October 2001
by Nick Compton
Photographs by Tom Munroe

After all the tattoos, booze, and hotel-room demolition derbies, the dark prince of Hollywood has a brand-new bag: playing papa to a 2-year old daughter on a farm in the south of France. The miraculous mellowing of Johnny Depp.

So this is how it works out. You make it to 38, through “the shadows and the fog,” through the difficult days as a maladjusted, long-haired, chain-smoking horndog, and you wind up as. . .a dad.

So you brace yourself for the moment when your daughter has grown into a beautiful teenager—and let’s face it: With this genetic clay, the prospects are pretty good. And then little Lily-Rose Melody Depp (current age 2 1/2) brings home her own maladjusted, long-haired, chain-smoking horndog, and he gives you a big, twisted smile.

Johnny Depp pauses to consider this ironic eventuality, and says with all the experience and paternal protectiveness he can muster: “I’ll kneecap him. Get a great big metal pipe and kneecap the fucker on the spot.”

The old Johnny Depp, the Johnny that Lily-Rose made disappear, used to get himself into lots of trouble. “There was a period when I was damaging myself,” he says, putting on a pair of shades, even though he’s sitting inside a dark Montreal cafe. Much of Depp’s former urge to self-destruct, he reckons, may have something to do with his rambling childhood—though he never had time to find out. “Had I been in one place for any length of time,” he says, “I would have done some kind of therapy.”

Depp was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, one of four siblings. The Depps moved to Miramar, Florida, when Johnny was 2. By the time he was a teenager, he’d lived in 30 homes. His father, John, a civil engineer, divorced his mother, Betty Sue—Depp has an enormous BETTY SUE tattoo on his left arm—when Depp was 15. By 16, Depp had dropped out of high school, experimented with quite a few drugs, and was pretty much the long-haired horndog described above. After his first break, 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street, he was cast on 21 Jump Street. Depp hates that program—even now, he can only refer to it as “the television show.” Back then, too, he hated the show, along with everything that came with it, so he proceeded to act out. “I was doing a pretty good job of destroying myself,” he says.

Depp doesn’t take much pride in these ancient extravagances. “It’s just ignorance,” he says of that behavior. “And in the name of what? That useless, pig-fucking term that I despise.” Depp appears to be choking on a word. “Partying,” he finally says. “It’s bullshit. It’s a lie. And then you’re dead.”

Depp is referring no doubt to the annus miserabilis of 1993, the year he considers his absolute low point, the year he made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and watched a talent convulse and shiver and die just a few feet from his club, the Viper Room, a place where people, anyone, famous or nonentity, could get a quiet drink and enjoy some nice music with no grief.

It stained him, darkened him. Wasn’t the kid, this poor, sweet hippie boy, just trying to buy himself some of that Depp outlaw chic? Some of that trailer-trash threat, some Cherokee-cheekboned blank-eyed cool?

Revisiting River Phoenix, it’s instructive to consider how many young actors have adopted the Depp slouch, the beaten-up work boots and tatty T’s and stoner facial hair. River, Leo, Ethan, Stephen Dorff, cut-price look-alike Skeet Ulrich—God knows how many others. They have followed his career path—to the extent that he ever had one—and looked for Depp-like roles, forgetting that Depp gets most of them and half aren’t any good anyway. And some of them tried to party the way they imagined Johnny partied. Only Depp was never having half the good time we thought he was. “It was all medicinal,” he claims.

Still, after the Viper Room incident, things got even weirder. A while later, Depp was in England, visiting his girlfriend Kate Moss. He’d recently left Winona and his WINONA FOREVER tattoo (the one that now reads WINO FOREVER). There, according to a photographer, Depp “pulled both his ears very hard.” A week later, he trashed a hotel room in New York and was dragged, hat pulled low, off to jail.

Thankfully, people came to help out. Marlon Brando, whom Depp had worked with on Don Juan DeMarco, called Depp’s lawyer. He had seen too much of this stuff and was going to intervene. “It was one of the nicest gestures that anyone has ever honored me with,” says Depp. “He called the precinct, and the cops came over and said”—Depp’s voice drops to a piggy grunt—”‘You’re never gonna believe who called you! Marlon fucking Brando.’ And I said, ‘Can I talk to him?’ and they said ‘No'”. Ed Wood colleague Bill Murray came forward, too. “‘I’m coming to pick you up,'” Depp imitates him saying. “‘It’s getting a little hot for you there at the moment.'”

“I suppose I owe a lot of people an apology,” he adds over a glass of red wine; he’s now a full-fledged “cork dork.” “I mean, I was in control of my actions, and I wasn’t smacking people or anything. I was just a bit of a drag to be around—a moody prick basically.”

The mother of Depp’s child is Vanessa Paradis, chanteuse, actress, and fabled beauty who first aroused unclean thoughts across Europe in 1986 as the 14-year-old singer of an itchy bit of Eurofluff called “Joe le Taxi.” Depp met Paradis in Paris in 1998, while filming The Ninth Gate with Roman Polanski. Three months later, she was pregnant.

The pregnancy was unplanned but certainly not unwanted. When it was time to meet Paradis’s old man, he was understandably a little nervous. “I was expecting a thumping,” he says. “I thought he would just fucking nut me. I mean, it was like, ‘Hi, I’m the guy they write all that nasty shit about in the papers. I’m your nightmare, nice to meet you! Oh, and by the way, we’re having a baby.’ I thought it would just be a bottle of Scotch to the head.”

The booze actually played a more positive role. “Vanessa’s father doesn’t really speak English,” Depp says, “And I didn’t really speak French at all—so it was rough. But we just got drunk. And by the end of evening, we understood each other very well.”

He’s doing a lot of that now: making people understand that he’s become a better man. He’s easy and affable and will even laugh at your jokes, but don’t make light of the way his life has turned around. Suggest that this blissed-out-dad stuff might seem a bit dull after all the hotel-trashing, and you get something close to ire. “No way,” he growls. “There’s nothing boring about it, never a dull moment.”

“I was a guy who was completely confused,” he adds after a moment. “And then this wonderful angel comes into your life, and it’s like, ‘Christ, that’s what it’s all about.”

The Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, the 28-year-old twin tyros behind Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, and American Pimp, are in Amsterdam. They’re here to record a few gothic sound effects for their upcoming movie, From Hell, a graphic tale on the Jack the Ripper murders, in which Depp plays the Scotland Yard inspector who tries to take down the killer.

The Brothers like it here. They like the architecture, the history, the stream of northern-European lovelies who parade along the canals. They could settle here. Make weird little movies about sex and drugs, and run a coffee shop. They, like Depp, are of a mind that America just about sucks right now; Europe suits them better.

Depp is clearly smitten with the Hugheses. Very smitten. “I love those guys,” he says. “They’re honest, scary honest. They just say shit, and I love that. And they’re filmmakers at the very core of what that word should mean.”

The Hughes Brothers are equally enamored of Depp. “We worked with a lot of British actors on this film,” says Allen Hughes. “And without trying to offend American actors, they are the most efficient, diligent, witty, on-time, no-bullshit professionals on the planet. Johnny’s just like that—no drama, no shit. There’s no fake stuff. I got to admit, there were a few other guys who were interested, but I think they would have make life harder.”

As filming progressed, the Hugheses added a few opium-smoking additions to Depp’s character. Just the kind of tics that appeal to Johnny. “I liked the idea that he was this very good inspector,” Depp says, “But that he had his dark side—that he was a bit of junkie, really.”

Depp ate up the Victorian atmosphere, but according to co-star Heather Graham, who plays the lead hooker-in-peril, the filmmakers fought hard to ward off any Merchant Ivory stiffness. “We’d all be trussed up in these period clothes,” she recalls. “But during breaks they would play ‘Big Pimpin’ and stuff.’

There is another reason From Hell appealed to Depp. The Jack the Ripper case pretty much gave birth to British tabloid culture, unleashing sensation-seeking hacks upon the world. This squares pretty much with Depp’s view of the Fourth Estate as parasitic nasties invading private spaces, feeding on misery and if they can get it, intestinal gore.

Last year, Depp menaced nine Brit photographers with a plank of wood after they tried to shoot him and Vanessa as the couple enjoyed a quiet evening meal. Not tonight boys, he pleaded. Can I just not be Johnny Depp tonight? But they wouldn’t listen. It meant another brush with the fuzz, but it was worth it, just to see the look of fear on the paparazzi’s faces.

Besides, Depp fell out with that side of fame years ago; he claims not to have read a single article about himself since 21 Jump Street. “I had a real rash of these articles, and it all became clear that none of it makes you comfortable,” he says. “It makes you uncomfortable. And so I just thought, fuck it. I don’t want to know any of it. And if I won’t read about myself, I certainly won’t read about other people.” And he does seem charmingly unaware of the latest interpersonal Hollywood shake-ups and shenanigans. He probably thinks Tom Cruise is still married to Mimi Rogers.

He now spends as much time as possible in France, which allows him to stay even farther out of the loop. “Europe has old ways,” he says. “And it’s not absurd to want some kind of simple life, to shy away from the ugliness of Hollywood, the movie business, stardom, whatever the stuff is.”

The couple own a farmhouse in the south. Here, he can keep his daughter away from the violence and unpleasantness of his own country and reflect on the “greed and want and ambition” that is polluting it (a luxury for a man with a few million in the bank).

Depp, a ferocious autodidact, is increasingly close to his friend Hunter S. Thompson in his cynicism. Some of this comes from the months spent shacked up with the gonzo great, preparing for his role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp even helped prepare the fine collection of Thompson correspondence published as The Proud Highway . As for his recent literary intake, Depp recommends I read heavy tomes like John Luftus’s The Secret War Against the Jews and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

After Depp again mentions his daughter, it only seems fair to ask what advice he’ll give Lily-Rose on that inevitable day when she’s dating someone like her father. Depp thinks for a while. And then he says, “I’ll teach her the lyrics to ‘Forever Young’ by Bob Dylan—because that will cover all the bases.” The words to the oft-covered paternal love song go: “May you grow up to be righteous/may you grow up to be true/may you always know the truth and see the lights surrounding you.”

Fatherhood, Depp tells me yet again, is the greatest. His only regret is that he didn’t get here sooner. “I just wasted a whole bunch of time,” he says.

Via Johnny Depp Zone

© IFOD 2003 – 2023