Dennis Hopper interview: The Long Ride

From Rebel Without a Cause to Easy Rider and now Crash, Dennis Hopper’s acting career spans six decades. But he is also a painter, photographer, writer and art collector. As he explains to Thomas Caldwell, it’s all about being creative.

"Self-portrait at the Porn Stand", oil on canvas by Dennis Hopper, 1962-2008

When I speak to Dennis Hopper he is in New Mexico, US, making the second series of Crash, a TV program based on the 2004 film of the same name. Hopper plays a wild character he describes as a Phil Spector type: “He’s a music mogul from the ’60s. He’s into orgies, drugs and all sorts of crazy insanity.” For those familiar with Hopper playing the deranged villain in films such as Speed (1994) this sounds like sensible casting.

The truth is, however, that Hopper has mellowed significantly, especially since his more excessive days during the ’70s. In conversation, he sounds a lot like the character he played in Elegy (2008); he is polite, amiable, full of admiration for his colleagues, and speaks slowly and deliberately.

Hopper, 73, is happy to reflect on his career, and talks passionately about what is clearly his favourite subject: art. Besides acting, he is a recognised painter, photographer, writer, director and art collector. His work has been exhibited internationally, and has been used on many magazine covers, including Vogue and Artforum.

Hopper may well emerge as a great American Renaissance Man of the late-20th and early-21st century. This would be an unlikely and unexpected outcome for someone who describes his own career as unfortunate. Indeed, after making Easy Rider (1969), one of the definitive counter-culture films of all time, Hopper’s cinematic career went through a tumultuous period. He has been sober for more than 20 years, but, as he has acknowledged previously, alcohol and substance abuse hit him hard during the 70s. It was during this period that he developed his tormented, wild and dangerous on-screen persona in films such as Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

It wasn’t until 1986 that Hopper arrived back in Hollywood and revived his acting career, appearing in both David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, as the frighteningly primal psychopath Frank Booth, and in the more family friendly Hoosiers, for which he received an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor. These are two roles that Hopper looks back on fondly. However, he still regards Easy Rider as the high point of his career: “Being involved in the writing, directing and acting for my first film; accomplishing what I set out to do by showing the country and showing what was happening in the country at the time; and playing this goofy sort of sidekick. I’m very proud of that.”

Easy Rider_2
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (1969)

Hopper and his Easy Rider co-writers, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, not only received an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay, they created a film that still resonates 40 years on. In the film, Hopper and Fonda play a pair of drug dealers travelling across America on motorbikes. One of the many people they meet is a ‘square’ alcoholic lawyer – memorably played by Jack Nicholson, in a breakthrough role. Easy Rider was made independently from the studio system and its experimental approach to filmmaking captured an early representation of the hippie movement, which included communal living, drug use and the way such a lifestyle threatened the mainstream establishment.

Although Hopper acknowledges that Easy Rider is something of a time capsule in terms of fashion and music, its independent and rebellious spirit is still relevant today. “I’ve seen it recently with young audiences and they are very surprised. It hasn’t really aged at all.”

Easy Rider is just one example of how Hopper has both documented and contributed to some of America’s most exciting and influential cinematic and artistic movements. Now his direct involvement has been captured in an exhibition, Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood, which will be presented at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. When Hopper is asked how this exhibition reflects his career and legacy he is keen to make it clear that its focus is on the era rather than himself: “I think it’s more about the time that I was living. It really deals a lot with the art world in my life. My photographs deal with 1961 to 1967, with subjects like Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights movement and my involvement in the hippie movement. Then there’s my art collection, as I was very involved when Marcel Duchamp [the influential French artist] had his first retrospective in Pasadena in 1963. I was also very involved with Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol and all the pop artists of the 60s. That’s basically the history of my life besides being in films – and this all happened before I did Easy Rider. To walk through this exhibition is to walk from 1954 until now.”

"Paul Newman", gelatin silver print by Dennis Hopper, 1964

The year 1954 is significant, as that was when Hopper turned 18 and was contracted by Warner Bros. “I’ve been in the public eye for a long time. I forget about it at times. But then I’m rudely reminded!” As well as Martin Luther King Jr, Hopper has also photographed Warhol, singer James Brown and actor Paul Newman, although Hopper insists on clarifying the circumstances in which those photographs were taken: “I wasn’t doing assignments or anything. The people I photographed were friends of mine. I didn’t photograph a lot of movie actors because it wasn’t appropriate. It would have been an intrusion. They were being photographed all the time. Paul Newman was an exception because he was a really close friend.”

One of Hopper’s other iconic actor friends was James Dean, with whom he shared the screen in Rebel Without a Cause (1955; Hopper’s first film role) and Giant (1956). Hopper once described Dean as the most talented and original actor he had encountered. “I thought I was the best young actor in the world, and then I saw James work. I came out of playing Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. I’d never seen anybody improvise before. I was used to learning lines. It was a whole other side to acting – to live in the moment and have no preconceived ideas. That was not the way I was working. So when I came onto the set of Rebel Without a Cause and we started rehearsing I suddenly realised that he’d been working off the page and it was amazing to me. I’d never seen anything like it; doing it in the moment without preconceived ideas.”

Hopper also greatly values art that exists in the moment and reflects the time it was created. His own painting style is conceptual; influenced by abstract expressionism. A pivotal episode in his development occurred in 1962, when a friend who owned an art gallery in Los Angeles showed Hopper pictures of a cartoon and a soup can. “The cartoon was by Roy Lichtenstein and the soup can was by Warhol. Neither one of them had ever had shows before. I suddenly started jumping up and down and said ‘That’s it! That’s it! That’s the return to reality.’”

"Andy Warhol with flower", oil on vinyl by Dennis Hopper, 1963-2000

Hopper went to New York, where he met with Henry Geldzahler (then head of 20th-century art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) and also pop artists Warhol, Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist. “They were all the major players and they had never really had any shows at all,” recalls Hopper who, as well as being part of Duchamp’s first and only retrospective, was also part of Warhol’s first exhibition.

“Warhol was dabbling in the commercial area, doing silkscreen work and 20-foot high murals, while fine art was seen as something that was three-by-two feet. It was a different time and a different way of looking at things. Warhol and Lichtenstein stand a real chance of being remembered for their time because they did represent it.”

One of the more curious entries on Hopper’s resumé is his lead role in the 1976 Australian film Mad Dog Morgan, in which he played the notorious real-life bushranger Dan Morgan (alongside Jack Thompson). He loved the experience, describing the film as “way ahead of the curve”. And Hopper sounds delighted when I tell him that Morgan is one of many Australian ‘Ozploitation’ genre films from the 70s and 80s that are now being re-evaluated.

Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

He also responds to concerns that Australia is not doing enough to make commercially viable cinema: “Look, Australian filmmakers are making great movies. They really are. Most of the time they are really hitting the mark. I can figure in my head what might be commercial and what might not be commercial, but in the end that isn’t really the filmmakers’ responsibility. The filmmaker should make his or her film. If they can get financing to make their film then they should make their film.” But Hopper does worry that filmmaking as art is being devalued by films that can turn a profit: “It’s all about what the big hit is going to be on the weekend.”

So how can people be encouraged to see more innovative movies? Hopper has an intriguing proposal: “I’ve always thought that when people build these cineplexes that they should have 10 theatres. Have one for the history of cinema to show old classic films, then have one for foreign films, and one for experimental and art films. Then the other seven can play the Hollywood game… After a year, people would start making a steady line into those other three theatres, because they’d want other people to see them standing in those lines rather than the others!”

It seems that Hopper is never going to be short of ideas or inspiration. There is a pattern running through his career: when one avenue for expression temporarily closes down, he finds another. So is Hopper one of those people who always feels compelled to create? “Yeah, that’s all I do. I never had to stop the things I did in high school, like taking photographs and painting, and that allowed me to have a cultural life. When I was young, most people were going skiing and going to the beach and doing other things. My mother managed a swimming pool so I didn’t need to be going there. I wanted to go to the art galleries. I wanted to find the artists that I liked. I wanted to meet them and I wanted to do that kind of work.”

Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood will be at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) from Thursday 12 November 2009 to Sunday 25 April 2010.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 341, 2009

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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