Let’s face it, if you are Johnny Depp, you can wear what you want. And today, in all the splendour of an upmarket hotel, he’s at his downbeat, grungey best, sporting a pair of heavy boots that look as though he’s been playing football in them, along with a fatigue-type trousers and a T-shirt. It’s all topped off with a leather jacket so beaten up it could have done service on the backs of a dozen others before it found its way to Depp. He looks magnificently, shabbily cool.
“Is it all right to smoke in here?” is the first enquiry before he settles down in a sofa and lights up a Marlboro Light. Ashtrays appear as if by magic.
He is, after all, on a roll. His latest movie, Donnie Brasco, with Al Pacino and directed by Britain’s Mike Newell, has received huge acclaim in the States. It’s the true story of an FBI agent called Joe Pistone (Depp) who infiltrated the Mafia for six years, using the alias Donnie Brasco and pretending to be a small-time jewel thief.
“Al has been in the Mafia in the movies a few times, that’s for sure,” Depp says. “Working with him was a pleasure and an honour and I learned as much as I could. I expected him to be serious but he was really playful and fun, constantly making jokes.”
There is, of course, a nice irony in his pairing with Pacino, undisputed king of screen cool and a man who will be for ever known as Michael Corleone for The Godfathermovies. Depp, his heir apparent, is an actor who, like the older man, has seemingly veered away from the traditional Hollywood route to the top. He has chosen quirky, often delightful films such as Edward Scissorhands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Ed Wood—critically acclaimed if hardly blockbusters—and turned down the likes of Speed, Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall.
In the past he may sometimes have been known more for his famous girlfriend, model Kate Moss, for pals like the Oasis terrors Liam and Noel Gallagher, and for that tantrum in a New York hotel (he escaped charges after paying for the damage). But these days he is a star, whether he likes it or not. And when you have heavyweights of the stature of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino praising you as the best actor of your time, the rest of Tinseltown is bound to sit up and take notice.
“Why do they like me so much? I don’t know,” he laughs. “You’d have to ask them, I guess. I have the deepest, utmost respect for those guys. But I can’t explain the relationship I have with them. They are both great heroes and great friends.”
Depp seems to forge loyal friendships in the most unlikely places. While researching Donnie Brasco he was introduced to and spent weeks hanging out with real mobsters. “They were charming and kind of endearing in a way,” he says. “I found them very generous, family men. At the same time, at the back of your mind you are thinking of these grisly things they have done, so it’s a strange feeling but I liked them very much.”
He has also become close friends with Joe Pistone, the man he portrays. It was 1975 that Joe adopted the name Donnie Brasco, leaving behind his wife and three children, and began frequenting haunts favoured by the Mafia. Gradually, over the years, he won the confidence of mobster Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino) who unwittingly provided him with an entry into the world of the Bonanno crime family.
It was one of the most successful undercover operations ever launched by the FBI. When Joe finally pulled out six years later, his work led to 200 arrests and more than 100 convictions, tearing apart the very structure of the New York mob.
Since then Joe, who left the FBI last year, has had to live under assumed names in an undisclosed town because the mob has a price on his head. The film explores the relationships Joe had to forge to do his job effectively.
Pistone says Depp got him down perfectly. “I only knew the guy from what I read in the papers—you know, about hotel rooms and that stuff—but he is nothing like that. Johnny is a really nice guy,” Pistone says.
“He was so concerned that I was all right with it, he would ring me all the time and say ‘Would you do this or would you say that?’ And then when it was finished he refused to go and see it until I could go with him. Most actors wouldn’t care; they would just grab the money and run. But he’s not like that.”
The respect is mutual. Depp says: “When you meet Joe you realize what a strong guy he is. I think he is the strongest person I ever met. You totally respect him. It’s like that childhood thing—you know, ‘What defines a man? What is a man supposed be like?’ Well, I would say that he is supposed to be like Joe.
“I did meet some of the FBI guys for research too. It wasn’t the men in the upper echelons but the foot soldiers, like Joe, and in a way they were not dissimilar from the mob guys.
“I found them to be really great people, good fathers, good sons, good husbands, again, strong family men. It was strange really, because I was right in the middle of the two sides and I had these relationships going on with each of them at the same time. The FBI men have a certain kind of naïve self-righteousness. They want to do the right thing and get rid of drugs from the streets. And they’re going out there, busting their ass to do it.”
He also admits to a grudging respect for the way that Mafia-controlled neighbourhoods are “safe” in a way the FBI could never hope to match. “If you are walking into one of their neighbourhoods at two or three in the morning there isn’t a drug on the street, there’s no crack dealers and there’s no trouble. An 85-year-old woman can walk down the street pushing her shopping cart filled with groceries, her purse on her arm, and nobody is going to touch her.
“The cops can’t achieve this. I mean, the penalty for dealing drugs or mugging an old woman in one the mob neighbourhoods is potentially very unpleasant, possibly fatal. If some drug addict mugs one of the Mafia’s mothers, you know pieces of him are going to end up in Switzerland, Rome and Giants Stadium. But they were very nice to me and really protective.”
Born in Kentucky, where he spent the first seven years of his life before his family moved to Florida, Depp spent most of his teenage years in his bedroom, playing his guitar. “That’s how I got through puberty. When I was 16 I dropped out of high school, and my parents had split up. So I guess from 12 to 17 I felt pretty weird.”
When he left Florida, Depp headed for Los Angeles with the aim of joining a rock band. Instead, within a couple of years he was offered the lead in a TV series, 21 Jump Street, which turned him into a reluctant teen star. [Editor’s Note: Perhaps she means “teen idol?” Johnny was in his 20’s when he appeared as Officer Tom Hanson.]
“You know, it’s strange. I never wanted to be an actor,” he says now. “I was a musician and I still am, and that was my life. But this sort of happened.”
Now, home is a $3 million mansion, built in the 1930s in the Hollywood Hills. It seems as if the wild days of 1994, when he trashed a room in the ultra-trendy Mark Hotel in Manhattan, are now firmly in the past. At the time reports suggested that he had rowed with Kate, but Depp reckoned it was a lot of media fuss about nothing. “I didn’t hurt anyone and I didn’t think the incident was particularly newsworthy. What happened basically is that I’m human just like anyone and I can be as sensitive as anyone else.
“It’s really odd. People perceive me as some hotel-wrecking, drug-addled fiend. I’m not remotely close to that.”
He met Kate Moss early in 1994 when they were introduced by mutual friends in a Manhattan bar. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “For both of us.”
Previous girlfriends have included Winona Ryder and Sherilyn Fenn, but with Kate he does seem to have found a soulmate. He’s been known to fill her hotel rooms with flowers, keep her picture taped to the mirror in his dressing rooms and accompany her tours of the catwalks of Europe as often as he can.
“I have a girl, Kate, who I’m in love with.We’re having a great time and we have a good, solid relationship. What else is there to say?”
In the past he has talked of settling down one day and wanting to start a family. “I was married when I was 20 [to Lori Allison]. It was a strong bond with someone but I can’t necessarily say I was in love. That’s something that comes around once, maybe twice, if you are lucky. And I don’t know that I experienced that before I turned 30.”
And that, of course, is almost exactly when he met Kate, who presumably is the great love of his life. A while ago there were even rumours that they were engaged but he’s not telling. Instead, he’s off back to work, editing The Brave, a film he wrote, directed and stars in with Marlon Brando.
“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, insane, and I was an idiot to attempt it,” he says. “To write, act and direct is way too much work for one person, and I don’t know if I’ll ever catch up on the sleep I missed.”
© IFOD 2003 – 2023