Actress, writer, and model Joanna Pickering lives in New York City, and for seven years has travelled the world diligently carving out her path in life as an artist. Fresh from her most recent acting adventure in Wales working alongside Alan McGee and Roger Evans in Dean Cavanagh's new film project KUBRICKS, she talks about her lifestyle, creative outlets, projects, aspirations and her career to date...
You've been travelling now for several years. What dream were you chasing when you started that travelling, and did it pan out how you thought it would?
I first went to New York City in 2005 to study Method Acting at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. It was an amazing experience. I'd spend most of my days wandering about the Lower East Side day dreaming about the 70s underground film movement, punk rock and the chances of bumping into Jim Jarmusch or Amos Poe.
I quickly fell in love with the pace of New York City and I set about securing visas for the USA. I was travelling worldwide working on model shoots to support this, while taking any filming opportunities. In doing so, I was able to meet up with creative people from all over the world and there is always a high chance to work on new inspiring and experimental projects with the people I know. I'm very open minded to new ideas. This can pull me in different directions all over the world – whether it's London, LA, Paris, Berlin, recently all over Scotland and Sweden, or, as of late, Buenos Aires.
Last time I was in Malmo, I met a girl called Anna Osterlund, who painted me completely white and photographed me half naked against distorted mirrors on a cliff for her clothes company called Ravishing Mad. We only met this once, yet now we're always planning new things from across the globe. The last email I received, she said she was making short films, one to some of my prose and wanted me to do voice over. I was in a different hemisphere, but knowing her, I agreed absolutely. If she asked me to get back to Sweden I probably would have got on a plane. If I believe something is good artistically and it's exciting work, I'll commit to it and change my plans if I can. I'm absolutely convinced wherever you are it is the people around you and the projects you are working on that can make a place most productive and fulfilling. I'm never scared to go and see.
Most often than not, travelling like this, seeing the world in this way, is highly rewarding and incredibly exciting on every possible level. But there can still be lots of stressful times - where projects can fall through, usually financially, or someone drops out, or the country does not support DIY artists as well as expected, and then, as the risk was far bigger, you can feel lost in strange unknown places with nothing concrete to do, questioning your own direction and sanity. I never want to be just on a holiday. When things do go completely to hell, I channel it straight into my writing, which is always my greatest passion. There is nothing like absolute chaos from the depths of depravity to fuel my style of writing.
Overall though, as I am now eligible for an Artist Visa, it's all worked out well. I can live in New York City and keep travelling when something interesting comes my way - so even with all the ups and downs it's exactly how I want it. I'll always find a way for new adventure. Currently on my to do list is to find a creative reason to get to Budapest, while my fiancé (Gustaf Heden from Spectorbullets) is already talking about Detroit.
What was life like before you left the UK?
I studied Mathematics and Physics at university in Scotland. I was also a party girl though, which baffled my professors because I'd pass the exams without turning up to the classes. I hadn't found the right path yet so I had a lot of fun. My family, although always supportive, weren't from a dramatic arts background, so university and academic life was the only path laid out for me. I was very fortunate in that. I was often top of my class, but this meant at my school, which was an all girls school, acting/art over the sciences were simply never on the cards. It took a long time of doing my own thing first to work out which path I wanted to take.
After graduating, I was modelling for a bikini company while taking a sales job selling sports cars, yachts and jets in the South of France. That was eye opening to say the least. I'd fly between Monaco and McGee's Death Disco in London every Wednesday for some sanity. You know when Death Disco is the sane choice you're probably fucked. It was absolutely crazy times; I can't say too much about all that, as it became seriously dangerous. After a year of it, it was too much to cope with, and seeing money at that level anyway is seriously disturbing. I had to get out, and that's when I got to drama school. I still adore mathematics, which amuses people for some reason. Once an actor and model people won't believe I can do differential equations.
What is life like living carefree, on the road? From a political point of view, tell me what sorts of things you've encountered, or about the people you've encountered, conversations you've had, personal journeys, etc...
Firstly, that is the main misconception that it is carefree. I travel always hoping to develop in some way, usually artistically, and care deeply about it all working. I can be really nervous. When you arrive in a new place, whether it is a new country, or new city, or new area out say in Brooklyn, it can be frightening and overwhelming at first – you are thrown into politics, and new culture/language and norms, and it takes time to settle and relax, to feel familiar, to know you are safe.
Another misconception is people always think I'm on some crazy road trip, or on another fucking holiday. In fact, I work really hard all hours I can. I travel everywhere with my computer which is essential to my work and camera and media stuff. I'm on my laptop working every spare hour I have. I don't have an agent – I'm a control freak and perfectionist, and I do all my own PR work, sourcing all of my own work, as well as the actual filming, shooting or writing. I have full respect for the slog that people do behind the scenes. I may have to look at getting an agent now as there are (excitingly) bigger film roles coming through, even though I'm told all the time that agents are a total head fuck – but right now I'm definitely glad I pushed myself to do it my way and explore the more challenging or controversial roles in independent films, often with zero budget that an agent wouldn't even hear about.
But with regards being on the road and choosing scripts that I believe in rather than following more commercial paths, it means I rarely make money from them, so often the combination of this and travelling can be an oxymoron in itself, and can be stressful as hell. There's a thin line between pushing boundaries and just falling right off the fucking edge.
I see places by struggling to live in them as an artist, rather than sightseeing, and I prefer that anyway – I may miss some top tourist attraction, but I get to know the people and culture on a real-life level, which is always far more fascinating. You join a country in its misery and celebration wherever you happen to be, and you learn their history and politics first hand. Last year, I was in Morocco when protests broke out reflecting the start of the uprising sweeping across the Arab world, and months later I was at Ground Zero when Bin Laden had been killed, which was a really strange vibe; a lot of drunken college kids actually. This year, I was in Argentina hearing about the Malvinas from their perspective rather than from the UK (both governments as corrupt as each other).
I like getting to know local artists and the different local cultures; anything from the cuisine to sourcing speciality goods from different countries. And no, I don't mean cocaine from Columbia. Simply, I'm a magpie in junk shops, I love second-hand clothes, and I always want to fill my cases with beautiful things that I've found, for stage, for props, for photo shoots, film sets, for dressing up, you name it. I just returned from Argentina having found antique paintings, lace hats, and lots of glittering Old World trinkets, like brooches and hat pins, and a lot of poems by Alfonsina Storni, who I now adore. She waded out into the sea to her death at Mar de la Plata in Argentina after publishing her last poem in La Nacion, so the myth goes. These are the things I love to find from travelling. Excess luggage is definitely my biggest headache. I can't leave anything I like. I can never refuse a good limited edition second-hand book, and I'd buy a vintage chandelier even before I have a house. It all has to go somewhere when you leave again. At the moment, my most stable address is my storage locker in New York. I can't wait to live in one place and put it all together, a load of second-hand junk from all around the world! Ha! If it wasn't for being in film, I may be revealed as a bag lady!
Creating art in the most exciting and stimulating places in the world is absolutely incredible, but it definitely takes courage. I've been in shit loads of riots this last year and a half – from Puerto Rican parades, to Morocco, Montreal, they were pretty nasty (not even intentionally - more wrong place at wrong time... and it's seriously scary to be caught up in them even if you agree with why... but when they turn violent... that's the world right now all over; it's fucked up and scary. But definitely, overall, it's all pretty cool to travel when you get to take a breath and relax for it and enjoy it. The main thing is that I have made dear friends all over the world who have guided me in my art and will be in my life forever.
Right now, I'm looking forward to taking a break from travelling and hopefully settling into an apartment in New York finally, but then, I've been saying that for three years! But no regrets, I have definitely been fortunate in the bold choices I have made to travel. I'll always love watching the news in strange languages, meeting new people, taking photographs and writing about where I have been, knowing all the ins and outs of a place, then going back and catching up with old friends. Sometimes I just love being holed up in a motel room not seeing anyone for days.
What would you say are the three biggest achievements for you to date?
Apart from giving up smoking, I think the rest are still to come - I hope so anyway - I'd definitely love to complete my first novel. It's my biggest aspiration. And I'd cut off my little toe to be in an Abel Ferrara film. That could be a scene in one of his films don't you think? Do we know anyone who knows Abel Ferrara? You know, now I think I do! My acting coach for film technique at Lee Strasberg, Paul Calderon; he was in The Addiction, he plays the professor, that's pretty cool. And... also, my friend Innes (Reekie) once arranged for us to meet this brilliant writer friend of his called Mark Kramer in The Chelsea Hotel (which has now closed), and he knew Ferrara very well. We had cocktails and it was all bonkers stories from Abel Ferrara to Lydia Lunch. Sadly, Mark took his own life last year in a motel. RIP. He was a great person and an amazing writer.
You once mentioned being at a convent school when you were younger – did that kind of environment influence your path in some way, or do you think you'd be the same person whatever went on in your life?
I'd be the same person. When you travel and meet so many different people you would go just insane trying to fit in with them all. I think a Catholic background just meant I learnt how to break the rules quickly. When I was younger, this meant being very rebellious, and so maybe it took longer to find what I was ready to do and to find the balance in which to be creative and not just destructive. But it couldn't have been any other way for me, I have learnt everything the hard, independent way, but it is all material and stimuli I use for life now, say for method acting, for being creative now. I'd be the same person wherever I am, it's just about channeling my energy into the right adventures instead of the wrong ones.
As well as acting, writing, modelling, singing/performing and travelling, are there other creative outlets you have? For you, do they each play an equal part in your life or is one a bigger love than the others? What does each give you?
I love photography. I love ballet. I love reading, and dark, disturbing films. I can't sing by the way – I'm completely tone deaf! I still enjoy contributing lyrics, but read them like a story. Recently, we all just recorded a great track for Spectorbullets, with one of my stories about a girl with a missing eye, inspired by Betty Blue's character from the Jean-Jacques Beineix film with Béatrice Dalle.
With regards to my work, I love acting, but I can still feel nervous - such is the world of acting and many auditions. It has its painful moments. Writing gives me the greatest fulfillment and enjoyment, and I am definitely not afraid to write exactly in the style I want to write. I want to write novels eventually. I have had incredible feedback on my work so far, I'm sure now it's possible, but I'm still working on ideas. I've been writing prose, and short stories at the moment, and I have a blog called The Brown and Skinny, which is a semi-autobiographical journal inspired very much by those around me, and the more hellish places I find myself. It's a bit of 'Une Saison en Enfer' type affair, but it actually makes me laugh writing it. I love putting words together and feeling how they sound and playing around with them, a bit like you do with equations. I'm just a nerd at heart I think.
You seem so passionate whenever you talk about the films you've worked on, and that same passion comes across in your writing. What really comes through is how tough life gets, and how you cope with that. Do you feel you're constantly learning?
I am definitely constantly learning everything! It's very much early days for me in my career and I constantly surround myself by people who can and do teach me. My friend, Innes, who is a far better writer than me, will always take the time to guide me. I always listen. Even if to say "fuck off!". I'm very strong on my writing choices, even without editor, we both have the mantra that if in doubt basically fuck it: "publish and be damned". Also, Gustaf (my fiancé) has pushed me to continually take bigger and bigger steps in my art - ones that I would have only shuddered at years before. He has taken me out of my comfort zone since the day I met him!
What is a typical week like for you?
I'd love to know one day. I'd quite like to have grey hair one day too though and play Bingo at the same time every Tuesday afternoon.
When you first sent me Party on Ice to watch, you told me it's dedicated to your friend Gustaf, who died last Summer mid production. That must have been so tough and I just wondered if his death changed the dynamic of the film from how it started and if this has given the work extra significance to your life? You said it's one of the most unique films you've done – how was it different? You also told me death is strange, and I was curious what you meant by that.
The film was always meant to be experimental. We were working with Fabian Svensson and Jens Klevje who are successful documentary filmmakers for TV in Scandinavia as well as producers of a lot of great music videos worldwide for artists such as Bob Hund. However, they were keen to start out on their own feature films. This was to be their first experimental short, and we were all kind of just thrown into it. There was no script, just a rough plot outline, and there were no rehearsals; it was all improvised from the characters we were given, and shot in one genuinely freezing cold night in the abandoned harbour area outside Malmo. I think as the filming goes, the directors would have looked at the footage, and highly likely, we would have gone back and added some interior scenes and some further development to the story. However, once Gustaf died, there were obviously no other options, all that we had was the raw cut from filming in that one night. It was however always supposed to be a completely experimental film made on zero budget in this way. More to the point, we weren't sure if people would see it, we were experimenting all of us as a team. It was a great experience, and it was supposed to be the beginning of developing together and making more films that we would all be involved in, writing and honing our skills. Gustaf mailed me just before he died, enthused by the filming, and said he was working on a script himself for us to film that summer.
Obviously what we have now is this strange bit of footage from one night of filming. It was very daunting, and it's the last footage of Gustaf, and yet our first experimental work. There was pressure about whether it was good enough for his memory, and the fact it was so bleak in itself as a story. It's almost impossible for me to watch. It was the very last time I saw Gustaf. We (Gustaf Heden and I) flew on to New York the very next day after filming, and that's where the news of his death reached us. The night we filmed was the last time we would be all together. It's recorded. That's pretty unique. That's why the film will always be the most special thing I have been in. I remember everything, how nervous he was, but how he was great at improvisation. He really listened, so it could hang together. We were all freezing and huddling together in the middle of nowhere. I played his girlfriend.
I was, as everyone was, devastated when he died. He was only 31 - so very young and he had everything going for him. As well as exploring this avenue of film that was completely new and exciting for him, he was about to arrange recording his next album with Anton Newcombe from the BJM in Berlin with his band The Fine Arts Showcase. The sad thing is I think they missed correspondence on this by a day to confirm it. Gustaf would have been so happy. That's how brutal death is, it waits for no one. I think I meant death is strange in this way. There is no arguing with it, it's not going to give in. You can't conquer it. That's not a very familiar feeling if you think about it. There is sadly always a lot of death linked with rock and roll, and I have a lot of older friends who know this first hand many times over, but I'm not 50 and the death of Gustaf Kjellvander is fundamentally difficult for me to accept; it's absolutely senseless, it had a profound effect on me. The missing someone never goes away, it's never solved, it just becomes part of you.
How did you come to meet the directors of the film, and how did plans for Party on Ice begin?
I was involved working on a video for Goldmine, a song written by Gustaf Heden, which then ended up being a Spectorbullets track with drummer Russell Burn (ex-Fire Engines). Gustaf had been put in touch with the directors to film the music video in an apartment in Malmo with myself and another friend, Max Herrlander, also a film director. They had all come up with a very John Cassavetes style shoot to go with the song, and to do it we basically had to act very drunk. It was really good fun, the song is very cool and lively, so it was just playing on repeat, and there was a lot of red wine drinking for real. I really liked the end result. They are great cinematographers, it was very French and sexy and debauched. It also helped that we'd been to Gustaf's gig the night before and they'd dragged me from my bed looking like a car crash. It was perfect. Given the wine and the more rock and roll aspects of the shoot, it was very spontaneous. Afterwards, everyone just seemed relaxed and keen to work with each other on other projects and to experiment on new ideas and not be afraid of making mistakes. We started writing on different things and talking about trying out new ideas for films and shooting some scenes. When they called us and said lets shoot through the night, we agreed instantly, despite the minus temperatures and a whole lot of ice and snow in winter in Sweden. Since then, we always seem to keep each other in mind for the next project. Currently on the cards is a film adaptation of Strindberg's Dance of Death in which I play Alice. I am really excited for this.
What are the plans for Party on Ice at festivals?
To be honest, it is a very strange film given everything surrounding it. I'm not sure any of us know quite what to do with it. It may be too bleak and graphic language for anyone to pick up on it. I think there will be a small screening in Gustaf Kjellvander's name in Malmo. It has more meaning for people to see it there anyway.
And when do you start work on the film adaptation of Strindberg's Dance of Death?
It's still in the pipeline, as everything seems to be struggling for budget at the moment with independent films in the current economy. I'm realizing more and more that getting the part is only the first baby step. We're still hoping to film this summer in Florida. I have my fingers crossed as it's a really dark and wonderful play, and the adaptation the directors have made is fun and exciting. It's definitely set to be made in time for the 100 year Strindberg anniversary - it's just a matter of when this year.
It's the same with three other lead roles that I am successfully cast for: on hold for budget. But I'm now learning that you pick your director (and script), as well as them picking you at the auditions, and it's just as important. You want to know they'll do anything to make sure the film is going to overcome any problems so that it can film once you're cast, and if there is a script that it's powerfully written otherwise bad script/directing makes you look like the bad actor. But you have to be patient too.
Can you tell me more about the short film you're in, by Ksenia Kimerina. The subject matter seems pretty heavy and I just wondered what draws you to these films – when playing these roles, is it easy to keep your own views at bay, or can you use your feelings to fuel the performances?
My last role was playing a women suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with upcoming Russian director, Ksenia Kimerina, and her company Strange Room Productions – I absolutely loved her work and also her artwork for the story boards. She's got exceptional talent even though she's just starting out. I love playing dark roles. It's challenging, but also I find it works better with Method Acting. Method Acting doesn't mean you have lived through the same events as the character, but it means you can manipulate another event that happened to you, one that may be completely different, but you find something that gives the same or similar feelings and emotions, so they are from a real source when you act them.
I struggled a little bit with this film as it deals with abortion and was a very tough subject. The director aims to show that there are many women who suffer from post-traumatic stress after an abortion. I was worried in case it would come across as judging those who make choices for abortions, which is not it's intention. The fact remains that there are women who go through post-traumatic stress even after deciding to have an abortion, and there is not much information on this. While anti-abortionists make an example and a heavy message about it, in terms of helping, they disapprove of the woman's choice, while pro-abortionists won't accept it happens. It was a very risky choice because of this. However the end result is an eerie and chilling portrayal of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it is quite Tarkovsky in style. It's more like a silent film, very powerful. She did a great job. I hope to see it at festivals.
How does working with such diverse directors from across the world affect or change your acting?
Every person you meet you learn new things; every shoot is different, everyone works in a way that is different or informative, so I'm always learning more and more from everyone I meet.
Is it easy to separate yourself from the characters you play? Or do you find yourself attracted to roles that relate to you in some way?
I'm always attracted to the difficult roles, as I always want to push myself as much possible. The heavier the role, the more method work there is to do, and the more absorbed I become in the character. It means I'm far too busy being in character to be nervous or have stage fright, so strangely I feel more at ease.
I don't look for roles that relate to me, but the first thing I will do is find the emotional overlap from something I have felt to correlate to the character. You can always find something; we experience so many emotions and states of being in life, you can always tap into something you felt at some point, even if the character seems a million miles from how you would normally act. We've all felt like killing someone in a milli-second of fury, maybe even when you can't find your car keys, so that's the trigger you would need to be realistically murdering someone to death on film.
Do you ever have moments when it's hard to separate yourself?
As an actor I wouldn't want to be completely separated; I have to bring my character to set and perform the technical directions. I can play very different roles, but I can only play them from me being real and from my own experiences at different times in my life. To give an organic performance and keep it real I have to be connected to something that is part of me from some point in my past and make these choices in a way to form new characters. It's easy to know you are not that person, I mean acting is not meant to be mental illness. You make up different realities but you should probably try and know where you are, defined by some sort of consensus on reality, probably the best idea, but after my latest film (KUBRICKS) who am I to define reality to anyone. Undoubtedly, heavy hours filming redoing scenes can leave you shaking for real after an emotional scene, or with a headache; you need to be able to relax after and let go.
What's next? You just mentioned KUBRICKS...
I've just finished wrapping on KUBRICKS – which is the first experimental feature film by Dean Cavanagh and Alan McGee with their new film company, Escalier 39. I've been friends with McGee for over a decade; he knows all my wildest stories, and still he puts me in his films! Actually, knowing McGee that's probably why. He seems to gravitate naturally to chaos and/or talent and then magically turns it to something viable.
We just spent a week in a Mongolian yurt in the pissing rain in Wales (which is on a ley line – you ask McGee) and it's been absolutely madness from start to finish, onset/offset. Things were mysteriously going missing and the batteries in the camera blew in strange electric surges. There wasn't a script; instead I received 52 pages of quantum mechanics, which meant the only preparation I could think to do was re-learning everything, from brushing up on Newtonian classical physics to Boolean logic. I thought I might need the mathematical proofs... in the end, I probably just needed wellies and some LSD, and not even the LSD as the whole experience was like being on LSD but without the superficial inputs.
The whole team was amazing – I was acting again with Roger Evans and he is one of the most genius comedy improv actors in Britain. He taught me lots and is very much responsible for me biting my lips to shreds trying to keep a straight face during scenes. Also, Gavin Bain whose background basically involves scamming Sony for millions pretending to be in a hip hop band in the USA with a fake American accent and then, Mcgee, who, not only put us together but was playing 'The Real Alan Mcgee'. Dean Cavanagh, the writer/director is a legend in own right; I love his scripts that I've read previously, and therefore it was a honour to work with him. If it wasn't for my faith in him and Mcgee, at that level of exposure I would have possibly gone mad – with no script, no rehearsal, no styling/zero make up, no call sheet, no character information...just the absolute random possibility of creation at our own free will from being in the right place and right time with the right people – a fucking terrifying thought, but in reality, it was great fun. I don't know how it will turn out... a genuine experiment it seems, but the experience was absolutely positive.
I saw some rushes from Tom (Mitchell) and he's got an amazing eye for what works, he's very talented. Anton Newcombe, who is another legend of mine, musically and conceptually, is also in the film, although he was not on set at any point for filming, which always made me giggle; it was all as quantum as it gets I guess. Nothing was as it seemed, I think we were a living metaphor for redefining reality, proving anything is possible. Maybe that was the master plan. All I know for sure is we had broken every rule of filmmaking by the end of the first afternoon. Absolutely no rules, just truth and reality in any sense we chose to believe.
That should be enough I think. It comes out in 2013. Whether the audience get it or this comes across I've no fucking idea, but I don't worry, simply because I know I worked with unique and creative people, I laughed so much my face cracked and my ribs hurt, and Dean wants me to go to screenings in a Stephen Hawking's wheelchair with a voice box doing California Dreaming.
Why not? Fuck what anyone else thinks. And anyway, McGee just mailed – he's bought a church – we're making a trilogy. Rock n roll!