Dennis Hopper

GQ, Mar 2007

Cracked Actor: On 17th May, Dennis Hopper turns 70. To celebrate the birthday of one of Hollywood’s true mavericks, we asked the star of Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet, to photograph 10 of his favorite fellow movie business outsiders. The results are almost as extraordinary as the man’s life. Almost.

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Photographs by Dennis Hopper

So much for rebellion. Dennis Hopper votes Republican. The enfant terrible of Rebel Without A Cause and Easy Rider twice crossed the box for Bush.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with leaning to the right – Clint Eastwood’s a conservative, as are Robert Duvall, Arnie and er, the Rock. But this is Dennis Hopper we’re talking about – the Harley-riding icon of 60s counterculture, the artist, photographer and drug fiend, once dubbed the Rebel Without A Cortex, who so comprehensively lost it in the early 80s that he set off into the Mexican desert, stark naked, in the middle of the night, and for reasons unknown, masturbated against a tree. That Dennis Hopper.

“Yeah, heh, heh. Shit. I went all the way around. It’s a full circle, man. It’s unbelievable.” We’re in the spare room of his house in Venice, where his assistant Lara is bringing us some Earl Grey. Rain is drumming against the skylights, and Hopper is chugging on a Cohiba, chuckling. “I just lived long enough, I guess. I can’t think of another reason.”

He turns 70 in May and he looks well and trim for his age. The fabled boozer is now 23 years clean. He goes to the gym and plays golf at the weekends with Jack Nicholson. Soon he will celebrate 10 years with his fifth wife, the actress Victoria Duffy, who is half his age. His eyes are smiling. The conservative life rather suits him.

“My only vices,” he says, “are cigars and caffeine.” But his real addiction is art. He’s a junkie, far gone. He appears to live in a gallery – a mysterious and angular Frank Gehry with a corrugated steel front, sparing furniture and vast walls covered in Warhols, Schnabels, Rauschenbergs and the like. And then there’s his own work, which he’s busy with at the moment.

“I’ve got an exhibition of my stuff to hang in downtown LA, then another one coming up at the Pompidou Centre in Paris,” he says with pride. “Seventeen pieces. Yeah, it’s pretty cool. It’s called ‘Birth of an Arts Scene in Los Angeles 1955-1985’.”

He finds a framed photo, one of his most famous – a black and white of two Standard Oil signs on Route 66, seen through a car windshield. “This is going to be in it, blown up huge,” he says. “It’s called Double Standard.”

And he’s showing me this very cool, Beat Generation type picture and all I can think is: what about the double standard of making Easy Rider and then turning Republican? I can’t shake this thing. It’s almost as if, 35 years on, he has decided to vote alongside the very same rednecks who shot him and Peter Fonda at the end of that movie. It’s bizarre. So I tell him – “it’s bizarre”. And he laughs, a proper salty cackle. “I guess it probably seems that way, sure. Ha! Yeah… I guess. But you know, I think it’s a normal cycle if you make it that far. In my mind, my political thinking has only matured.”

The transition happened – this “evolution”, if you will – after he sobered up in the early 80s, a harrowing business all round. Reagan was in power at the time, just as Hopper came blinking into the light, and though he was no great fan of the man – “I thought he was a terrible actor and not much of a president” – he became filled with the conviction that the country was poised for change, just as it had been in the 60s. Only this time, Hopper felt his instincts urging him rightwards. And just as in 1969, he was moving with the times.

“When you’re young you want to change things, you want society to be a certain way,” he says. “But then it becomes your responsibility to go the other way and say ‘this is the society that I live in, what can I do to maintain it?’ I figured that all the crazy stuff that I did in my life, to have the freedom to be as insane as I was, there’s only one fucking place I could have done it. That’s here, you know – America. So, you know, it must be all right. It was pretty simple, really.”

So when he looks back at all his 60s activism and stop-the-war and peace and love, does he think he was wrong? Does the youthful Hopper seem naïve now?

“Well, I don’t reflect much on the 60s. I just don’t think about it, it’s not part of my trip. But they were different times. The problems the blacks were having in the 60s were not something that anybody could live with. They couldn’t drink out of the same fountains, pee in the same toilets, vote – I mean give me a break.” He shakes his head and puffs on his cigar. “That’s not to say we don’t have problems today, our society is far from perfect. But…” He grins, as though an image just crossed his mind. “I can’t see myself out protesting against the World Bank or anything.”

In keeping with his politics, then, the former Vietnam protestor is now playing a colonel in the Pentagon on The E-Ring – a kind of Defense Department West Wing, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Week in week out, he can be seen marching about in uniform, as Colonel Eli McNulty, “a nasty piece of work who means well”. Given his transformation, it’s an inspired piece of casting.

“What happened was, I ran into Taylor Hackford, who directed Ray, and he said, ‘you ever thought of doing episodic television?’ I said ‘absolutely fucking not’. And he said, ‘well, too bad, I got a great fucking part for you. The bad news is it starts in two days!’ So it was pretty fucking sudden.”

It tickles him, the way things have turned out. The former Hollywood outcast who never thought he’d make it to 30 let alone 70 is now as busy as he’s ever been. For five days out of eight, he’s down at the ‘Pentagon’ – the set is only 15 minutes down the road. And for the other three days, he’s either hanging art shows in LA or Paris, or shooting stars for GQ, or for that matter laying down some vocals for the Gorillaz (Hopper’s provided the narration on “Fire Coming Out of a Monkey’s Head” from the Demon Days album). It’s a lifestyle that no one, not even Hopper, could have predicted, but then, that has always been the way. In an age of such sensible career paths and disciplined choices, it’s comforting to remember the crazed and jagged course that Hopper has carved over the last 50 years. Not so much a rollercoaster as a spastic hand, jerking up and down.

It began on a Kansas farm, where he was raised by parents who frowned on acting. But Hopper’s determination took him to Los Angeles at 18 where he was put under contract by Warner Bros. He made a swift impact in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, and became known as the Method protégé of James Dean. But then he blew it. He fought with the director of From Hell to Texas, Henry Hathaway, who wanted a line said one way but Hopper disagreed. In the end, Hathaway insisted he repeat the line 85 times and then blackballed him from Hollywood for eight years for being difficult.

So Hopper moved to New York to study under Lee Strasberg and hurl himself into Pop Art and photography. It was Dean that encouraged him to develop a sideline as a photographer and it served him well through the lean years. He was soon shooting for Vogue and Harpers, both celebrity portraits of friends like Warhol, Jane Fonda and Paul Newman and reportage shots of civil rights marches or the state funeral of Kennedy. Hopper’s images of the 60s have been widely exhibited..

His zenith came at 33 when Hopper made Easy Rider, a film he wrote, directed and starred in alongside Peter Fonda and a then-unknown Jack Nicholson. The film defined a generation and was roundly hailed as a pivotal moment in the new cinema. Once again the studios were at his door and once again he blew it immediately – his follow-up, almost prophetically titled The Last Movie, was a colossal bomb and Hopper returned to being persona non grata. This time, however, he retreated into a self-imposed exile and the bender began – an almighty 12 year tailspin that took him to Mexico, through Europe and back to his home in Taos, New Mexico, during which he produced little of any coherence. His appearance as the manic photographer in Apocalypse Now, in 1979, was a fair indication of the mess that Hopper was in at the time.

“I was doing half a gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, 28 beers, and three grams of cocaine a day,” he says. “And that wasn’t getting high, that was just to keep going. I used to say it never affected my work but fuck, it was like a nightmare rollercoaster paranoid schizophrenic journey that was totally crazy.” And totally crazy is what he went – clinically insane. Psych-ward loco. Nuts. It was during the filming of Jungle Fever in Mexico in 1982 that he made his fateful walk into the desert. Hopper roars with laughter when I mention the bit about the tree.

“Oh yeah, that sounds like Mexico all right! Shit. What happened was my manager had called and said ‘don’t give him any booze’, so I couldn’t get a drink and I started having hallucinations. Oh it was really bad. I thought the Third World War had started. I went off into the jungle without any fucking clothes convinced I had to walk to South America and come back with an army. I don’t know where the fuck that came from. I was – phew – I ended up in seven jails because I wouldn’t tell them who I was.  I thought my friends had been gassed and they could listen to my mind, man. I was out there.”

He was essentially suffering from a severe case of the DTs – an attack of hallucinations and ultra-confusion that some alcoholics experience when they go cold turkey. “If you’re drinking beer, especially,” he explains, “it has some sort of yeast covering of your nerve endings so when you just stop, it all comes off and you’re just a live wire, man. Everything just shorts out. Anyway, finally these stunt guys found me and we took an airplane out of Mexico City. And I was sure I’d seen Francis Ford Coppolla and Wim Wenders on the plane with a camera, and I was convinced they were shooting me, making a movie. So we were just taking off, man, and I saw these fires out on the runway – they must have been burning trash or something – and I just knew that was my signal to get out onto the wing. So I got the door open and started to climb out onto the fucking wing. On take-off. Ha! That went over really good, yeah. Really big, heh heh! You try that sometime, see where that gets you! Well I guess these days they’ll probably shoot you! Bang! You’re dead!”

When Hopper got back to the US, he was promptly locked up in a psychiatric ward and dosed up on anti-psychotics. As Jack Nicholson once said, “Dennis tapped the bottom. He was staying at places that didn’t allow visitors. It wasn’t Sunnybrook Farm — no sashay through those rich men’s rest homes.” The trouble with the psych ward, though, was the drugs he was on. Hopper says they gave him Parkinsons disease. “So now I’m washing dishes and I can’t hold them – I’m breaking them. My mind is working 100 mph, but I can’t make sentences any more, can’t smoke a cigarette. I mean this is fucking scary. So then they gave me this new drug which was supposed to take me off the antipsychotics but they didn’t give me enough of it so they froze me between Parkinsons and God-knows-where. I was like that for 3 ½ months.”

Hopper became suicidal. When a girlfriend from Taos picked him up, he told her “I’m going to kill myself because I can’t act any more – I can’t make a sentence, a gesture.” So she took him to his personal doctor in Los Angeles who shot him up with the drugs he needed and in an instant he was feeling better. “I got up, put my pants on, put my hand in my back pocket. I could talk. Just like that.” He’s standing up with his hand in his back pocket and an amazed look on his face. “Shit. I’m lucky to be here.”

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Naturally, being Hopper, the story doesn’t quite end there. In the first year, he quit drinking no problem, but he stuck with the cocaine. “I thought it was only the alcohol that was the problem, but everything else was fine!” he says laughing heartily. “I was going to AA meetings with half an ounce of cocaine in my pocket! What a nut! I guess some of us just need bigger and heavier sticks.” It took another breakdown 12 months later, before he cleaned up for good. That was 23 years ago.

The rewards for sobriety came fast and plenty. Only a year after cleaning up, he made 3 films back to back which stand among his best performances, not least because they are pungent with the psychosis and alcoholism that was still so fresh. He played an ex-alcoholic basketball coach in Hoosiers, a drug dealer in River’s Edge and most memorably the helium-huffing, psychopath Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, a part he clinched by calling the director David Lynch and saying “I am Frank Booth.”

“David was with the cast at the time,” Hopper recalls. “You know, Laura Dern, Kyle McLachlin and Isabella Rossellini. So he went back to the table and he said ‘Dennis Hopper, just told me he was Frank Booth, which is great for the part but how are we ever going to have lunch with him!’”

Hopper has had mixed fortunes since Blue Velvet. Certainly he is yet to hit the same heights. On the one hand he has never stopped working, making over 80 films since Blue Velvet. And on the other, the majority were entirely forgettable. It seems the preciousness of his youth gave way to gratitude in his later years that his phone was still ringing. He became the actor that liked to say yes. There were highlights, for sure – like Speed and True Romance, his appearance in Basquiat, or Paris Trout in which he penetrates Barbara Hershey with a broken bottle. But Hopper also notched up Waterworld, Super Mario Bros and a string of B-movie cameos, many of which went straight to video. “Sure I made a lot of movies that were only seen in Eastern Europe or Fiji,” he shrugs. “But work is work, you know. I always managed to keep myself busy.”

Much of his body of work consists of playing killers, maniacs and ex-cons – he has never been short of such offers since Blue Velvet. And it’s true, he makes a convincing psycho. There is always a sense with Hopper that the volcano is still active, that in fact, the volcano is real. And perhaps it is. There have been eruptions, after all. When on the Tonight Show in 1994, Hopper said that Rip Torn – Arthur in the Larry Sanders show – held a steak knife to his throat after Hopper had sacked him from Easy Rider. Torn promptly sued claiming that it was in fact Hopper who pulled the blade and Torn won. It cost him $2 million in all.

But such incidents are now filed under “my past”, which is “all over with now”. At 70, Hopper is looking only into the future. “What’s good about being older,” he says, “is I’ve got more time to focus on my work. When you’re young you’ve got other instincts that take over, like getting laid and going to bars.”

First on his wish list is to direct. He greets every year with the fresh hope that Hollywood will allow him behind the camera again. Though he has a patchy record as a director, there are a couple of hits among the seven on his CV, the last being the Los Angeles gang drama, Colors in 1988 starring Sean Penn. This year, he has found another LA gang script about the gangsta rap group, “NWA, you know those guys, Niggaz With an Attitude.” The story concerns Easy E’s manager Jerry Heller whom Hopper says Bruce Willis has agreed to play. But nothing is guaranteed – is there a studio out there that will bank on Hopper?

“Financing’s always a problem for me,” he says. “It’s all about money these days. People can make fun of Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn and all those guys, but at least they loved movies. Today it’s all run by committees of lawyers and agents. It’s like nobody can make a bad movie any more, so all we get is mediocre. But if you can’t make a truly bad movie, then you certainly can’t make a great movie either.”

Whether he gets to direct or not, he’s still slated to act in a few this year, and his appetite for art remains as voracious as ever. Now, he’s obsessed with digital photography. “It’s over for wet photography,” he says. “And when you think it’s only been around for 100 years, that makes it quite a high price commodity in the art world.”

It’s time for Hopper to return to work. He has some images to crop and shade – “it’s incredible, like painting – you just put the colours right on the picture.”

Before I leave, I ask him one last time about politics – with his new Republican convictions, would he consider shilling for candidates, even running for office himself? He looks at me, grinning. “Me? You’re kidding. Listen, I would not be an asset to anybody’s political career, believe me. No, I tell you what – when Warren Beatty runs, I’ll run against him!” He’s shaking his fist and cackling, the end of his cigar blazing orange. “I’ll bury you Warren! Under all those skirts!”