The actor: Mary Woronov first came to prominence in the New York artistic community through her work with Andy Warhol and the Theater Of The Ridiculous, but it was her work with famed producer Roger Corman that brought her to the masses, most notably as the evil Miss Togar in Rock ’N’ Roll High School. Although Woronov now spends most of her time as an artist and writer, she recently reunited with Corman for a role in the EPIX film Attack Of The 50 Foot Cheerleader and is in the process of working on Confessions Of A Cult Queen, a documentary about her life and career by filmmakers Francesca Di Amico and Claudia Unger.
Mary Woronov: Oh, right, that one. [Laughs.] Well, first of all, I did it because I’ve done so many films for [Roger] Corman, and when he asked me to do this, I thought it would be nice of me. So it’s sort of a gift for Corman, because I don’t really act anymore. But it was fun. The thing that happened in this movie was that… usually when you go into the makeup room, all these girls are talking and it’s a lot of fun, where everybody’s saying what they think and everything. But this was a very weird time. This makeup room I went into was silent. Every girl there—and there were a lot of them—was on her cell phone. It was like doing a movie without people. Absolute silence everywhere. Very strange.
The A.V. Club: How substantial a role do you have in the film?
MW: The House Mother is a woman who obviously has an anger problem. It’s a small role, but… she acts very, very nice, but when the girl doesn’t do what she wants or something like that, she calls her a bitch and throws her in her room. So obviously it’s my kind of role. [Laughs.] It’s pretty campy, you know? I mean, I use “campy” because it’s the only way I can describe it. In other words, it’s not really someone who has any humanity to her or is real at all. She’s a caricature.
AVC: Speaking of Roger Corman, you recently appeared in the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel.
MW: I did, although I haven’t seen it. He has a whole bunch of other people out there who really feel that he’s The Corman School Of Acting. He got so many people started, so we’re really, really grateful to him.
AVC: How did you fall into his camp? Was it through Paul Bartel?
MW: Actually, I was in New York, and I knew Paul because he was a friend of my husband’s, and he called me up and said he could get Corman to hire me for Death Race 2000. Now, Paul is somebody who knows the Theater Of The Ridiculous in New York, has seen me in the Theater Of The Ridiculous, knows the kind of acting I do, and, of course, he’s seen me in my Warhol movies. And he has a certain sense of humor, because I saw his first movie, which is amazing. It’s called “The Secret Cinema.” And he has a sense of humor that is definitely bizarre; I understand it, and we work very well together. We were friends. So he suddenly just called me up from California. It was the second movie he did for Corman—the other one [1972’s Private Parts] was for Corman’s brother [Gene Corman]—and he said, “I can get you in on this movie, and I need you.” I said, “Fine, I’d love to drop everything I’m doing in New York.” I’d just finished a play, In The Boom Boom Room, and I was doing a soap opera, of all things, to make money. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll go out.” And then he said, “I’ll just introduce you to Corman—he’ll look at your legs, so wear something that shows your legs off—and he’ll hire you.” Of course, he never looked at my legs. He had a fight with somebody at the movie theater we went to, so he never even looked at me. But he did hire me. And that was that.
AVC: So how was your first experience working on a Roger Corman film?
MW: It was great. First of all, there’s a subversive sense of humor in the film. And Paul always fought with Corman. Corman wanted more blood; Paul said, “No, no, no, it’s about humor.” So that was an ongoing thing. But for me, it was great. Corman has always let me ad lib. Paul was the one who started this. Paul and I actually became sort of this set item because… you know, we had a patter—we were from New York and from the Theater Of The Ridiculous—and we actually started getting hired by other people just to do our Paul and Mary act. But it was a lot of fun because it was the first time in my life I got a real costume. But I couldn’t drive. I had to be towed. So that was humiliating. But it was my first real Hollywood set, and everybody was so pleasant to me. But it wasn’t your normal Hollywood set. Everybody was just doing anything for this movie. Nobody was being paid, it was like team spirit, a group thing, and I had a lot of fun. That’s why I did so many Corman films.
MW: Now that’s not a Corman film. I understood what they wanted: They wanted somebody who was very scary. And I’ve gotten a lot of these roles. What I liked about it was that it was by a very young director, and he had a team of kids working with him. And I love working outside of the system, so I said yes to him. The part itself… The first part, where I sort of play somebody who is almost interested in consuming this woman, or perhaps biting her, that was fun. But the last part of the movie, where I talk to the Devil, somehow something went wrong. There was too much blood. And I didn’t enjoy it. But the first part I did enjoy.
AVC: You and Tom Noonan seemed to work well as an onscreen couple, anyway.
MW: I can work well with anyone.
MW: I loved that part. I was allowed to say anything I wanted, and, boy, did I mouth off. I was working with a performance artist who I knew, Johanna Went, and she was perfect. That whole speech and everything just came to me, and I just didn’t let up. I just loved it. I would work with [Gregg Araki] anytime. I would do that part again and again and again.
AVC: Did Araki reach out to you personally to ask you to do the role?
MW: I really don’t remember. All I remember is somebody said, “They want you to do this role as a lesbian, and they consider killing this kid,” and I said, “Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll do that.” But you have to really… he didn’t hold me back. Once he understood what I was doing, once I mouthed off, he said, “Yes.” That was it. I think it was done in one take.
MW: That was kind of a sad movie, because the director [Thom Eberhardt] was a very nice guy, but he had a really hard time with the cinematographer [Arthur Albert], and he was hampered by him. But he was very nice to me. Also, there is a scene in there that I do love. It’s with Robert Beltran, and it’s where I go, “Merry Christmas,” shoot up, and drop dead. And Eberhardt let me write all of my dialogue. I love a director who’ll let me do that. Because I might become myself, not some mechanism that stands for “lesbian” or “terrible woman.” I’ve done a lot where it never works, but if they let me do what I want, I understand what they want and I can do it. And in this one, it was really wonderful. And Robert’s a dream to work with. We’d worked together before in Eating Raoul. I was very happy with that scene. The rest of it was just running around and doing stuff. I didn’t really have a great role. But I love that scene.
AVC: It has a very different tone from most of the movie. A lot of the movie is pretty light, but that scene is surprisingly moving.
MW: I can perform the life of the snail and be moving. But I have to be let go, you know?
MW: That’s my favorite movie. Every part of that movie, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. At one point in the movie, Paul goes to bed with a bottle of wine. I said to the crew, “Guys, what am I, chopped liver? I want toys!” And we were filming in a house that was somebody else’s, but they ran around the house to look for toys and got me all those toys to sleep with. [Laughs.] The crew was working for nothing, practically. In fact, they were working for nothing. The script was okay. You know, it was bizarre. But everybody just did everything because they loved the turn that the movie was taking. It was funny, but it was really, really scary. But it was also comical and funny. And I love the combination of that. You know, he shot 21 days of film, but it took him a year to do it. He’d call me up and go, “Mary, I want to shoot this next scene,” and it’d be the first time I’d heard from him in two months. But you’d just walk onto the set, and there it was. It was like a living thing. Also, I got along wonderfully with Paul. I act very, very well with him, because he understands the Theater Of The Ridiculous. But after the film, we’d do interview after interview, and he’d tell everybody that I was really married to him. And it disturbed me, because it wasn’t true. And finally I said to him, “I’m not going interview with you anymore, because you keep on saying that.” And he goes, “Oh, Mary, there’s an interview in New York, it’s a magazine, you’ve got to do it.” I said, “No!” And then he said, “Okay, I promise I won’t say we’re married.” So we sit down at the table with this woman, and the first thing she does is smile at me and then look at him and go, “So you’re married, aren’t you?” I look at Paul, and he says, “No, we’re divorced.” I didn’t speak to him for a year.
AVC: Were you disappointed that the sequel to the film [Bland Ambition] never got off the ground?
MW: No, I wasn’t, because the sequel dropped me like a hot potato. I was his wife, but I’m totally in the background. The sequel’s all about another girl. And I didn’t even want it to get off the ground. What I was disappointed about was that, because of Eating Raoul, Paul got two other movies together, got financed for them and everything, and didn’t hire me. When I easily could’ve played both roles. One was a Girl Friday. But he just dropped me. And I said, “Why?” And he said, “You know, these movies, these are real movies, and I’m working with real actors.” I hated him for that. You know, Paul was a little misconceived. But I do love him, anyway.
AVC: How did you come to reprise the role of Mary Bland for Chopping Mall?
MW: You know, I don’t know. I don’t even remember doing it. I remember Paul saying, “We have to do this for Roger, we have to do this for Roger,” but I don’t remember. I don’t even think I say anything, do I?
AVC: It’s been ages since I’ve seen it, but at the very least, you’re in the trailer.
MW: I don’t think I do say anything.
[Per Tasha Robinson, our resident Chopping Mall expert, Woronov does have lines, but “for what it’s worth, in the commentary track, the filmmakers say the scene was largely shot at 4 a.m. and people were falling asleep; no wonder it’s a blur to her.” —Ed.]
MW: Hollywood Boulevard is another film that I love. It was done by Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, and there’s a scene where I have two dogs—it was filmed in Canoga Park—and I’m looking at the camera and everything else, and they told me, “Okay, now pretend there are two dogs there, little chihuahuas.” So I’m going, “Coochi, coochi, coochi…” Then when I see the movie, they have these giant fucking Rin Tin Tin dogs. Everything was like that. They used other movies from Corman to fill in. They shot a movie in a week… I mean, I would shoot a gun, and then there’d be a scene of all these agents falling out of the palm trees, dead.
AVC: William Forsythe has a story about how he was forced to wear a particular hat in the film Smokey Bites The Dust because he was told that Corman had all this footage of a guy wearing that kind of hat driving—and eventually wrecking—a truck. He said the assistant director said, “That footage is probably the only reason we’re making this movie, so shut up and put on the hat.”
MW: [Laughs.] That was exactly what this was. And then I did another one called Cover Girl Models where Roger called me up and said, “Mary, I’ve done a film in the Philippines, but I need two scenes. Would you mind doing them?” So I did the two scenes, and he stuck them in the movie.
The other thing I really liked about Hollywood Boulevard, though, was that it was a spoof on Corman. It was a spoof on doing a Corman movie. That was another thing I really loved. It was so funny. And to do that, to have everybody understand that joke and just rip through it… we didn’t do any rehearsal, we didn’t do anything. All we did was shoot the movie. “Go, go, go, go! Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it!” [Laughs.] It has its flaws, but I especially liked every time I acted with Bartel. He played the director. It was great. I just think it’s really funny and really good.
AVC: How were Allan Arkush and Joe Dante as directors, given that they were just getting their feet wet behind the camera?
MW: They were so busy, I almost didn’t see them. They were so busy doing stuff and putting it together. They were wonderful, though. And they did other movies that were really great. I mean, Rock ’N’ Roll High School! [Laughs.] But on this one, they were running around like chickens without heads. They had to do everything!
Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” video (1983)
MW: I got a prize for that. Well, the video did.
AVC: What was the prize?
MW: I don’t know. [Laughs.] But it definitely got a prize. I loved doing that. That was great. I loved the guys. In fact, Suicidal Tendencies are a favorite band of mine. They called me up and said, “Would you do this?” I said, “Who are you?” And they went, “Suicidal Tendencies!” I said, “Yeah, sure!” I was into punk rock at that time, so I knew who they were. I felt honored. Also, the scene was great. And I did another one with them, too [“Possessed To Skate”].
AVC: How did you first cross paths with Andy Warhol?
MW: This guy Gerard [Malanga] saw me at Cornell, because he came up there to do some poetry readings, and he just said hi, so I knew him. And then the school sent me and a lot of other students on a field trip to some other artists’ studios. We came to Warhol’s studio, and Warhol wasn’t there, but instead of the walls being white, they were black, and strange people were walking around. This was the first time I’d ever seen anything like this. Then Gerard came out and said, “Oh, Mary!” I said, “Yes?” He said, “Warhol’s going to do a screen test. Do you want to do it?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So I watched my class move out, and then Warhol came out of the staircase where he’d been hiding. [Laughs.] And they put me on a stool, and then they turned the camera on and they all walked away. And I thought, “Oh, great. This is some kind of joke.” I got completely paranoid. And I thought, “They just want to see how long I’m going to sit in front of this camera as it’s swirling around.” And then I thought, “Well, maybe it’s not a joke, so maybe it’s better if I just sit here and wait them out.” So I did. And that was my first screen test.
AVC: The dates are a little sketchy from source to source. Do you remember the very first film you did with Warhol? Was it Superboy?
MW: No, the first film… I think it was called Milk, and it was with Mario Montez. But then the second film I did was Hedy, and that’s a big role. That’s where I play the arrested cop to Mario Montez’s Hedy Lemarr when she shoplifts, and I come on to her. I kiss her. I knew exactly what to do. Because when you have a drag queen—by this time, I was well into the Warhol crowd—you don’t try and out-feminize them. You don’t act girly. It’s not going to work. So I used to butch it. I was like a guy. I’d pull the chair out for him, I’d light the cigarettes. And I knew I was very beautiful and sexy, so I didn’t have any problem doing that. I thought it was funny. And Warhol saw that, and that’s what he wanted. Because he was into gender slippage, and he was into a thing where sexuality is not male and female. It’s very strange. I mean, when you see his movies, the boys, the young boys of the night, are sexy. The girls often come off like shrews. Especially Viva. And I didn’t want that. Also, I had this image… the one thing I was lacking as I fumbled through Cornell was power, and I realized that my life was going to be like that just because I was a girl. And the structure with Warhol was that he gave me power, which is what happened with Hanoi Hannah. But with Mario Montez, I was also very sexy by being male. It was interesting for me. And I caught on very quickly. I had a really good time with him. He never directed anybody, but I realize I could easily hold my own. And I didn’t want to be one of those screaming ugly girls who thought they were going to be a superstar. Also, the other thing is that, the entire scene was gay, and these men, they didn’t want to screw me. They told me I was really beautiful, they told me I was really talented. I liked them. I liked every one of them. Of course, they were all nuts. [Laughs.] But I didn’t care.