Finnish actor Pekka Strang gives a fantastic, nuanced performance as Touko Laaksonen, the title character in “Tom of Finland,” director Dome Karukosi’s shrewd biopic of the famous gay artist, which opens Nov. 24 at the Ritz at the Bourse. The film is Finland’s entry for the Academy Awards.
As this drama opens, Touko is fighting in the war and enjoying some camaraderie with his fellow soldiers. He also experiences a life-changing encounter when he has an exchange with an enemy soldier. Returning home to a repressive life in 1950s Finland, Touko works at an ad agency and lives with his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky). They soon take in a boarder, Veli (Lauri Tikanen), with whom Touko quickly falls in love.
Touko is also seen spending his free time drawing secret and erotic illustrations of fetishistic and hyper-sexualized men — a likely response to homosexuality being illegal in Finland at the time. Soon, Touko’s drawings are attracting international attention in the underground market. As his success and reputation grow, he travels to America, where he connects with the queer community in ways he has not imagined, becoming a superstar of sorts.
“Tom of Finland” is smart in how it depicts the story of a shy man who found a way to find acceptance within the larger gay community. The film also emphasizes how Tom of Finland gave considerable pleasure to millions of gay and closeted men around the world. But the film is more sensitive than prurient, a strength that might disappoint fans expecting a salacious biopic.
Strang met with PGN to talk about playing the icon that is Tom of Finland.
PGN: What did you know about Tom of Finland and his work before you made the film?
PS: I knew very little. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t that big in Finland, but it was bigger globally. I knew the brand, but I didn’t know much about the artist behind the work, so that was why it was so interesting to see who this guy was.
PGN: Did you dream of one day playing a gay pornographer?
PS: That’s one way to put it. It’s a great role. I’m an actor from Finland, and it was the role of a lifetime. He was a great man and did so many great things, I think, so after reading the script, I had no doubt I wanted to do it.
PGN: Did you have concerns about having sex on screen?
PS: It’s not a problem. I like having sex.
PGN: You do? Can we talk about your fantasies?
PS: Yeah, we can do that — off the record.
PGN: So what turns you on? Are you into leather, uniforms or role-playing?
PS: Skateboarding. I’m trying to show my kids how to do it, but I fell, so I can’t raise my left arm very high.
PGN: Touko is a very shy and introverted character. Even when he is surrounded by admirers, he feels uncomfortable in his own skin. Can you talk about that aspect of his character?
PS: That’s typical Finland. When you look at his drawings and photographs, he’s always observing things. When you’re an observer, you don’t want the attention. You don’t show yourself. I think he was kind of an illusionist of sexuality. He was observing life. He was 20-something when the war started. He was a young man who saw his mates dying, so that shaped his life. That’s my interpretation. I never went to war, but we have a lot of stories of young men going there, and that may be a reason why he was like that. We don’t have much material of the younger Tom.
PGN: Why do you think Veli (aka Nipo) and Touko fall in love?
PS: I was about to quote Haddaway: “What is love?” [Laughs]. Nipo is the one challenging Touko. He’s much braver than Touko in a sense. The artist is scared of the world, and here’s this young rebel … They lead a secret life. They had a really deep relationship. It was love.
PGN: How do you read the way Touko went from being an artist to an activist?
PS: Touko says, “I’m not a political activist,” but then in 1985, ’86, he says, “Maybe I was.” He started to draw for his own good. There wasn’t an agenda with his drawings in the beginning. It was just something to jerk off to and to make others feel aroused. Going to L.A., he saw people who appreciated his work. So maybe he had an agenda and didn’t want to say what it was. It’s a bit of an allegory to our movie. We didn’t make a political agenda, but when you watch it today, there might be.