An Interview with Joe Dallesandro

(I wrote this interview for, and it is reprinted on the Petri Dish with their kind permission. )

For a minute, it looks like the perfect photo opportunity.

Joe Dallesandro—former bodyguard at Andy Warhol’s fabled Factory, star of several key Warhol-sponsored cult films in the sixties and seventies, and accidental avatar of the Sexual Revolution—stands outside the W Hotel in downtown Seattle, his back to me. He cuts an almost dangerous-looking figure.

Clad head to foot in black, his compact body sits atop slightly bowed legs in an almost pugilistic stance as he smokes his cigarette. A soul-patched, dark-haired kid stops to bum a smoke, and both figures huddle, almost silhouetted thanks to the overreaching shadow cast by the hotel building, as vaporous off-white ribbons of smoke curl above their heads. But then Dallesandro begins to turn, and I don’t want to come off like some stalker before a formal introduction, so I retreat back into the hotel lobby. The sublime noir image before me goes un-photographed.

Not that Joe Dallesandro’s unaccustomed to having his picture taken. His stormy adolescence in the early sixties was punctuated by a succession of foster homes, a career of petty crime, and a hard-knock education on the streets of New York, but somewhere along the line he discovered that people liked photographing his body. Dallesandro posed semi-clad and nude for several ‘Men’s Physique’ magazine layouts and loops, and then one fateful day in 1967 he (literally) stumbled into movie stardom.

At just eighteen years of age, Dallesandro walked into the Factory while Warhol and upstart film director Paul Morrissey happened to be running a movie camera. The filmmakers asked the charismatic and physically impressive kid to strip down to his underwear and wrestle resident Factory speed-freak Ondine. Joe—never hung up on being photographed in little or nothing—did so. It was pretty much like any of his men’s magazine gigs, but Joe’s 23 improvised minutes wound up in Morrissey’s first feature, The Loves of Ondine. His body—clad only in Jockey shorts—was plastered all over the film’s promotional material, and the exposure ignited Dallesandro’s film career.

For the next seven years Joe Dallesandro served as Paul Morrissey’s muse. The former juvenile delinquent never studied acting: He played hustlers and drug addicts with semi-improvised naturalness partly borne of personal experience (he freely admitted to turning tricks in real life on the streets of New York). Nor did he spend a single second working out: That physique—perfectly-toned, with the faintest hint of androgyny in his sculpted features—just was. He was the first man on American movie screens to appear full-frontally nude in a non-porn capacity, and it was the first time that a male had been objectified so overtly by the viewing public.

His physique etched its way into the psyches of many who saw it: Photographer Francesco Scavullo proclaimed Dallesandro one of the ten most beautiful men he’d ever photographed, and Joe became an accidental rock icon when a shot of his crotch found its way onto the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album. Gay men and straight women alike found a profoundly beautiful object of desire who photographed like a dream and seemed to represent—in the most ideal way—the utter freedom that the Sexual Revolution offered.

The actor wound down his association with Morrissey and Warhol appearing in two over-the-top horror epics, Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. He tried his luck as an action hero in Italian caper flicks for the rest of the seventies; then expanded his range in more artistic French films helmed by Serge Gainsbourg and Louis Malle. Finally in the eighties he returned to America, and proved a welcome sight in sporadic character-acting turns for the next two decades.

The culmination of all of this history is what puts the semi-retired actor in Seattle. About fifteen minutes after the near-photograph on the street, I formally meet Joe Dallesandro in the Seattle International Film Festival pressroom to talk about Little Joe, a documentary on his life that screened June 6 and 7.

For a guy who’s lived more in one lifetime than any dozen typical mortals—trouble with the law, sexual experimentation, movie stardom, drug and alcohol problems, divorces, career ups and downs, you name it—Dallesandro’s matured with grace. Age has sharpened the angles of his street-angel Adonis face, lending it a rugged gravitas without compromising its beauty. And the added years have roughened up that high New York drawl slightly, the way passing time lends texture and worn dimension to freshly-paved city asphalt.

The actor’s joined by the film’s director Nicole Haeusser and by his stepdaughter Vedra (who executive-produced the film). Vedra, low-key but smiling warmly, hangs back as the other two field my questions. This interview took place on Sunday, June 7, 2009.

You weren’t looking at being an actor as a kid when you were kicking around in Florida and New York, but did you have any onscreen influences or role models?

JOE: No. I think all children watch a lot of television or go to the movies a great deal…Living in New York, you could go to a theater and watch maybe five different movies in a day. So that’s what I did for most of my childhood when I wasn’t getting in trouble. You’d watch movies all afternoon, You’d start to be able to walk in, and you’d know what the movie’s about, because all the [movies’] stories were very similar. So I always watched movies, but never had the desire to become an actor. That was Paul [Morrissey]’s decision: He told me, “Just do what I say and you’ll have a career.”

Could you describe the genesis of Little Joe?

JOE: This is not a full story of who Joe is…I think it’s more of a personal thing, me and Vedra talking and chatting about my life, her getting to know more about me. We told a lot more stories, with Nicole sitting down putting this all together into something people could understand.

Do you feel like there’s an element of setting the record straight with this documentary?

JOE: I do.

How did Nicole become involved?

NICOLE: I became involved through Vedra: Vedra helped me produce my Thesis Film at UCLA, and she told me she wanted to make a documentary about her stepfather’s life. It was a real education for me, because I was unfamiliar with his work.

Joe gave us so much material that it was kind of hard to decide what not to include. I think we’re going to put [the extra stories] on the DVD. A lot of them are outside the narrative. They were putting us on a different path, but I know some people will enjoy hearing them.

The critical reception for Little Joe has been really enthusiastic. How have audiences taken to it?

NICOLE: Really well. This is actually only our second festival. People are just very excited that Joe has finally done a documentary, and I think we made some very strong choices in not talking to anyone else: The entire film is Joe’s point of view. People really embrace that. I was really excited about the [SIFF] screening yesterday. People paid attention to the details.
JOE: This is the first showing of it with people who speak the language [laughs]. It’s a totally different reaction than we had in Berlin. In America it’s all about my fans. They like anything that I do.

Joe has been rather quiet about his life most of the time, so the fact that he opens up so much in this film is surprising.

NICOLE: Yes, it is. It is Joe without a gag on. That should’ve been the title, ‘Little Joe: Let’s Take the Gag Off’ [laughs]

Joe, there’s a real naturalness to your work in Flesh. Most people perceive male hustlers as being cold and cutthroat, but you play one who’s gentle, a sweet and doting father to his baby, and almost like a sage big brother to the other hustlers. How much of this were you pulling from your life?

JOE: Paul would give us an idea of what he wanted us to talk about, and basically most of the things that I did were reacting to the people that were talking to me.

The stories that I played in the films, they were always Joe playing Joe as a character. It’s not really Joe’s real life—It’s Joe playing Joe in the role that [he] was asked to play. It’s very much a part of me, but it’s not my everyday life. We could go from scene to scene [in Flesh] and I could tell you which parts have nothing to do with me. There are some similarities, yeah, but it’s not all me…

Trash is a really funny film, and you show great unforced comic timing in the movie.

JOE: Thanks. But there’s also Holly Woodlawn…I just react to her most of the time.

This may seem strange to ask in the context of a Warhol film showing an element of junkie life, but was it fun to make?

JOE: Yeah. But there’s always difficulty with Paul, you know. You gotta understand, we shot these films very quickly, and the movies were really made, in the finale of it all, in an editing room. They’d sit down and cut it together. I always told Paul in the beginning, after I’d done Loves of Ondine and Lonesome Cowboys that I preferred to do a movie with some kind of story to it. And that was what he tried to do with Trash. He’d spend all of this time editing the film, cut, cut, cut…Take out something, throw something in. Then he’d say, “You’re such a terrible actor, but I cut that out, all that bad part is all thrown away so you don’t have to worry.”

It’s all him. He made you look good.

JOE: Oh, yeah. [laughs] He’d always remind me.

What was Holly Woodlawn like?

JOE: Holly had never met me until we met each other on the set there—in Paul’s basement.

I don’t socialize with people like Holly on a regular basis, but I have no problem having friends in my life who are like Holly. When we had to go to Cannes, I accompanied her because she needed someone to look after her... She still tries to call me up, [to] suggest projects.

Every one of the people that’ve worked with me over the years, they all think of me as their friend, even though we only had a short time together. Every one of them, including Sylvia Miles, they all looked at me like I was their best friend. I was in contact with them for such a short time, but I’m really open to them…People don’t find it difficult to work with me. I’m a nice guy [laughs].

The Berlin Film Festival presented you with a Teddy Award in February for your importance to gay cinema. It must’ve been a great validation of your work, and of how highly-regarded it is in Europe. The Morrissey/Warhol movies seem to be viewed as real films there, not just as underground art.

JOE: Yes. I was truly appreciated over there.

What were your experiences doing the action movies you did in Italy?

JOE: I went over there with this notion that I’d come back Clint Eastwood. It didn’t pan out that way. The thing is, also, I put a lot of effort into the things I do. I do the best I can do as Joe. When you get to see your work then taken in and you hear someone else’s voice on you, dubbing your voice into English when you’re right there, you’re available to do it…It bothered me. I shot all of those films over there in English so there was absolutely no reason for them to do that. So a couple of things dispirited me about my career over there, but then I had a lot of great movies I did out of France, what I call ‘my artistic films’.

One of those artistic films was Je T’aime Moi Non Plus. Serge Gainsbourg directed it, and you’ve always cited the movie as one of your favorites. Why is that?

JOE: It’s just a great little story. It was very before-its-time. I think [Serge] was striving for the look of America. We shot it in the south of France, and he tried to make it look like it was shot in Texas . It was a fun little movie to make. It came from Serge’s ideas…You have to see it.

What was the transition from European movies to American films like when you returned to the US in the eighties?

JOE: I think, after I’d stayed [in Europe] for ten years and came back to America, I was always under the impression that I’d never be able to work in America having done the Warhol films. That wasn’t the truth, you know. Sometimes our heads tell us things that have absolutely nothing to do with anything. When I came back, it was very easy for me to work here.

What was it like working on Gun Crazy? You play a pretty awful character that’s quite unlike you in real life.

JOE: To work with Drew [Barrymore] was incredible. The character was already described in the script, so there was nothing that I had to create. I just had to be there and be the opposite of what I’m normally asked to play. It was easy for me to do.

I never had a problem pretending to be something I’m not. I like to be an actor, but it’s not something I studied or anything. I’m just given a part to play and I do the best I can do to bring Joe to the part, that’s all. It began playing cowboys with my brother. To live to be sixty and still feel like, yeah, I can pretend…That’s a great thing. All the Italian people will tell you they’re all actors, pretending to be something they’re not.

It was also a nice surprise seeing you in The Limey—How was it, working with Steven Soderbergh?

JOE: He’s one person, like Paul Morrissey, who also has a specific vision…When I was reading the script, it didn’t seem like much. [Soderbergh] sits down in an editing room, though, and makes it something completely different. What I had read in the script and what I had seen on the screen were two different things. He’s another director who knows what he wants and doesn’t have to tell you all about it.

You seem to have acquired a really open-minded and accepting view of alternative lifestyles and homosexuality very early on, even before your exposure to the Factory.

JOE: Twenty years ago or so, I was talking to some young people that were living where I lived, and they had that same kind of attitude that I had as a young person, that same freedom. And I thought, I never knew that that had progressed to that. I was kind of pleasantly surprised. I thought I was just peculiar and that it never caught on, but it did catch on and now a lot of people now are like I was then.

That’s a pretty impressive legacy to leave behind as an actor, and as a person.

JOE: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t expect it!

(all photographs by Tony Kay, except Little Joe poster image, which is copyright Little Joe Productions, 2009)


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