Words: Herbert Volker Photography: Philipp Horak
We meet Peter Fonda in Vienna, where he has just finished shooting a film, Harodim. The veteran actor is relaxed, and carrying a water bottle. The bottle is light, made of plastic, and as Fonda explains, without seeming overly evangelistic about it, contains no dubious chemicals such as BPA. The bottle came with him from America, and is filled straight from the tap, because Fonda had heard that Vienna had the best water of any large city in the world. He says he can taste the quality of the water, and gives the impression that he could talk for hours about water, and the dozens of other subjects he’s learned during a long, varied life that shows only few signs of slowing. He’s the son of a famous actor, the father of a famous actress, and with Easy Rider, which he produced, starred in and co-wrote, he made a landmark film that changed both Hollywood and the audience that flocked to see it in 1969.
THE RED BULLETIN: You look cool, young and fit. Your figure is almost the same as it was in Easy Rider. Being Peter Fonda is obviously good for you.
PETER FONDA: I drink a lot of water. I have a good head and a good heart. I like to be good to people. I don’t want to be bad, but if something has to be stopped, then I’ll make a stand against it. This authority comes from the heart. It’s OK: I’m a very happy boy. I’m 72 years old, but I’m really eight.
Is it your younger side that, more than 40 years after you were so iconically linked to motorcycles as Captain America in Easy Rider, sees you thundering through California on an MV Agusta F4CC, one of the fastest and most extreme road bikes?
Everyone worries so much about me [laughs]. I like the idea that you can’t see my corpse in the film – as if I was just a dream, a mythological thing. And now I come back to earth with an F4. It’s a really cool motorcycle. It’s just like some Italian masterpiece: my Modigliani. I keep it in the living room, much to my wife’s regret.
Can you actually ride an F4 normally, without making the sheriff go berserk?
When there are no police, no other people on the road… then I crank it on! I know what to look out for. I know not to trust traffic lights and other signals. I don’t trust anything, because somebody can come and take me out just like that.
Like what happened to James Dean?
Yes, something like that. James was driving really fast then. When I go really fast, I know there is nobody else on the road. The problem is that I’m really tall, I have long arms and legs. The bike is built for someone quite short. When I sit on it, I look like a praying mantis. But it doesn’t matter, because if there’s an obstacle I can turn sharply. I couldn’t do that with a Harley or a Triumph, not even with my 1978 BMW R100RS – another great bike, by the way. Mine’s yellow.
Everyone remembers their first vehicle. Your father, Henry Fonda, gave you a very used VW Beetle. Was that a deliberate measure to distract you from the glamour of Hollywood?
There was no Hollywood glamour at our place, zero. My godfathers were Gary Cooper and James Stewart, but to me they were our friends, not actors or celebrities. Once, when John Wayne and Randolph Scott played pitch, a type of cowboy card game, with my father in the living room, John Wayne came over to me, snatched my toy pistol and put it on the table, like they did in the Westerns. That was funny, and totally normal among our family friends. No hint of glamour. It was a long time before I realised that my father’s profession was something special. My mother died when I was very young, so my father was a very central figure for me – as a father, not as an actor. People think that it was easy for me as Henry Fonda’s son, but he never talked to me once about acting. He never explained how he worked. I had to learn by watching him. Sometimes he took me to work with him in the theatre because someone had to take care of me. Of course, the whole ambience still made an impression on me. At home once, when I was about 14 years old, I heard the men talking, and Gary Cooper said, “If I know what I’m doing, then I don’t have to act.” Later, when I thought about my job as an actor, this sentence came back to me. If you know what you are doing, you don’t have to act. If you don’t see the wheels churning in my head, then I’ve got you. That’s the ‘sex’ of what we do, because we are suddenly so intimate with the audience.
Easy Rider was released in 1969, and you haven’t made a film with a similar impact since. A person could easily fall to pieces over this, but you haven’t. Why is that?
My father’s genes, and that for which my surname and first name stand.
‘Peter’ is not exactly super-cool, though, is it?
Exactly. I hated the name Peter when I was small. I wanted my friends to call me something else. I didn’t like myself, I was very skinny, my hands looked too feminine. And the meaning of ‘peter out’ – that was the last straw. But then I discovered that Peter, from ‘petrus’, means ‘rock’ and that Fonda means ‘bottom’, and that we could trace our Italian ancestry back to the 13th century. When I realised that I’m ‘Rock Bottom’, I thought it was pretty cool, and I still like it today. It means there’s only one way to go: up. Hey, I’m rock bottom! I have a chance to learn my entire life, and if I can learn, then I’m a free person. So I think I have taken some things from my family history that kept me on track.
Other things from your history could be seen as less helpful. Easy Rider was hardly a call for a healthy, future-oriented way of life.
With the money I earned from Easy Rider
I bought myself a 25-metre sailboat, the most beautiful and the best there was and will ever be. That was my home. I love to be on the ocean, sailing long distances. I’ve often sailed more than 4,000 miles. I navigate with the sextant – OK, GPS is now more precise. Hawaii is my spiritual centre as far as seafaring is concerned. It’s the most isolated country in the world, the last station of Polynesian migration and, in fact, language. Language starts with the bushmen in Africa and ends up with the Hawaiians. Yes, I’ll sail back to Maui soon, hike in the mountains, cycle, sail again. It’s a very healthy lifestyle.
With sailing, the drugs stopped as well. People thought I was out there sailing on that ship stoned all the time, but you can’t pull over and park a boat at night. You must keep sailing. You can’t be stoned and use a sextant, you have to be totally sober. You have to understand your responsibility towards everybody else on the boat.
You have also been influenced by art.
I have Dennis Hopper to thank for that. I got to meet all these famous artists. He showed me everything I needed to know about pop art. I was introduced to Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. And being Peter, son of the great Henry Fonda, I actually got to go into Picasso’s studio. His children ran in. He said to me, “I’ll just do a little thing here for you.” He’d looked at his pallet and spoke to his paints in Spanish. He said, “You are shit. You are nothing. It looks like a bird flew over and dropped his shit on you.” And he said in French: “You are beautiful. You are so fine. Everything about you is balanced and perfect – I can see it.” Then: “You piece of shit!” That was unbelievable. That was performance art.
Success, fame, art, the ocean, all of it in abundance. Did you ever feel tempted to step back, immerse yourself in the spirituality of something like Buddhism, as many others were doing it at that time?
No. But I have respect for meditation, because it really does something. I respect other people who want this or that. And I have absolutely no prejudices. When I was nine years old, I came home from school and I asked my father: “Dad, what does nigger mean?” He blew up, he was furious at me: “Don’t you ever use this word again.” But he didn’t explain to me why. He just got so angry. The first black man I met was Nat King Cole. He was so black, he seemed purple to me. But he was really kind, so I thought that purple people were the nicest people in the world. Whether that was nondiscriminatory, or naivety if you like, nothing has changed.
You are outspoken on the subject of American politics, and have attacked both George W Bush and, after the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Barack Obama. Why the prolonged annoyance?
The unbelievable ignorance of politicians when it comes to the world’s water and in 2010. Do you still stay in contact with the other face of Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson?
I don’t see him much, but we talk on the phone a lot. He’s a very funny guy. I like Jack. He did a very good job for me in Easy Rider. The audience was not sure about two guys who were obviously smoking marijuana … although we never said, “This is my pot,” until I said to Jack, “This is grass.”
He said, “You, you… mean marijuana?”
That’s Jack! In real life Jack had been smoking pot a long time before that, but he is so convincing in the film: I don’t know. I have enough trouble with the booze and all that stuff. You know, I don’t want to get hooked.”
“You won’t get hooked.”
The camera cuts to me and I don’t say anything. I just smile.
Jack says, “I don’t know. You say it’s alright? Let, let, let, let me see that! It smells good.”
“Here let me give you a light.” The first match breaks, this was not intended.
Jack leans over to me and I light it. He takes it in and says, “Well that tastes pretty good I guess. You sure it’s alright?”
I don’t say anything. Then: “You have to hold it in your lungs a little longer.” He is holding his breath. We cut to Dennis, he’s talking about flying saucers and all that shit about people coming from Venus. In the background, you still see Jack holding his breath.
I say to Dennis, “Hey man, you’re stoned.”
He says, “I know I’m stoned. But I saw these three objects, they were going like he lawyer, will be killed. He is the most innocent. In all the Greek dramas and tragedies I’ve studied, the first thing that’s attacked is innocence. There is no reason to kill him, but he is killed just because he is with us. That is a dramatic effect; it makes the audience decide who are they going to go with. The two remaining people are me and Dennis. It’s an easy choice. Do you want to go with a speed freak with a knife, or are you going to go with this enigmatic-but-very-cool person? You want to ride and be easy and comfortable with life and to take the day as it comes. So you go with Captain America and not Billy, Dennis’s character. When Dennis goes down it’s a shock for the audience. Captain America turns around and comes back to help Dennis. You see the people on the truck say: “We gotta go back.”
When I wrote this, on September 27, 1967, I said I wanted the audience to think that they were going back to help – that they’ve realised they have done something terrible. But the way I see it, the way I played it, the way it is on screen, it’s that they are going back to get rid of the witness.
And so this mythological character, Captain America, is killed, and his motorcycle blows up – I pushed the button myself. And from above, we see the burning motorcycle and Dennis’s body. You can’t see my body, but if you freeze the frame you can actually see it. But I like the idea that you can’t see my body, as if I had only been a dream, a myth. People still love Easy Rider. I hear it all the time. People refer to me as ‘Easy Rider’. I’m not. I’m Peter Fonda. I’m Rock Bottom – but people forget that.
Fonda’s latest film, Harodim, is a conspiracy thriller that weaves pre-existing documentary footage into its fictional plot to give a very different complexion to the events leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Here, he discusses playing a villain ripped not from the headlines, but between the lines
The red bulletin: Do you believe that ultimately the US government could have been behind the 9/11 attacks?
Peter Fonda: I’ve heard the theory, though it is not my position. In the movie, I play a man who is basically evil and there is this scene where I talk to my son, Lazarus, who thought I was dead. He finds out what really happened, which entails me telling him the story behind the attacks. Things that he had already heard from a terrorist, but didn’t believe. But it was interesting to play this guy. I do think we don’t know the truth – I think the same about President Kennedy’s assassination. Later in the movie, I’m explaining about the terrorists and I say a phrase that George Bush said: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” I go on to say, “What did that buffoon” – meaning Bush – “say I could call [terrorists]? Evil-doers?” Can you imagine that? The evil-doers! I added that line in – it wasn’t in the script. But it makes the whole political thing so real, because it is foolish. The evil-doers! This is like reading to a third-grader. Whoever thought up such a word for terrorists exposes himself as the buffoon.
In the film, the terrorist who’s recruiting assassins for the attacks uses factors in the American lifestyle as motive: its decadence and irreverence.
I agree with the irreverence part, because I like the Marx Brothers. They were totally irreverent, very funny. I think that our government is truly decadent, but that is my personal feeling. Yes, OK, the American lifestyle may be crazy.
The movie also shows fear as being the driving force of the world.
Sometimes I think that the government claims to have certain information just to keep the fear going. I know we have enemies, I don’t want to sit down and have lunch with them, but I am not afraid of them. But I am unusual, in a sense, that I have lived longer and I have seen a lot. Babies are born with two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear we have learned somehow in life. We are taught to fear things.
Check out the other fascinating stories in the May issue of The Red Bulletin and download the free Red Bulletin iPad App, available on the App Store. More info at www.redbulletin.com