Actress Illeana Douglas Recounts A Life 'Lived In And Out Of The Movies'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When I picked up the new memoir by actress Illeana Douglas titled "I Blame Dennis Hopper," I wanted to know what do you blame him for? Well, she tells you in the first chapter. When she was a child in 1969 and her father saw the movie "Easy Rider," starring the Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda as hippies on a motorcycle journey through part of America, her father decided to transform himself. He wanted to be Dennis Hopper - not the actor, but the character he played in the film. Soon her father became a hippie and started a commune and, as we'll hear, this had a big impact on Illeana's childhood and on the rest of her life.
The great thing is she eventually got to work with Hopper in the film "Search And Destroy." She got her start in film working with Martin Scorsese in bit parts, then in "Cape Fear" in which her character was brutally raped by Robert De Niro's character. Illeana Douglas and Martin Scorsese were a couple for several years. Her movies include "To Die For," "Grace Of My Heart," "Picture Perfect" and "Ghost World." She had recurring roles on "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Six Feet Under." She created and stars in the web series "Easy To Assemble." She also works with Turner Classic Movies. Her paternal grandfather, Melvyn Douglas, was an Oscar-winning actor.
Illeana Douglas, welcome to FRESH AIR. Since Dennis Hopper and "Easy Rider" really did change your life in a major way, let's talk about that.
ILLEANA DOUGLAS: Sure.
GROSS: After your father saw the film, what were the first ways you noticed him changing and becoming more Dennis Hopper, "Easy Rider-ish?"
DOUGLAS: Well, first of all, the movie "Easy Rider" in 1969, obviously it changed a lot of people's lives as I later said to Dennis Hopper, you know, I feel like in some ways all of us that grew up in that era are all children of Dennis Hopper. And "Easy Rider" depicted, you know, the rise of the hippie culture and also wanting to change your life. You know, coming out of postwar America mid-'60s, I don't think it had hit the middle classes yet. And I - for me as a grown-up now, I think that the movie "Easy Rider" hit the upper-middle classes. And so I think that my father, having a 9-to-5 job, just saw his life - you know, one of the other things he said was, you know, the Beatles song "Nowhere Man," it just felt like he was in traffic all day and wanted to do something more with his life. And I think that a lot of people felt that way, and so my parents made this life change. You know, the first thing that happened was he started to grow his hair longer. He started to grow a mustache. I mean, he started to resemble Dennis Hopper (laughter). He started to...
GROSS: And end his sentences with man a lot (laughter).
DOUGLAS: Yeah. I mean, the first things were, you know, getting the Steppenwolf album, listening to it again and again, that same song, you know...
GROSS: "Born To Be Wild."
DOUGLAS: "Born To Be Wild" and then, as I say in my book, you know, what's interesting was that, you know, there was no hippie handbook and so my father actually - I'm not quite sure where he found the hippies - but the first hippie he found, Tom the hippie, looked exactly like Dennis Hopper, too. He had the fringe jacket, so I think that, you know, they were emulating. That's why I say that, you know, movies can change your life. They not only were emulating looking like Dennis Hopper - because I think again part of the movie the message of the movie, remember, long hairs. And so in order to identify yourself as a hippie you had to have the hippie getup.
GROSS: So did your mother see the movie, too?
DOUGLAS: Yes, my mother saw the film "Easy Rider." They both saw it together and obviously I think that this was a, you know, a life change that she went along with. I don't know if this was - if it was something she wanted to or if it was in the air. I mean, everybody again was kind of changing their lives, but she - you know, she was an Italian Catholic. She kind of, I think, went along with everything that, you know, my father would want to do. So she was fully supportive of the commune and the hippies and the hippie lifestyle until it started, I think, affecting us as kids. But I think initially she remembers it as this really fun time, that we - you know, remember when the chicken coop went up and we all drank champagne, you know (laughter)? So, like, what grown-ups thought was fun and maybe for kids was a little what's happening to my parents?
GROSS: So your father decided to start a commune and what's confusing to me is that you didn't all move into the commune. The commune was, like, near your house, but it wasn't your house, so would you explain the relationship of the commune to your home and where exactly your father was living?
DOUGLAS: Yes. What's interesting about this is that when I say to people - oh, did you grow up on a commune? And I didn't grow up on a commune. There was a commune - my father had a commune and called it the studio and, you know, we, as I said, we could visit it. It was on our property, but it was a commune. There were hippies living there and, you know, gardens and animals and things like that, but it was specifically on our property, and then we lived in the kind of - the big house looking down on the studio.
GROSS: How much property did you have? Were you in the suburbs and there was a commune in the middle of your suburban lawn? I'm trying to get a picture of this.
DOUGLAS: Yes, pretty much. We had seven or eight acres of wooded land and this was near the pond. And it was a pretty idyllic commune, I have to say, as communes go.
GROSS: It must've been really weird to have your father, what, moving back and forth between, like, this upper-middle-class home with property and this, like, makeshift commune he'd set up on the land (laughter). It's just...
DOUGLAS: Well, to me, you know, remember I was very young, so it just seemed fun. It just seemed like all these interesting people were coming there. I learned about music. All the hippies were playing music. And it was only as I grew older that living in the house and starting to realize, like, we didn't - you know, that we were supposed to be rich and now we weren't rich anymore. We were poor, you know, dirty hippies. But originally, when I was younger, of course it seemed fun. I got to wear headbands and learn how to make pottery and, you know, be a rebel and learn how to sing like Mick Jagger. So, like, who wouldn't want - you know, I was emulating all the hippies, so it seemed, you know, really fun.
GROSS: So did your parents stay together through this?
DOUGLAS: They stayed together, yes, although they lived separately and eventually I think the lifestyle just was probably a little bit too much on my mom and they split up (laughter).
GROSS: What was your grandfather's reaction? Your grandfather was the movie star Melvyn Douglas who won a couple of Oscars who started in the movies, like, at - what - in the 1930s. And so he's a big star. A lot of people probably don't remember him now, but he was a big star and I'm sure he made a lot of money in Hollywood. So as your family started to get poorer and poorer, what was his reaction to it?
DOUGLAS: Well, to me, I looked back on it - I was very young, so I'm trying to remember some of these details - but obviously some of this was the '60s. Even, you know, the counterculture was even hitting Hollywood. So everybody was kind of trying to be hip and with it. I do have a really funny recollection of my grandfather coming to visit us. My grandfather and grandmother and me and my brothers kind of putting on, you know, an animal circus in the backyard. And, you know (laughter) - and him kind of looking like what's happening to the children? (Laughter) You know, but he had a bemused reaction to it.
GROSS: Do you remember the first time you saw "Easy Rider?"
DOUGLAS: I do. The first time I saw it was on television. It was a cut version, and I couldn't believe that this was the movie - I said, this was the movie that changed my life? Doesn't - it didn't really seem to hold up. Then as I got older I started watching it more and more and I saw the impact that this film must've had in 1969. And now when I see it, I think it's quite an important film.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about your grandfather and your relationship to him. Melvyn Douglas was in a lot of movies and why don't you name some of them?
DOUGLAS: Well, he was pretty much discovered by Gloria Swanson. She brought him to Hollywood and - to star in "Tonight Or Never." He had a very long association with MGM doing movies like "Theodora Goes Wild" and also "Ninotchka" which is quite famous..
GROSS: With Greta Garbo.
DOUGLAS: Greta - worked with Greta Garbo three times - Joan Crawford, "A Woman's Face." I mean, so many great films. And then went on to do really a classic film "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," then moved back to New York, started his secondary career as a Broadway actor winning a Tony for the best man, doing live television and then starting a secondary career, which I think is amazing, as a character actor doing films like "Hud" and "The Candidate", "Seduction Of Joe Tynan," "Being There, "The Tenant" with Roman Polanski - just a fantastic secondary career.
GROSS: Did you watch movies with him?
DOUGLAS: You know, that's interesting. I always associate movies with poor people. I went to see the movies with my Italian grandmother. I went to the theater with a grandfather. And I always associated, you know, rich people go to the theater and poor people go to the movies. But we would discuss movies and - you know, that I had seen when I had an interest in movies. And then films that he was going to do, you know, he would sit me down and explain, you know, what the plot was going to be. And sometimes the plot was better than the actual movie and we would - then we'd go to Sardi's afterwards.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actress Illeana Douglas. She has new memoir called "I Blame Dennis Hopper." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Illeana Douglas. She's an actress who has written the new memoir "I Blame Dennis Hopper."
So you went on to study acting. And you got your break in a really hilarious way. You were working for a well-known publicist who had major clients. And the office was in the Brill Building, where a lot of songwriters and movie people were. Scorsese had his office there. And Martin Scorsese was making "The Last Temptation Of Christ." And he needed to add some screams in post-production. His assistant knew you were an aspiring actress and asked if you could scream. Would you describe your audition for screaming for Martin Scorsese?
DOUGLAS: (Laughter) Well, just to back it up ever so slightly, the joke, of course, was that I had actually sent - because I had done a play in school and the director told me I had a great bloodcurdling scream, I had put it on my resume under special skills - great legs and bloodcurdling screams. And, you know, I figured one would get me somewhere. And - but I put it as a joke because I didn't have any credits. And I thought, well, someday this will make people laugh. Then the next thing, I actually had heard about "Last Temptation Of Christ" and sent a postcard with my head wrapped in a turban to the casting director. Funny, that never made it to...
DOUGLAS: ...Martin Scorsese. And then, there I am working for Peggy Siegal, and I get this call from Marty's assistant saying, you know, I'm looking here at your resume. And do you really have a bloodcurdling scream? And I'm saying, oh, yeah. And we're having this conspiratorial discussion because I'm at work. I mean, I'm not supposed to be moonlighting. And so she said, well, if you really have this scream, go down there at, you know, 5 o'clock and, you know, scream for Marty.
So I went down there, and, you know, they were making fun of me, like, you know, let's hear it. And I kept saying, you know, it's really loud. You have to really back up. And they were - this - thought the whole thing was a joke. And the more they were making fun of me, I said, jeez, I'm going to - I'm going to scream them right out of the building. And so I did - you know, I said just give me a minute. And I did, like, about 10 jumping jacks, and then I let loose with my horrible, bloodcurdling scream. And there was complete silence and then applause. And then Marty said, my God, that's horrible. How do you do that? And I said, well I work for Peggy Siegal. It's pretty easy. You know, big laugh at my boss's expense, a colorful reputation. And then it became this progressive, like, that was good - can you do Jesus's mother? And I was like, yeah, sure. Literally, I had no idea, like, what I was doing. But because it was Martin Scorsese, I was, like, I'll just keep going down as long as they want me. And then I got the big, like, you're going to replace somebody's part because he liked my voice.
GROSS: So let's hear you screaming in "The Last Temptation Of Christ." And, of course, this is the Martin Scorsese-Paul Schrader version of the Christ story with Willem Dafoe as Christ, and I think Harvey Keitel as Judas (laughter).
GROSS: So - and this is, like, the fall of Jerusalem and...
DOUGLAS: That's it. That's me.
GROSS: ...And the screaming tape loop in the background is you, right?
DOUGLAS: You betcha.
GROSS: OK, so bring on the screams. This is Illeana Douglas...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST")
DOUGLAS: (As character, screaming).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Get inside. Get inside.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) They're killing everyone.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Jerusalem's on fire. It's burning.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) The Romans are killing everyone.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) The city's gone.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) They're killing everyone.
GROSS: It goes on (laughter).
DOUGLAS: Oh, yes. Yes.
GROSS: How many of those screams were yours? Are we hearing your - like, a multi-track version of your screams, or are those a lot of people screaming?
DOUGLAS: I'm not sure. I know - I believe I did all the screams. I mean, I'm all over the movie.
DOUGLAS: I work cheap, meaning, I worked for no money because they just kept saying - can you do this? I was, like, sure. I'm in show business. I'll do whatever you want, you know, so I did everything. So I don't know how much of it, you know, since it was literally my first experience in show business, I'm not sure what they ended up putting in there. But...
GROSS: So this led not only to more screaming, but it led to other parts with Martin Scorsese.
GROSS: And another famous - well, more famous, thing that you did was the scene in "Cape Fear," where - this is Martin Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear," where Robert De Niro, as Max Cady, picks you up at a bar. And you're about to have sex, and you're, like - you've been drinking. You're, like, laughing hysterically. His shirt is off. He's got, like, tattoos all over him. He's a really scary-looking character because he really is a scary character in the movie. And he takes out his handcuffs and starts handcuffing you. And you're joking, like, oh, am I under arrest, police officer? Because you think this is all just a joke. And then he handcuffs you, and then he pulls your hair and starts really hurting you. And you're screaming, and then he takes a bite out of your cheek - I mean, a huge bite of flesh out of your cheek - and you're, like, bleeding and screaming - it's just a horrible scene. What was your experience of that scene with Robert De Niro?
DOUGLAS: Well, the first thing I had to do was take Robert De Niro out of the equation because I had seen people - you know, I was on the set of "Goodfellas," I mean, almost every day, just observing. I was always a great observer. And it was one of the privileges of, you know, being with Marty - was just getting to sit, you know, slightly always behind him (laughter), never next to him - no, I'm kidding - but to observe how people would fall apart working with Robert De Niro because, you know, it's like you're on a tightrope with this amazing actor. And you suddenly wonder how the heck you got there, and it can be very unnerving.
And so the most important thing for me was to fall back on my training. I did something called an emotional preparation, which is not my strong suit, which is meaning you really, you know, you get into the head of this character. And my emotional preparation was two things. One, I knew that I was going to go home, you know, with Robert De Niro and have, like, this great one night stand. You can't think about the danger. And my experience, being kind of a wild kid, was that, you know, you never know you are in danger until two seconds before something happens. And then also falling back on my knowledge of films and Hitchcock movies, that's what makes them so exciting is that the audience is saying, oh, my God, doesn't she see that this guy is a monster and, you know, he's going to kill her?
So I stayed in character. That first day of the rape scene was 17 hours. And I was, like, you know, Stephen Boyd in "Ben-Hur" after - you know, I remember...
DOUGLAS: ...You know, Bob jumped off the bed and said to Marty, I think she's done. And it was, like - you know, so I said - I was like Stephen Boyd. They just, you know, took me in a stretcher. I literally couldn't - I couldn't move. You know, I would've died, you know, for my art. And it was quite painful.
GROSS: To make matters, like, slightly more complicated, or at least I imagine it would, you and Martin Scorsese were a couple at this point, right?
GROSS: And so, like, you're being directed in this, like, brutal violent rape scene by your boyfriend.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Well, again, you know, this is one of these things that you - I - Marty was more concerned about it, in a sense, than I was. You know, because I'm a professional, and I knew that me, you know, getting this part - and I auditioned for the part - I was, you know - I wasn't handed the role. I had to - I auditioned, first for the casting director, Ellen Lewis, and then had a secondary audition, like, with Bob, to see if I could handle the improv. And then now we're on the set.
And, as I said, I had to take both Marty and Bob out of the equation in order to perform in that role. And I could sense that, you know, obviously, it made Marty very uncomfortable. But I had to show that I was OK. And, you know, by the second day, you know, I was doing Three Stooges routines with De Niro, just to kind of signal to everybody I know the difference between the scene and me, the actress. However, that's not to say that I didn't go home to my hotel room and really cry from the emotional reality of what I was doing.
GROSS: My guest is actress Illeana Douglas. Her new memoir is called "I Blame Dennis Hopper." We'll hear the story of how she got to tell Dennis Hopper what she blames him for after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actress Illeana Douglas. She's written a new memoir called "I Blame Dennis Hopper." Here's what she blames him for - in 1969, her father saw Hopper's film "Easy Rider" and decided he wanted to be like Hopper's character. So her father became a hippie and started a commune on the family's property, leading the family into a downward financial spiral and leading Illeana on an unconventional path. She's been in many movies and TV shows. She got her break working with Martin Scorsese. They were a couple for several years. She was in several of his films, including "Goodfellas" and "Cape Fear."
I have to ask you - you mention in the book that one of the things you did because you knew De Niro, you knew Joe Pesci from the film "Goodfellas" - so one of the things you did was your impression of Rocky and Bullwinkle acting out a scene from "Raging Bull" with Jake and Joe La Motta - De Niro and Joe Pesci.
DOUGLAS: Yes (laughter).
GROSS: Would you grace us with that impression?
DOUGLAS: Well, this was a long time ago. And I was a standup for about 10 minutes. But one of the routines that I used to do was called Raging Bullwinkle and Marty used to find this to be pretty funny. So, you know, I would - as Rocky the squirrel I would say, you know (imitating Rocky) did you [expletive] my wife? And then the - you know, and then the moose would go (imitating Bullwinkle) are you my brother? You know, and I would do that back and forth. And I would act out this whole thing back and forth. It's like are you crazy? What are you doing, you know? So Marty used to find this particularly funny. As in everything I've ever done in my life, people seem to see more talent in me than I see in myself. But - so it's like when I see the movie "Goodfellas", other people see, you know, the greatest movie of the '90s. I see it as, like, a home movie. And I look at Joe, you know, and Bob - they're just, like, very sweet, funny. They feel like people in my family, you know, people that I could easily joke around with. And that was always my way in to not feel intimidated by them.
GROSS: So you became a couple with Martin Scorsese in addition to being in several of his films. Among the things you bonded over was a love of film and comedy. You could quote lines at each other from films and Mel Brooks albums. But honestly, what were some of the ups and downs of being a young, newcomer actress with a revered director as your partner?
DOUGLAS: Well, you just said it. I mean, that's the - you know, I always could not, you know, comprehend what Marty saw in me, you know? But we were very - and of course, as I got older I did, but, you know, I didn't quite see it. And so, obviously, I was trying to retain who I was, which, going back to my roots, I really feel, you know, again, I was this rebel. I was this hippie kid and had a lot of, you know, ethics and wanting to make it my own way. And, you know, Marty was a very successful director. I must say at that point, coming off of "Last Temptation Of Christ" he has not - he was not the revered director that he is now. So, so much of our experience of courting through "Goodfellas" was infusing the movie with the new romance, you know? So both of us were, you know, were very much in love and shooting people...
DOUGLAS: No - and enjoying killing people. No, it sounded so odd. But there - no, but that was everything I wanted in a partner. I wanted a - you know, I really did want that kind of John Cassavetes-Gena Rowlands relationship. That's what I was looking for, and I had it with him. The only problem for me was oh, but he's so much more famous than I am. So for me, being insecure - yes, that was always an issue, you know?
GROSS: Well, I think it's probably always awkward for a woman if her boyfriend is also a mentor.
DOUGLAS: Yes. I...
GROSS: Because those are - you know, it's hard for the kind of a quality you want in a relationship to exist when one of the people in that relationship is your mentor.
DOUGLAS: Well, exactly. And here's another thing that I think is very sexist was that, you know, I was there, you know, and Roger Ebert would come and interview him and, you know, Richard Shickel or whoever was coming to interview him. And routinely, when I was getting interviewed, they'd say oh, well, what are the influences of, you know, Marty on your work? And I would tell them and nobody ever once said well, what are the influences of Illeana Douglas on your work? And to this day, you know, I just find that to be - and I'm not just speaking for myself. I'm speaking of, you know, many women - Alma Hitchcock, Polly Platt and Peter Bagdanovich. You know, the contributions that I made to his films have never been - no interviewer has ever asked about my contributions. And that's not me being conceded. It's just that I stand with many other women that - you know, that collaborated with filmmakers that don't really get the proper credit.
GROSS: So if I were to ask you - I'll just ask you, what do you think of as your contribution to Scorsese's films or to his style or whatever - what would you like to say about that?
DOUGLAS: Oh, my goodness. Well, I definitely think that he was the more traditional filmmaker and I came from, like, you know, Indie background, introducing him to films from the independent scene. Music, certainly - there were many, you know, things that I was - you know, I would be listening to and they would make their way into the films. I certainly cast a lot of people - :"Casino," I recommended Don Rickles...
GROSS: Oh, wow.
DOUGLAS: ...And James Woods, Kevin Pollak. Those were all people that - you know, I was kind of obsessed with Don Rickles. And I said - you know, I saw him on Bob Costas' show. I was obsessed with the Bob Costas show and I insisted that Marty be on the Bob Costas show. I said it was the most important, you know, show in my opinion for - at the time - for doing interviews. So all of those day-to-day things, looking at all of the editing going back to "Goodfellas" being - sitting in the editing room with Thelma and Marty learning how to edit. So I think that all of those contributions would be significant, you know? And I just want to say in a very positive way...
DOUGLAS: ...Not in a - obviously, his contributions, you know, are - we wouldn't have enough time. I mean, you know - but again, I find that I have to always point that out.
GROSS: So interestingly, the person you wanted to be when you were coming-of-age was Liza Minnelli. And when you did your first real audition, you basically did your version of Liza Minnelli doing "Maybe This Time" from "Cabaret." And he and Liza Minnelli - Scorsese and Liza Minnelli had been partners. Was that before you?
DOUGLAS: Oh, yes, way before me.
GROSS: So how odd was that? I mean, to know that, like, your boyfriend had been the boyfriend of the star who you'd most wanted to be when you were younger?
DOUGLAS: Well, for a movie lover like me, how could it get any better? I mean, I was - you know, one of the things when I first, you know, met Marty was talking so much about, you know, my obsession when I was a kid with Liza Minnelli and "Maybe This Time." And to me, it just said that he had good taste. I mean, you know, like, she was incredible. And, you know, if you look at a move like "Cabaret", and then some of her other works, you know, "Sterile Cuckoo," I could completely see why he fell in love with her. I mean, she's a larger-than-life, incredibly talented person tied to Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli.
GROSS: So did your relationship with Scorsese end because you wanted more independence?
DOUGLAS: No. It ended - as I think that many artists' relationships end when they should end, but I didn't know that at the time. You know, I learned so much from being with Marty, but I think that in some ways, there was, you know, a Pygmalion kind of undercurrent to our relationship. And so although I was not the one to initiate the breakup, all these years later and all these many experiences that I've had later in different relationships, I can see that the relationship ended, you know, when it needed to end and that, as an artist, you see the future. And I think he saw that - that I needed to break free and go out on my own and have my own set of circumstances and films. And that's what - you know, that's what art is. That's why it's - that's why it means so much to me.
GROSS: You write that Martin Scorsese once said to you the problem you're going to have in your career...
GROSS: ...Is that you're always going to be more interesting than the material that you're given. And was he right about that? Is that how you felt?
DOUGLAS: He was absolutely right because he, you know, he's a genius. No, he was right. He said that - and there were other actors who I won't name that he had worked with who he said had the same problem. And so - that I was going to have to seek out directors to work with and develop material with them. And so I did that in finding, you know, "Search And Destroy" and "Grace Of My Heart" and there was a couple other projects that I found, too, that we weren't able to do. But I always, from that point, started developing my own material. And it wasn't until I met - but that advice served me really well because the next big game-changer for me was working with Garry Shandling on "The Larry Sanders Show." And Garry really changed my life because he had me come to his office, and we sat around - Jon Stewart was one of the writers and Judd Apatow and Garry - and he said tell me every funny story that ever happened to you. And all these funny stories made it into the script and into my character. And it galvanized what Marty had said, and then now here was another genius saying literally the exact same thing - galvanized for me that I have to infuse my life experiences in these characters.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Illeana Douglas. She's written a new memoir called "I Blame Dennis Hopper." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actress Illeana Douglas. She has a new memoir called "I Blame Dennis Hopper." We started this interview by talking about how your whole family life was turned upside down after "Easy Rider" was released in 1969 'cause your parents saw it. And your father decided he was going to become a hippie and start a commune and be like Dennis Hopper. You ended up working with Dennis Hopper in 1995 in the film "Search And Destroy." And you not only work with him, you - your character sleeps with his character (laughter)...
GROSS: ...In the film. So did you tell him your story about how "Easy Rider" changed his - changed your life?
DOUGLAS: Well, I had it all planned. I couldn't wait, you know, because I had sort of forgotten about the impact that "Easy Rider" had on my life. I was very much, you know, just being a successful actress at this point and just doing movies. And - but I jokingly had said - I kept saying to Marty when - you know, when he got cast in the film - I can't wait to meet him, you know, so I can blame him for everything that ever happened to me. And then on the way to work, the PA that was driving the van, who, of course, was underpaid, overworked, fell asleep at the wheel. We were in a three-car accident on Park Avenue South. I did not have my seatbelt on. I hit the windshield and woke up to him screaming over me. And then, because it was such a low-budget movie, we didn't have a walkie-talkie. And so I actually had to walk to the set to tell them that we had been in this three-car accident. So everything - all my thoughts and ideas about what I was going to say to Dennis Hopper and, you know, be very pithy, all fell apart when I got to the set and, you know, just was lying on the ground trying to - you know, thinking, like, you know, my life was flashing before my eyes. And as - with my eyes closed, I heard this voice. And I hadn't seen my father in a long time. And I was - thought I was hearing my father. I was like - I thought I was just having these delusions and - or hallucinations. And that's when I realized, oh, my God. It's Dennis Hopper. Like, this is how I'm - this is not how I want to meet Dennis Hopper, you know, lying on the ground. And - but he came out and was, you know, holding me and diagnosed me as, you know, having a - having a concussion. And I was crying because I wanted to tell him, you know, that it was a miracle and he changed my life. And then that's when he diagnosed me. And he said, you know, you had a concussion. Your brain moved inside your head. It's not supposed to do that. And I - you know, and it just made me realize in that - in that moment, I could not stop crying because, again, I was like - I had Dennis Hopper, you know, holding me in his arms, which is something that a father would do, kind of cradling me. And I just realized it was as if, like, my whole life was this movie.
GROSS: What was his reaction when you finally were able to tell him the story of how "Easy Rider" and his character - his portrayal in "Easy Rider" - changed your whole family's life?
DOUGLAS: Well, you know, it's interesting because at first, he was very sheepish about it and kind of made jokes and, you know - oh, sorry. You know, and we'd make - you know, we'd make a lot of jokes about how he ruined all these kids' lives and everything. But as we got to know each other on the film - I don't say this word lightly - he was a mystic. He really was. He was in touch with so many things. And, you know, we talked a lot about acting. And he just was on another plane, and I really did appreciate him. And one of the tragedies, I think, in Dennis Hopper dying relatively young is that he was not, you know, given the proper attention that he should be in the lexicon of American filmmaking, I think. I did get to tell him that a few times later, the - you know, his gravitas and what effect it had on me. And I did tell him that I was writing this story, and I think that he really appreciated that. And I'm - thank God I got to tell him - thank God - 'cause that's what's gotten me through this whole experience of writing the book, feeling as if I had his permission to write it, which was extremely important for me.
GROSS: Illeana Douglas, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
DOUGLAS: Thank you. It's been an honor.
GROSS: Illeana Douglas has a new memoir called "I Blame Dennis Hopper." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new box set of recordings originally released in the '70s and early '80s on the Bee Hive label. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.