Times Online – March 12 2004
– Ginny Dougary

Hollywood rebel, self-confessed wife-beater and brilliant artist, Dennis Hopper is the most underrated actor of his generation. Now married for the fifth time and the adoring father of a baby girl, he’s swapped drink and drugs for golf and Republicanism

DENNIS HOPPER LIVES IN Venice, Los Angeles, 20 minutes from the beach next to beautiful Santa Monica, the Home of the Homeless. It’s an area of artists and writers and bums, rampaging gangs and violent deaths. It also has funky boutiques, designer shops and slick restaurants, palm trees and brightly-painted houses smothered in bougainvillea.

When you drive into the street where the actor has lived for the past two decades, the folksiness hardens into monochrome industrial chic, and Hopper’s Frank Gehry-designed house is the industrial-est and chic-est of them all.

It looks more like a bunker than a home, with its corrugated steel façade and numbers scorched on the front. The crazy paving seems to be ironic with a sort of metallic sheen; a pair of giant cactuses complete the atmosphere of spiky brutalism. Obviously there is nothing as straightforward as a doorbell; instead you punch in a code and wait to make contact with a human.

The human who opens the fortress door five minutes later is Braden, one of Hopper’s two laid-back assistants who are both freckle-faced and smiley and dressed down in tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts. Victoria, wife No 5, whom I meet at the end of my visit, also looks as though she may have just come from the gym. Hopper himself, when he appears half an hour later, is meticulously turned out in a dark brown corduroy suit, crisp white shirt and leather boots.

The rooms into which you step are cavernous and quite undomestic. I am reminded of Charles Saatchi’s old house in Chelsea, where I was once invited to inspect Damien Hirst’s sheep in the living room. Behind the elegant Georgian exterior the house was a homage to British art: the walls covered with Freuds and Regos, the floors with outré sculptures by the likes of Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin. You did rather wonder where the living got done.

The art work here is resolutely American: Andy Warhol (a Mao, and a screen-print portrait of Hopper as a young man), Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Salle, Ed Ruscha. In one room there is a skinny black leather sofa with a red heart-shaped cushion. In another there is a rouched cardboard armchair and chaise longue designed by Gehry.

There are a couple of works to which I’m particularly drawn: a sort of soft-focus Bridget Riley piece of shimmering stripes, and a decorative, slightly Aboriginal, number that reminds me of a length of fabric. As it turns out, they’re both photographs of street graffiti which have been transformed in some way — perhaps silk-screened? When I ask Braden who the artist is, she says they’re by Dennis.

I’m shepherded over a courtyard to one of three Gehry buildings that make up the Hopper residence, up a staircase into a very large white room with an off-white rubberised floor, a king-size bed at one end, a desk at the other and in between a fancy cream day-bed which could be described as lived-in.

In my bag I have a photocopy of a black-and-white photograph taken by Hopper in 1961. It’s called Double Standard — deadpan wit, as it refers to two Standard signs above a petrol station in an island abutted by main roads. It’s a most satisfying picture: the view of the cars behind in the driver’s car mirror, the lines of the telegraph poles — a slightly eerie David Lynch slice of Americana. I’m staring at the original Double Standard outside the bathroom when Hopper appears at the bottom of the stairs. He is wearing shades and holds an unlit cigar in his hand. There is nothing loose about him, but neither could one say that he is exactly coiled. What he has is the stiff strut of a boxer — he is small and compact — along with a sort of vigilant alertness. He walks over to one of the windows that make up a wall of light and opens it, rubbing his finger with mild displeasure over the dirty sill. Braden says she’ll get someone to fix it, leaves the boss with a bowl-sized cup of black tea on his desk, and departs.

It’s an odd way to interview someone. Hopper is so far away from me that I often have to bellow to make myself heard. But other than the two of us sitting on the edge of the bed, which would be equally odd, there is no seating in the room but the day-bed, which is at ballroom length from Hopper and his desk. This could be simply a hazard of minimalist living or it could be a distancing device in more ways than one.

Do you want to wear your dark glasses throughout the interview, I ask. “I can take them off,” he says. Well, I’d quite like to see your eyes (which turn out to be a clear, flinty blue). “Would you really? Can you see them from over there? Harharharharhar.” He breaks into a harsh staccato of laughter.

We are talking about one of his latest films, when he suddenly breaks off — “Oh my God!” — looking as though he’s seen a ghost, which in a way he has. I hike over to his desk and look at the photograph of Helmut Newton which has flashed on to the screen of Hopper’s computer. “It’s the photograph that I took of him the day before he died. I was talking to you and I haven’t been in this room, and I didn’t set this up . . . I swear to God . . . hello, Helmut . . . oh, man . . . that’s weird.”

I’m a bit worried that he’s not qoing to be able to take his eyes off the screen. But he explains that a few friends, including Anjelica Huston and her husband Robert Graham, had spent five or six hours together over a long lunch looking at each other’s photographs, and then the next morning Newton keeled over with a heart attack — “which is just horrendous and it was only two weeks ago. But anyway that’s why I jumped.”

The new film in question, Leo (after Leopold Bloom), is most definitely an art-house movie. It stars Joseph Fiennes in the leading role of a released murderer with a mysterious past and a mission for the future. Hopper plays Horace, one of his nastier psychosexual nutters, who has a hold over the employees of the diner in which Fiennes lands a job on leaving prison. Sam Shepard also has a cameo role as the troubled Christian manager of the diner, and there’s a certain relish both in the script and the playing of it, when Shepard sprinkles Tabasco over Hopper’s food saying, “I know you like a little sin (which stretches out into a great southern drawl of seee-y-uh-nnn) on your shepherd’s pie.” There’s also a horrid little scene when Horace (Hopper) has the abused waitress’s legs splayed apart and he’s stuffing dollars between them, as well as anything else that comes to hand, such as a smashed egg.

“Oh, man!” Hopper gives one of his clenched laughs, remembering his speech: “. . . and whose egg is this?” Horace is not a million roles away from Frank, the asthmatic psychosexual nutter who wheezes into his plastic mask while subjecting his lover (Isabella Rossellini) to unspeakable acts of humiliation. That film was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in 1986 — Hopper’s comeback year, and first year of sobriety from narcotics and booze, in which he made three films back to back: the other two were River’s Edge and Hoosiers, for which he won an Oscar nomination.

I wonder whether he minds being typecast, since I can’t think of a role in which Hopper hasn’t played some crazy, from Easy Rider to Apocalypse Now to Speed to Blue Velvet and beyond. And then I apologise since I imagine he gets asked that all the time. “No, I haven’t been asked it a lot,” he says equably. “The point is that unfortunately I’ve been trapped inside a system that I’ve been able to eke out a living from for almost 50 years. I’ll be 68 in May and I went into contract for Warner Brothers when I was 18.

“So in over 150 movies, I’ve done just about everything.” As a teenager he was in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean, whose acting tip was “Do it, don’t show it”.

“But mostly I get to play heavies, that’s basically what I’ve fallen into. I mean I rarely get offered the other roles.” Does he get bored? “No, because heavies are always interesting . . . usually more interesting than the guy on the other side going ‘What are you doing to him?’ But I would like to be able to play much better roles than I get.” This is said without rancour but is a refrain to which we return on several occasions, with a mounting sense (mutual, incidentally) that it’s curious how much better regarded Hopper is in almost any country other than his own (add to that list Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Brian Wilson and you’ve got the beginnings of some sort of thesis.)

I’d read somewhere that he’d have loved to have been a “serious” actor: “Well, you know, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen now but I would love to have played King Lear and I would love to have played Hamlet,” he says. “I came out of playing Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego when I was 13 years old. From 13 to 18, all I did was play Shakespeare.” Somewhat unusual, I ask, for an alfalfa farmer’s son from Kansas, but I find the cuttings have led me astray.

“Well, no,” he smiles tightly. “My mother’s father was a wheat farmer and I was raised on their farm. But my father was not a farmer.” Hopper’s father managed a grocery store in Dodge City before joining the Office of Strategic Services, aka the CIA, during the war. He was posted to China, Burma and India “and was one of the 100 guys that liberated General Wainwright out of prison in Korea,” his son says now with a measure of pride. Your father was a bit of a hero, then? “Well, he was a working person in intelligence.” He was also a lay minister in the Methodist church.

After the war Hopper Sr carried a gun and guarded the mail on trains from Kansas City to Denver. Then, when the family moved to San Diego, he was mananger of the city’s post office while his wife worked for the Red Cross.

It’s always tricky for an English person to know what an American means when he says his background is middle class. I point this out when he tells me that he was first exposed to great art when he was nine or ten and was enrolled in a programme for under-privileged children: “You know we weren’t rich, OK?” Along with other kids from his neighbourhood in Kansas City, Hopper was bussed to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where he saw Gainsborough ’s Blue Boy, which made a strong impression.

On Saturdays he went to art classes and was taught by a painter who specialised in Rocky Mountain water colours. “And I was doing this little rock with the river going by and a mountain and a tree, and he looked at it and said: ‘You’re not gonna understand what I’m saying right now, but some day you’re gonna have to git tight and paint loose.’ And have you learnt to paint loose? “I have learnt to paint loose. And I’ve learnt how to git tight, too . . . ” he grins.

Hopper was ousted by Warner Bros in 1957, two years after Rebel Without a Cause, when the 21-year-old actor had a well-documented falling-out with the director Henry Hathaway on the John Wayne film From Hell to Texas.

Rejected by Hollywood, Hopper turned his back in turn on Tinseltown and decamped to New York, where he became a devotee of the method-acting guru Lee Strasberg (whose methods Hopper still extols) and developed a successful secondary career as a photographer, doing fashion shoots for Harpers & Queen and Vogue (his most recent fashion commission was for French Vogue last autumn). It was in the early sixties that Hopper began collecting art. He is now on his third collection: the first two — which included a major Lichtenstein of a sunrise, worth millions of dollars now, he says, but bought for $780 — went towards alimony costs. He says he’s always traded or bartered for his collections rather than had vast sums to plough into art. He describes himself as a third-generation abstract expressionist, and was one of the first to spot the importance of the much-heralded “return to reality” when a dealer showed him a cartoon by Roy Lichtenstein and an Andy Warhol Campbell’s soup can. He immediately visited the artists’ studios and started to build up one of the first major pop art collections.

man loves a bargain. He was thrilled to buy Warhol’s very first soup can for $75, mainly because it was 25 bucks less than a later version he’d been first offered by another dealer. He’s clearly quite pleased with himself for buying his first Gehry building for as little as $90,000; the Gehrys had apparently been sitting empty for five years because the area was so bad.

Now he’s (pleasantly?) shocked to discover that his English neighbour is selling his house next door for $1.2 million: “For that little . . . I mean, it’s not even one bedroom!” And he’s very happy that he gets his clothes for free (Hugo Boss today) as well as his cars, including his beloved Jag-u-wahh.

I can’t help wondering how his artsiness went down with his parents and start by saying, cheesily, that I suppose he loved his Mom. “No,” he says.

“No,” his voice going up. This slightly takes my breath away (I mean, doesn’t every boy love his mum?) — which is a pity, as I had been going to ask him about oedipal complexes, having read an interview in which Hopper said he had been sexually attracted to his mother. “I didn’t love either one of them, very honestly,” he says.

“They weren’t bad — like, this isn’t a monster story — but I just felt out of place. They thought I should be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and that being an actor was a life of becoming a bum — and this was not an acceptable occupation. So we start there, and you can get the rest.”

Well, yes and no, actually. It’s slightly surprising that after his drug-crazed wilderness years in New Mexico, when he really went off the boil after making his hippy-biker-cult classic Easy Rider in 1969, he still had no contact with his parents — even after producing four grandchildren for them (the latest addition is a baby daughter, Galen, who is almost one. Her father is besotted: “She’s the most remarkable baby, all she does is smile and relate and she’s the most wonderful child . . . I’ve never experienced anything like this”). Hopper’s father is now dead: “He was really a decent guy, I just didn’t know him.” His mother is in a nursing home in Los Angeles and he does visit her.

Hopper is similarly unconstrained on the subject of wife-bashing. I ask him about wife No 2, Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas. She called it a day after just over a week, allegedly on account of Hopper’s “unnatural sexual demands”. Ah, the kinky handcuff story, I say. “Yeah, first of all, what handcuffs? This is Michelle . . . where did the handcuffs come from? I didn’t handcuff her, I just punched her out! Harharharharharhar.” What did you just say? “I didn’t handcuff her,” he says pleasantly. “I just punched her out.”

Do you regret all that? Beating women up? “I didn’t beat any women up. I mean, I’ve done nothing beyond anything that they did to me.” I suppose that you must have been out of your head on drink or drugs at the time? You wouldn ’t make a habit out of behaving that way? “The point is that no one was ever truly hurt by me. And if there’s any physical abuse by me, believe me it was after days of abuse by them (rueful laugh) so it doesn’t really . . . I have no . . . kind of feeling of any kind of guilt about that. I wasn’t handcuffing them and beating them to death or anything.”

We move on to golf and politics. He’s a Republican who has been voting that way since Reagan: “I liked Clinton but I voted for Bush then and I voted for Bush Sr and I’m definitely voting for Bush again.” All his life, from his childhood on, he’s been surrounded by Democrats and was very much to the left himself in the Sixties, marching with Martin Luther King and protesting against the Vietnam War.

The reasons he gives for swinging to the right are the usual conservative complaints about soft-bellied government and sponging welfare cheats. He was even moved to write a herogram to Newt Gingrich, the rabble-rouser of the far Right, on his withdrawl from politics: “Your resignation saddens me. When you want to run for president, I will be there. You have done so much more than anyone in a long time for our country. Make some money, have a life, come back, kick ass.”

His wife, Victoria, meanwhile, is a passionate Democrat who has diverted her energies from her equine activities — stadium jumping, three-day eventing, and so on — to raise funds for the party, including hosting several parties in the Gehry bunker, with John Edwards and John Kerry as guests of honour.

“How does that work, you want to know,” Hopper asks, unprompted. “Well, I support Bush and I support my wife, and I support what my wife’s involved in. That’s all. We don’t talk politics. I respect her things and, you know, whether she respects mine doesn’t really matter to me. Harharharhar.”

All these exchanges are markedly good-natured. Hopper is never edgy or tense; there are no twitches or ticks or menacing looks. Although some of his takes on life are disconcerting, shall we say, there is nothing rabid about his manner. Those characteristics belong to Hopper’s characters, not the man playing them. He says that when he’s not acting, he’s introverted and shy. “When I get up to make a speech, I am so nervous I really have problems. I have to be Dennis Hopper. Who is Dennis Hopper? I mean, Dennis Hopper doesn’t have an identity.”

The only time he does give me that familar evil eye from his movies is when I’m rude about golf — and he roars with laughter when I point it out. His father used to coax him to play as a boy; Dennis tried it once and thought it was “cissy”. But years later, when he came out of rehab in Texas, his friend the country singer Willie Nelson told him to play on his private golf course to take his mind off going to bars, and now he’s hooked: “What I find really interesting about it is that nobody’s doing anything to you. There’s no interaction between you and another person. It’s really just you and that little ball. And when you start thinking that you’re only playing against yourself, that becomes interesting to me.” According to Hopper, American golf courses are full of former wild men: “Most of the guys who were heavy on drugs and stuff — the rockers, and all that — we’re all out playing golf and we’re all sober. It is weird.” It’s probably not quite what Steppenwolf had in mind.

He was photographed at the Vanity Fair party for the Oscars but all that starry smiling and schmoozing, which is an integral part of playing Hollywood, is clearly a trial for him. “You know, I’ve had a very strange relationship with this town. I’ve always hated Los Angeles and I’m really making a major effort to like the city, and the people. I mean, it’s my home and it’s hard to hate where you live — but I’ve had such a bad relationship with it on a work level that it’s not been fun for me.” He rattles off his last year of filming, two movies in Romania, one on Vancouver Island, a film shot in Australia in which he plays Frank Sinatra: “You see, I’m not here. I don’t work here; I live here. Now that’s weird, man.

“I’d love to be in a Coen Brothers film, or something by Curtis Hanson — did you see 8 Mile? a terrific little movie — but I’ve never worked for Lucas or Spielberg. You could name most of the directors in Hollywood I’ve never worked for. I am not offered any of the roles that Jack Nicholson gets or Warren Beatty gets, or any of these people get, and never have been and never will. So when you ask me about playing villains and would I like to play other things, I think, God, I’m just lucky if I get a villain part every once in a while.”

Finally, I ask him what has made him proudest in his life, and he says his work. And then he qualifies that by saying: “The high points have not been that many, but I’m a compulsive creator so I don’t think of the children first, I think of the work. Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of and yet they ’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.”

We finish our interview with a tour around the house, after which Hopper goes off to be photographed and Victora returns to her computer to contuinue her good fight for the Democrats. While Dennis was talking about the paintings, Victoria gently warned him that their baby was sleeping, and he immediately dropped his voice to a whisper. Despite how disappointed his words sound, he didn’t really strike me as a disappointed man. He lives in a great house, in an area surrounded by his artist buddies, with a new baby daughter as well as a first grandaughter of the same age, and a marriage that seems both happy and robust. Perhaps this time he’ll be able to hang on to the art collection.