I'm posting some excerpts of an interview I did with Dennis Hopper in 1989 because re-reading it today, on the occasion of his passing, I am still struck by the immediacy of his answers, his sense of humor, and his willingness to play along.
The man gave great interview . . . and much more.
RIP Dennis ...
Hopper had just returned from directing Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen in "Hot Spot." He was separating his just-unpacked clothes into a plastic laundry basket. Later, he helped some workmen hang three new art pieces in his downstairs gallery/screening room. When we talked at his dining room table, Hopper spoke softly, evenly, often lapsing into a thoughtful whisper. When he laughed, the joke was never private, but shared. His pale blue eyes never blinked. He breathed normally.
RENSIN: Your character Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet": Would counseling have helped? If he'd been rehabilitated, what kind of straight job might he have held?
HOPPER: Counseling? Maybe summer camp as a kid! [smiles] I see Frank Booth very differently than other people. To me, "Blue Velvet" is a love story, and Frank will go to any lengths to keep his lady. That's all. Cuts off the old man's ear. Kidnaps the kid. Just a love story. Most people find that strange. But they didn't play Frank Booth. You gotta have Frank's point of view. [pauses] It's hard to figure what a straight Frank would have done. Probably run a clothing store. Sell leathers.
Q: Got any good advice for actors?
HOPPER: What you get on the screen is the only thing that's important. If you let other things get in the way of your work then you're not doing your work, and I don't care how good you are. (Many actors) carry a lot of baggage, because of their insecurities, that has nothing to do with the work. Some people (in the media) find this very interesting; see it as mystique. I find it distracting and you have to work through those things to get to the stuff on the screen. You've got to strip it away. I was never like that. I was only interested in the work, no matter how stoned or how drunk I was. The work was all that I was living for.
Q: You usually play someone close to the edge, characters whose problems are internal, not external. Would it be a challenge to portray a normal person?
HOPPER: I would love to play a "normal" person. But I'm just not offered those parts. I haven't played a normal person since Johnny in "Giant." I'd like to do a professional guy, a lawyer or an architect. But it seems like Newman, Redford -- there's a list of guys to go through before you get to me. On the other hand, you never see the big emotions from those guys. The Gary Cooper kind never went for that. The story carried him. Oddly enough, when Stanislavsky came to this country he shocked all the actors by saying that Gary Cooper was what he'd been trying to teach everybody in the Moscow Art Theater. And that he was doing simple reality and that was really what it was all about.
Q: What popular myth about actors would you like to correct?
HOPPER: If an actor is at all successful early on, then people expect them to always be financially well off. But job security is limited. It's such a fickle business. I don't know what the percentages are now, but when I was starting out, 98 percent of your stars became stars for three years and were dropped. Edmund Perdum, Tab Hunter, Richard Beymer -- the kid that starred in "West Side Story" with Natalie Wood. Every part that came along for three years, Beymer got. And this happened to guy after guy after guy. It was like Hollywood just read them like the morning newspaper and threw them away. It's a tragedy. And yet for years after their three year period, everybody assumes that they have money, assumes that they're working, you know? They still get the best table in the restaurant, but do they have the money to pay the check? It's pathetic. I've had my own ups and downs and have lived on the illusion. I've had friends want to borrow money and even they don't understand when I say, "Hey, but I'm broke. I don't have any money." They say, "Are you kidding me? You gotta have money."
Q: What happened to your autobiography* for which you were reportedly offered a $600,000 advance? (*read Richard Stayton's great piece about this, also linked on LAO front page.)
HOPPER: It was more. [smiles] I talked myself into a deal and then turned it down. I thought it would take too much of my time, and I would rather direct movies and act. Even with a ghostwriter I couldn't do it in three months or six months. And I'd have to be very hands-on about it. Also, to do a real book I'd have to tell an awful lot of stuff that I don't know if I really want to get into. My life is more complicated than it seems. [pauses] I've never really talked (openly) about anything. It's more than just talking about sex or drugs; it's about governments and situations that are very political. A lot of stuff that happened in my life that was very, very bizarre, on the edges.
Q: As someone who's teetered on the edge, tell us: Does America really love a man who earns a second chance?
HOPPER: It's too weird. This has happened to me so many times that I don't know what it really means. I remember being 19 years old and going to the premiere of "Giant" in New York City. I'd just starred, the night before, with Natalie Wood, in a "Kaiser Aluminum Live from New York City" show on tv. And the studio, because Natalie and I are both under contract to Warner Brothers, wants me to take Natalie to the premiere of "Giant." I don't want to do it. I want to take this young woman by the name of Joanne Woodward. So they won't interview me (at the premiere) because they don't know who Joanne Woodward is. They say, "Are you a secretary, sweetheart?" And the next year she wins the Academy Award for best actress for "Three Faces of Eve." At that moment, I didn't have to go any farther to understand what it was really all about. And then Dean died and I was blacklisted. I studied with Strassberg, got married, was looked on as a maniac and an idiot and a fool and a drunkard. And suddenly I make a film called "Easy Rider," man, and the whole world opens up to me. And then I make "The Last Movie," win the Venice Film Festival, come back and am told the film won't be distributed. Finally, I go into recovery, come out and I'm straight. And it just happens to fit into everybody's time schedule that it's the time to sober up now. That's just luck. I just keep bumping into luck. But you can only talk about being sober so long. You're sober. So your life goes on and things change, and that's it. Hopefully you change with the times and are not just a sobered up drunk.
Q: Should public figures go public with their alcohol and substance abuse recoveries?
HOPPER: I don't think it's a great idea for these people to be telling everybody that they're now sober, they had a drug problem, blah blah blah, but they don't have it anymore because they've got three months sober. The idea of being in an anonymous twelve-step program is to stay anonymous. You're supposed to not talk about it in the press and the radio because it's not good for the other people -- if you slip. And a lot of these people are slipping. They're in and out of the Betty Ford Center like it's some kind of checkout stand at the supermarket. I don't go around talking about the organizations I belong to because it's against the format. I also have friends that are major people in the industry that have never stopped anything. I see them go on and on. I find that very interesting, that I get sober and suddenly it's such a major thing. It gets all out of balance. The work is the work after all. That's what people pay you for.
Q: If Billy and Captain America took off across the country today, what would they find? Did that generation, as it's been suggested, blow their birthright? Did the revolution fail?
HOPPER: I guess they'd probably drink V8 juice in a yuppie cemetery. What would they find out there, man? Has it changed very much? The hippies are gone. The communes are gone. They could find the Jack Nicholson character still in jail somewhere, drunk. I'm sure the rednecks haven't really changed too much. If things have changed it's just that they've dressed up in different clothes and different guises.
I don't think we blew our birthright. All changes are good. Things have gone pretty well considering that we're still all around and we're still united in some fashion, that we're still giving the world the finger and saying we're gonna be free. Those things would be hard to take away. Jefferson said every twenty years there should be a revolution if you want to keep a republic. But that doesn't mean an armed revolution. It's healthy that one generation questions another generation and changes are made. People going back to being conservative was a healthy move in its own way. And the liberals will come back and change it again. Balance is healthy, and that's really what democracy in a republic is all about.
Q: What goes best with a Harley?
HOPPER: What do you think? [heavy laugh] Pussy, man! Pussy.
Q: In 1970, you made "The Last Movie," a controversial piece of business that won the Venice Film Festival, was hardly distributed in the United States, and has since endured tireless analysis. Perhaps, with the passage of time, we're better prepared to understand it. Care to give it a shot?
HOPPER: I wanted to use film like the abstract expressionists were using paint. They were cultivating the illusion of painting a tree, a landscape, a house -- but they were using paint as paint, using paint itself as a form. So, in "The Last Movie," I keep cutting to things like ripped film, a scene missing, clapperboard going BONK. Just when the story starts sucking you in and you start believing, suddenly I rip you back out and stick my tongue out at you, say "Go fuck yourself" and say, "Look, hey. You're just watching a movie! Ha, ha ha!" -- which does not amuse a lot of audiences. I wanted to make audiences thing about something: What is illusion and what is the responsibility of illusion? In the film, I have a real church and the movie set church; there's real violence and then there's the facade of violence or make-believe violence. I wrote "The Last Movie" with Stuart Stern, who wrote "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Ugly American," before I did "Easy Rider." I wanted to do it as my first film and I didn't. So I went right into it afterwards because I'd gone around the universities with "Easy Rider" and everybody said, "We want to see new kinds of film, new kinds of film, new kinds of film." So I said, "Oh boy, have I got one for you." But they didn't really want to see new kinds of film. They wanted to go back to the heavy opiate, romantic energy of the Forties -- the kind of movies which Spielberg does brilliantly. They wanted an old kind of film. What's ironic is that if you now look at "The Last Movie," considering MTV and current video editing techniques, it's no longer far out and hard to understand. It's not your everyday film, sure, but a lot of the things that I did in "The Last Movie" are now used in other films.
Q: When you were in Peru making "The Last Movie," and you were sober -- did you ever see anything unusual like, well, UFOs?
HOPPER: [hearty laugh] I saw a lot of things that were unusual. I'll tell you one experience. A young woman and a male friend of mine, Victor, and I were in this pickup truck that I drove in the movie. We were going down a mountain, coming back to our base at Cuzco, which was at about 11,000 feet, from location at Chinchero, which was at about 15,000 feet. It was dusk and there was a heavy cloud layer maybe 12 feet above our heads. Victor said "Can we stop and take a piss?" So, he went out in front of the truck, down the road, and I got out my side. I was standing there, pissing, and suddenly this whirling sound came out of the clouds. I mean, a major sound, like -- (makes a whirring sound) -- like this. And sparks started shooting out of the clouds. I mean, literally shooting out and hitting my feet and my jacket. And the girl in the car started screaming and looked down at the seat. I said, "Look at this! Look at this!" because I wanted verification. "Somebody look at this! Can you see this?" Victor was speechless and didn't say anything for a long time. Anyway, we both saw it, we all saw it. Unexplainable. Went on for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. We just were frozen. Then it stopped, but the clouds were still there. We went quietly on to Cuzco.
There is no question in my mind that it was an unidentified flying object -- though I never saw anything but the sparks -- I mean rains of sparks. Victor has a theory, which I don't buy. He decided years later that it was a bunch of bats and electricity from the bats caused the shower of the sparks. I don't go for that one. But then maybe he knows something I don't know.
Q: Years ago, you lost thousands of poems in the great Bel Air fire. Care to share a departed gem?
HOPPER: I only remember one. It's a very strange poem. It's bizarre. "I go outside in my garden to pee/Green leaves side me that sweat and rain/My piss runs to weed beside a dust vacant lot that grows baseball players."
Q: Is there anything that any of your three former wives -- Brooke Hayward, Michelle Phillips or Daria Halperin -- got in a divorce settlement that you regret not having, and it still pisses you off?
HOPPER: Well, I can't say it pisses me off, but it would have been nice if I would have gotten at least half the paintings that Brooke Hayward left with, since she didn't have any paintings when we got married. Over the eight year period that we were married, I'd spent something like thirty-eight thousand dollars and accumulated a collection that would probably be worth ten to twelve million today, things I would never be able to afford to buy now, no matter how much money I made in the movie business. I'll go and see something I had once in the Pompidou, or in the Museum of Modern Art, or the Metropolitan Museum, or in Houston. I had major Warhols. I had Warhol's first soup can painting, I had the first paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and Klaus Oldenberg and Jasper Johns and Rauchenberg and Frank Stella and Ed Ruschia.I had Ruschia's huge Standard station painting which is fifteen feet long. I had Kienholz's. I had major, major stuff. She sold them all right after. All I asked for in the divorce was not the house, not the cars, I just wanted half of the paintings. And I couldn't get any of them.
Q: What's the Russian Suicide Chair, what's it like to sit in, and why the hell did you do it?
HOPPER: You sit inside a circle of 20 sticks of dynamite. The explosion creates a vacuum, like the eye of a hurricane, inside. Dynamite won't blow in on itself. But if three in a row don't go off, you'll be sucked out and killed. Also, you can't raise your head above a certain level or it will be blown off. I asked a stunt daredevil named Ollie Anderson to set up my experience. I got into the middle and hoped like hell it worked. I had to hold my ears. I felt a little disoriented afterwards, but besides that I felt fine. I was alive.
I did it because I was at the end of a "run." I was doing a Happening at Rice University, a show of my photographs and paintings. I set up a whole video situation so the audience couldn't actually see me. After the presentation I told them if that if they wanted to see me in person, they had to be bussed to the Big H Drive-In Speedway outside of town where, in the Russian suicide chair, I was going to blow myself up after the auto race. I was also really mad. I thought there were people trying to make a hit on me because of various things that I'd been involved in; that this would be the perfect time for them to do it; that they could stop chasing me around and actually get rid of me. It would take care of everything very nicely. But ... if I got through it, then obviously they were going to let me go.
Once, I'd wanted to start out "Easy Rider" with the suicide chair. Captain America would get in a tissue paper coffin designed like the American Flag. Billy would push the plunger and the explosion would suck off the American flag tissue paper. Then Peter would stand up and wave to the audience. The whole effect would establish us as trick riders in a carnival. Then we'd made the coke deal in Mexico and go to Mardi Gras. Later, I decided Hey, fuck it, I'm going to do it myself. So I did. I thought it was a good idea. I still think it is. Art on the edge. Put your life on the line.
Q: Is it better to burn out or fade away?
HOPPER: I like the direct cut.
* thanks to Playboy Magazine where a longer and slightly different version of this interview appeared.