Most actors fear being typecast -- giving a performance that’s so searing and memorable that audiences have difficulty viewing them in any other type of role. But 43 years after he produced, wrote and starred in “Easy Rider,” Peter Fonda still loves being considered the archetype of iconoclastic cool. Whenever he shows up on screen in any film -- especially his Oscar-nominated turn in 1997’s “Ulee’s Gold” -- the audience always expects an edgy, incisive performance.
We meet up with Fonda in Vienna, where he has been shooting his latest, “Harodim.” He’s very relaxed, swinging a water bottle as he walks up. The water, he’s quick to point out, contains no dubious chemicals. Despite the soapbox reputation of his family -- his sister is actress/activist Jane Fonda -- he doesn’t seem overly evangelistic about it.
He brought the container with him from America, he explains, and filled it with water from Vienna straight from the tap because he heard that Vienna has the best water of any major city in the world. He can taste the difference, he says. He could talk about water for hours -- it’s the second most important thing on earth right after oxygen.
So it’s easy to start there, talking about healthy living.
Red Bulletin: You’re looking young, like you haven’t lost anything since “Easy Rider.” Being Peter Fonda is obviously a good job.
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. I’m a very happy boy. I’m 72 years old, but I’m really 8.
Sounds like a fairy tale, and it fits perfectly that a good 40 years after your character Captain America was blasted so explosively from his Harley in “Easy Rider,” he’s back on the fastest and most extreme bike that exists today. Isn’t it a danger to the public when granddad thunders through California on an MV Agusta F4CC?
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, like some Italian masterpiece -- my Modigliani. I keep it in the living room, much to my wife’s regret.
"When there are no police, no other people on the road… then I crank it on."
Can you actually drive an F4 normally, without making the cops 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 James Dean?
Yes, something like that. But James was driving really fast then. When I go really fast, I know there is nobody else on the road. But 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 even manage to turn sharply -- I couldn’t do that with a Harley or a Triumph. Not even with my BMW R 100 RS from 1978 -- another great bike, by the way. Mine’s yellow.
Spoken like a true fan. Everyone remembers their first vehicle. From your father, the incomparable actor Henry Fonda, you were given a very used VW Bug. Was that a way of keeping you grounded amid all that Hollywood glamour?
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. When John Wayne and Randolph Scott played “pitch,” which is a type of cowboy card game, with my father in the living room, it could happen that John Wayne came over to me and snatched my toy pistol to put it on the table like they did in the westerns -- that was funny, but totally normal amongst family friends. No hint of glamour.
It was a long time before I realized 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 theater because someone had to take care of me.
Of course, the atmosphere still made an impression on me. When I was about 14, I overheard Gary Cooper say, “If I know what I’m doing, then I don’t have to act.” Later, when I thought about my job, this sentence came back to me. If you know what you’re 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’re suddenly so intimate with the audience.
“Easy Rider” was in 1969. You didn’t really have a chance to transcend this landmark in film history. But you’ve found your profile beyond the stoned outcast - as an actor and an earnest person who can take a stand and is heard. What kept you on track?
My father’s genes -- that for which my surname and first name stand...
Peter? Not exactly the coolest name.
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” -- well, that was the last straw. But then I discovered that Peter -- Petrus -- means “rock” and that Fonda means “bottom,” and that we could trace our Italian ancestry back to the 13th century. When I realized 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.
"It’s in our Constitution that water belongs to us, as the people, and we must not pollute it. And still we are..."
Does that really help in a certain milieu? “Easy Rider” was not exactly a testament to a healthy way of life.
With the money I earned from “Easy Rider,” I bought myself an 82-foot 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 -- because I want to, and not to claim new lands for the queen. I’ve often sailed more than 4,000 miles. I navigate with the sextant -- okay, GPS is now more precise.
Hawaii is my spiritual center as far as seafaring is concerned. It’s the most isolated [place] in the world, the last station of Polynesian migration and, in fact, language as well. 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 the 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 can’t be stoned and use a sextant. You have to be totally sober. You have to understand your responsibility toward everybody else on the boat.
But at the same time the experience of art must have played a large role...
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 looked at his palette and spoke to his paints in Spanish. He said, “You are s***. You are nothing. It looks like a bird flew over and dropped his s*** 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 s***!” That was unbelievable. That was performance art.
Success, fame, art, the ocean -- all of these things in abundance. Did you ever feel tempted to immerse yourself in the spirituality of Buddhism? Plenty of 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 9 years old I came home from school and I asked my father: “Dad, what does n***** 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 was almost purple. But he was really kind, so I thought that purple people were the nicest people in the world. Whether that was non-discriminatory, or naïveté if you like, nothing has changed.
You are quite outspoken with American politicians. And because of your status, your comments receive attention. You assessed the IQ of George W. Bush somewhat, um, frankly, and directly attacked Obama after the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. What is the shortest version of your prolonged annoyance?
The unbelievable ignorance of politicians when it comes to the world’s water and oxygen. Arising from this are the topics of health, hunger. I support Doctors Without Borders, an organization I very much like. In the USA we have the Waterkeeper Alliance. Robert Kennedy Jr. heads it. He’s brilliant. It’s in our Constitution that water belongs to us, as the people, and we must not pollute it. And still we are polluting it with the arrogance of [Dick] Cheney, Bush, and others like them. Such arrogance is unbelievable. That is decadence to me. And people fail to see what they are destroying, because they are convinced about these leaders.
"People refer to me as 'Easy Rider.' I’m not. I’m Peter Fonda. I’m Rock Bottom -- but people forget that."
Finally, going back to “Easy Rider” again. [Co-star and director] Dennis Hopper died in 2010. Do you still stay in contact with 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 some grass.” [He replied] “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.”
“I don’t know. You say it’s all right?”
The camera cuts to me and I don’t say anything. I just smile.
“Here, let me give you a light.” The first match breaks. Jack leans over to me and I light it. He takes a hit and says, “That tastes pretty good I guess. You sure it’s all right?”
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 s*** about people coming from Venus. In the background, you still see Jack holding his breath.
I say, “Hey man, you’re stoned.”
“I know I’m stoned,” Dennis says. “But I saw these three objects, they were going like that -- and they whizzed off in that direction.”
And Jack goes: “That was a UFO beaming back at you.” Dennis keeps talking about people from Venus, that they are actually amongst us right now.
In this brilliant moment of his performance, the two campfire scenes, Jack sucks the audience right into our lives. Bang! They are in the movie! They can’t escape now. Thank you very much, Jack! While I was writing the script, I said to myself: The 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 being me and Dennis. It’s an easy answer. Do you want to go with a speed freak who has 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 take the day as it comes. So you go with Captain America and not “Billy” -- that’s Dennis. So 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 the script on Sept. 27, 1967, I said I wanted the audience to think that they were going back to help -- that they’ve realized 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.
Check out the June 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands May 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.