- A Pilgrimage to Dennis Hopper
The first time I saw Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider I didn’t think he was acting. I thought he was some stoned-out freak shoved in front of a camera to see what he’d do. When I realized later he’d written, produced, and directed the film, acting took a paradigm shift for me. He was brilliant and crazy as hell, his own kind of signature wacko that got in your face and howled like a hyena. Like Frank Booth in Blue Velvet on his knees inhaling gas, fondling Isabella Rossellini, crying, “Baby wants to fuck!” He’d called David Lynch after reading that script and said, “You have to let me play Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth.” Like Brando, Dean, Nicholson, he showed you what human beings were really like, really did, not some half-baked vanilla version. If you were afraid to offend, embarrass, horrify, mystify, disgust, or shock people, you were in the wrong profession. If you thought acting was about being pretty, you’d missed it. Not only was he going to show you what people were really like, he was going to reveal the bizarre truth you never imagined.
Once, Hopper was arrested, naked and raving drunk in public—a natural lineage of behavior from James Dean, his mentor, pulling a knife on a director. And there was the time the young Hopper worked [End Page 105] with old-school director Henry Hathaway, who made him do eighty-five takes on a scene because he refused to do it the director’s way, the old codger tiredly lifting his megaphone, saying, “Do it again,” eighty-four times until Hopper finally cracked, did it the director’s way, and stormed off the set.
Early in my film career I have an audition for a movie Hopper’s directing in North Carolina called Chasers. I am instructed not to approach him or shake his hand. All right, I think, a rule from the rule-breaker. Expect the unexpected. I have a mishmash of early film pieces on tape I’d planned to hand him, but hearing these instructions make me decide to wait to see what the vibe’s like. Maybe it’d blow an otherwise perfect audition. I’m half-broke and have to drive five hundred miles in my old Volvo, which is acting up with electrical problems. My plan is to start out at noon, which would put me there around dinner time, when I’d get a cheap room, go over my lines, and grab a good night’s sleep before reading in the morning.
Regional actors are used to these journeys, but they’re drudgery. Richard Jenkins asked me on a set once, “Is it true you guys drive hundreds of miles to read down there?” To him it sounded like a military mission, and he wasn’t far off. I’d made round trips on the same day as the audition, driving home afterward to save money, which always seemed pointless. When I arrived at the interview after eight hours on the road, my head was mush and I didn’t have a prayer of getting the part. Casting would look at me quizzically like, what the hell’s wrong with you? I’d drive home frustrated and pissed off, babbling to myself, pounding the dash and cackling, out of my mind, doing far better work in the car than I’d done in the audition.
This is before cell phones, so if there’s car trouble I’m at the mercy of the road. The first stretch out of Atlanta is a monotonous corridor of rolling highway and unbroken treeline for a hundred and fifty miles through Augusta toward Columbia. It’s late September and the leaves are turning, blue sky lifting and falling against gas stations, fast food restaurants, and fireworks billboards. I have a couple of peanut-butter sandwiches, an apple, a banana, and a Thermos of coffee, and I eat while listening to Atlanta stations fading, putting on some War, thinking [End Page 106] about my wife and two boys, aged two and eight...