Illeana Douglas talks about her new book, Ghost World and more before her Sunday appearance at Alamo Drafthouse

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On the cover of her new book, I Blame Dennis Hopper and Other Stories From a Life Lived in and Out of the Movies, actress Illeana Douglas looks more like an evangelist than she does a movie star. She’s wearing a crucifix and a long, white gown as she holds up a heavy volume of Scripture. Well, if your gospel happens to be classic movies, you won’t find a more forceful voice voice than hers — on and off the page. Since 2012, the face familiar from Cape Fear, Grace of My Heart and To Die For, among other films, has been a host on Turner Classic Movies, conducting interviews with legends such as Jerry Lewis and singing the praises for the work of female directors Mira Nair, Lina Wertmuller and Alice Guy-Blaché (who directed what may be the first narrative film). In addition to her own life experience (which informs her very entertaining book), Douglas has deep roots in Hollywood history: Her grandfather Melvyn Douglas had a 60-year acting career, wooing Greta Garbo and earning Oscars for Hud and Hal Ashby’s Being There.

Douglas has a beloved dark comedy of her own to show at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet. In Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, she plays Roberta, an art teacher whose lack of talent doesn’t stop her from inspiring cynical outsider Enid (Thora Birch). Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes picked up an Oscar nomination for their adaptation of Clowes’ graphic novel, and a then-teenage Scarlett Johansson had a breakthrough role as Enid’s best friend, Rebecca. (Tickets are $11 for admission, or $35 for the movie and a copy of the book.)

The Pitch talked with Douglas by phone before her flight to co-host a TCM cruise, in which she hoped to save more souls from mediocre movies.

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The Pitch
: When you come to Kansas City, you’ll be on the Missouri side, but Dennis Hoppe
r was a Kansas native (Dodge City to be exact).

: Yes, I know — maybe we can go to his birthplace.

That’s about five hours away.

It’d be worth it.

In your book’s opening chapter, you facetiously say that any childhood trauma you experienced was due to him.

Yes. In the book when I say I blame Dennis Hopper for everything that I am, it turned out in everything that I am, it turned around in the most positive way. I try to embody the kind of spirit with what he did with independent films and also with the kind of person that he was. I think it’s so sad that he died relatively young [at 74], so he wasn’t really able to experience, I think, the full impact of what he did in his film career.

While Easy Rider made your dad want to be a hippie, did he realize that Hopper and Peter Fonda funded their quest with a cocaine deal and later came to a horrible end?

I think it’s the entire movie that had an effect. What the movie did was that it predicted the rise of the counterculture. It was anti-establishment and anti-police and anti-middle class. So, yes, even though the plot of the movie is them fueling their trip on drugs, remember the tag line of the film is they went looking for a lost America. I think that at the time people like my parents, coming out of the ’50s, with a very traditional upbringing, were ready to try something new.

They [my parents] had children at the time. They weren’t college students, but I think everybody was affected at the time by the late ’60s. And obviously, going into the ’70s, it was a very, very rebellious time. But that’s the power of moviemaking, that one movie can literally change your viewpoint about how to live your life.

Growing up with no plastic toys and not watching television, now you can play with hippie-approved toys like shells and rocks, all those things at the time. As a grownup, that’s the stuff I love. That was such an idyllic childhood, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. When you’re in a very wealthy community, and you’re the one raising chickens and goats, you stand out. Obviously, when you grow up and become an actor and a writer and all these things, all of those experiences really help you adapt and interpret characters.

That’s what was so great about my experience with where I actually got to meet Dennis Hopper, with the very man whom I believe changed my life. I don’t know if my parents see that as clearly as I see it. He was really an interesting person. He was really, very much, I think, a mystic, having gone through hell and back in his own life. But then to make a movie like that, that changes the whole fabric of America, I very much wanted to make a documentary about that because I think we started parodying Easy Rider in that movie Lost in America. We forget how many people really were affected, really started riding motorcycles because of one film. I wish to God we had films these days that could change an entire country in a positive way.

It’s going to probably be a few more years before we’ll know if Ghost World could have that sort of impact, but why is this the film that you’re touring with the promote the book?

Ghost World is a very fun movie, and it’s very popular. I want the tour to be successful. I do love the film, and I love Terry Zwigoff, so it will be fun to rewatch it.

Some actors are noted for not wanting to watch their own performances. Do you watch your own films?

Because I direct myself and produce, I’m pretty used to watching myself because it becomes more of a technical thing. Even when I was in the editing room doing my Web series, you kind of fall into a habit of going into the third person. “So when she goes to get the coffee, just cut it.” It sounds stupid to say, “And then when I go,” because I’m there in the present and there’s someone onscreen.

Sometimes it’s fun to watch a movie with an audience, especially if it’s a movie like Ghost World, where it’s a comedy. The last time I was at the Alamo, Allison Anders and I showed Grace of My Heart. I watched a little bit of it, but some of it’s so sad that it’s a little tough to watch, so the sad ones I don’t watch as much.

Did you ever have a teacher like Roberta, the one you play in Ghost World?

No, I didn’t. The interesting thing is that when I got the script, there was a character who was like the hippie-dippie, granola type of art teacher. I did have an art teacher like that. The first thing I asked Terry Zwigoff was if I could change it because I felt that maybe I could do something a little better.

When I was going to acting school in the 1980s, this was like the era of performance art. I remember going to see Laurie Anderson and people like that. Some of this stuff was just brilliant, and some of it was like, OK, this is just kooky. [Laughs.] But I knew a lot of people in acting school where this was a real thing that they did.  So I said to Terry Zwigoff, I’ve always wanted to do someone who’s even failed at performance art. How do you fail at self-performance art? He totally trusted me, and I went about as far with the character as I could.

I have a printed copy of the script, and during your first scene the stage directions say, “She is losing them,” but she really does care about her students.

Absolutely. I think that Terry’s take was obviously slightly more cynical and by putting me into it, there was a certain likability factor that you have to add into the equation. Even when I’m playing someone who’s unlikable, I’m pretty likable. [Laughs.] I thought it was pretty important, too, because we’ve all had these teachers who are like, “Are they supporting me or are they jealous of me? I can’t really tell.”

So I thought that she should be colored as being somewhat jealous of her students because she hadn’t made it herself, but in the end was not going to stand in anybody’s way, and alternately was a good teacher. And I like playing that complexity. I liked having you not knowing until the very last moment — “Is she on her side or is he not on her side.” And she treated them [her students] like grownups, like they were all fellow performers, which is kind of funny, too, like, “We’re all on our journey here.”

Hosting classic films on TCM onscreen and on this cruise must be a real treat for you.

We’re living in this digital age where it’s easy to see movies, but we’re not seeing them together anymore. We’re just on the cusp of losing that altogether. That’s why I thought it was important to write the book now because I could still remember what it was like to go to the drive-in and see movies from dusk to dawn and what some of those experiences were like socially as well as seeing the movies. It’s memories of my childhood but told through the movies.

It’s interesting that you got to be on the set of Being There, which was the second movie that your grandfather earned an Oscar for, and it was one of the first adult movies I had ever seen.

It plays now more like a documentary than a narrative film. [Laughs.] Every politician seems like Chance the Gardener to me. He set a tone for me by bringing me on the set because getting to watch somebody like Hal Ashby direct him in a film always made me remember it was a privilege to walk on a film set. I carry that with me. Every time I go on a set, I think of him.

Correction: This post originally stated that Melvyn Douglas won an Oscar for I Never Sang for My Father. His first Academy Award was for Hud; he was later nominated for Father but did not win that year.

Categories: A&E, Art