It is hard to believe that boyishly handsome Johnny Depp has been acting in films for two decades. After an inauspicious debut in the slasher flick A Nightmare on Elm Street he took a detour into TV for four years to star in the teen cop show 21 Jump Street. But since 1990 and his first film with director Tim Burton—the hauntingly beautiful Edward Scissorhands—Johnny has carved out a niche as the best-looking character actor around. He said no to some of the top leading men’s roles going (including Legends of the Fall and Speed) in favour of quirky roles in offbeat movies such as Ed Wood and Before Night Falls.
Now, however, with the unexpected runaway success of Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny finds himself in unfamiliar territory—atop the Hollywood ‘A-List’. He admits to being slightly bewildered by this sudden burst of interest in him so late in his career. “It goes back to what I’ve experienced over the last 20 years. When you’re coming up the ranks, people are watching from the sidelines laying their bets. They have high hopes for you, and then you veer left a little bit and they go, ‘Ah, take him off the list. He’s off the list now.’ And then, a few months later, or a year later, you’re back on the list because you have a movie coming out that might be commercial. And then it’s not commercial and they take you off the list again.”
So, will his new movie Secret Window keep him on the list? In this taut thriller, Depp is best-selling mystery novelist Mort Rainey, desperately trying to finish his latest book. Stuck for an ending, the author hides away in a lonely cabin in the woods (never a good idea in these kind of movies), only to find himself confronted by his imagination and then by a stranger, John Shooter (John Turturro), who accuses him of plagiarism. That’s when the fun begins.
Director David Koepp (Panic Room) adapted the script from a Stephen King short story. Johnny grins as he admits: “I was really sucked into it. The writing is everything. If somebody can surprise you these days in a screenplay, that is a major accomplishment. This one is perfect.” Co-star Maria Bello, who plays his ex-wife, is just as enthusiastic about Johnny: “He’s just such an incredible actor; I’ve always been such a big fan.”
At 5’10”, with sandy brown hair that goes every which way and soulful brown eyes, Johnny was recently named ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ by People magazine. His reaction to the title? “As soon as you turn 30, you go: ‘Oh no! 40’s next!’ But by the time you reach 40, you think, ‘This isn’t so bad’.” Getting older may make it easier for Johnny to be taken seriously as an actor in spite of his movie star good looks.
With Johnny’s recent run of awards and nominations, Hollywood is finally recognizing his talent. Indeed, rumour has it that he came close to stealing the Oscar away from frontrunners Sean Penn and Bill Murray, especially after his unexpected win at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards set the town abuzz. Not surprisingly, this very down to earth star has a healthy philosophy about all this awards frenzy: “At this time in my life, at age 40 with two kids, the Oscar nomination itself is fine for me. It’s a great thing for my kiddies. In twenty-five years or fifty years they can say, ‘Hey, my pop made these movies and got this acknowledgment, that’s the award he got, that’s the nomination he got’.”
Johnny shows his softer side when he talks about his two children, Lily-Rose, five, and two-year-old Jack. “I’d always wanted kids, but it didn’t seem to be working out for me. My siblings already had children and I was in my thirties with no real prospects of it happening for me.” Then, straight out of a romance novel, Johnny met his true love. He smiles, sheepishly remembering that fateful night six years ago. “I was in Paris making The Ninth Gate with Roman Polanski,” he begins. “We were not getting along and I was out one night with a friend trying to forget my troubles. I saw Vanessa across the room, but I wasn’t brave enough to go over and ask her to join me, so I got a friend to do it for me.”
His face lights up as he talks about his new life with Vanessa Paradis, a major music and movie star in France. “You can’t plan the kind of deep love that results in children. Fatherhood was not a conscious decision. It was part of the wonderful ride I was on. It was destiny, kismet. All the math finally worked.” For Johnny, the key part of the equation was his decision to move to France. “The time I’ve spent in France solidifies my belief that I can keep a major distance from Hollywood and still keep in the game. Acting is my living, but I don’t want to live in it. Living in France is the first time I honestly say I feel at home.”
So, no chance of moving back to the US? “America is like Disneyland—a nice place to visit, spend some time in, it’s a beautiful country. But, at the moment, I don’t think I want to live there.” Instead, the Depps live in an elegant apartment in Paris during the week and retreat to the country for weekends and holidays. “I love our house in the country. I can walk to the nearby village and have coffee and no one pays any notice. I’m just another dad with my daughter on my knee.”
Again, Johnny’s sheepish smile broadens as he describes the joys of his life: “It’s not enough to say becoming a father is the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve never been that good at finding words, but this time they really do fail me. When I saw my daughter being born, it was the first really totally selfless moment I’d had.” Indeed, it was because of his love for his children that he missed his big moment at the SAG Awards. “My kiddies were a little bit sick,” Johnny explains. “They had the stomach flu, so I was home that night. My daughter turned the show on and suddenly they called my name. My only reaction was, ‘What?’ I was totally, completely shocked, completely thrown for a loop. But leave it to a bunch of actors to throw you a curveball like that.”
Johnny is thankful that this wave of success didn’t arrive earlier in his career: “I’m convinced that the timing has been perfect on all fronts. Had this kind of thing happened to me ten years ago I wouldn’t had had enough experience or distance or savvy to be able to appreciate it or understand it. Raising a couple of kids has given me a great, strong, stable ground to stand on for life, so when these sort of things come up, you can identify what’s actually happening.”
Speaking about his troubled past, Depp talks candidly. “I didn’t know what happiness was. I went through a very nasty few years where I just poisoned myself,” he says. “I went through a stage of smoking opium, and when you smoke opium, you just want to lie still. It makes you completely relaxed. I’m through with it now—it was dangerous. I hated cocaine but I used to like absinthe, which is like marijuana—drink too much and you suddenly realize why Van Gogh cut off his ear.”
So, no more vices? “I’m boring; I just drink a little red wine. I’ve even almost given up smoking. When I look at my children, I want to see them grow, to have their own children. That pushes me to live a healthy life.” He admits he was a typically self-involved actor for the longest time. “For many, many years I walked around in confusion,” he states. “I didn’t understand what any of it was for, why I was acting and making movies until I started having kids. And then I suddenly realized: Oh, it’s for them. It’s for them.”
Johnny grew up fast, the youngest of four children, in a working-class family in rural Kentucky. His beloved grandfather died when he was seven and, within a year, Johnny’s father had uprooted the family as he searched for a job. They spent months living in motels before settling in Florida. Johnny admits he started smoking when he was twelve and by time he was thirteen he was drinking, doing drugs, and spiraling downwards, indulging in petty theft and vandalism.
Music was his salvation. He had always loved the gospel music at his uncle’s church and taught himself how to play the guitar. When Johnny was fifteen, he joined a punk rock band, The Flame, which played local nightclubs. As the band improved, they changed their name to The Kids, opened for hot groups such as Talking Heads and the B-52’s, and then decided to try their luck in LA.
At twenty-five, Johnny found himself married to make-up artist Lori Anne Allison (a much more mature twenty-five), who suggested he try acting and introduced him to her friend, Nicolas Cage. [Editor’s note—It was Cage that suggested Johnny try acting.] This led to that fateful audition for Wes Craven’s newest horror flick. When the band split up, Johnny got serious about acting and enrolled in drama school. He was soon cast in Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam epic Platoon, which led to the lead in 21 Jump Street as a young cop working undercover. He took the job thinking it would last less than a season and was shocked when he became the latest teen idol. He was delighted to spoof this image in his first real film role, John Waters’ offbeat comedy Cry-Baby: “My part was only three pages long but I felt I had to take it”.
In 1990, he met his mentor, Tim Burton, and gave a heartbreaking performance as Edward Scissorhands. He fell for co-star Winona Ryder (having already romanced Twin Peaks siren Sherilyn Fenn and Dirty Dancing Jennifer Grey after his divorce). To declare his love, he had ‘Winona Forever’ tattooed on his arm; after their tumultuous break-up in 1993, he made that infamous alteration to ‘Wino Forever’. He was all too often brawling with the paparazzi and his bad boy reputation grew worse when River Phoenix died of an overdose outside of Johnny’s LA hot spot, The Viper Room, in 1993. “It was a nightmare. It still is a nightmare I’ll never recover from. It could have been so beautiful—he showed up with his guitar on his shoulder and his girlfriend by his side—it was such a waste what happened. River was a beautiful, talented actor who had all it takes.” Soon after, Johnny began a tempestuous four-year affair with supermodel Kate Moss.
Through all these high times, Johnny continued to work steadily, reuniting with Tim Burton for Ed Wood, an affectionate homage to the world’s worst film director, and holding his own against Marlon Brando in the charming Don Juan DeMarco, and Al Pacino in the gritty Mafia crime drama Donnie Brasco. Then, in 1997, he surprised Hollywood by directing, co-writing, and starring in the intense drama The Brave. He delivers a great performance as an alcoholic Native American ex-con, who decides to die in a snuff movie in order to provide for his family. Though the film was a flop in the States, it was nominated for the top prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Johnny continued to take risks, making small movies with big parts such as over-the-top journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, beatnik writer Jack Kerouac in The Source, and both a jailer and a drag queen in Before Night Falls. But the savvy actor also starred in blockbusters such as Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, playing detective Ichabod Crane on the trail of the Headless Horseman. And he again teamed with director Lasse Hallstrom for Chocolat, though he was surprised to be asked. “I couldn’t believe he wanted to work with me again,” he admits. “My brain on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was a little unpleasant. It wasn’t a good time in my life. I couldn’t wait to get off that film and I suspect Lasse felt the same way.”
His reunion with Terry Gilliam went less well. The ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote imploded during shooting (all wonderfully captured in the fascinating documentary Lost in La Mancha), but any damage to Depp’s career was soon erased with the success of Pirates. With Geoffrey Rush as the pirate Barbossa, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley as would-be lovers, and Johnny as renegade Captain Jack Sparrow, the movie was the hit of the year.
However, with the surprise success of Pirates, Johnny found himself being used in classic Hollywood fashion. Even though he had only a small role in Once Upon A Time in Mexico, it was suddenly marketed as his next big film: “That was very strange and very uncomfortable, but not surprising.” But being at the top of the heap (this week anyway) gives Johnny power he has never had. “It’s difficult for me to approach it from the angle of a businessman. I just to do what I’m hired to do, what I feel is right for the character. But, it would be great to make this whole slew of pet projects. Maybe this is the time to submit those projects. There’s a lot of stuff that I would love to get made that I’m not even right for as an actor—stuff that would be great to get made that don’t need me in them.” So, could it be that his next role is Johnny the producer? Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing a lot of Depp on-screen in the years to come. He has already finished Neverland, playing author J.M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) alongside Kate Winslet and Dustin Hoffman. And he is to pair up again with Tim Burton as the title character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Then he takes on the acting challenge of a lifetime—the one that may well bring him back to the red carpet—in the adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about the near fatal stroke that left Bauby completely paralysed except for his left eye.
And if all that weren’t enough, Johnny will be back on the high seas in the sequel to Pirates. He is thrilled at the prospect of once again drawing inspiration from aging Rolling Stone Keith Richards for another over the top turn as Jack Sparrow. “I went through a decompression period after the first film. If you’re really connected with a character, you always do. You miss the guy. You miss being the person. In the back of my mind was the hope that there would be a sequel one day, so I could meet him again.”
Secret Window is out now at all major cinemas.
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