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Illeana Douglas Reveals How Dennis Hopper Changed Her Life, Escaping ‘Cape Fear’

With her wide eyes and nasal voice, Illeana Douglas has been a reliable supporting presence in a range of films such as “Alive” and “Cape Fear.” But with the possible exception of “Grace of My Heart,” in which she’s front-and-center as a singer-songwriter on the rise, Douglas’ beauty and screen presence have been too idiosyncratic for a business that puts a premium on conventionality.

That changes with “I Blame Dennis Hopper,” a frank and funny new memoir that tracks Douglas from her childhood growing up with parents who were inspired to embrace the counter-culture credo of “turn on, tune in, drop out” after watching “Easy Rider.” Her life in semi-poverty was in stark contrast with her status as the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, the legendary star of “Being There” and “Hud,” and a guiding force in her decision to strike out for Hollywood.

Variety spoke with Douglas about her status as “that girl from ‘Cape Fear,'” her struggle to find meaty roles and her relationship with the biker epic that changed her family’s life.

The title of your book alludes to your parents’ decision to abandon middle class living after watching “Easy Rider.” Do you like that film?

I do. I really do. When I first saw it, I didn’t get it. I sort of felt, “this is the movie that changed my life?” It felt hokey and dated. But then I started watching it later on and I got it. I understood how it touched a chord in people with its idea of freedom. It’s almost a dying vision. A vision that died with an indie spirit like Dennis Hopper. We don’t have films like that any more.

My family gave up everything, the white picket fences, the lifestyle, because of the power of a message of a film like “Easy Rider.” It was a time when people saw films and took them to heart. We were the children of the Dennis Hopper era. We were kids whose parents wanted to be hippies and live off the land. We were the people who got dirty looks from the bus driver, who looked at us like we lived on a nudist colony. We were outsiders. It’s where I get my rebellious spirit.

Despite the privation, you were also the granddaughter of an Oscar-winning actor, Melvyn Douglas. Growing up did you know that your grandfather was a movie star?

Oh yeah. When I was very young, I knew he was special because he would be treated so nicely and he had this 1959 Mercedes convertible and when he would drive around people would stare and wave and act in a certain way.

Did he support your ambitions to become an actress?

He did as sort of a guiding presence. He took me to the set of “Being There.” When I got older and I was in a youth theater program in Hartford doing “The Boys From Syracuse,” a Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart play, he arranged for me to have dinner with Mrs. Richard Rodgers. Or when he was filming “Ghost Story,” he arranged for me to do an audition for Juilliard in the trailer of John Houseman.

His dream was that I’d go to Juilliard and move in with him and take care of him, but sadly he died right before it was going to happen. He always joked that he wanted to protect me from people like him in show business.

Your rape scene in “Cape Fear” is utterly terrifying. Do people still recognize you from that film?

I went to a screening recently and the woman next to me gasped and said, “you don’t know what you did to me.” It was very personal for me. I was in New York in the era when Jennifer Levin was brutally murdered. She was just the wrong girl who found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It profoundly affected me. In the original [1962] movie, my character was a drifter bar girl, who the film implies gets what’s coming to her. I always felt it would be better and more chilling if the character was a nice girl that isn’t aware that her actions are putting her in danger until seconds before something horrible happens.

You shepherded “Grace of My Heart” to the screen along with Allison Anders. The film wasn’t a box office success, but it has become something of a cult hit on home entertainment platforms. Why does it resonate with viewers?

It has a personal connection for a lot of people. Life trips us up sometimes. My character has all these dreams of becoming a singer and all these different relationships that can get in the way of what she wants. It resonates with women who maybe get married and have these ambitions that they get farther and farther away from. It stays with people.

I find it hard to watch. It’s almost like a home movie. A lot of the things I was playing, I was dealing with off-screen. Some of it is very autobiographical, and I put it in there so the story would be truthful.

Martin Scorsese, your former boyfriend and “Cape Fear” director, told you that you would have a hard time in movies because you would always be more interesting than the parts you were offered. Has that been true?

Yes, it has. It scared me at the time he said that, but it also spurred me to go in the direction of finding great people to collaborate with. That’s when I’ve been the most successful. In films like “Ghost World” or “To Die For,” when I’ve been able to put my personality into the project and when people haven’t tried to tone down what I’m doing, it’s worked. Where I’ve had a harder time is when directors are like, “we just want you to be the funny friend.”

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