Interview with Actor/Director/Artist Dennis Hopper

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

It was a year ago, late on a June gloom, Venice afternoon, when I last sat down with Dennis Hopper. We had been working for over 18 months on a publication of his photographs for Taschen, a compilation of his work that marked a fruitful, fascinating era in his early career. It was to be our last meeting before the book went to print and he was reading, with a mix of curiosity and bemusement, a biography I had penned for the publication.

It is not an easy thing to sit beside an icon whose life you have documented and watch him read your summation of his entire existence. But Dennis, thankfully, had a sense of humor – particularly about himself. His only comment to me concerning the bio was; “do you really think anyone will want to read about me?” to which my answer was a definitive “yes.” Dennis was as crazy and as colorful a character as any he portrayed onscreen and his own life – a rich, fertile and freethinking adventure – was the greatest of his roles.

Q: Some people tend to see you as an actor only, not realizing that you work in other mediums. What would you label yourself if you had to?

A: I’ve always been doing some sort of art. I started off, when I was very young, painting. I was an abstract expressionist before I had seen any abstract expressionist paintings.  I started when I was a kid and continued just doing abstract stuff all through high school.  I didn’t see an abstract painting until I was 18, when I went to Vincent Price’s house and saw Richard Niebencorn, Wolff, Jackson Pollack. He had an amazing collection.  I didn’t know people painted abstractly, I thought I was just doing something wholeheartedly.

Q: When you started acting, did you stop producing visual art?

A: I was still making paintings and started out with photography as well. James Dean said I should get a camera and start practicing being a director. And I was exploring the art scene in LA at the time as well. It was a strange moment for contemporary art. Even Man Ray was sold in the back room of an exhibit in Los Angeles at this period of time.  This is also when we had a Jackson Pollack at the LA County museum in 1963 and the Board of Trustees refused to hang it in the museum because they thought it was Communist propaganda.  So that was the state of Los Angeles in the late 50s and early 60s.  So we were a little behind, which forces you to do other things.

Q: Like take photographs of the artists.

A: I thought photographing the artist would be important.  A lot of them did become famous, they weren’t famous at the time, but I thought that was something important. Beyond that I just sort of snapped my life and the things going on in my own world.  I think also not being a professional photographer was actually a blessing, because it allowed me to shoot things professional photographers wouldn’t shoot, or wouldn’t try or attempt to shoot without lights.  So I did all my stuff natural and without lights. I never really made any money and it certainly cost me more to take photographs than I got for them. Basically, I wanted to meet the artists and see their work.  That was it.  That’s the life that I wanted to be involved in.

Q: During this period, you’re acting quite a bit, was there ever a moment where the visual art became more important to you than acting?

A: It wasn’t more important, but I could do it easier.  I couldn’t get a job acting all the time and there were down periods where I could take photographs or paint.  I got into a lot of trouble when I was young, from making two films with James Dean, watching him work and then him dying and thinking I could turn down work.    There was a big difference, he was a star and I wasn’t.  So I got in a lot of trouble and was essentially banned from Hollywood. It wasn’t exactly like they had to pass a hat around to figure out if they wanted to blackball Dennis Hopper.  It was pretty obvious that I was someone who was out of control and not to be worked with.  It was partly because method acting was a new thing in Hollywood then and Marlon Brando had gotten through and Montgomery Clift had gotten through and James Dean but beyond that there wasn’t really anybody.  And for me to think I could possibly tear down these war horses.!? So anyway I went back and studied with Strasberg, because I couldn’t work in film or get a job in film anymore. And I painted and I made assemblages and I took photographs.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your most famous photograph – Double Standard

A: It’s at Doheny, Melrose and Santa Monica. I just stopped in the car and I took a picture.  I was like trying to collect these “smart women cook with gas” billboard campaign. They had these great women hand painted in oil on wood, so I went around to the Gas Company and ask if they would sell me these things. They said I could have them for $700 because they would sell it to me for the price of the wood.  They didn’t care about the painting because they were going to destroy them anyway.  So they said ‘well you can have as many as you want’. There must have been 10 of these.  So I needed to find someone to give me $7,000 so we could put these aside store them and then we could take them out in 30 years and they would be this amazing art from the period.  People said, ‘do you have any idea how much it’s going to cost to store these things for 30 years, blah blah blah.!” No one gave me the money. Anyway, I wish I could have done it.

Q: And eventually you started directing.

A: As an actor, you have no control really. I figured out I could become a director and not listen to anybody, which is what I did on Easy Rider.  You’re in control.  People get out of your way you get your way, you may be right or wrong, but its yours. Photography and painting, all of that fed into my directing eventually.

Q: What sort mediums do you work in now?

A: I went back to photography in the 1990s.  But from the 60s to the 90s I didn’t really take any photographs at all, unfortunately. During that period I lived in France, I lived in England, I lived all over the place in different cities.  I didn’t take any photographs and because  I felt I had really accomplished everything that I wanted to in photography during the period between 61 and 67. Except I tried to get into Vietnam. I wanted to go to Vietnam because (Robert) Capa was one of my great heroes, but they’d shut down allowing anyone into Vietnam, all correspondents.  I didn’t get in which is all right because I probably would have gotten myself killed. But besides that I felt had pretty much done everything I wanted to do during those few years. But then in the 90s I started working with digital photography.

Q: Are you still collecting?

A: Well I’m still around artists.  I don’t have anymore wall space.  And I don’t have the money to collect anymore, the prices are outrageous.  Banks wont even loan each other money, everybody’s going broke, and here we are inside here, these people are going to be out on the street selling apples and pencils and they’re still going to be buying paintings for this money, so I don’t know what’s going on in this world.

Q: Were you ever formally trained?

A: I had started taking lessons when I was about 6 or 7. I started studying Rocky Mountain watercolors in Dodge City, Kansas.  When we moved to Kansas City, Mo. I studied at Nelson Atkins Museum art gallery on Saturdays/ I would spend 5 hours there. I would go in and we would have an hour to go around and sketch whatever we wanted, and they had a theatre there and I would go and sketch the actors, that’s where it really sunk in, what acting was. I was about 9. So I was always involved in art and when I went under contract at Warner Bros. at 18, it afforded me the possibility of never having to stop painting, never having to stop taking photographs and so on, and to actually live a cultural life.

Dennis Hopper Photographs 1961-1967 will be published by Taschen in Spring 2011

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