Farewell then Dennis Hopper

It's fair to say he was a one off. The Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, Apocalypse Now, True Romance, Speed, Grand Theft Auto legend has tragically passed away. A decade ago he was happy to spend his lunchtime chatting to our man Alex.
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I spoke to Dennis Hopper in April 2001. Somewhat surprisingly, he was doing a bit of promotion for a Jason And The Argonauts TV movie, which was getting a low-key straight to video release, and I called him at his Venice Beach home, where he was eating what sounded like a rather substantial lunch while a number of dogs barked in the background. Although he wasn't exactly enjoying a peak in his career, he was one of the first real Hollywood legends I'd interviewed, but any intimidation I felt disappeared quickly: he was relaxed, open and reflective.

So you filmed Jason And The Argonauts in Turkey. Had you been there before?

Never. I went to Istanbul, and Istanbul is a wonderful, big, strange, great city, but the South, where we were shooting down in the Mediterranean, was just incredible. There were these pristine Greek and Roman ruins that we could just walk through. They were unguarded, we could just walk through and nobody would tell you “Don't touch that marble pillar”, or whatever. And beautiful beaches, and waterfalls shooting out of the mountains down to the sea, it was just incredible. These little villages that are now abandoned, they're just ruins. Mark Antony gave to Cleopatra this little village, just incredible. Alexander the Great spent a winter in this place, just amazing stories, amazing ruins.

Is travel one of the reasons you take acting jobs sometimes?

Not really, but it doesn't hurt. Pelias was a really nice role for me to come in and play. It's not a large role, but I liked it, and I loved the wardrobe, it was really fun. I started out playing Shakespeare in San Diego, so it was sort of recurrent to doing some sort of classical work. The actors that I worked with, most of them were English, most of them came out of Shakespeare, so it was really a lot of fun for me.

What else have you been doing recently?

Well I've been working for the last two years on this retrospective that I've just finished. A retrospective of my artwork, photographs and sculptures and paintings that I've got in a museum in Amsterdam right now, 'til the 16th of April. Then it's gonna move to the Mac in Vienna. But I've been working for the last two years on that, and I've only really done a few films. I have one coming out called Knockaround Guys, with John Malkovich, which is opening here in the US I think in the next week or so. It's a nice little movie. But as soon as I get my head out of this art thing I wanna direct a film. I told my management group, AMG, I took my name out of working for a while, the last couple of years, and I just told them I'm ready to start working again.

Why did you pull out?

Just because I wanted to concentrate on the art show, I mean it's a huge show, it's 11 rooms at the Stedelijk, and it's just a huge piece. I was over for two and a half weeks, putting it together, hanging it and so on.

So what do you want to direct, do you have something in mind?

I've got a little thing that I wanna do down here on the beach. I've been thinking about it for the last five years. It's a homeless piece, but not an expose thing of saying "Oh look, there are these homeless people, we should do something about this"; it's more about the society that they exist in and how they exist, and about the street musicians and the people that live down at the beach, and this other culture. These are the people that we walk by that we don't really look at, this invisible world that we refuse to deal with and see, it's fascinated me for a long time. It'll show that they actually exist, and they're human and that they have real problems the same as all the rest of us on a day to day basis. I want to go down and present their culture and the way they take care of each other, through the flower girl on 3rd Avenue to the Mexican young man who pushes the hotdog cart on the beach, and their love affair. So it's a romanticised look at it, it'll be a little more attractive than maybe it is, and yet give some interest so that people are not so afraid of these people.

Have you taken it to anybody, have you had interest from studios or investors?

No interest in it at all, but you know something? Digital has been invented. So digital allows me a way of going out and making this, and I can finance it on my own so I don't have to go around begging and changing things to appease some people. I can actually make a digital movie.

Have you had negative reactions?

People don't want to hear about the homeless, until there's a movie that makes it, then they'll all wanna do one. It's like for years I've been talking about a film I wanna make about the drug trade, called Kilo. I wanted to show how a kilo of cocaine gets from Columbia or Peru to the United States and then is dealt out to Los Angeles, and how it's done. The whole thing. And Traffic, and now Blow, both of these films have come and been successful, and I think neither one of them are as good as the film that I wanted to make. I've been talking about this for 10 years and nobody wanted to do it, you know. And suddenly they do these films.

You didn't think much of Blow then.

It's not that, I saw it last night, and I think Johnny Depp is a great talent, Penelope Cruz, all these people are really good in the movie. I find nothing wrong with it… the direction is not as good as I think it could have been… and it was boring to me. And boring isn't good. I just feel it could have been a little more… I don't know. And Traffic was fine, I just thought it could be better.

They say George Jung brought 85% of America's cocaine over.

That's not true. I don't believe that at all. There's a lot of other people that did a lot more. That was another thing I questioned, I questioned whether this was really true or not, a lot of it. I mean it's easy for people to say they knew Pablo Escobar, but did Jung really? Was he really getting it directly from Pablo Escobar? I don't know about that. But I don't know enough about this guy.

What do you think about Peter Fonda's theory that Easy Rider was largely responsible for America's cocaine problem?

Well that's probably true. First of all, there wasn't really any cocaine before we made Easy Rider. It was my idea to use cocaine. First of all you couldn't carry enough marijuana on a dirt-bike, which was the way we were smuggling it in, to do anything, certainly not retire in Florida. So the only thing that I could come up with was cocaine, the only time I'd seen it had been from the Big Bands, the Duke Ellington and Count Basie guys had had some coke. The only time I'd ever seen it. And I'd heard that Freud had used it, his cocaine episode lasted for some 15 years. He stopped when he realised he'd addicted all the doctors in Europe. But anyway I thought it was a rather harmless kind of thing, and I didn't want to use heroin, I thought heroin was really bad, a bad drug. When we made Easy Rider we didn't have any, we used baking soda, but once it came out in 1969, by 1970 cocaine was on the street everywhere. People were passing it around on trays in Hollywood - it was a recreational drug. Then suddenly people started finding themselves addicted and they were in trouble.

How do you feel about the way Peter Biskind portrayed your Easy Rider period in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, did you read it?

I read one chapter. That was enough for me. Jack Nicholson has a great line, he was asked if he'd read it and he said "No thank-you, I don't read fiction." And the chapter that I read, Peter Fonda called me a fascist punk, and my ex-brother-in-law, Bill Hayward, who was Peter Fonda's partner, they grew up together, said I was the worst editor he'd ever seen. I was probably the only one he'd ever seen. And then Buck Henry, who was living with my ex-wife, said that there was no director of Easy Rider, it made itself. At that point I went… well I was so angry with these people that I just didn't care to go on with it, and I decided at that point that I really wasn't suicidal, I was more homicidal, but I just didn't know who to kill, where to start killing people… I'm just trying to joke here, but it was a real… I find it really unfortunate, the whole thing about Terry Southern writing the screenplay. I mean this is all such horseshit and such after the fact stuff, you know, why didn’t these people just come forward when the film was being made, you know when they weren't there. And now they're claiming that they were. I mean, it's total crap. Anyway, that's all. It's disappointing that history is muddied.

You're still on good terms with Jack though.

Oh Nicholson and I are great friends, we play golf all the time. He's up at Nebraska right now making a film, a little unhappy, because he's isolated in Nebraska. But he's a very close friend. And Peter and I are not. And really haven't been since the shooting.

Didn’t you sue him a few years ago?

I did. I sued him for not being paid for Easy Rider. 'Cause he sold the picture. We settled it out of court. He was in the wrong. It was a cut and dry case, just a mere fact that he owed me $250,000 that he wasn't going to pay me because he said he had office expenses. Come on, please. Paying for his office. It was just a holding company, give me my money, you know?

Would you ever want to revisit the film? What do you know about Coppola's new Apocalypse Now cut, are you looking forward to it?

Francis told me about it, I think it's terrific. I had a lot of scenes that are not in the movie, I hope some of them are back in. I had an incredible death scene, they put 370 squibs on me and stood me on a bamboo pole and had all the guys shoot me because I'd taken a picture of Brando. Also I call in an air-strike at the end. I had a wonderful scene with Sam Bottoms. Just a lot of stuff, some wonderful scenes, it would be nice to see them. I know they put back the whole French plantation scene.

Would you ever go back and make a longer Easy Rider cut? Wasn't your original version was three hours long?

I always wanted to make a ride, even right after we finished the cut, I said I wanted to go back. Because I'd seen Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and I thought, well our rides are better than this. We can make an hour and a half feature of just the rides and put music to it and call it The Ride. But at the time nobody was really interested in doing that. And when I went back to look at the outtakes, they had been destroyed and frozen together, and not only that but the negative was lost. Sony has just gone back and after a two and a half year process of going frame by frame, they've redigitised it. But the outtakes have been stuck together and ruined, so there can't be a longer version.

Do you think there's any thematic through-line through the films you've directed?

I think that in the beginning, Easy Rider and The Last Movie have something in common. And Out Of The Blue, which I contributed a lot of the writing to. Colors seems to fall into that alright. The others became things that I thought that I could make a decent film out of, but was really doing other people's work because it wasn't me, it was just stuff that had been laying in draws for a lot of years and the studios wanted to do them, or whatever, that's how I got involved in them. Some of them are really interesting. But you just need to have a visual understanding, and you need to really be auteur of your work, to be somebody who's writing and directing. It's a very difficult position to be in here because if they don't like your idea originally, they're not going to give you a development deal. But digital's going to change that. Whether or not we can get our films distributed is another thing. But a digital world's going to open things up for us.

Does acting still give you a kick?

I love acting. Unfortunately the roles are not as interesting as they used to be.

Generally, or your roles?

Generally. And for me, at this age; I don't have as interesting stuff to do, or I haven't seen it at this point.

You had a great part in True Romance.

Yeah that was fun. And I did that scene with Christopher Walken – what a wonderful afternoon that was. We spent a day doing that scene, it was just great. Walken and I were being interviewed and they were saying, "Oh, you’re such great actors", and Walken said, "Nah – I don't know whether we're such great actors, but I started out as a dancer. And Hopper and I partner real well together." But it was a wonderful scene. I loved doing it, and Tarantino's writing, his speeches – you just don't run into those in everyday movies. I think he's certainly one of the most exciting writer-directors to come around in a long time.

Do you think your acting style has changed during the half century you've been doing it?

Well, I've done it all my life, so if it has, it's been consistent. I love acting, it's what I chose as a profession. I went into contract with Warner Brothers when I was 18, and did Rebel Without A Cause and Giant when I was 19. I started playing Shakespeare in the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego when I was 13. So I've been in it almost all my life. It's something I love, something I appreciate. As strange as my career has been, it's been a very privileged one, in a lot of ways.

Blue Velvet was something of a resurrection for you.

Yeah. Working for David Lynch was wonderful. It was great to work for an auteur, who'd written the screenplay and was also directing. It was a wonderful experience.

It was a great comeback. Legend has it you wanted the role so bad you told Lynch you were Frank Booth.

Actually, he'd already given me the part without us ever having met. We'd never met, we'd never talked on the telephone. So when I found out I got the part, I called him, in North Carolina where they were already shooting. And he was having lunch with Isabella and Kyle and Laura Dern, and he got the phone call. And I said, "Hey, don’t worry, I understand this part totally man, I am Frank Booth." So he went back to the table and he said, "Gee, I just got off the phone from Dennis Hopper and I had a wonderful conversation with him, but he told me he that was Frank Booth – and I guess that's great for the picture, but how are we ever going to have lunch with him?" 'I am Frank Booth' was a little bit of an exaggeration. I certainly have known people like Frank Booth, so I did understand it.

Was it exciting to get your teeth into it?

It was wonderful, a great role to play. My agency told me to turn it down because he had no redeeming qualities. But I said, "David Lynch is a great director, even if nobody in the world sees this film, the people in the industry will see this film and I wanna play this part." You know, I'd just got out of recovery, I hadn't worked in quite a while, so to get that part to play was really wonderful. So I went to North Carolina and I did that, and then I went straight to Indianapolis and I did Hoosiers, which I got nominated an Academy Award for. Then I went right back to Los Angeles and I did River's Edge, which is another film I really like, with Keanu Reeves in his first starring role, and Crispin Glover. So I did those three back to back, and it was my first year of sobriety. And probably some of my better work, actually. Three wonderful roles.

How did you find acting sober? Was it a different ballgame?

I was afraid. You know, I'd been using drugs and alcohol as a crutch through the years. I at one point said that I was gonna write a book someday about drugs and how to use them in acting. So, you know, I was very afraid. I had to use a different part of my memory, and it worked and it was pure and I had a really good time. No schizophrenia, no paranoia. Nobody wondering who's gonna come out of the dressing room, the same guy came out every time. And it was really fun. And a lot easier than having to fight through the drugs, and fight through the alcohol, and the paranoia, the schizophrenia, blah blah blah. That's not a great way of working. It may be exciting for others, but it's not… it's not good for your health.

So what do you think about what's going on with Robert Downey Jr? Do you know him?

Oh, I know him very well, yeah. I was in this parade, I was made Grand Marshal of the Hollywood Christmas Parade, and I was interviewed. I didn't know that Robert Downey had been arrested, I didn't know that he was back in jail. And they said, "What do you think about your friend Robert Downey being arrested?" They said he'd been arrested for drugs, and they said "Don't you think he should be put away? He's a criminal." And I said, "Wait a second. Robert Downey, first of all, is not a criminal. He's a drug addict. He shouldn't be treated as a criminal, and drug addicts shouldn't be treated as criminals." And I'm really sad that this has happened again, and maybe this time he'll get the message, he needs to stop. But he's not a criminal, he shouldn't be put in jail. He's a very sensitive young man, he's a wonderful actor. He's not violent.

Are there any roles you've regretted turning down?

No, but there have been pieces in films that I lost that I wanted to do. Probably the most devastating to me, career-wise, was Splendor In The Grass, with Natalie Wood. Warren Beatty played it, Kazan directed. I really wanted to play that part, and William Inge, the author, wanted me to play that part, because it was in Kansas, and he was in Kansas. But Warren got it, and it certainly changed his life and his career. And then Natalie got it, and she was a girlfriend of mine. Losing that was a big blow to me. That's about all, that I can remember.

Weren't you in talks to star in a version of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas with Jack Nicholson?

We talked about it, I've never met Hunter. We talked on the phone a couple of times, and there was a time when they wanted me to do it, and they were talking about Jack doing it. But it never came any closer than just dialogue over the telephone, as far as I know.

What happened on The Truman Show? You were cast as Christof [eventually played by Ed Harris], but only lasted a day?

I was on the set for like, two days, and got fired.


Scott Rudin, the producer, had made an agreement with the director [Peter Weir] that… he didn't want me to do the part, and if he didn’t like what I did after the first day's dailies then he would fire me. And they fired me.

Did he have something against you?

I guess, obviously, but what, I don't know. I don't even know the man.

Did it really upset you?

Yeah. Major blow. I'd gone and really researched the part. It was really an unfortunate situation.

Do you think your reputation has had a destructive effect on your career?

Yeah I think it has, probably. There are people who know me and people who don't… Actually it has, there's no question. Yeah, not working bothers me. And not getting quality things because of whatever misunderstandings occur, it bothers me, certainly, because it effects the quality of my work. But honestly, my life's good, man. I don't have a lot to complain about. I have a wonderful 10 year old son, I have a really nice family, two wonderful daughters, a wonderful wife, Victoria. Today's actually our fifth wedding anniversary, but we've been living together for nine years. She's just really turned my life around. I lead a really wonderful and sober life. I smoke a joint every once in a while, but that doesn't seem to lead me on to harder stuff. I think if you survive hard narcotics you might end up smoking a joint every once in a while to get through it. And I don't drink alcohol, I don't take hard narcotics, my life is good, I have a wonderful, happy family.

What are your major regrets?

I think I wasted a lifetime doing drugs and alcohol and being a macho madman. But besides that I don't really have much to complain about. And having this retrospective in Amsterdam clears up my head a lot. They're paintings that I did in a very dark period, when I was really insane and so on and really poured myself out, in pain… and these things that actually came to light are exhibited – it's a very moving thing for me. Not that they're great paintings, or that the world will be staggered by this work, but the fact that they actually did get to a museum, and are shown… it's just amazing.

Do you get a lot of scripts landing on your desk?

Not really.

What about roles you hear about? Do you chase after stuff you want?

I haven't been given anything recently that I've been chasing after. I haven't read anything that interesting. And right now everybody's getting geared up for the strike. I had four projects that I was involved in fall through. I've got a couple coming up but they're just to make some money, because it's gonna be a long strike, there's nothing really serious going on right now. Everybody's just waiting for the strike. I have a thing with Norman Mailer's son, Michael Mailer, that I’m gonna direct right after the strike, called Night Job. It's a little Mafia movie, a character piece. Norman Mailer read it, it's a first time writer, and he gave it to Michael, who's produced a few films, and he said "Give this to Dennis Hopper, I think he'd like to direct this". And I read it and liked it, it's a good little script.

Do you have any casting ideas?

Yeah – Johnny Depp and Val Kilmer. Kilmer's accepted and Depp's reading it, so we'll see.