Once the poster boy for sixties depravity, Dennis Hopper has now
become the very image of responsible boomerdom. Literally: These days
Hopper can be found on your TV, touting retirement planning as the
spokesman for Ameriprise. But the legendary actor is in the midst of
a career resurgence as well: He recently played an aging adulterer in
the critical hit Elegy, starring Penélope Cruz and Sir Ben Kingsley,
and can be seen on TV in the new series Crash. In the meantime, his
artwork is on display in a major retrospective in Paris. Don't sneer:
Hopper has been a photographer and painter for as long as he's been
an actor. And that's a really long time: Hopper got his start at age
18 appearing alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Oh, and
did we mention he directed Easy Rider? Hopper, who will also be
appearing for an evening of clips and conversation with Julian
Schnabel at the Museum of the Moving Image tonight, took some time
out to reminisce with Vulture about the beginning of independent
film, competing with James Dean, and all the terrible lies people
tell about him.
So Elegy got great reviews. How did you get involved with it?
I'm not really sure, to be honest with you. (Laughs.) I'm a Phillip
Roth fan, and I enjoyed the script. Honestly, I haven't worked with a
script this good in a long time. And Isabel [Coixet] is a great
director. She puts on a bungee cord and operates her own camera, and
just makes it really comfortable to work with her.
Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Easy Rider. How are you
planning to celebrate it?
I shot a lot of the movie in Taos, New Mexico, and lived there for
fifteen years, so they're having a summer of love, celebrating Easy
Rider. I'll be there; I'm having an art show at the museum. My
brother lives there, too.
Speaking of your art: Is it difficult to be taken seriously as an
artist when you're known for something else especially acting?
Yeah, it's been very difficult. Being an actor, you're always
suspected of … well, acting. (Laughs.) They think you're just
pretending to be an artist, in this weird way. It was especially
difficult when I was younger, trying to get shows. I mean, I'm a
middle-class farm boy from Kansas. I just wanted to know which way
the trains were going and how I was going to get out of the Dust
Bowl. But I've gotten past it. I once did a show at the Hermitage in
St. Petersburg, Russia, and Thomas Krens, who was the head of the
Guggenheim at the time, asked me, How does it feel to be the biggest
artist in Russia while nobody knows you in the United States?"
And there's a huge retrospective of your work at the Cinematheque
Francaise in Paris, currently.
Yeah, it's amazing. They worked on it for three and a half years,
it's the whole fifth floor of the Frank Gehry building on the Seine
River. You walk through and you see the things I was doing TV,
movies at every part of my career, while you're also seeing part of
my art collection. And alongside you see the political things that
were happening in the country the Kennedy assassinations, Malcolm
X, Martin Luther King, and the last thing is Obama running for president.
It sounds like it's easier for you to be taken seriously as an artist
Europe loves a bad story. The fact that I stopped making films, that
I had a huge hit with Easy Rider and then made The Last Movie, which
won the big award at the Venice Film Festival and then flopped in the
US that sort of thing resonates with, particularly, the French.
It's like when rock and roll took over the airwaves in the U.S., all
these jazz musicians went to Europe and were treated like royalty.
That's the way I felt.
Another film of yours that's on the verge of having a resurgence is
Curtis Harrington's amazing Night Tide (1961).
That was a wonderful, wonderful film. We made that film for $28,000.
It was on Time Magazine's Ten Best Films to see the year it was
distributed or more accurately, the year it wasn't distributed. We
couldn't get anyone to show the film, because we didn't have the
union logo on our film, which meant we didn't have approval. We
couldn't get a theater. So that was the beginning of the independent
cinema movement in this country.
I read that the death of James Dean affected you greatly. Did you
know him well?
He only made three movies, and I was in the last two with him, Rebel
Without a Cause and Giant. So we were together five days a week
during those times. I was 18, he was 24. He was going out with Ursula
Andress and Pier Angeli and he was madly in love with them, so he had
his own social life. I had just come off doing Shakespeare in San
Diego, and I was all about line readings and preconceived ideas. When
I saw Jimmy, I suddenly saw improvisation for the first time. He was
doing things that weren't written on the page. My God, where was this
One day I threw him into the car and said, "I thought I was the best
young actor around, and then I saw you. What are you doing?" So we
talked for a while. I said maybe I should go back and study with Lee
Strasberg, and he said, "No, you'll be fine. Just start doing things
and not showing, don't indicate things. Don't have presupposed ideas
of what's going to happen in a scene. Just live in the moment." He
started advising me, especially on Giant. He'd come and watch me, and
critique me afterwards me. And he asked for my help, too, in the
later scenes in Giant when his character was aging. He had me around
to make sure he looked old. We weren't big buddies or anything like
that. He died two weeks before we finished. I did then go to New York
and study with Strasberg for five years after that.
So what's the craziest story you've heard about yourself?
Boy. I just shut it off quite a few years ago. Most of it is based on
some sort of little truth and then it goes totally above and beyond
anything that happened. I mean, I didn't live like a priest, but I'm
pretty sure I wasn't as terrible as people have made me sound.
Finally: Are people surprised to see you doing the Ameriprise commercials?
Yes, I do get a lot of teasing about it, especially now: How many of
these people did you bankrupt today? I really hope none.