Not every actor can sell out a theatre for a screening of a film in which he doesn’t even have the lead role. But the audience who came to the screening of Elegy at the Aero American Cinematheque on January 10 had come to see and hear Dennis Hopper, an American legend, actor, director, artist, and one of the survivors of that group of actors labeled “rebels” in the 1950s.
Elegy, which was released last year, is a romantic drama about an aging college professor (Ben Kingsley) who finds himself involved with a student (Penelope Cruz). It sounds like an overly familiar set-up, but as directed with sensitivity by Isabel Coixet, from Nicholas Meyers’ adaptation of Phillip Roth’s The Dying Animal, it becomes an insightful and sometimes darkly funny study of a man’s struggles with age, gender roles, concepts of relationships, and family obligations.
The movie’s performances by Kingsley, Cruz, and supporting players Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard, are all top-notch. But Hopper steals the show as a poet and best friend of the Kingsley character, a confidante who offers advice, sometimes foolish, sometimes wise, informed by his own hedonistic lifestyle.
Fielding questions after the screening, Hopper, still dapper-looking in a bohemian way, first answered the question of why he took the role in Elegy.
“I took the role because it was offered!” he replied. Then he added: “When I heard that Ben Kingley and Penelope Cruz were in it, I said yes even before I had read the script.
“Isabel Coixet is a remarkable director,” he continued. “She’s probably in her 30s. She operates her own camera – she keeps it on a ‘bungee cord’ and she moves it around that way. She gives you great confidence and leaves you alone as an actor.”
Hopper said he had enjoyed working with Kingsley in their scenes together. No, these scenes were not improvised, he said in response to a question. If they seemed so, it was because Kingsley’s acting skill allowed him to relax, he said.
Not to give away too much of the story here, but Elegy contains a scene in which Hopper plants a kiss on Kingsley’s lips. How was it to do that scene?
“It was real easy, actually,” said Hopper. “It’s one of those things you think about – like can I do this – am I going to do this? But then you just do it.”
Some of the questions Hopper fielded from audience members were a little strange. Asked how it was to film in New York (the setting, but not the shooting location for Elegy), Hopper explained that Elegy was actually shot in Vancouver. “But it looks like New York, doesn’t it?”
Asked about the Phillip Roth novel versus the film, Hopper said: “I never read the novels [that films are based on] because I found that when you’re doing the film, you can’t do the stuff that’s in the novel.”
Was this the first time he had seen the film with an audience? “It’s the second time that I’ve watched it with an audience. There was more laughter this time.”
And what was his favorite experience during the making of the movie?
“Going to karaoke with Penelope Cruz,” he admitted. “She really has the worst singing voice and she’s totally addicted to it!”
A few questions touched upon subjects other than Elegy. Hopper said he didn’t have any information about a rumored 20th anniversary edition DVD of his controversial gang epic Colors “but it sounds like a good idea.” Asked about his art and photography projects, he mentioned that he had some photos on display at the Photo L.A. show happening the same weekend in Santa Monica.
And when asked what role he has never played but would like to play, Hopper was candid:
“I’d like to play a part that would win me an Academy Award.”