Fame found Mary Woronov. As a beautiful Cornell undergrad, Mary fell into the glamorous maelstrom of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. She acted in Warhol’s experimental films, toured with the Velvet Underground, and raged up and down New York City in a scene as iconic as any in American art history.
After leaving the Factory gang, Woronov headed west to LA where the creative polymath has acted, painted, and written ever since. CONVICTS got lucky enough to sit down with Mary at her LA pad. She regaled us with stories from the Warhol days, gave us candid details about her creative journey, and dropped the best quote about doing speed of all time.
Hey Mary. Thanks for having us. Let’s start from square one. Can you walk us through your entrance into the art world?
I was always good at art and I was always good at writing. I went to a private girls school and they told me I was good, so I was a bit of an asshole by the time I got out of high school. Anyway, I go to Cornell where they have the best architecture department and the worst art department in the world. Everybody told me it was bad and it was bad. I still put paper on the wall and painted but it wasn’t going anywhere. The sculptures I did, a couple of them were really good, but it was just all about dating then. I had never had a boyfriend, I did not want to date and just had these guys coming at me constantly. So I got really depressed and had a friend, the only other girl in the class, and we bonded. Her name was Susan Rothenberg and she’s a very, very famous artist now. But she’s responsible for keeping my interest in art through all of that.
How did you end up falling in with Warhol and the Factory crowd?
When I was at Cornell, I looked good and wished I didn’t and this guy came to read his poetry. There was this other guy who was interested in me because he was a poet, but he was really just a drunk. But anyway, the other guy had necklaces and blond hair and was different. I didn’t even hear his poetry but he took out a camera and said ‘I wanna photograph you walking across the bridge,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah sure fine, what do I care, at least he’s not jumping on my bones. It’s just a photograph. His name was Gerard Malanga, and he was Warhol’s main man. He was at the Factory constantly, but I didn’t know this.
What became of that interaction?
He was screen testing me because Warhol was moving into film and Gerard wanted to be in the film. He knew that his best way to get in was to have a gorgeous girl because Warhol was always looking for gorgeous girls, believe it or not. Also beautiful boys, but that was different. So I did this thing and walked across the bridge and Gerard came up a couple times but then I lost track of him. The next semester we went to New York to visit artists’ studios. The first one was Rauschenberg‘s, the walls were white and he had these hippies there. The new thing was hippies then, so there were all these hippies going, ‘Wow man, yeah cool,’ and that didn’t interest me. The next studio was Warhol’s. The walls were black and there was silver paper all over them that flickered. There was a filthy silver couch with a couple of transvestites on it who looked like animals, I mean they really did. They thought we looked like animals and they were watching us. Then Gerard walks up to me and says, ‘look, Warhol’s doing this screen test and you should do one, and then we’ll do one together.’ And I thought, yeah, okay, fine. No fear, nothing. Andy wasn’t even there. He was in the hall hiding ‘cause he didn’t want to see us. My class walked back into the elevator and I never saw them again.
Then what happened?
They set up this camera. The place was cavernous, really long and all black. So I sit on a stool and Warhol comes out and doesn’t say anything to me and fucks with the camera. Then they all leave to the other side of the studio, which is pretty far away and start bullshitting, talking, and I’m thinking, ‘Is this a joke. I mean, maybe there’s no film in the camera and they just want to see how long I’m gonna sit here? Then I thought I should get up and leave. But what if there’s film in the camera? Then this would be pretty impressive. So maybe I will sit here. Of course I didn’t move. Turned out to be my first movie for Warhol, and it’s called Screen Test, and it’s brilliant.
Talk about getting filmed by Warhol.
He traps you in the camera. You’re in this little celluloid thing, and he can watch you. He’s very shy and also he’s not shy. But you decide whether your performance is this or that but he likes watching you, like watching this little animal in a cage. That’s what he was doing.
Did you keep painting at the time?
Everything else distracted me from painting, so I didn’t advance. My friend Susan became so famous that I felt I didn’t have it. Also, I didn’t have a studio. Where am I gonna paint? At home? I went home a lot because I didn’t have a place to live, but home was not exactly great. Don’t get me wrong, I love home. If I was in trouble or if I had too many drugs, I went home. I was not shy about that. If I was pregnant, I went home. Pregnancy wasn’t allowed. So I stopped painting. I stopped and if you stop painting, that’s it. It’s very hard to get back into it. Certainly, I never painted around Warhol. Why would I paint around him? I mean I would help him paint, wash out his brushes or whatever. Plus at the time it was all New Image painting which was about the background, something I wasn’t into. I like figure and I like narrative. Nobody was doing narrative, they thought it was antiquated crap.
How did you transition fully into acting?
I was not shy about people watching me. While I was with Warhol this guy named Ronnie Tavel comes up to me and says he’s doing something called The Theater of the Ridiculous. I liked that, so I started doing these plays and they were great. They were just fucking great. First of all they were about being gay when that was totally illegal. They were about nudity, which if you had a body like mine, was fine. But that was illegal too and then they were perverse. They were just amazing and didn’t make any sense, but when you acted in them, they made a lot of sense because they were all about emotion. My first play was the Theater of the Ridiculous, and it was Kitchenette. In Kitchenette I was married to my husband, who is trying for at least for an hour and a half to tell me he’s had a relationship in the shower with another man and I don’t hear him. The whole play is about this, and finally he kills me in the end. So I became acquainted with this new kind of theater. Which is like the Theater of the Absurd in France. I was just really good at it.
Did that contribute to your role in Warhol’s films?
I was perfect for them because I looked like I knew what I was doing. But of course I didn’t. Nobody did. My thing with Warhol’s movies was that all of these men were imitating women. They were gay or they were drag queens. Drag queens at that time were not…you didn’t laugh at them. Drag queens were commenting on what women are. They were vicious. It was amazing. But what do you do when you have a drag queen and she’s totally feminine and sexy? Well you play a guy. So I played this weird guy. I was male. I pulled out their chair, lit their cigarettes, right? And it was just so much fun, it really was. I never talked.
Three or four lines maybe, except for one of the plays that Warhol wrote. I’ve forgotten the name of it, but I had this really vicious role in it. And that was fun too. So I became tough in my acting. Vicious, very capable of bad deeds. I wasn’t really a sweet little girl.
Did you like being asked to play the tough character?
Oh, always. Always.
Can you talk about your relationship with Warhol himself?
Andy had a certain power about him. He’s very quiet. He is a hero because at that time Andy was like fuck you, I’m queer. I know it’s illegal and fuck you. I mean Rosenberg pretended to be straight when he met straight people. Andy didn’t, so he was my hero. What do you do with a hero? You idolize him. So I was like his guard, his praetorian guard. That was my form of love to him. I was loyal to the nth degree. If someone said something wrong about him, I’d stick my foot in their mouth. I have a temper.
What happened when Warhol got shot?
I did this movie in Italy, my first big deal movie, where they treated me like an actress. I was supposed to go on the set and this grip comes up to me and tells me Warhol’s been shot. It was very difficult for me, because I felt like I had left him for Italy. If I didn’t leave him then he wouldn’t have gotten shot. I know that’s stupid, because I wasn’t there all the time and I had no business interfering in his life but I just felt so fucking bad. So it’s some kind of loyalty or love that I felt for him. It’s hard to explain.
Did things change after that?
I didn’t see him afterwards. He was there but it was distant. I had left and we couldn’t get over it. He couldn’t and I couldn’t so. Back in New York I was at this party going up the stairs. As I went up, Warhol went down, and we passed each other on the stairs and he goes ‘Oh, hello Mary.’ And I went, ‘Hi Andy,’ and that was it. The Factory was no longer the Factory. They had a Factory with a little secretary who would let you in or not let you in and the people were no longer there. There were normally drag queens there. It was like an office, fuck, it wasn’t the same.
What about all the drugs going around at the time-how did that affect the vibes? Was it a good thing or a bad thing?
Speed was great, are you kidding? People would freak out. That was kind of funny. One guy would steal things, he was completely nuts and he would steal things and then he would give the stolen things to other people. So he was trading people’s stuff around and we all knew it, we accepted it, except that this one guy didn’t accept it. He electrified his windows and told the guy ‘Do not come in here and steal from me.’ But the guy did and electrocuted himself. It was a different time. It was a different world. These people were really, absolutely stone crazy and yet they were so brilliant because what do you do when you’re on speed, you read, you believe in Blavatsky. You find some arcane thing, you reinvent yourself. All of a sudden this dealer is not really a dealer anymore, he’s the Pope. Okay fine he’s the pope. I accept that. That’s fabulous. Nice robe. It was nuts. It was really, really nuts but the people who did it weren’t stupid little kids, they were adults. They were mad because they were gay and that was illegal and they were furious. And you know when you’re furious on speed, you launch out, and they were brilliant too. There wasn’t any speed in LA. Back then, you couldn’t even date someone without having some cocaine on you. Cocaine’s not the same as pharmaceutical speed. If you wanted to do anything you had to get coked up and everybody was coked up. You’d go into a restaurant and some girl would walk into the bathroom and you’d go ‘Oh man she’s holding’ and ten people would go into the bathroom and sit there and listen to her piss because they wanted some. Cocaine was stupid. It’s all about sex. Amphetamine was dangerous, brilliant, and ruthless.
Before we move onto LA, can you sum up the Factory scene a bit? Did you feel like it was on trend at the time or an anti-trend?
It was ours only. No one else thought of it. It was ours because Warhol was the center, but we weren’t doing art. We were doing something else. We understood what was going on for some reason. We were all the same and I had a completely different background then these guys. They were gay, they were angry, much angrier than I was. But something was happening in New York. I mean LA too, but it’s not the same here. Here gays used to always party with lesbians because when the cops came you would switch and girls would be with boys and boys would be with girls so the cops couldn’t do anything. That’s brilliant.
Seems like you guys hated the hippies?
It was funny because there was a war between the hippies and what was happening in New York. The hippies were dressing in flowers, taking LSD – which I really hate – and saying everything’s wonderful. And in New York people were very unhappy, really critical, dressed in black, only took amphetamines. They thought they were brilliant, but boy did we hate hippies. I remember one time, I was supposed to do a happening with somebody and we went to this college for rich kids where they were all trying to be hippies. They were living in tents because the whole school was full of dog shit, with dogs roaming everywhere. I was told not to go in the swimming pool because you’d get gonorrhea to the eyeball. It was really a filthy place. So we did our happening and then everybody wanted to go look for mushrooms and get high. I don’t do that, so I’m on the roof and I hear this girl crying. She’s whimpering, not crying, so I walk around and I go, ‘Excuse me what’s wrong?’ And she goes, ‘Nothing’s wrong.’ And I go, ‘Well you’re crying so something’s wrong.’ And she goes, ‘It’s just all this free love and I want to go home because I have to fuck four guys a night, because you can’t say no, because it’s about free love and I don’t want to. Oh my god, I hate this.’ It was so sad. And she was small, not somebody that could say ‘I don’t want to.’ It was bad. Anyway, that’s my idea of hippies.
Wow. That’s fucked. Switching gears a bit – what brought you to LA?
Well this guy that I married, this first guy was a scriptwriter, and he wrote movies and always put me in the movies, which is why I stayed with him. So after doing a couple of movies he writes this movie that was practically a porno and I had just had it. I said ‘Screw this I’m not doing it.’ So I got a divorce.
And after that you just wanted to stay in LA?
I wasn’t going home, so I stayed here. I didn’t want to see New York. I didn’t want to see New York because my friends were super-duper artists now and I wasn’t. I was pissed off. Well, I’ve always been pissed off, but I was really sick of New York. I wasn’t with Warhol anymore, all the ridiculous people were dead, everybody was dead. Everybody finally croaked. Too many drugs. It was kind of hard because LA’s so different, but now I love it.
Why do you love it so much?
It’s perfect for a writer. It’s like it’s not real. Totally not real and then the movie business is even more unreal. It’s ridiculous but this place is great. Nobody cares about anything. I go to this coffee shop and start yelling and screaming ‘Fucking Trump what are you doing?’ and they go ‘Yeah, well calm down, screw it, have another cup of coffee.’ He’s done too much now, he’s over it. He’ll never, never recover. They’re gonna kill him. They’re either going to have to shoot him or have to try him. I vote for the trial. I want it just twisted up and killed. I don’t know.
When was it that you got back into painting?
I wasn’t painting until I divorced him and got my own place, and then it was punk rock. I related so much to punk rock. I was so angry and so pent up. I do not think I would have start painting again without punk rock. The paintings from that time were my best paintings, which is another problem we won’t go into because I hate it. Nobody liked them back then, but now people like them. People are stupid, I think. I don’t mind because I’m stupid too, but it wastes a lot of time.
What’s the painting process like for you?
I don’t get relieved after I’ve painted. I get more confused, it’s endless. But no, I’m lucky I have art and I always have books so it’s fine. I don’t miss the movies, but there aren’t any anymore. I can’t believe it in a way. That was such a backbone in my life, but you know rock and roll was the backbone of my life too, and that’s also gone.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the art world?
Now everybody wants to be an artist because that’s what’s in. It’s famous. Everybody wants to be famous. It used to be you wanted to be a movie star, but now you want to be an artist. Everybody in LA is an artist. It’s really stupid.
Fair enough. Last question, what would you say art means, just to you?
Well, if you include acting in art, it’s something I have to do. It’s expression. I hate conceptual art, viciously. I can’t stand it, there’s no emotion in it. It’s like a puzzle that doesn’t interest me. Five pieces of rope hanging from a wall is not exactly what I would call entertaining. I’m not conceptual. I like a story, which is unheard of now in a painting, it’s called illustration and nobody thinks it’s art. But I like a story and I like emotion. One of the ways you get emotion on the canvas is through a story. I do that in my books all the time. The only thing I’m interested in is making people feel a certain thing when they look at my painting. I really don’t care how it’s painted as long as they get that feeling.