The actor: Dennis Hopper, a Hollywood legend whose career began in the '50s, during the dawn of the Method actor, and continued to thrive through the hippie underground-film era, the early-'80s American independent-film movement, and—curiously enough—the age of the action blockbuster. Hopper's latest film is Elegy, a sophisticated drama about lonely, aging academics; he plays a poet who serves as confidante for the story's lead, Ben Kingsley. Hopper spoke with The A.V. Club about Elegy and other scattered pieces of his filmography on November 4, 2008—election day.
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Elegy (2008)—"George O'Hearn"
Dennis Hopper: Well, it's the best thing I've been in in the last 10 years, because of the material—the Philip Roth novel and the screenplay by Nicholas Meyer. And because of Isabel Coixet, who directed it and who also operates her own camera. And working with Sir Ben Kingsley. All my scenes are with him, and it's just wonderful to work with an actor of his quality. He's so real. Penélope Cruz is just great, too. I think all the performances actually are just wonderful. It's a really heartfelt, funny, humorous, tragic drama. It's a real pleasure for me to see this kind of movie, because these are the kinds of films I like to see, rather than the big action films. I like some of those too, I'm not trying to put them down, but I think there should be room for these kinds of movies.
The A.V. Club: Is there a different kind of preparation when you act with someone of the caliber of Ben Kingsley?
DH: You know you're going to be in a real scene. It's going to be human. There's going to be a good give-and-take. Sir Ben likes to live in the moment, which is the way I like to act. Moment-to-moment reality. There's no anticipation. I'm more relaxed, because he and I both like to make the scenes good. It's not about our performances, but about making the scene real. So he's a very giving actor, and so am I. That's just a wonderful combination for me.
AVC: Did he make you call him Sir Ben?
DH: He never did, but I was told by others that that's how I should address him. I had no problem with that. He is Sir Ben.
Johnny Guitar (1954)—uncredited
Rebel Without A Cause (1955)—"Goon"
Giant (1956)—"Jordan Benedict III"
DH: I was never in Johnny Guitar.
AVC: Not at all?
DH: Nope. And it's everywhere in my bio. I know why that happens. Nick Ray directed it, and Nick Ray directed Rebel Without A Cause, and I was in Rebel Without A Cause. I wasn't even in Hollywood when he made Johnny Guitar.
AVC: Then let's talk Rebel Without A Cause.
DH: Well, Rebel Without A Cause, that's the first time I saw James Dean act. I came out of playing Shakespeare at the old Globe Theater in San Diego, and I was 18 years old and thought I was the best young actor in the world. Then I saw Dean. I had never seen anybody improvise before. I had never seen anybody do things that weren't on the page. I was amazed. I grabbed him and said, "I thought I was the best young actor around, but I don't know what you're doing. You're working so far over my head. What should I do? Should I go to New York and study with Strasberg? What should I do?" And he said, "No, no, no. Just start doing things, don't show them. Just start living in the moment-to-moment reality. Smoke the cigarette, don't act smoking the cigarette. Drink the drink, don't act drinking the drink." So anyway, it sort of started there. Then he started watching me when we were doing Giant together, and commenting on me, and then later had me watch him when he was getting old in Giant to see if I felt he was old. And that was really… That was what I remember out of Rebel and Giant, basically. Then he died two weeks before we finished Giant. I worked with him the last year of his life.
AVC: Were you friends off the set?
DH: Not really. We were friends, but I was 18 years old and he was 24. And when I was 19, he was 25. He died when he was 25. That's a big age difference. And he was either in love with Ursula Andress or Pier Angeli. He always had someone. He had another life. But we were working like six days a week, so that was our relationship, really.
AVC: Did people like Dean and Marlon Brando make it easier for you to do the kind of acting you wanted to do, or was it still difficult to be a "living in the moment" kind of actor in Hollywood in the late '50s?
DH: It was almost impossible, because all the directors gave line readings. All of them wanted to tell you when to pick the glass up, when to put it down… They wanted to tell you everything. It was the studio system, and the directors didn't have anything to do with the casting or the writing of the screenplay or editing the film after. The only thing that they had to do was direct the film. So your time on the set with them was their time. They didn't have the movie before or after. The studio would take it back. It depended on who you were working with, but a lot of those directors were screaming, yelling schoolmarms who wanted you to do everything they told you. And so to be able to live in a moment-to-moment reality with no preconceived ideas was impossible, unless you wanted to fight for it. And unfortunately, Brando and Dean and Montgomery Clift were in positions to do that, but when I tried it, it didn't quite work the same way. [Laughs.]
The Trip (1967)—"Max"
DH: The Trip was written by Jack Nicholson. Peter Fonda was the star, and Bruce Dern, and Susan Strasberg—Lee Strasberg's daughter. I played the drug connection who they got acid from. Roger Corman directed it. And it was the first time that I was allowed to go out and shoot second unit. Jack had written such a complete script, and Peter and I realized that probably Corman wouldn't shoot all of it. So we asked if we could just borrow a camera and film on weekends, and we went out and shot the acid trip, shot stuff on Sunset Boulevard… to give it a little more color. That was that.
AVC: Did you feel the film reflected the times fairly well, as you were experiencing them? Or was it still filtered?
DH: Hmm… I don't know about that. I think that Corman's genius was that he would take whatever was sensational from the papers. "Oh, LSD? Let's do something on LSD. Oh, motorcycles? Let's do something on motorcycles. Oh, how about let's do some horror films?" They were making movies for the drive-in market; that's how American International Pictures got around the studio distribution system. Corman was the king, because he'd just take the most controversial thing he could find and make a movie out of it. And he was very quick. Maybe not "print every first take," but close. He wanted to spend as little money as possible.
True Grit (1969)—"Moon"
DH: I'd made From Hell To Texas with Henry Hathaway, who directed True Grit, and who also directed me on The Sons Of Katie Elder. He blackballed me after From Hell To Texas, and then he re-hired me to do The Sons Of Kate Elder some eight years later. During that period, I went to New York and studied with Strasberg. And then while I was editing Easy Rider, he wanted me to do True Grit, and I said, "No, I don't want to do it, I'm editing." And Bert Schneider, who was my producer and financier, said, "C'mon, man, go and work for the old man, I won't touch the movie while you're gone. He wants you for five days, just go and do it." So I went and worked for Henry Hathaway, near the end of my editing. Which was really… I'd been editing for a year, because I went out and shot Easy Rider in five and a half weeks, and I couldn't see any of the dailies. I came back to 80 hours of film that I hadn't seen, and it took me a year to edit it. But I went and worked for Hathaway and Wayne and… Yeah, it was okay.
AVC: Why do you think Hathaway wanted you back, after blackballing you so long ago?
DH: Well, he said it was because I'd married a nice Irish woman's daughter, and I had a daughter of my own, and he thought I should go back to work. I'd married Brooke Hayward, who was Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward's daughter. And we had Marin, our daughter. She was about 3 years old when Hathaway decided I should come back to work for him.
AVC: He was trying to reform you?
DH: Trying to give me a job. [Laughs.]
The Other Side Of The Wind (1972)—unknown
DH: I was in Taos, editing The Last Movie, and I got a call from Bert Schneider and Henry Jaglom that Orson Welles wanted to shoot some film with me. He was making a 16-millimeter movie. I said, "Wow, okay." So I flew in from New Mexico, got in around 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and Orson picked me up from the airport and drove me to his house in Beverly Hills. And he set up a situation where I was at a table with a hurricane lamp on it, and there was another table behind me, with a couple of people sitting around another hurricane lamp. Then this director character—I guess eventually John Huston played the director, but at this point, it was just Welles—kept asking me questions off-camera. We shot from dark 'til dawn, and he kept asking me questions about what I thought about directing, what I thought about this, what I thought about that. He got all these young Hollywood directors to come and do this.
The idea was that the lights had gone out because of a storm, and there's a big party happening at this director's house. I think Marlene Dietrich was the hostess and John Huston the host at the party, and they invited all these people from Hollywood, and this storm happens, and all the lights go out. The situation allowed Orson to set up these tables and have one table with some people who were extras that he could tie into another scene, later. That he could cut it all together and make it look like the lights had gone out and all these people were at the party at different tables, but you couldn't see any of them because of the darkness. What a great idea. But I've never seen the film, and I've never seen any part of it. Has it been released?
AVC: No, but some cut-together scenes have been shown in documentaries about Welles. Peter Bogdanovich has been working on a cut off and on for a couple of years, but there have been legal issues.
DH: Jaglom had something to do with it when I worked on it. I think Schneider and Jaglom.
AVC: Did you feel any kinship with Welles, given what you were going through with the long editing process and studio battles over The Last Movie?
DH: Absolutely. Y'know, I said to him, "So you're going to play this part?" and he said, "No, no I hate acting." I said, "You hate acting?" "Yeah, I never liked acting. I never wanted to act. I'll get somebody else to play this part." Yeah, he was incredible. He cooked me a spaghetti dinner. He cooked it and he was running the camera, asking me all kinds of personal things, work things… just really an interesting evening. I'd met him before that, but this was a really intense—more than intense—night. After that, I went back to New Mexico to work on The Last Movie some more.
The Osterman Weekend (1983)—"Richard Tremayne"
DH: Sam Peckinpah, yeah. I'd known Sam for years. Sam wrote the pilot for The Rifleman, and I was the guest star in it. This was before he'd directed anything, but he was still on set whispering, "Do this, do that." Sam and Steve McQueen—we all smoked grass. So Sam was the only one that we could go into his office and smoke grass at the studio. This was when he was a writer, before he became a director. Unfortunately, his last movie was the first time I ever really worked for him, in Osterman Weekend. I'd seen him down in Mexico. I was living in Mexico City and he lived in Guadalajara, and I used to go down and see him.
AVC: When you're friendly with someone like you were with Peckinpah, is your relationship different with him as a director? He had a reputation for being a tyrant with some actors.
DH: Well, he was a tyrant. But when you get on a set, as Hathaway used to say, "That was dinner talk, kid, dinner talk! Now we're making movies!" You know? When you get on a set, it becomes a different thing. Hathaway was a wonderful man to have dinner with. Peckinpah was a wonderful guy to hang out with. But when it came down to making films, they were tyrants. And that's the way they worked, and that's the way, very honestly, it should be. If you didn't have respect for them, they scared you into it.
O.C. And Stiggs (1985)—"Sponson"
DH: I'd known Robert Altman for a long time too. Again from the grass association! [Laughs.] He was an incredible gambler. And there was a greyhound racetrack across from where we were shooting in Arizona, across from our location. And he was constantly running over and taking a bet on a dog and coming back. [Laughs.] That's what I remember most about that. I've never seen so many people working so hard for anyone. He had a group of people that would really crawl through shit for him. It seemed like everybody was really zealous about their work, and really prepared. I didn't think much of the movie, unfortunately, because I think the two young guys weren't up to playing their parts. But it had a wonderful cast. He would have great parties to watch rushes, with food and drink and hours and hours of dailies. It was a very joyous time. I wish the film had been good.
Blue Velvet (1986)—"Frank Booth"
DH: Blue Velvet was wonderful. David Lynch was terrific to work with. There was no improvisation—David had written the screenplay and stuck to it. But I had a terrific time. And I really enjoyed the movie, too. I think it's our first American surrealist film.
AVC: How do you live with a character as bizarre as the one you play in Blue Velvet? How do you apply what James Dean taught you to Frank Booth?
DH: I had just come out of drug addiction and alcohol. I wasn't even sober like a month and a half. I had just gotten out of rehab. Then I played that part, and I went from there to play a part in Hoosiers as an alcoholic, and then a drug dealer in Rivers Edge. Those were my first three films being sober. [Laughs.] I called David when I read the script for Blue Velvet and he cast me without ever having met me. I called him while he was having lunch with Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini, and I said, "David, don't even worry about casting me in this. You did the right thing, because I am Frank Booth." And he went back to the table and said, "I just talked to Dennis Hopper, and he said he is Frank Booth. I guess that's really good for the movie, but I don't know how we'll ever have lunch with him." [Laughs.]
Super Mario Bros. (1993)—"King Koopa"
DH: Wow, you really did a jump there. [Laughs.] My son, who's now 18 years old, was 6 or 7 when I did that movie, and he came up to me after he saw it and he said, "Daddy, I think you're probably a really good actor, but why did you play King Koopa?" And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Well he's such a bad guy, why did you want to play him?" And I said, "Well, so you can have shoes." And he said, "I don't need shoes." [Laughs.] So that was my 7-year-old's impression. It was a nightmare, very honestly, that movie. It was a husband-and-wife directing team who were both control freaks and wouldn't talk before they made decisions. Anyway, I was supposed to go down there for five weeks, and I was there for 17. It was so over budget. But I bought a couple buildings down there in Wilmington, NC, and I started painting. I made an art studio out of one.
AVC: You had a real run there in the '90s of playing villains in big movies like Super Mario Bros., Speed, and Waterworld. Was that fun for you?
DH: Speed and Waterworld… I like both of those films, actually. I did not like Super Mario Bros. I thought Waterworld got a bad name for itself in the United States, but it did really well in Europe and Asia. I think the studio sort of shot themselves in the foot by announcing it was so over budget, blah blah blah, it's going to be a failure… All this came out before we released it in the States. But I enjoyed it. And Speed, I really loved; I thought it was a terrific movie. Jan De Bont's first directorial job, coming from being a cinematographer. He did a terrific job. That was fun.
An American Carol (2008)—"The Judge"
DH: I did one day on it. Kelsey Grammar got me involved. I came in and did a day, playing a judge shooting ACLU lawyers. I haven't seen it. Doubt I will.
AVC: After it came out, there was a lot of talk about the subculture of Republicans in Hollywood, and your name was mentioned often. Has too much been made about your politics? Is there some confusion out there about where you stand?
DH: I guess there's confusion, because I voted for Obama. [Laughs.] I hung in there for a while, until Palin was picked. I couldn't quite go on any longer with this cartoon. And also, I really resent the negative stuff the Republican party is putting out on Obama. I just think it's really disgraceful.
AVC: Generally speaking, do you consider yourself politically conservative?
DH: No. My whole family were Democrats, and I was a Democrat until Reagan. And I didn't care for Reagan so much. I thought he wasn't a very good actor, and I didn't know what kind of a president he'd be. But I was reading a lot of Thomas Jefferson at the time, and Jefferson said that every 20 years, if one party has stayed in power, it's your obligation as an American to vote the other party in. At that time, I wanted to see Congress change, and we did change Congress. Then I just stayed with the Republicans. I voted for both the Bushes. Things really started falling apart when President Bush said our financial structure was strong. And then McCain later repeated the same thing, my God. So it started crumbling down. Also, my wife's a big supporter of Obama, and I met him. I had marched with Martin Luther King in the South, and I felt a great empathy and obligation to that movement. Still, I stayed with McCain until he picked Palin. Then I ditched. I'm happy I did. We'll see what happens today.