Dennis Hopper for “Knockaround Guys”

Dennis Hopper may not be the wild man he once was, but he still has plenty to say. About to leave for Australia where he will be starring as Frank Sinatra in a new Aussie film, Hopper talks to Paul Fischer about his role as a mobster dad in the long-awaited Knockaround Guys, not to mention Easy Rider, impending fatherhood at 66 and the good old days.

Dennis Hopper is desperately trying to finish his cigar before our interview. “I figured I killed enough people with second-hand smoke,” laughs the youthful 66-year old actor. Sporting a neatly trimmed goatee beard, and dressed dashingly in black suit with purple shirt and tie, Hopper is looking energetic. “Which is surprising since I took my son surfing at 7 o’clock this morning,” he says, smilingly. Hopper lives in trendy Venice Beach these days, with fifth wife, Victoria Duffy. Married to her since 1996, the couple is expecting their first child together.

Fatherhood at 66 is a little intimidating for Hopper, who already has two grown up daughters and a 12-year old son from his previous marriages. “It’ll be wonderful,” says Hopper on approaching fatherhood. “But really, and my wife doesn’t like to hear me say this, it’s going to fulfil HER life. She’s been a stepmother to my child since he was one year old and a wonderful stepmother. At 34, she’s much younger than I am, so for her to have a child is very important to her and this is a great thing. She has morning sickness every day and is very happy”, he laughingly adds.

At 66, Hopper finds it harder to challenge himself as an artist. An accomplished photographer and filmmaker, Hopper acts these days for his own pleasure, but his next film, the Australian-set The Night We Called It A Day will be his most challenging. Co-starring Melanie Griffith, Hopper will be playing the 59-year old Frank Sinatra in an account of Sinatra’s Australian tour during which he called an Aussie journo a whore. “It’s certainly a big challenge and more than I like to take on very honestly, but I’m going for it,” Hopper says, who admits to never having sung a song in his life. “It’s not going to be my voice, but there are seven songs I have to sing. That’s a big challenge as Sinatra because he was such a great singer. His breathing, his phrasing none of which I have, by the way.”

The film recalls Australian unions’ refusal to allow Sinatra and his entourage permission to leave the country until after he apologised. “I’m not going to try to emulate Frank Sinatra or mimic him because I’m not a mimic but I’m going to try and play him as honestly as I can, with a little bit of a New Jersey accent, but even that he lost. He was a very minimal guy so there’s not a lot to go on.” Hopper recalls that he knew Sinatra quite well which will make this film, his 150th as an actor, his most challenging, he says. “It’s a good and honest script, not demeaning or putting Sinatra down on any level.”

This will be the second time that Hopper worked in Australia, the first being in 1976’s bushranging adventure, Mad Dog Morgan. He has changed considerably since those days. “I was out of my mind back then”, Hopper laughingly recalls. “I was Daniel Morgan on 150 proof rum and had no idea what the hell was going on.” They were the best of times and the worst of times, but for Hopper, they were unforgettable times. Beyond the booze and drugs, there was the work. Hopper helped define a generation with his landmark classic Easy Rider, which still has stood the test of time, despite it remaining a symbol of 1960s disillusionment as America was thrust into Vietnam.

Asked about its symbolism at the time, Hopper says that “it was the first time rock music was ever used and I had the consciousness of wanting to make a time capsule kind of film. You know we had gone through the whole ’60s and nobody had made a movie about the hippies, nobody had made a movie about the drugs, except about a bunch of nurses going out and smoking some marijuana, and somebody killing them all or whatever-you never saw anybody realistically smoking marijuana without being some criminal act beyond what we were doing. Nor had you had ever seen rock music used in a movie which was just unbelievable.”

These days, while Easy Rider continues to enjoy classic status, Hopper and co-star Peter Fonda don’t talk. “We stopped talking because I finally had to sue him to be paid because I was being paid out of his company,” he says bitterly. Hopper concedes that while it’s a sad state of affairs, “I also feel it is tragic that people who had very little involvement suddenly came and wanted to have pieces and money from the film, I mean Terry Southern who wrote nothing except the title broke his hip. Peter and I had walked and talked this whole movie and I dictated it to a young woman in ten days, not a big deal, but then, suddenly Terry at one time had one-third of the film even though he did not write anything. Until the movie came out it was no problem.”

Easy Rider marked Hopper’s directorial debut and remains a milestone in American film culture, but as for Hopper’s ensuing directing aspirations, the actor is embittered about that aspect of his career and is desperate, he says, to return behind the camera. “I have a need to direct again,” Hopper says. “There’s a film I’ve been writing for a few years that I have to finish. I’ll direct something this next year even if I have to go out with a video camera and do it. I need to direct and I’ve wanted to direct for a lot of years.” He adds that this desperate need for him to direct comes “because I’ve been stopped so long from directing. I’ve spent so many years trying to direct that I’ve never lost the fire that some people burn out. I’ve never burned out on anything: on acting, or directing because I’ve always fought so hard just to keep myself above water. I’ve been outside the industry for so long that it’s inside the industry. It’s mostly independent films; I very seldom work inside the industry.”

Which brings us to his latest acting gig, that of a mobster dad in New Line’s Knockaround Guys, in which he stars opposite John Malkovich as his gangster sidekick and rising star Barry Pepper as his son trying to impress his father. Hopper’s involvement with the movie began with a golf game, the actor recalls. “I was playing golf with Charles Koppelman, who’s Brian Koppelman’s father, and Charles said: My son is about to direct his first movie with his writing partner, David Levien, and John Malkovich is going to be in it. I thought, Oh, man, what a great actor. He said, would you like to be in it. I said, if there’s a part in it for me. He sent me the script and I said, this is terrific. A nice movie.”

It was also a small part for the veteran actor, but that didn’t concern him. “My criterion about small parts is do they have a life of their own inside the movie, which this character does, so it’s ok. I also wanted to work with Malkovich and I always like to work with first-time directors, especially when they’re auteur directors, when they’ve written the material and they’re also going to direct it, so there wasn’t a problem getting into it. It was a thrill meeting the young actors who are on the journey: Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper and Seth Green and was a terrific experience,” says Hopper.

As for revisiting a classic genre, Hopper say this movie is offering a unique perspective on a genre that Hopper has always loved. “When I was kid going to the movies, I loved all the heavies such as Bogart and Cagney. Then you look at the Godfather and how can you not like the Godfather I, II, and III? I thought that Knockaround Guys was an interesting look at the mob that now after the Rico Act and how they’re just trying to hold it together and thought it was a more realistic kind of approach to things.” Hopper also sees the film as a coming of age movie. “It’s about Barry Pepper becoming a man and deciding what he wants to do rather than his father, who I play, without giving him responsibility. It was really good experience for me.”

Hopper is keeping himself busy, on and off the screen. Once an obsessive art collector, Hopper says he doesn’t collect as much these days. “I haven’t bought a lot of things recently. The last thing I bought was probably Julien Schnabel, David Sally, Richard Sara. I don’t have any place to put it honestly. I don’t buy things to put them in storage so if I can’t hang them on my wall, I’ve sort of given up. I built an art barn and I have a lot of art space, and it’s all full. But I have a nice collection and if I see something that knocks me out, I’m sure I would go for it.”

Hopper also hangs out on the golf course [“My game sucks but I play as much as I can”], surfs with his son and is waiting for fatherhood, though his wife won’t be accompanying him to Australia. Asked whether he would encourage his son to act, Hopper says that he “won’t try to stop him from trying to be an actor; I want him to be what he wants but I think he probably will be. He plays guitar now so he may be a musician, which is ok too. I just want him to have a good life.” In the meantime, Hopper’s wife is due in April “and my daughter’s due any minute with my first grandchild.” A father and grandfather virtually simultaneously. Not bad for Mr Hopper who’s enjoying a new lease on life at the tender age of 66.