood Boulevard. In that one, nobody knew what they were doing! Paul Bartel and I just ad-libbed—every time we were together we did massive ad-libbing. You cannot do this in Hollywood, though—it’s too restrictive. Movies don’t want you ad-libbing unless you’re a Jack Nicholson.
ZB: Did you write the dialogue before you shoot up and commit suicide in Night of the Comet?
MW: Yes, I wrote it. I loved that scene. The guy behind the camera was very vicious towards the director. The director was this sweet man and he did not take it well. I said, “Look, just let me write this scene—this Christmas scene.” I liked him—he’s a good director, but when you have somebody pounding on you like that, you stutter. He let me do that ad-lib; I couldn’t believe it.
ZB: Do you think low-budget cinema has a way of creating a more genuine or honest work?
MW: The reason why I did all these low, low-budget movies is because I have never again had the Theater of the Ridiculous. I could excel in that—the lower the budget, the more I could do what I wanted! So I would actually seek these f**king movies out. Or they would call me because their friend had told them I would f**king work for nothing. I mean, I’ve done some really low-budget movies—you have no idea: sometimes they didn’t even have a camera… I mean, what?! And I would do them because I was in love with that kind of acting. The only time you get to do that kind of acting is when you’re on a low-budget movie. Or, the director doesn’t care… and that’s very rare. Every time I got an upper-scale movie, I felt that I was stiff, that I was doing what they wanted, or that I didn’t agree with it. I just really longed for the other and I didn’t have it. I did do several films with artists, mainly the Yonemoto Brothers—there I could do whatever I wanted. They had me onstage once and I played Godzilla and I loved it. They made me plastic Godzilla feet, big rubber claw hands, I wore sunglasses, a bikini, and they gave me a tail. A tail! I was in love. I had to stay under the stage until it was my turn to come on, and when I came onstage, the audience threw ping pong balls at me! It was such a great play, but of course there’s no recording of it. I loved that; it was great. I did something with Michael Kelley that was fabulous. I almost started doing art performance stuff. But the Michael Kelley movie, Kappa, that I loved, was great—it was absurd. Michael Kelley is a really good actor. I have to tell you something else: one of the main reasons I stayed with Warhol was not because I understood the movies he was doing. I mean, I physically understood them… and I understood what he wanted from me: this mannish kind of… what I do… but I didn’t understand what impact they were having, and how important they were. The reason I stayed is because I fell in love with Ondine! I loved this man—he was fucking great. This is a man who is beyond me in acting, and his anger level was insane. He was fabulous. He did plays with me… that S/M play (I forgot the name). He was incredible.
ZB: Do you think that anger or low-tolerance issues has anything to do with high IQs?
MW: No, I don’t. I’ve seen some really awful people who were angry [and not bright]—it was a waste. I was in love with power, but in a certain way—not transformative. Power that destroys itself. Definitely cathartic; just extremely destructive. Death is a big part; you have to deal with death. You have to deal with it in any role you get. That’s all people are interested in. Confrontation can be very boring, you know—two people screaming at each other. I like it when the soul of the person onstage is the thing that he’s afraid of. I don’t really believe in a “soul” or “God.” Or maybe it’s always behind him and he can’t see it. So it’s this battle of right-and-wrong or black-and-white—this battle of opposites where sometimes he succeeds… but if he succeeds too much, he murders himself. He fails—it’s just human nature. That’s what I like. It’s hard to explain; I would have to write a play that would explain it like that.
ZB: Have you written plays?
MW: Not really. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to deal with actors!
ZB: I read that you had made pornography at some point?
MW: No, that was my husband. I’ve been married twice. In my first marriage, I thought this guy was going to have a good directing career. I did a movie for him in Italy and the movie was brilliant. It was very stiff and dated, but nevertheless that fascinated me. The next movie he got was a horror movie where I had to play a victim, and I was really not cool with that. The first one was called Panic—you can never find it. Some people bought that movie and made it into something else—they turned it into scrap. I hate them. After the horror movie, he did a sex movie. By this time we were not having fun. He dressed me up as a lesbian but it wasn’t my doing—it was something I was asked to do, and it became odd and stiff. I’ll never forget there was a bathtub scene and he said, “Okay, you lie in the bathtub and wear a panama hat.” He was a big Godard fan; there was a scene [in the Godard film Le Mépris] about a guy in a bathtub with a panama hat on. I said, “You know, that’s a good idea.” Then he hands me an S/M magazine and says, “You’re reading this.” I thought, “What’s next—a dildo and I’m sucking on that?” That really pissed me off. So I divorced him. That film was called Sugar Cookies.
ZB: Have you ever been offered a role that you turned down—wished you had done, or didn’t actively pursue?
MW: I didn’t really actively pursue anything. I wasn’t that interested in my acting career here (on the West Coast). I needed money. And when I no longer needed money I stopped; I didn’t have to do it anymore. I was very happy to just paint and write.
ZB: When you were doing Roger Corman movies, what were some of the elements you enjoyed most?
MW: Corman I loved! I didn’t care if they didn’t pay me. It was f**king great. The really low-budget movies that I did, I didn’t do them for money, because I missed the Theater of the Ridiculous. I thought I could recreate it in this movie where they’re not paying me because I could do what I liked. I mean, I actually took a role called “She Bitch Slut Face”! I thought it was funny. Nobody else thought it was funny, but I did.
ZB: The roles you play are always strong, dominating female roles; people are really impacted by your presence--
MW: Look, I go to the coffee shop and they’re impacted by my presence! [laughs] I was just built like that.
ZB: Do you think your beauty helped you to manipulate… or empower yourself? Do you consider the characters you portrayed as “feminist”?
MW: I’ve never been terribly interested in the fact that I’m beautiful. Most of the time I don’t feel like it. Doesn’t have anything to do with it (feminism). Politics were a part of my performance in the fact that I’ve never understood why I can’t say cunt or fuck or for that matter why I can’t say fag. I mean, the people I knew, the people I was in love with—they were not “gay”—they were f**king fags, man, and they were vicious and unhappy—and they were wonderful! I just don’t understood this stoppage of language. I look at a girl and she’s talking about her hair and I say, “You know, any cunt in the world would—” and she goes, “What! What?!” I almost do it because I just want to see the reaction. What is wrong with the word “cunt”—I mean, it’s a word! It has nothing to do with having fabulous manners, because nobody has manners anymore. It’s women that don’t want women to say “cunt”—not men. The men just sit there and smile at me. Actually, I think it turns them on. [laughs] The English say it all the time, but they mean a man, not a woman.
ZB: Some people have issues with the way Warhol portrayed women—that they were caricatured. What do you think about this?
MW: Warhol loved women. Most fags love women, they don’t hate them. Just because they don’t want to f*ck them doesn’t mean they hate them. Warhol loved Edie Sedgwick; he was in love with her—not in a sexual way. (This crowd, they did not think “love” meant “sex”. They were very advanced. You could love something and not want to fuck it to death. You could also hate something and really want to fuck it to death.) He even hired a girl who looked sort of like her but was a cheaper version! Warhol loved beautiful girls; he loved Nico because she was beautiful and she was a real cunt. He loved drag queens: they did nothing but mock women, but they loved women, they’re about women, they overdo women, they under-do women. It’s all about women. Warhol didn’t have anything but love for women. Granted, he didn’t feel sexual towards them.
ZB: What do you think he loved about Edie so much?
MW: Number one, she almost looked like him. She was vibrant and rich—that was important to him. She was from a very, very good family, which was important to him. She would take everybody to dinner and pay the bill (nobody did that). She was great. The thing I’ve come to realize is the reason why I stayed in The Factory so long was because of Ondine. I really had trauma separating from him. He was wonderful, he had anger that far surpassed mine. He was beautiful. He was also very smart, very clever—he introduced me to Theosophy and to the Book of the Dead. He had morals; morals that were very strange but always correct: if somebody was hypocritical he would nail them. When people were corrected by him they responded by anger and then suddenly when he didn’t let up, fear. Which is nice.
ZB: Will you talk about Swimming Underground?
MW: I think the book is very fair and a good assessment of what I did. It’s also told in a fictional way, so that what happens in the book gets the emotion across. That’s how I tell it; the fiction gets the real emotion across, and that’s what they must feel about this because if they were stuck in that scene, they would feel that way. These fags, as I like to call them, were angry. They were not considered people; they saw no hope. They turned gay at really young ages out of desperation and fear. You get a bunch of people like that together and they do go artistic. They also go insane. The whole scene was hyper-sexual—I don’t care if it was “gay” or “straight” because these people were illegal. They were just great… plus it was all amphetamines.
ZB: What’s going on with the documentary about your life?
MW: I already wrote the script for it. I might put it into a book called Cult Queen. I have a new book coming out that will be called What Really Happened. Cult Queen will be autobiographical but it will be done as a joke. I see no other way to face my career. I’m quite sure that when I do finish Cult Queen—if I ever do finish it—I will have said “stuff” that isn’t true, but it’s stuff that affects you in the way I would like you to think about. People are so interested in “reality” it’s kind of boring. Another thing you can create without reality, is to form an emotion in someone that he should explore, in the context that you put it in. And it will tell him more about living with the Mole People than I ever could. My intention is to make people feel. I want them to feel.
ZB: You got into “Punk” bands after you moved to L.A. Which bands did you like?
MW: I loved it! Anger. The band that I liked the best was X. There’s a reason they were so popular: she has the voice of Los Angeles; it’s just a wailing, fucking, fucked-up cry. L.A. was a very freaky place. I like it, I can just be alone—and you can just disappear here. It’s wonderful; it’s hot but I like it. I like it much more than New York—there used to be great slums there; now everything is really rich and very boring.
ZB: Do you have any particular memories of the Punk scene?
MW: The Starwood, man—that place was gorgeous, it was hideous but it was the greatest. It was gigantic, scary, it was wonderful. It just went on forever into the night. There was a club called the Zero Zero, Zero One—they named it a whole bunch of things. Madame Wong’s, all that kind of shit. Zero One was the best. Some of these clubs were merciless. You could meet anybody there, it was so bizarre. I like FEAR, the Melvins and the Mau Maus. I loved the energy—it was fabulous.