In the biographical drama “Tom of Finland,” Finnish actor Pekka Strang stars as Touko Valio Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland), a revolutionary and controversial Finnish artist known for his homoerotic fetish art and the influence it had on 20th century gay culture. Many of his illustrations featured naked or scantily-clad gay men in uniforms or tight outfits (police officers, sailors, bikers, leathermen) engaging in explicit sex acts or placed in homoerotic scenes.
During his career, Tom of Finland’s work was published in a handful of magazines around the world. His work hit the mainstream in the early 1970s when gay pornography wasn’t considered as taboo anymore. In 1979, he and his friend Durk Dehner co-founded the Tom of Finland Company, and later the Tom of Finland Foundation, which preserves, collects and exhibits homoerotic art.
Today, a number of permanent art collections across the globe retain work by Tom of Finland, who passed away in 1991, including the New York Museum of Modern Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art, among others.
During an interview with me late last month, Strang talked about the research he did to play the role of such an influential artist, what he feels Tom’s art gave to the gay community and how a film like this might be able to help more LGBT films hit the mainstream in the future.
“Tom of Finland” was selected as Finland’s official submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2018 Academy Awards.
How much did you know about Tom before you were cast in the film?
I knew the basic stuff, but not that much, actually. I knew about his drawings and his art. When I got the call from casting, I started to Google everything I could find on him. He led a tremendous and really exciting life.
Was there something specific that drew you to this project?
He was a visionary that grew up in Finland in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The world wasn’t like it is today. This man was from a small town in Finland and created this universe that didn’t exist before. That was something that was really exciting to me. He was successful in everything he did. He was a successful officer in the war. He was a boss at his ad agency. I wanted to find out what really made him tick.
Besides Googling him, what kind of research did you?
I did quite a lot. We have a great library system in Finland. The first thing I did was get a hold of every book that was written about him. I also met up with some of his friends that knew him.
I read that you also met with Durk Dehner in Los Angeles, yes?
Yes, Durk was such an important part of Tom’s life. I got to hang out in the same places Tom did in Los Angeles. I had my morning coffee where he had his morning coffee. I’m from Finland, so I knew where he came from, but where he came to was different. That’s what gave me the most for this film – being able to hang out with the guys from the foundation and being in that house.
As an actor, did you try to inhabit Tom as a character or did you want to delve deeper than that?
Everybody works in different ways. It’s all about the end result for me. I’m more of a technical actor. I try to get as much information as possible. I feel like I got to know my interpretation of Tom. We opened the film really close to his hometown in Finland and I got to meet [Tom’s] nephew and I saw that he was crying. For me, that was one of the most important moments because I realized we got something right. We captured something true about Tom.
What do you think it was about Tom’s art that spoke to people?
I can’t speak from an inner perspective, but I’ve heard the stories about when he came to L.A. for the first time and how there were long lines of people coming to say thank you because they felt they were getting the recognition that they’re not alone. It didn’t only have an impact on the gay scene, but in people’s lives all over the world. I can understand because when you look at his artwork, there is so much joy and pride in the work. [The men in his artwork] are openly happy about having sex with each other. I think that was something revolutionary. He helped so many men all around the world.
It brought the lifestyle out of the shadows and into the mainstream, right?
Yes, so many of those pictures became almost like public property. It’s wasn’t a niche anymore. It became a symbol for sexual freedom. When the movie open in Finland, people started to discuss these things in a different manner thanks to his artwork.
Hollywood has become more and more accepting over the last few years about LGBT cinema. Do you think a foreign film like “Tom of Finland” can help that progression even more?
I hope so. This might sound stupid, but I actually forgot we were making a gay movie. I felt like we were just making a movie. In Finland, I’ve seen a lot of people outside of the gay community come to see the movie. I hope it does the same in the U.S. Politics are changing and it seems like they want to go back to a more conservative time. I hope this film helps people be open-minded and look to the future. We can’t go backward. I hope there is more diversity in movies and stories. I hope “Tom of Finland” is part of that.