Interview with Peter Fonda — Life, Film, and THE HIRED HAND

Interview with Peter Fonda
Life, Film, and THE HIRED HAND


By Rebecca Redshaw

Unbelievable though it seems, it has been more than thirty years since Peter Fonda biked across the country as Captain America in EASY RIDER. He has won two Golden Globe awards, been nominated for an Oscar (for his work in ULEE’S GOLD) and worked in front of and behind the camera on countless projects in his career. As a guest of honor at the Fourth Annual Port Townsend Film Festival in Washington State, he will screen the newly restored print of his 1971 directorial review, THE HIRED HAND.

…HAND was barely noticed at the time of its release but with the support of the Sundance Channel and the release of the picture on DVD, new life will undoubtedly be given to this thoughtful western.

Fonda speaks from the heart when he talks about acting and making films. In a recent telephone interview, he enthusiastically shared his thoughts on his craft, his life experiences, and THE HIRED HAND.

Rebecca Redshaw: You’ve worn many hats in your career – actor, director, producer, writer. If you had to choose just one, which would it be?

Peter Fonda: Toughy. You really want to put the old barb in the mouth, don’t you? If I could only wear one hat I’d want to be back on stage, live. That’s the sex of what I do. That’s the intercourse between the actors and the audience – it’s palpable, you can feel it. You might do the same play for three years, like my dad did with MR. ROBERTS, but each night’s a different night and each audience is different. This calls for the top of your skills.

RR: Do you approach stage work differently than a film role?

PF: The stage is a wonderful playground. It demands things of an actor that film doesn’t. You don’t get to say, “Can I do that again? I can do it better.” You have to be on. Nothing’s ever perfect so you have to make mistakes work for you. It’s not smoke and mirrors and it’s not manipulation – that’s why I call it the sex. It’s between the audience and the actor.

RR: But my guess is you’re known primarily for your film work. Does that medium hold the same magic?

PF: I’m fascinated by the marriage of this total inexplicable thing called acting to this total inexplicable thing called the camera. On stage you have three dimensions. On film you have two, so all of your energy goes to putting back the third element. That’s a challenge I can’t ignore, so I’ll keep on making films.

RR: Tell me about your 1971 western THE HIRED HAND. Was it hard to break away from the free spirit persona of EASY RIDER?

PF: People didn’t want to see me on a horse. They wanted to see me on a motorcycle smoking pot. I wanted to bust that image. Now, I’m so happy that thirty-three years later I get to take this film out [to special screenings]. It will get its exercise, its day in the sun. If Universal had been on top of their game when it was first released in 1971, they could have put THE HIRED HAND up for an Academy Award. No one can touch the cinematography, no one can touch the editing, no one can touch the music. We might have walked away with three Oscars on this film. You’ll see what I mean when you see it.

RR: Did you have carte blanche to restore the print?

PF: I’ve owned the picture for twelve years. We had the entire original negative and all the elements. I already had my editor going through the vaults when I made the deal. The film was beautiful and we were actually able to digitally remove scratches and improve it. The DVD release date is October 28th . We have two editions. The collector’s edition has commentary and Martin Scorsese does a bit that’s incredible ‘cause Marty can say a half hours worth of words in two and a half minutes. I love Marty and he was instrumental in getting this together presenting THE HIRED HAND at the first Tribeca Film Festival.

RR: THE HIRED HAND was the first picture you directed. Any specific thoughts or insights?

PF: There’s so much that went on during that filming. I’m not a devotee of Jean Cocteau but I’m interested in his philosophy and he says that 98% of art is accident, 1% is logic and 1% is intellect. The idea is therefore to allow the accident to happen. There were many instances where that magic, that bit of accident, become huge in this film and in the way I wanted to tell the story. There’s some tiny little “shouldas” but they’re so underwhelmed by what is actually shot and being seen on the screen. I feel, “Oh, boy, am I glad I get a second chance with this film.”

RR: Reactions to the screenings?

PF: My father got to see this restoration. It was a special screening and he was rather infirm, but at the end he was beaming. He said, “Now that’s my kind of western.” My abilities with my dad when he ended his trail were so cool it was unreal.
RR: Following in the same profession as your father who was revered in the business must have been difficult.

PF: Acting skills are not something you get genetically. I didn’t get anything from my father except two bad big toes and a deviated septum. Not a dime, not a painting, but – I hate to use the buzz word – I had wonderful closure. [When he was dying] those big blue eyes opened and locked on me and he said, “I want you to know, son, I love you very much.” Those were his last words on this planet. You can’t get a cleaner slate than that. In fact, there’s no slate. I have a memory.

RR: What’s next on your agenda?

PF: Here’s my thought. I’ve met – and I’m not trying to be uppity – most of my major goals in life. Of course, one of those goals was to live a long life. And these are the things I have in mind. I want to die with all my own teeth in my head because I know that the most precious diamond in the world cannot replace a tooth. And I want to die hearing, “Alright, that’s a wrap on the scene, a wrap on the movie. Hey, what happened to Fonda? Oh, shit, he’s dead.”

RR: But before that happens?

PF: I love everything to do with the filmmaking process. I love directing. I love acting. I love editing. I love the music part. I’m intrigued with the questions raised by the process and I’ve always got my insurance policy – the stage.