Exclusive: Dennis Hopper on Elegy

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By now, you’ve probably already read our interview with Sir Ben Kingsley and here’s the other half of the equation, performing opposite Kingsley in some of the more fascinating scenes from Isabel Coixet’s Elegy.

Seriously, if there’s one actor who needs absolutely no introduction, it’s Dennis (Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, River’s Edge) Hopper, whose movie career goes back fifty years, but playing poet George Ahern opposite Kingsley certainly brought out one of Hopper’s strongest dramatic performances years.

So let’s get right into this interview, conducted over the phone last week.

ComingSoon.net: I saw the film again a couple nights ago and I really enjoy the scenes between you and Sir Ben a lot. Even though he has some great scenes with the women in the movie, I think I liked the movie more for your scenes together.
Dennis Hopper: Ah, thank you.

CS: I was hoping to talk to the two of you two together, but it’s very difficult getting you two in the place at the same time cause you’re so busy.
Hopper: Yeah, I saw him last night though. We’re both in New York for the Gotham Awards.

CS: How did that go?
Hopper: It was great. Penelope got a special award last night and Sir Ben gave her the award.

CS: I talked to Isabel back in July or August and she mentioned you were her first choice to play George. Had she ever told you why she thought you’d be the perfect best friend for Sir Ben?
Hopper: I really don’t know. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t heard that until you told me just now, so I often wondered how I got in the movie. (chuckles) I thought maybe it was Tom Rosenberg at Lakeshore, because I’ve played golf with him, but Isabel is a better idea. It’s terrific, I didn’t know that.

CS: She was very excited since Sir Ben was signed on and you and Patty were her first choices for those roles.
Hopper: Oh, great. Yeah, she’s a wonderful director and she did a great job.

CS: I was amazed that she did all that camerawork herself, too.
Hopper: Yeah, she puts her camera on a bungie cord and moves it around. She’s wonderful. She makes such a comfortable workspace.

CS: When you found out you were going to play a poet and David Kepesh’s best friend, not sure if you want to call him his conscience, but did you want to go back and read Philip Roth’s books to find out what he wrote about him?
Hopper: Years ago, I decided that it was a bad idea that if you’re doing a screenplay to read the novel because there’s going to be a lot of things in the novel you’re going to want in the screenplay, which you’re not going to be able to put in. I think if you’re working on something that’s from a novel, you should really just concentrate on the screenplay and hope that it’s really good, which this screenplay really is good. I also understand that the book is much different than the screenplay. Have you read the book?

CS: No, I haven’t. I’ve only read the other book about the character, about his earlier days. It’s interesting seeing this movie because I have to think Nicholas Meyer incorporated both books into this.
Hopper: That’s cool. I just think the screenplay is just wonderful. I don’t have to sell this movie, because I just think the movie is wonderful. Isabel did a great job, Tom Rosenberg did a great job producing it and they really care for the film and love the film, and Sir Ben Kingsley, what a great honor and privilege to work with him. He just lives in the moment and he doesn’t intellectualize. Our first scene in the movie was the first one you see in the movie where we’re sitting in that little café, and we’d only met a couple times at parties. I didn’t know him at all and we sat down and started running this scene, and by the third or fourth time we’d run the scene, we’d already printed it. It was as if I’d known him for 40 years. It was just a wonderful collaboration.

CS: That’s exactly what I thought when I saw the movie. I thought, “These guys have known each other and been friends for a long time.” I knew you’d never worked together but I assumed you knew each other socially.
Hopper: We’d met, we shook hands at parties but we’d never even really spoken. He’s just wonderful and he’s such a generous actor. He wants the scene to be good. It’s not about Sir Ben, it’s about the scene. That’s the way I like to work, too.

CS: He mentioned that one of the reasons you guys got along so well and immediately was just because you shared the experience of being actors and there’s an immediate bond just from that shared occupation. Do you feel the same thing?
Hopper: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I think after a while, we’re just professionals. (laughs) You get the work.

CS: You mentioned that you shot the first scene first so were those scenes spaced out over a matter of time or did you shoot all your scenes together around the same time?
Hopper: It just happened to work out that way. That’s where we started our first scene, in that café. Let’s see. I think I was up there for a couple of weeks. I think probably two weeks, something like that, and I worked almost every day I think.

CS: I was wondering because there’s other things going on in between your scenes together and you and Sir Ben are discussing a scene that just happened.
Hopper: Usually in movies, they shoot you out as soon as they can so they don’t want to pay you more money. They sort of combine all your stuff together.

CS: But did Sir Ben have a chance to actually experience some of the things you were talking about before you shot your bits?
Hopper: Yeah, I think we were discussing things that hadn’t happened yet… things that Sir Ben hadn’t done at this point.

CS: Besides the bond of being actors, did the two of you have a chance to spend any time off-camera during those two weeks? It’s really interesting to me how long the two of you have been working, yet coming from different backgrounds.Hopper: We both come out of Shakespeare though, and we used to talk about Shakespeare and the meter of it and how coming out of Shakespeare and going into film, what a different world and yet what you learn from Shakespeare, you can always use. He’s such an interesting man, talking to him, he’s very knowledgeable about a lot of different subjects, but I really love him, and he’s a terrific guy. It’s funny. You work on films, you’re sort of a gypsy family and you’re all together for a few weeks, sometimes a few months, sometimes longer, and you’re like a family for those few weeks, because the work is very intense and you’re opening yourself up emotionally. You have all the bickering and congratulations and so on that you do in a family, and then suddenly, you don’t see each other, sometimes for years again. But it’s like you never left. It seems like time just stopped there and you see each other again and you take up from where you left off. It’s sort of like an alcoholic who stops drinking and then when he goes back to drinking, he goes right back where he stopped. He goes back to consuming as much alcohol as he did before and usually has very bad results, but it’s an interesting phenomenon. I don’t think it happens in very many other jobs.

CS: So you’re saying that Sir Ben is as addictive as alcohol?
Hopper: (laughs) I meant that when you go into AA, which I’ve been in AA for 25 years, I haven’t had any alcohol at all for 25 years. One of the things they say is when you stop drinking, you go for 25 years, but if I started drinking today, I would go back to the level that I was drinking immediately that I was before, so if I was consuming a half a gallon of rum and 28 beers, I would go back to that amount of drinking in the first day and probably die because my system wouldn’t be able to take it. (pause) It was a bad example. (laughs) I meant it’s as if time had not passed.

CS: I understood what you meant. As far as the character of George, he adds something interesting because we’re seeing Sir Ben’s character David sabotaging his relationship with Consuela, and it seems like George is spurring him on and isn’t a good influence.
Hopper: Sir Ben said something interesting last night. He was talking about his role to a reporter and he said that his character had problems like a lot of men do with intimacy, that if he got intimate with somebody, he didn’t know how to handle it. He was afraid of intimacy, and I think that permeates his character really when you think about it. He thinks that maybe he loves her but then he’s afraid of love, because it’s too close to him. I think there are a lot of men who have that problem, have a real fear of intimacy.

CS: Do you think George is very similar in that sense?
Hopper: No, I don’t think George is at all. I think George is a womanizer–well, so is Sir Ben’s character–he just doesn’t know quite how to handle it and I don’t think George has a problem with it. He just goes on with it as part of his life. The interesting thing is that at the end, he says he’s going back with his wife and they’re having a wonderful time. I think that’s very interesting.

CS: The scene where David visits George in his sickbed is a very powerful scene. We haven’t seen something like that from you in a while, but we’ve seen you doing all sorts of other movies but that was a very dramatic scene. I assume that was all on the page, but was that kiss on the lips improvised?
Hopper: Oh, no, no, that’s one of those things you read and say, “Oh my God, when do we do that?” (laughs) You say, “There’s only three days left and we have to do that scene.” But it was very simple, very easy, and… yeah… and it seemed very natural at the time. (laughs) It’s shocking. Everybody asks me whenever I go out in public and you open it up to the audience, one of the questions they always ask is “Do you think George was conscious of who he was kissing?” I don’t really know how to answer that, but it’s an interesting question.

CS: I thought it was very spontaneous and not even remotely sexual, like this was George’s best friend who he spent so much time with, but it really could have been improvised…
Hopper: No, it was written. Actually, I don’t think there was any improvisation at all in the movie.

CS: It’s amazing that Isabel can make the actors so comfortable, particularly the scenes between Sir Ben and the two actresses. You can tell she gets her actors to a place where not many actors are able to do.
Hopper: Yeah, she really makes you feel at ease, and it’s because she makes you feel comfortable, she doesn’t intellectualize, she doesn’t talk to you a lot. She just makes you feel comfortable and trusts you, and that’s the sign of a really accomplished director. Most directors, and especially new directors, they have to talk to you a lot to prove they know as much as you or more, and that’s not the point of anything. The point is to do the work and make it as simple as possible and make the actors as comfortable as possible, so that they can get the best work out of them. The big enemy of film and acting is nerves and not being relaxed and being stressed out over a scene that you don’t have to be stressed out over.

CS: In recent years, you’ve done a lot more independent films and worked with a lot of new directors. Obviously, you have experience being an independent filmmaker back in the early days when it isn’t as common as it is now.
Hopper: Well, “Easy Rider” was really the first independent film that was distributed by a major studio. (John) Cassavetes had been making films before I made “Easy Rider” but he couldn’t get them distributed. His family had money and he was financing the low budget movies himself, but the studios wouldn’t distribute them. As a matter of fact, independent films were banned. The studios controlled everything, so “Easy Rider” was the first one that was actually distributed and that was because Burt Schneider gave us the money to make the movie and Burt’s father was Abe Schneider, who was chairman of the board at Columbia Pictures. When we finished the movie, Burt’s father paid off the unions and we got it distributed.

CS: As far as working with the newer directors, as an actor, do you just do what you have to do when working with them?
Hopper: It depends. Some of them are quite talented. Certainly Julian Schnabel, I did his first film and he’s an accomplished filmmaker with the three films that he’s made, which are totally different. He’s very accomplished. Then there’s ones that really don’t know anything (laughs) but you just try to get through it the best you can.

CS: You definitely seem to be very open to working with new directors and doing independent films which is very honorable, because I’m sure you could pick or choose what you do.
Hopper: Well, I mean, that’s not really true. I’m not an A-list player so I don’t get a lot of choices, but I get a few choices, but not a lot. Most of the offers I get are independent films, very few studio films that I get offered.

CS: You’ve been starring in the “Crash” series and while I loved the movie, I don’t have Starz so I haven’t seen it yet.
Hopper: Yeah, there’s not too many people that have that. The whole deal is that you have to buy the cable channel, but the series is wonderful. It’s been really hard work but it’s been a lot of fun. I got a great character, a Phil Spector type music mogul, plays with guns and knives and has orgies and is into drunks and is totally crazy.

CS: Sounds like my kind of show. How’s it been going? Have you actually finished shooting the entire first season already?
Hopper: We shot the first season and finished in October. We shot 13, and I think we just showed the sixth episode or seventh, I’m not sure, but we’re about halfway through the ones that we shot.

CS: Is it looking good for another season?
Hopper: We’re supposed to hear next week I think if we’re going to have another season, but I’ve heard they were already writing, so it looks like we will probably have another season.

CS: Do you like that kind of regular work doing a series?
Hopper: Well, the great thing about it is that it’s a great part, that’s one thing, it’s a guy who talks a little bit too much, he’s giving speeches all the time, and it’s very difficult because we shoot the things in seven days, and there are four different stories going on at one time. It’s a lot of work and sometimes we end up doing 16 hour days a couple times a week, which is tough, but nobody complains. The writing has been really good. We’ve all the same people from the movie, same the producers and writers, so everybody is really involved in this. There are different stories running simultaneously that would criss-cross and these are new stories because those stories were resolved in the movie, so they’re different characters, all taking place in Los Angeles… even though we’re shooting in Albuquerque.

CS: Recently, there was a strange rumor about a possible “Speed 3” and last year, it was mentioned that your character might return… although I thought he died in the first movie. Have you heard anything about this?
Hopper: “Speed”? With Keanu? He did (die), he got decapitated. (laughs) I guess he could come back as a talking head I guess. (laughs) They did make a second “Speed” that Keanu wasn’t in that Jan de Bont, who directed the first directed, but I don’t think it was successful, so I’d be very surprised if they’re going to do a third one. No, I hadn’t heard that.

CS: What’s this Museum of the Moving Images award you’re getting?
Hopper: They’re giving me some sort of life achievement award, and Julian Schnabel is presenting it to me, but I’m really not sure what it’s about. (laughs).

CS: Are they going to show a retrospective of your movies?
Hopper: I don’t even know that. The guy is going to call me in a little while and fill me in but all I know is that I talked to Julian and he’s going to give me the award. Have you ever been to that museum?

CS: No, I haven’t.
Hopper: It’s out in Queens and it’s quite a big museum. It’s all about motion pictures from the beginning of the nickelodeons and the beginning of motion, so it goes back even further to the very beginning. I thought it was MOMA at the beginning and was like “Wow, the Museum of Modern Arts!” but it’s the Museum of Moving Images.

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