Legendary actor, writer and director Peter Fonda has appeared in over 70 films. These include “Wild Angels,” “The Trip,” “Escape from LA,” “Ghost Rider,” and the acclaimed “Ulee’s Gold,” for which he won both the Golden Globe and NY Film Critics Choice awards for Best Actor. But it was his breakthrough role as star-spangled biker Wyatt in the landmark 1969 film “Easy Rider” that established Fonda as a true counterculture icon. Hailed as the “touchstone for a generation,” and voted “Top Drug Movie of All Time” by High Times magazine, the film co-starred Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper (who also directed), and was conceived and co-written by Fonda himself — earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. Now, on the 50th anniversary of filming “Easy Rider”, Fonda discusses the role that marijuana has played in both his cinematic masterpiece and his newest film, “Boundaries.”
Cannabis Now: “Easy Rider” was groundbreaking in several ways: its cinematography, its use of rock music in the soundtrack and of course it’s non-propagandistic portrayal of drug use—particularly in the notorious campfire scene, in which you get Jack Nicholson’s character George high for the first time. You guys smoked a real joint in that scene, did you not?
Peter Fonda: Oh yeah. I got Jack so totally ripped on this really good pot that I’d gotten from David Crosby. All the time we were off camera, I would fire up the joint and pass it to Jack. By the time we did his single shot, he was out of his gourd.
But Jack was so good — he was rocking the scene until he came to the line, “Meeting people from all walks of life” then he just stumbled and laughed. [Dennis] Hopper knew he was ripped, and said, “No, no, you’re fine — just go ahead.” So Jack, in character, asks the script clerk, “Well, well, uh, wh-where was I?” and started it over again.
The way we cut the scene, when he does his whole speech about the Venusians coming down and he gets to that part when he laughs, it’s that perfect stoner moment where you’re telling a story and you get flung off to some other place, and you lost the story you were telling.
I’m guessing you smoked a lot behind the scenes too.
We didn’t smoke as much as everybody thinks, because we had a lot of riding shots and I was trying to control my motorcycle at 25 miles an hour. [Slow because filmgoers have to see the background, it can’t be just a blur.] So we weren’t puffing that much. Of course, I was 28, so it wasn’t affecting me as if it would today. Like with “Boundaries,” the movie that we’re promoting right now, here’s this scene… have you seen the movie?
Yeah, I’ve seen it.
Cool. Well in this scene, there’s Christopher Plummer… who in my mind, is the finest Shakespearean actor in all the Americas. Both on stage and on screen — outrageously good performances, just the best. So we’re doing this scene, and there’s Christopher and he’s got the pot and he’s doing his deliveries, and I thought, “This is so far out — the finest Shakespearean actor in the Americas is dealing pot to Easy Rider!”
Just so our audience understands what we’re talking about: “Boundaries” features Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer as an elderly pot grower who’s reconnecting with his estranged daughter and grandson during a road trip while secretly selling off his stash to a cast of colorful characters along the way. You play one of those characters, Joey Carlyle, who’s an old friend of Plummer’s character, Jack, and in one scene the two of you get high together.
I really had fun doing that scene… it was hysterical. Chris Plummer has been a friend of mine since I was 18 (when he was in a film with my dad), so when you first see us meet on camera and we throw our arms around each other, there’s such a truthfulness to that because I’d known him for so many years.
You two smoking and reminiscing is my favorite scene in the film. I don’t suppose you guys smoked real weed in that scene like you did in “Easy Rider?”
(Laughs.) No, we didn’t. We couldn’t use real pot. We had a long shoot that day, and I don’t think it would’ve been fair to Christopher to just start passing real pot to him.
But you do still smoke, right?
Now, when people ask me about smoking pot, I say, “Well, yeah — when I’m about to go to bed, but not if I’m working, not if I’m trying to finish a scene.” When I was 20 it was a whole different scene. When I was writing the story for “Easy Rider” and getting it all together and making my notes, I was stoned out of my gourd. (Laughs.) I had a couple of doobies, and I think a couple of bottles of Heineken. So I was feeling no pain, and the story just flowed out of me. But I’m 50 years older now.
And still going strong, thankfully…
Yes. At one point, I came up to Christopher and said, “We have to keep on meeting like this because it means we’re always working.” At my age, to go to work and have a lot of fun and know that you don’t have to retire…there’s no retirement age on acting. I mean, Clint Eastwood is still directing in his late eighties, you know? In fact, one of my goals is to die “in the saddle.”
I want to be working on a film and hear, “Okay, that’s a cut, and that’s a wrap on the picture!” Thud! I just drop and die, and everyone’s going, “What the fuck happened to Fonda?” Or on stage… there we are, ready to take the curtain call, the curtain’s going up, I drop, and the cast looks back like, “Oh yikes—he’s dead!” (Laughs.)
“Boundaries,” directed by Shana Feste and starring Christopher Plummer, Vera Farmiga, Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda, opens in select theaters on June 22.
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