Welcoming actor, filmmaker, biker, sailing enthusiast and Hollywood scion Peter Fonda into Empire HQ with our firmest handshake, we were treated to a potted history of the gesture. “In the old days you’d hold your right arm out to show that you weren’t carrying a weapon,” he explains, bringing his left arm round to poke a finger pistol into our midriff. “But”, he adds with a grin, “I’m a southpaw”. That mischievous sense of humour, thirst for knowledge and easy charm was recurrent themes in Empire’s hour with the iconic Easy Rider star. Topics covered include his ‘60s biker smash, villa-hopping with Terence Stamp, Tupelo honey, great direction and his old friend (and occasional foe) Dennis Hopper. It was, as the man would say, far out.
"Somebody was asking me about Easy Rider and said, “Are you tired of talking about that?” I used to be, but then I realised that it means so much to so many people that I shouldn’t be saying things like, “I don’t wanna talk about things like that anymore.” I looked at Peter Gabriel, and I said to Chris Martin, “Do you think if Peter Gabriel was playing tonight and people were yelling, ‘Play Sledgehammer!’, that Gabriel wouldn’t sing it?” Fat chance, of course he’d sing it! Or ‘In Your Eyes,’ just two that come off the top of my head, you’re damn right he’ll sing it. If Peter Gabriel, Chris Martin, and... Mick Jagger, let’s go even older, are able to go out and do their stuff, you’ve got to too.
If John Lennon were still around, all I’d want to do is hear him play ‘In My Life’ over and over and over. That is one of the best songs. I play it, actually. I play guitar upside down and backwards. No, seriously guys, I take a right-handed guitar and I pull it over, so my right hand is actually fingering the chords and my left hand is flat-picking. And some people say “Like Jimi (Hendrix)?” I say, “I wish like Jimi” (laughs). I enjoy music, it’s something I have to enjoy, otherwise I would have never fought my way through such a right-handed instrument.
"I didn’t scour for anything but I was absolutely blown away by “She said / I know what it’s like to be dead.” Far out. I never thought they’d make a song about that. But it’s not my song. It’s just was what I was saying to George (Harrison), who was having a bad trip.
See, George and John (Lennon) had been dosed without being told – this is a terrible thing to do, giving someone a drug like LSD without them knowing it, because, you know, you think you’re losing it. “This is me,” you think. “I’m going down the river to the loony bin.” And so this was the second time they had taken LSD, and George was having a tough time. David Crosby comes up to me, and I don’t know why Crosby thought I wasn’t loaded, but he said, “You have to go down and help George.” Why am I the tour guide? I went down and I said, “George, don’t worry about it. This is a drug that makes you feel like dying and your brain doesn’t want to do that, so it’s trying to stop and that’s the conflict so just let it go and ease out.” Then I said, “I know what it’s like to be dead, because a month before I turned 11, I shot myself in the stomach by accident and I died three times in the operating table whilst my heart stopped, so I’m still here to tell you the story.” I was trying to tell George, “Don’t worry about it, just let, let the drug take you down the trip.” And John was sitting right there, looking at me as I told George several times, “It’s okay George, I know what it’s like to be dead.” Finally John said to me, “You know what it’s like to be dead? Who put all those thoughts in your head, you know, you’re making feel like I’ve never been born.”
I never said anything about it, even after Revolver came out. I never said anything about it at all. It was John in an interview with Rolling Stone, he was the one who popped it out. So, I was like, “Fine, if he talked about it I can.” Because it’s quite something to be a part of a Beatles song, you know? You guys have come up with some pretty hot groups.
(On being sampled in Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’). So bizarre (laughs). It blew my mind when that came to my attention. I thought that was really far out. What a charmed life I’ve lived!
"One of the brilliant things that Dennis (Hopper) did in the film was put Jack Nicholson in jail with us and make him an alcoholic. People in those days were not so sure about pot. “Are those guys smoking drugs?” Because we didn’t say, “You want some marijuana, Wyatt?” or “Billy, want some more pot?” We didn’t do that, we were just passing the joint back and forth, and so those people in that audience, kind of hanging back a bit, not so sure they wanted to watch a film with people smoking pot or whatever... they thought it was “Reefer Madness!” So when Jack comes as in the alcoholic… well, you see being the alcoholic was acceptable. He sucked all those people right into the movie and they couldn’t leave. When I wrote the story the lawyer was the first to die, because he’s the most innocent one. It worked brilliantly.
"It’s quite hard today to make an independent film now. Studios don’t give you any money, because they want the big tentpole movies, all youth-oriented stuff. The banks don’t lend any money – they’re all a bunch of crooks, as far as I’m concerned. So you have to learn to do what I did in Easy Rider. My principle photography was $292,000, that’s nothing man. Could I do that today? Probably for $400,000, but I’d have to make special contracts so we could all get through the union problems of travelling and shooting, and not having every day off that’s supposed to be a day off, because we had no choice – we had to. Everybody who signed up with me, because I was producing the film, agreed to shoot and run and that worked. I don’t know if the unions today would allow you to pull that off, what we did then. You may not have to be making a road film, where you have to do so much running and gunning. Maybe a film that’s taking place on street, in a place in your neighbourhood, something static so you don’t run into that problem.
To ensure the whole film cost me $11,000 and I was so pissed off. I called the insurance guy and I said, “What the fuck do you think you’re up to? You know, you’re not in the film, you’re not helping in any way, you’re not doing anything, you’re not hauling cable, you’re not loading cameras, and you’re charging me $11,000 bucks, are you fucking kidding me?” If you could insure a film today for $11,000 you’d be like, “Thank you very much, would you like to have a part in the film?’ (Laughs)
"Oh, that’s hysterical. I loved making that film. This has been the joy of my life, you know. I didn’t get paid a whole lot on that part, but I got paid decently and I got to riff. John Carpenter let me go and I started riffing. I first meet him and he leaves and I say, “Far out.” Snake Plissken and acid rain, because he had a rain machine coming on top of me. I was just having fun with that.
I have fun with everything I do, if it’s serious stuff I still have fun with it, because that’s what happens when you’re an actor if you’re doing your stuff correctly and having a good time. It’s hard and maybe very emotional, but as you can move a few beats off that heavy emotional scene and you feel like you got it, then it’s such a great feeling. I don’t know how some people can give up acting, maybe they weren’t really acting. It’s a drug, especially on stage. It’s where we have intercourse with the audience (laughs). But the sensual part of it: the sex with the audience, the intercourse with the audience, the interplay, the feeling on stage, the timing and how it changes and you have to be moving with it. If some accident happens you have to go with it. It was quite an amazing feat to go on stage and talk to an audience. It’s really remarkable. It’s a drug; it’s a high.
"I made 872lbs of Tupelo honey, and until I did that film I thought Tupelo honey was a dynamite song by Van Morrison. Then, I find out Tupelo honey is a very special honey. You can open that jar up and leave it open for 1000 years it will never set up. It will never crystallise.
I think I’ve finished it off four years ago, the last of the 872lbs (laughs). I’d give it out to people and it was fun to do, because it’s instant credibility. It’s called laevulose, the sugar in Tupelo honey, and the way they make that is they pile up these Tupelo gum trees in the swamp around a bee yard. They would build a road into the middle of the swamp – very illegal – but this was the early 1900s. I could see some of the old tractors just rusting away in the swamp, but there’s no other bloom in this swamp other than these gum trees so the bees only work that bloom and that’s pure. So, true Tupelo honey only comes from the swamps in Simpson, Northern Florida in the Apalachicola River. This is all stuff, of course, that I learned making Ulee’s Gold, but also I have to say – it wasn’t a lot I was paid – but it was the best time I ever had making a motion picture...
I can’t explain it. The director, Victor Nuñez, was so brilliant, the script was so brilliant; I burst into tears when I finished reading it. I know Ed Harris worked with him in (Nuñez's 1986 American Playhouse thriller) Flash Of Green and Ed absolutely agrees, this is one of the greatest men I’ve worked for and I’ve worked with some pretty fucking great directors. You know, Robert Wise (director of 1972 Fonda drama Two People) was no slouch, and Dennis was no slouch either, but shit, I would’ve done it for free. It was beautiful. I told Victor, “You write the best narrative-directions I’ve ever read.” He says, “I do?” I said, “Yes, for example, on page 116 scene 90 you said...” (Laughs). I had only read it once! That’s one of the faculties I have, to remember this stuff. “Ulee leaves the room with a gentle sorrow” is what it said. I said Victor, “There is no dictionary that’s gonna tell about what a gentle sorrow is. My job now is to find that, and it’s so delicious to me I have got to do this film.” I want to find the gentle sorrow. I want to find the other aspects of his character that make him frail or human, sometimes not right and sometimes way off.
"I loved doing The Limey, and I had met Terry Stamp in 1965 in Taormina, Sicily, at a film festival. Fellini was supposed be there and Terence Stamp was supposed to be there. I got to be with the baddest boys. Fellini? Oh, you bet! Anyway, Fellini didn’t show, but it was Terence and me getting smashed out of our heads. We would jump over walls, one villa to the next, and everybody had these roll-out bars, which were usually brass and glass – they’re on wheels, which you could push out to the pool in the evening. So, you know, we’d grab whatever they had out and drink it and talk about times and what was going down and going on.
That particular year, 1965, was a very tough year for me, but a very interesting year also. So I remember sitting with Terence, saying, “We have to do a film together.” I didn’t realise it would be 33 years later. When I knew I was doing the film, I got an email from Stamp saying, “This is going to be so fun to see you again, it’s been such a long time and I wonder if you remember what we were talking about. May I give you a hint?” The hint was a big capital V. I didn’t need the hint. I remember everything. I remember the exact sentences we said. Yes, it was Veruschka von Lehndorff, and I was having an affair with her. She was the number one model for Vogue and everything else in ’65. She was 6”2’ and absolutely a fabulous person, and most men were afraid of her. I wasn’t, so I got the honey and the good stuff. I got everything. She was fabulous that was the good part of ’65. That and getting fucking smashed villa-hopping and saying we have to make a film. Thirty-three years later, there we are. Soderbergh was great to work with, by the way.
Terence and I share many things in our lives, like some tough reputation that we don’t deserve. Terence has done some really cool films. So it’s a pleasure to have worked with a limey and actually have him there doing his limey stuff, and he was so fucking great.
"The ‘60s was not a dull time at all and I did make the most of it, but I took a journey from being relatively square, if you can think of it that way... of course, other people would’ve said I was extraordinarily un-square, but way out there that’s just their viewpoint of me. I cannot go through life trying to correct people’s attitudes about me or I wouldn’t have time for my life. I mean, everybody assumes that I was out sailing around, you know, that I was in an 82ft wooden sailboat. Loaded out my mind. You don’t pull over and park it at night. You have to keep sailing. If I tried my best to convince everyone that I wasn’t loaded and sailing around there, I wouldn’t have time to remember the great parts of the sailing.
People are going to assume things about me, but it used to bother the hell out of me and then I decided, “Fuck it, let’s just do it. I might as well be outrageous and see how they handle that.” So I would go out and do fucking outrageous shit and I would just do it to be outrageous, because everybody was making me. I thought, “Well, if you’re going to say it, then I might as well do it.” I didn’t kill people and neither did I dose somebody!
"I am so aware of that piece of shit. Man, are you kidding me? That guy (producer/actor Phil Pitzer) truly believes he looked like me. He had a bad hair dye job, he stole my whole uniform... my whole costume. Bitch stole my look, man! I had even met him and said, “Don’t try to do this. The critics are gonna step all over you. You have no idea.”
“Oh no, this is gonna be great... you have got to support me,” he said. I said, “Fuck you, I’m not gonna support you. But if you’re going to try to do a movie like we made, find your Easy Rider today. Go out on the road and see what’s happened today. Do it yourself today don’t try to be me. Don’t try to hook onto my tails, go out and make your own, because I did that.” Dennis and I went out and made our own movie, which blew apart the movie industry and Hollywood. We didn’t set about to do that, we just did it… They had no idea how to do what we did. They didn’t know how to reach that young audience and we were part of that young audience. Well, I was too rich to be a hippy at the time but I was there and I still remember it. So, if you remember it, you weren’t there... fuck it, I remember every bit of it. That’s the one of the curses that I have – or one of the good things – I remember everything. I’m into the detail.
"So I finished shooting a project in Utah, what an interesting name for a state in the United States. Actually, Ridley Scott is executive producer of it, and I finished it. The next day I’m on a plane coming here, we arrived about 2.30pm, kinda blasted out from the travel. But Chris Martin was playing at the Royal Albert Hall and I love his work. I did a music video with him (’Magic’), and course I had to go see it. Through the fog of travel, I made it, and suddenly I was sitting in a box with Peter Gabriel. This is kinda cool. And of course Chris Martin’s band is Coldplay. So, Chris was fabulous and the show was incredibly cool. And afterwards, Peter Gabriel and I went to see Chris after the show for just a little meet-and-greet. And there was Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Hemsworth, and probably four or five other people that I didn’t even pay attention to other than Jennifer Lawrence (laughs). Did Captain America meet Thor? I didn’t pay any attention to anyone else at all, because I was so interested in saying hello to Chris Martin and talking with Peter Gabriel.
Peter Fonda was in London for the BFI's Dennis Hopper season. Head to the official website for more details.