Janne Puustinen
Interview by Ruby Comer

Photo by by Laura Mainiemi

I’ve always been snoopy. No, not the canine in the comic strip, Peanuts! Rather, I pride myself on being fascinated with others and having the skill to pry fruitful facts from them. Easily stated, I’m just a darn curious person! Think Gladys Kravitz from the iconic sixties TV series, Bewitched—my second favorite classic show in the world. If you read my column consistently then you know what my pick is for number one!

One recent evening I kicked back in my lavender Stratolounger thinking about a dear actor acquaintance of mine, Janne Puustinen (E-ANNA Poo-AUS-ta-nen), with whom I have not been in touch for a while. The hairs started twitching in my bloodhound nose wanting to find out more about the Finnish actor.

His staggering performance in the stunning surprise international hit, A Moment in the Reeds, a charming refreshing romantic drama, left me breathless. It preemed at BFI London Film Festival in late 2017 and Janne was nominated for his role by the Finnish Film Awards.

Janne plays Leevi, a Finn who falls for a newly transplanted Syrian refugee. He plays the character with such eloquence and understated nuance, wrapping it in fervent sensuality. The camera loves Janne’s matinee-idol face!

He was raised in Eastern Finland in a small village. At nineteen he moved to Helsinki to

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

study theater. After the success of A Moment in the Reeds, his hometown rushed to congratulate him, warmly writing about him in the local newspaper stating they were proud of “their own boy.” It was quite a heartwarming surprise for Janne.

On another note, I’m inquisitive to know more about this Finland-based actor’s history with the AIDS pandemic, and how he’s getting on in this chaotic COVID-19 world. I forge ahead and we plan a Zoom call. It’s midnight here in Los Angeles at my Silver Lake, California abode, and it’s morning at Janne’s pad in Helsinki.

Ruby Comer: My god, Janne, it’s been nearly ten years since we met together in Helsinki! Unbelievable that that much time has passed. Remember when we went to the Tom of Finland museum together?
Janne Puustinen: Oh Ruby, so good to see you. Yes, yes, I do remember our outing there!

You’re looking spectacular—as always, my lad…. [There’s a twinkle in his full-sized grin.]
I can return that compliment as well! [His peaches and cream skin is glowing. There’s just something angelic about his appearance!]

Hey, off to the side, over your shoulder and through the window, I espy other buildings and some greenery.
Oh, you can see that? I guess so. Yes, it’s a small courtyard with a grass field and some deciduous trees and bushes. The buildings were built in the 1930s to form a closed block, so the view is pretty idyllic and peaceful considering the location is next to a pretty busy street. As a country boy by origin I definitely enjoy having some green in my window view. And you see this purple orchid on the windowsill? [I nod affirmatively.] We have been getting along for many years already!

Ah, that’s sweet. Plants can be so healing. Say, where exactly were you raised?
It was close to the provincial center of Kuopio in Eastern Finland. Even though it was small, during my childhood and teenage years I never found it that conservative. It definitely wasn’t very diverse and hence there was pressure to fit into norms. But I never faced any direct negative attitudes towards sexual minorities. Of course in Helsinki I never felt closeted.

A moment from MOMENT IN THE REEDS: Puustinen as Leevi. Photo by Iiaka Salmunen/courtesy Wild Beast Productions

That’s good to hear. So, how’s the COVID-19 situation there?
[As of October] the amount of new cases per day is higher than ever before. We all hope that the quickly rising vaccination rate will make a change for the better soon. [He pauses as I shake my head furiously with passion. Janne’s face melts into a grimace.] Here in Finland, we haven’t had similar lockdown as in many other countries have——so far.

Oh god, Janne, we are surviving in a new world, volatile and precarious. We’re cuttin’ a new rug.
There’ve been different kinds of gathering restrictions and a lot of safety recommendations here, but most businesses and public services have been able to stay open most of the time. People have been able to continue everyday life in somewhat natural way without the epidemic getting out of hand. But, as I said, the new virus variants that are appearing have created a worse situation. Now it seems that the government will be announcing the first actual curfew one day soon.

Lordy Loo, I guess we can chalk up 2021 to a lost year just like 2020. Oy! How are you faring in this ever-daily-evolving virus?
I’ve tried to take care of myself and keep up healthy routines. I’ve been jogging and working out with kettlebells, streaming a lot of films and series, and reading some engaging novels. Our Central Park and the western shore of the Helsinki peninsula are close to where I live, and they are both perfect spots for enjoying and observing the cycle of the seasons. I have also found some new enthusiasm for cooking, even though I’m afraid I still can’t impress anyone with my repertoire.

Invite me over and I’ll be the judge! [With chuckles, Janne continues with tales of lockdown.]
I must tell you, a year ago, I was looking forward to arranging a party with friends to celebrate my thirtieth birthday, which I really don’t do so much. Instead, I marked the event remotely with some close friends. It was lovely and included a secretly delivered birthday cake with sparklers to my door.

Ah, you have some special friends. How divine. Changing gears, am I dreaming or were you once cast to play a character living with HIV in a play?
Yes, several years ago I was cast in the role of Rasmus in Tenderness (Ömheten), by the Swedish playwright Jonas Gardell. It’s about a young man who discovers he’s infected and later dies of AIDS. The story is very touching and it explores how the situation challenges the relationship of the two main characters. It also deals with both homophobia and family relations.

Never Wipe Your Tears Without Gloves…was this series that made the biggest impression for me about the AIDS epidemic. At the age of twenty-two, it opened my eyes to the Nordic reality of the darkest years of the epidemic in the early eighties.

I do remember now….
I was very excited about it but because of some production issues we never started rehearsals.

Darnit. Oh how I would have loved to see you portray Rasmus….
It would have indeed been a really important and weighty play to work on. Who knows, maybe one day!

I hope so, Janne.
The play is based on Jonas Gardell’s trilogy novel and TV series, Never Wipe Your Tears Without Gloves. It was this series that made the biggest impression for me about the AIDS epidemic. At the age of twenty-two, it opened my eyes to the Nordic reality of the darkest years of the epidemic in the early eighties.

Yep, this is why I love to reach out to others! One can learn so much from another’s world.
Watching Never Wipe Your Tears Without Gloves made me interested to explore and search for more content and information on HIV. I discovered there’s a Finnish book called, Karanteeni (Quarantine). It’s well written, a source for further information, and quite an interesting read.

MOMENT’s Leevi (Puustinen) and Tareq (Boodi Kabbani). Photo by Iiaka Salmunen/courtesy Wild Beast Productions

[Janne delicately strokes back fragile strands of his honey-blonde hair that dips over his forehead.] Say, how did you first hear about HIV?
It was in 1999 when I was nine. It was a very famous Finnish drama TV series, Kotikatu (Home Street), where one of the central characters came out as HIV-positive and then later on he died of AIDS. Despite the tragic plotline, I think the story was carried out in a relatively respectful way, considering the general atmosphere over twenty years ago, and the character was portrayed to live a happy and balanced family life despite the disease.

Gripping. How old were you when you first tested for HIV?
I was nineteen, Ruby. I had recently started my first relationship with a guy from the same town. I wanted to be responsible so I called the local health centre to get tested for STDs.

Good boy!
My experience was stereotypical of living in a small town. The person that answered my call was, of course [he chuckles], the school nurse from my elementary school. I set an appointment and then tested. When I headed out from the lab a fellow patient stopped to thank me for my performance in a local summer theater. So, it was not as private as I probably would have wanted it to be! [He smirks, tugging at the collar of his light gray knit sweater.]

The SeksiPertti campaign for HIVpoint: “Seksi” means sex, and “Pertti” is the character’s name, which is a common Finnish name. Illustrator, Juha Harju ; Graphic designer, Mika Ruusunen

Okay. Name an HIV campaign that really impacted you.
From 2015-2018 the Finnish organizations, HIV Finland and HIVpoint organized a campaign called SeksiPertti. In it was a cartoon character named Pertti who was ”an expert on sex and sexuality between men.” Pertti shared information and answered questions related to HIV and sexual health. In my opinion, the campaign managed to be laid-back and approachable…yet very informative.

A cute campaign pitch for greater outreach, I think!
Unlike many of my slightly older friends, I don’t feel I was exposed to inappropriate HIV campaigns where they were blaming homosexuals when I was in my youth. I feel that most of the information I received was rather factual and appropriate, both through media and later in school.

This is fabulous to hear.
Nevertheless, as many young gays experience at some point, I was struggling from fear of having sex. [He ponders, glancing off momentarily.] Also at times, Ruby, when I was tested I was subjected to inappropriate comments and not always entirely professional. For example, the doctor one time referred to [transmission of] STDs, “like normal heterosexual penetration,” completely leaving out the homosexual community. The healthcare staff sometimes was not aware of all the tests that should have been taken either. [He coughs then takes a steep inhale.] The PrEP treatment here in Finland was rather unknown for a long time. As of the first of July this year it will become free of charge.

Hallelujah! Oh how I envy social democratic societies. Take a lesson, USA, Geezus! How do you feel about PrEP?
I definitely think PrEP treatment—and now free of charge—is a significant and long-expected step forward in HIV prevention! Although (he lifts one finger closer to the screen to emphasize) I think a condom is still a great fellow, considering the other damn STIs develop antibiotic-resistant strains more and more often.

You said a loadful, Janne. Free?! That’s the way it should be. [I squint at him peering directly into his pretty peepers.] I wanna know… who is your role model?
[No hesitation Janne responds] My godmother, whom, to my sorrow, I lost nearly two years ago. Her kindness, diligence, and positivity are something that I would want to carry out in my own life as well.

She sounds like a marvelous person, Janne. Whom do you look up to professionally?
The qualities I specifically enjoy seeing on the screen are sensitivity, presence, and honesty. There are several actors I learn from, including Geoffrey Couët and François Nambot [A&U, January 2018]. Their stunning performance in Paris 05:59 made a big impression on me. I really admire some of [the director] Félix Maritaud’s work.
Of course, I could also name some big Hollywood names whose films I have grown up watching, like Meryl Streep and Glenn Close. But that’s a given, right?

‘Tis [I giggle.] What film could you watch over and over again?
It would have to be Roberto Benigni’s La vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful). The way the film offsets joy and sorrow, as well as imagination and reality side by side gets me deeply touched again and again. From the queer genre, some of my big favorites are Weekend by Andrew Haigh, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins, and Carol by Todd Haynes.

Photo by Laura Mainiemi

Oh, what delicious choices. Life Is Beautiful—a gem indeed. The other three I have immensely enjoyed as well. I mean, c’mon, ya can’t hardly beat a Cate Blanchett performance, especially in Carol. [There’s a thoughtful pause between us.] Janne, before we close, what words do you live by?
A typical Finnish idiom ”kyllä se siitä.” It’s a comforting phrase meaning that in a bad situation you will survive. I think in a moment of worry, it’s good to just let your feelings be, let time heal [he takes a gulp of air and then exhales], and trust that everything will get back on track. [Janne’s piercing crystal-blue eyes sparkle in an enigmatic stare.]

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].