"The Best Art In The World"
By KOFI FORSON, SEPT. 2017
When I met Joanna Pickering – actress, model, writer, muse – she reminded me of Sharon Stone in her Oscar-nominated role as Ginger McKenna from Martin Scorsese’s Casino; at once classy, easy on the eyes, and very beautiful. With a degree in mathematics, Pickering's more than meets the eye – more so, when she tells me she turned down a career in finance to be a bohemian artist. She has portrayed an array of challenging characters, from a war correspondent (Lead Me to The Dark, 2014) to rape victim (Party On Ice, 2012), a low-income single mother (Leave Yourself Alone, winner at Young Film Maker’s Anthology film archives 2016) to politician’s wife (Burgundy Boys, 2013), and a recreation of the Dada poet Baroness Elsa Von Freytag Loringhoven (Baroness of Berlin, The Film Ballad of Mamadada screened official selection at Copenhagen Film Festival and Whitney Museum 2013). While her early work has been mainly art house film, she chose these projects deliberately to learn and perfect her craft In doing so, she became regarded for her cool persona as a cult, avant-garde indie actress in Britain. Having arrived from Britain to the U.S.A, she is newly represented by 3 Arts Entertainment, for writing as well as performing – her written work has been described as “new beat” in style – and she is currently shooting in a new thriller set in 1950's New England (Alice Fades Away, theatrical release summer 2018).
Kofi Forson: Joanna, I first noticed you at Emer Martin’s presentation and promotional opening/party for her writers in New York. I know Emer offered a novel option on your work. I must say meeting you felt like a filmic moment for me as if I was Marcello Mastroianni and you were Anita Ekberg. (As you are British perhaps you were Julie Christie…) As an actress, do you frame yourself in a moment, at a party for example, as if a man with a camera is watching and filming? Are you able to lose the actress signifier and be yourself?
Joanna Pickering: I can assure you I do not go round parties framing myself! When I am working with a director I rarely ask to see the rushes [of myself]. I like portraying realism. I worry if I see myself on the camera, vanity kicks in. I don’t want to see myself as harrowing. I trust the director, and the DOP [director of photography]. In real life, I don’t enjoy being under scrutiny. I am more at ease when there is a camera as it means there is a character to focus on. If I am not properly connected I am not a strong actress, there is no faking it. Acting is a prayer for truth on action.
Kofi Forson: You’ve also started coaching with award winning director, Aleksey Burago at HB Studio and Russian Arts Theater Studio. What was your early introduction to theater? How do you describe life on and off the stage?
Joanna Pickering: My first introduction was Ballet Theater. I trained in ballet from an early age. My mother took me to see Swan Lake at The Opera house. I will never forget my emotional reaction to the energy of the performance. Life on stage is that energy that flows from a start to end point. Life off stage is of course unpredictable in circumstance. We must remember this on stage, and use stimuli to be responding afresh in each moment. I was fortunate to audition for Aleksey at HB studio. His Russian theater group is full of very talented people–I learn from them, when I can.
Kofi Forson: You were recently on location for a film in Massachusetts. What can you tell us about your character for this film?
Joanna Pickering: Yes! I play a British nanny in 1950’s America. It was so exciting to go back in time – alarming also, looking at female rights then, and where we are now. We are not moving so fast, you know. Take equal pay.
Kofi Forson: The world recently lost Sam Shepard. As someone who portrays psychological realism in your work, did you ever come across any of his plays? Cowboy Mouth, Fool for Love, et cetera. Who are your favorite playwrights or writers in general?
Joanna Pickering: Yes, absolutely! Fool For Love is on my shelf. We lost Jeanne Moreau and Sam Shepherd in one day, I was in mourning. My choices of scripts for work are usually influenced by my favorite playwrights – specifically, the works of Strindberg and Ibsen – both monumental in setting the foundations for exploring realism in modern theater. I also like Brecht, Meyerhold - the epic theater and contemporary ideas. I read the philosophers, but nothing makes me happier than magical realism – Gabriel García Márquez [for example].
Kofi Forson: Your film persona has been described as femme fatale. What life attributes or sense of adventurism lends itself to this circumstance?
Joanna Pickering: I adore film noir. I’ve watched hundreds; it started with Gilda. In my model shoots, if I could get creative control, as [example] with photographer Kat McDonald, you can see this instantly – magnum 22 guns, old classic Hollywood styling, misty cliffs and castles in Scotland.
I think we have to be careful romanticizing the femme fatale in modern cinema. She’s a sexual, allusive, dangerous and powerful being, essential in portraying anti-stereotypical female roles and in challenging the male. But, the femme fatale is motivated in manipulation at the demise of the man, and by using traits of femininity and sexuality. A femme fatale of modern day should own the story out right. We have to keep reinventing her.
Kofi Forson: You were schooled at a convent in UK. Your first work experience was in a pathology laboratory. You’ve won awards for science, mastered mathematics. You lived in the South of France modelling with the surf label, Rip Curl, experienced racing high-performance cars, and performing in avant grade theatre and small roles on TV– all before training at Lee Strasberg Theater Institute! Are you the perfect girl to play 007? [Laughter]
Joanna Pickering: It sounds more like the material for Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho! [laughs] Let’s hope one day all these legendary roles are open to everyone inclusively. I used to look down casting lists, read the qualities, and apply for the male role deliberately, even just to piss someone off, make them think! Now, I have an agent – he has Lynda Carter cast as the president of the USA! I am also dying to see Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who.
Kofi Forson: You’re big on gender equality and promoting feminist ideas. What are some of your favorite female leads in Hollywood movies?
Joanna Pickering: I would have been more impressed if you had asked me my current favorite female directors and screenwriters! That is the question we need to be asking. Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer [in Frances, 1982] changed my life, in terms of performance, and roles I wanted to portray. I knew as soon as I saw [the movie] I could do it. I started applying for older roles, women with real life problems, and I knew I could play them.
Kofi Forson: Talk to me about influence of Hollywood actresses on your work, from the golden era through to the bombshells of the 50’s, 60’s and 70's. I know you are compared to Charlotte Rampling, Faye Dunaway, Cybil Shepherd, but who do you idolize? What actresses do you tend to channel the most?
Joanna Pickering: I could go before the golden era, silent film - Joan of Arc is one of my favorites. I am often compared to many of the classic 60s film actors – the comparisons are a reassurance of something wonderful I guess beauty or style, yet it’s superficial. I can’t look like all of them, I am me, and I want to talk about performance, not my looks.
Kofi Forson: Do you find it more nerve-wracking to audition for a film role than the stage?
Joanna Pickering: I am more familiar with film. It is another skill set to acting, and decisions are often tied up in funding. I am far more nervous performing in front of my peers, or before shooting on a booked job. The nerves arrive from the dreadful moment I am booked until the director says action.
Kofi Forson: But it’s quite the jet-set life, isn’t it? What do you love about film work? Pros and cons?
Joanna Pickering: No! It is incredibly hard work and lots of instability. Inequality and sexism is also very real. A brick wall you can smash up against. But, to be an artist is a gift; it is a voice, and it is dangerous. If it’s not dangerous it’s not art. I love that my job means exploring different characters and diversity in our society, and can bring awareness to issues that matter.
Kofi Forson: With regards to your own writing projects, what is your primo/patented way of approaching a character? It’s shamanistic almost, isn’t it?
Joanna Pickering: Well, for sure, when I write it is intuitive. I am confident to make big abstractions - big “what if’s” - which is why I was good at math. I do believe in conscious day dream as part of the creative process. I often find myself in the wrong room. The mind loves to wander. You’ve got to drag it back - to type.
Kofi Forson: After a trip around the world, you get to sleep in your own bed. What is the first thing you do when you enter your apartment, once you’ve dropped your luggage and caught your breath?
Joanna Pickering: Ignore all mail, light candles, and relax with a pot of proper English tea! WM
Movies, agent and management on: imdb http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2984746/
Official website www.joannapickering.com
Hair and Make up - Karen Bowen and Tina Turnbow, Wardrobe Miss Pickering and in Alice Fades Away Stephanie Kowalski.
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Kofi Forson is a writer, POET and PLAYWRIGHT living in NYC. His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.