Dennis Hopper on Elegy, James Dean, and Being Big in France

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Photo: Getty Images

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 outside America.
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 coming from?

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.