The Unprocessed Johnny Depp ~ A chatty encounter with America’s most eccentric movie star, who talks about Hollywood, fatherhood, how he’s made a career of failing, and how it all came together in a movie based on a theme park and the most liberating screen character in memory.
“With actors—and really all artists—if they do something that really pleases me on a lot of levels, I’ll stick with them for a couple of movies,” says writer at large John H. Richardson. “And I’ll keep seeing Johnny Depp’s next five movies just because of Dead Man (1996).” Despite his admiration for Depp’s work, Richardson was a little suspicious as he set out to spend an afternoon with the actor, but Depp’s off-kilter personality and bohemian tastes won Richardson over. “A lot of people who are on the fringes get a big attitude about it, and it becomes a way of feeling superior, cutting themselves off. Johnny didn’t do that. He kept his integrity and showed that there’s a meeting point between these two worlds, bringing this joyous, iconoclastic energy to a huge audience. And it really worked.” Richardson’s nonfiction book My Father and the Spy will be published by HarperCollins next year.
The fact is, I wanted to meet Johnny Depp because of Alison, my sister-in-law. She’s about forty-five and pretty but always looks a little beaten down, one of those people who seem to apologize for living. She and her husband—who has a job doing landscaping work for one of the titans of our modern economy—have spent years living in the usual small apartments trying to raise a kid on spit and spare change, and Alison would always be so helpful to other people that she’d end up taking care of their kids too, for free. Once, she got so sucked into the lives of all her loser neighbors that she had to move just to get some free time. But a year or two ago something happened to Alison, a blinding flash of insight and revelation that changed her—she discovered Johnny Depp.
But let her tell it. Here she is, come to my office clutching a box she laughingly calls the Johnny Depp archives. She looks completely different than she did a year ago, wearing more makeup and tighter clothes and hair gone long and wild with even a few brand-new gold highlights, and it all comes together in a way that purrs sexualite—like I said, a 180 degree change from a year ago. And she lays out photocopied articles on my desk, laughing and telling me how embarrassing it was to stand in line at Kinko’s and copy all this stuff while the woman behind her gave her the hairy eyeball.
“When did I first start getting into him?” she asks. “I think with Don Juan DeMarco.” She loved the theme of the movie, that even if it means everybody is gonna think you’re crazy, you have to become the person you dream of being. Then she saw From Hell and was blown away by that, too. He was so mysterious and beautiful and other worldly and kind and intelligent and insightful and…
Enough of that. When it comes to adjectives for Johnny, Alison gets a little carried away; she even sends me a supplementary list by e-mail the next day. But all of this just leads up to Alison’s Big Turning Point, the day Pirates of the Caribbean came out. She was with her friend Cyn, a fellow devotee. And as soon as Johnny made his entrance on the mast of that sinking ship, stepping off onto the dock with perfect devil-may-care insouciance, well…
“Afterward, we said we hadn’t felt that way since the Beatles.”
They became addicted. Every weekend that summer, they traveled to different theaters. After a while it got so embarrassing, they started telling their husbands they were going to the mall or the gym or the library—anything to cover up their fiendish Johnny jones. They started watching Entertainment Tonight and the E! Channel in hopes of catching the random glimpses of him, scanning the Internet for Johnny trivia, wishing they lived in Florida, where (as rumor had it) fans had started a Rocky Horror-ish interactive Pirates night where they bit into an apple when Johnny bit the apple and said, “That’s very interesting” just when Johnny said it. They smuggled airplane bottles of mojito rum into the theater to keep that Caribbean buzz humming.
Never mind the bad teeth. Never mind the makeup. In fact, that was the point: Captain Jack was so piratically liberated, he made Alison and Cyn question their entire lives. How had they become so cautious, so boring, so utterly middle-of-the-road? What the hell happened to them?
Oddly enough, Johnny Depp had the exact same experience himself, which he described five years ago in a lovely little article he wrote called “Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Beats and Other Bastards Who Ruined My Life.” The story begins with the day his older brother ripped Frampton Comes Alive! off the turntable, put on Astral Weeks, and handed him a copy of On the Road:
“And so began my ascension (or descension) into the mysteries of all things considered Outside. I had burrowed too deep into the counterculture of my brother’s golden repository, and as years went by, he would turn me on to other areas of his expertise, sending me even further into the dark chasm of alternative learning… I wanted my education to come from living life, getting out there in the world, seeing and doing and moving among the other vagabonds who had had the same sneaking suspicion that I did, that there would be no great need for high-end mathematics, nope… I was not going to be doing other people’s taxes and going home at 5:37 p.m. to pat my dog’s head and sit down to my one meat and two vegetable table waiting for Jeopardy to pop on the glass tit, the Pat Sajak of my own private game show…”
He goes on, doing that spontaneous bop prosody thing.
So it makes perfect sense that when I finally do get my Johnny moment, it’s like a drug deal: Check into the Chateau Marmont and we’ll call you when we call you. It’s perfect not just because Johnny has himself spent time waiting on the man, not just because he built himself through unwavering loyalty to a vision given to him by others, not just because he’s a rock ‘n’ roll dude who started out in bands (and got this close to a record deal with an eighties glam band called the Rock City Angels), but because Zen Beatnik Lesson Number One is that you must abandon your will before refreshment arrives. So I sit in my room and watch the Hustler and Touch of Evil on AMC and remember what movies can do when they’re sufficiently inspired or deranged, and finally the phone rings and a voice comes on and says, Johnny’s running a little late. Hang tight.
Like I said, it makes perfect sense. What movie star has enacted the paradigm of celebrity evasion more perfectly than Johnny Depp? The guy hides behind masks and makeup and scissor hands and bald spots and oddball, bizarre weirdness more than any other movie star in history. Look at the filmography: Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands, Dead Man, From Hell, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This ain’t a career; it’s a cry for help.
Another half hour, then the phone rings again. Down the hall, knock knock, and there he is, sitting in a chair. For a guy who doesn’t give a damn he’s definitely sporting a look—professionally ripped denim, in a floppy old brown fedora, amulets up his arm, and some kinda mojo hand necklace dangling to his breastbone. He smiles sweetly, asks about my room, opens a window, and pretends to be alarmed that maybe he broke it, making a joke about the days when he trashed a hotel room or two. And we start to talk, mostly pretty boring stuff at first. In the spirit of Johnny, I’ll give this to you pretty much unprocessed.
Johnny Depp: OS X was a nightmare. 9.2 was fine.
John Richardson: Yeah.
When the room-service waiter comes in, Johnny starts talking to him about antiques and even walks him to the door. The kid leaves beaming.
Depp: When you first got to the teenage period, were you scared shitless?
Richardson: Spoken like a father.
Every so often, he asks me if I want some more coffee. Every so often, he rolls a cigarette and smokes it. And adds a little water to his coffee.
Richardson: You have spent some time in France, right? Don’t they do that in France?
Depp: No, this is me just growing up on diner coffee. I’m a Maxwell House guy. This is way too highfalutin stuff for me.
I do ask him about showbiz a couple of times, but it doesn’t seem to be a subject that brings him much joy.
Depp: I don’t recall anything that knocked me out. I like not seeing too much of what’s going on out there, you know? In fact, I like not seeing what’s going on, not knowing what anybody else is doing and not knowing who anybody is. It’s like ignorance is bliss.
Richardson: I think out here, you get caught up in what other people’s values are. It’s easy to lose sight of your own.
Depp: Yeah. I really, more than anything, despise the competitive thing that just sort of is in this industry, you? It would be different if it were kill or be killed, but it’s not, you know?
He gets quiet and internal, sucking on his little brown cigarette, tapping it on the rim of the ashtray, sinking down under his big sheltering hat. But I try again, asking him if he had to ignore a lot of expensive professional advice to make so many oddball movies.
Depp: Well, I took their advice. It was Cocteau, I think—Cocteau said advice is a great thing to listen to and disregard. [He laughs.] And at times it is, you know? Because nobody really knows what you’re feeling, what you’re really going for, what you’re really trying to do. Hell, I didn’t even know what I was going for. I just knew that I didn’t want to be assembly line.
Richardson: Cheez Whiz.
Depp: Yeah, Cheez Whiz. There were agents, upper-echelon agents over the years who said, Listen, here’s the deal: You have to do this because you can make this much money and you can do this and you can do that, success and power and all that. I listened to them and they were right, you know, but I was right. I couldn’t go where they wanted me to go.
Richardson: Are you happy being an actor?
Depp: Yeah. I’m a lot happier now than I used to be.
Depp: ‘Cause for a lot of years I was really freaked out. Maybe I took it all too seriously, you know? I was freaked out about being turned into a product. That really used to bug me. Now, more and more, I enjoy the process. Creating a character, working that character into a scene, into the movie. I mean, the last couple of things have been just a ball.
You seemed to be having fun on Pirates, I say. Alison is going to want to hear about this.
Depp: I had a ball. I really had a ball every single day. It was just a gas. It’s probably the most centered and content I’ve ever been, starting a little bit before that point, because everything comes from home and emotion and what you’re living in. We started Pirates and my girl was three and a half, a great relationship. My little boy was just in the throes of the caveman period and hilarious.
Richardson: Is that one of their bracelets you’re wearing there?
Depp: My daughter made these for me, and then, amazingly, she chose every single bead on this one, little skulls and stuff. She put these skulls on, and then she had one green bead and she said, “Ah, this is gonna be for Daddy…”
He seems pretty happy talking about his own movies, which gives him a chance to praise the directors and other actors. The surprise is that he often agrees to make them even if he doesn’t much care for the script. If he’s a fan of Roman Polanski, that’s reason enough to say yes to The Ninth Gate.
Depp: I think Polanski is one of the few filmmakers who nearly did a perfect film, a couple of them. Chinatown was almost perfect. It may be perfect. And I was really excited about the prospect of going to work with him. The screenplay was sort of like, all right, you know. Maybe when we get in there, we can float around a little bit and find some stuff and change it. But he doesn’t want to do that so much.
He laughs again, happy to be talking about the quirks of someone he admires—that’s Roman, and he’s the filmmaker, so what are you going to do? Hell, sometimes Johnny makes movies without even seeing a script.
Depp: Dead Man, there was no script.
Richardson: Just ‘cause you like Jim Jarmusch?
Depp: ‘Cause I love him, and, you know, he’s another guy who’s made a perfect film. Probably a couple of times.
Same with Ed Wood. No screenplay there, just an idea by Tim Burton. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which he’s going to shoot with Burton this summer in London. And same with Pirates.
Depp: I was sitting in a meeting with Dick Cook over at Disney, a kind of general meeting, and he said, “What kind of stuff are you looking to do?” I said, “I don’t know. I’d kind of like to do some kiddie stuff. Something a bit more accessible for mine, you know.” He said, “We’re thinking of doing this thing, Pirates of the Caribbean,” And I just said, “I’m in.”
Richardson: That’s the last thing I would have expected you to do, a movie based on a theme park.
JD: I can’t explain it, you know. I just had a feeling. I don’t know why. And there was every chance in the world for it to be something horribly embarrassing. I just had a good feeling, and then all the elements came together and it worked fine. Interesting.
Of course, they were a little freaked out by the way he came at the role—the makeup, the gold teeth, the weird way he walked and talked.
Depp: There were a number of people, you know, when those first dailies came in, it was like, What’s that? What’s he doing? I just kind of ended up having a few conference calls and meetings and stuff, and basically, again, I just had a feeling that I had my hooks into this guy so deeply. I just had the feeling that the kiddies would like him and that it wouldn’t just be like a kiddie character; the average Joe could like him and the heaviest of intellectuals could like him. What’s amazing to me is I didn’t do anything different than any other character, you know what I mean? I mean, I just did the same job I always do. But somehow the film hit, and now I meet these little kids who go, “Man, you’re Captain Jack!” And you can see in their eyes that it’s not Johnny Depp or any of that bullshit—they’re meeting Captain Jack. God, what a high that is. That you’ve somehow pierced that curtain and have made an effect to some degree. That little kid’ll have that memory of watching that movie when he’s a grown man or a grown woman. And that, to me, means so much.
Richardson: Ten years ago, when you were in your thirties or late twenties or something, could you imagine yourself saying that?
Depp: No, I was just a dumbass.
So it’s not quite the no-compromise life Alison imagined, at least not anymore. Which leads him into the past, how he came out of Florida with his rock band in 1983 and lived in Nic Cage’s old apartment near Hollywood Boulevard, so broke that he took the Mexican change in Cage’s drawers down to the check-cashing joint on the corner of Hollywood and Whitely so he could buy a hot dog or a pack of cigarettes. Getting his first role in Nightmare on Elm Street for the “shocking” sum of $1,200 a week. Gradually realizing he wasn’t gonna play guitar for a living after all.
Depp: At a certain point you get one of those moments where you just go, okay, apparently this is the path you’re on now. Just go a little farther and see what happens. I always figured I could go back and play music if I needed to.
Then he brings up the TV-heartthrob thing, something he spontaneously returns to several times, how he got the part on 21 Jump Street that changed his life so fast. Suddenly he was living in a nice hotel and getting paid big money and people were staring at him in restaurants.
Richardson: You were playing some kind of teen detective, right?
Depp: I was playing a cop who looked young enough to go undercover in high school.
Richardson: And fuck with the students.
Depp: And fuck with the students.
Richardson: An asshole. You were playing an asshole.
Depp: Yeah, a fascist.
Which is kind of funny considering that he was the opposite of that slick young cop who could get over with the kids because he was so down and studly and in control.
Depp: I’ve always been drawn to those fringe types. The whole “we who are not as others” thing, you know?
Richardson: What’s that?
Depp: There was a book called Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others. I always loved that title, We Who Are Not as Others. Not so much freaks, but we who are not as others. I always thought that was great.
Richardson: That’s why it’s strange you’re in Hollywood, ‘cause it’s basically a mainstream place.
Depp: Maybe I was just too dumb to sell out.
Richardson: I do have a feeling like if Depp is doing Pirates of the Caribbean, there must be some reason why he’s doing it that’s authentic. Maybe I won’t in ten years.
Depp: Shit, I may be doing TV in ten years. Or doing fucking appearances at a hamburger stand dressed as Captain Jack, you know.
Doubtful, especially when you consider the way he gasses on about how much he loves Ed Wood, the thought that when Ed was storming the beaches in World War II, he was wearing a bra and panties underneath his combat fatigues. He seems so happy telling stories about making the movie—“And there I was, man, I was in like a tight skirt and my wig all screwed up and lipstick smudged all over my face”—it lights up his face.
Depp: He was totally pure. It really all came from an absolutely right place. That was why Ed Wood was so important to Tim [Burton, the director] and I. It was really like a love letter to him. We appreciate this guy, you know?
Richardson: There’s purity to all those characters you play. They’re trying to be sincerely themselves and not fake it.
Depp: I think that’s important. Even in your own life. When you meet someone like Hunter Thompson and watch him, get to know him—people say whatever they want to say about Hunter and his books—he’s pure, he’s absolutely pure. There’s really not an ugly bone in that guy’s body.
Depp: Yeah He’s just himself. That’s rare. You know, like Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, a band out of Texas. They were basically the first psychedelic-rock band in 1965. And if you listen to old 13th Floor Elevator stuff—Roky Erickson especially, his voice—and then go back and listen to early Led Zepplin, you know that Robert Plant absolutely copped everything from Roky Erickson. And it’s amazing. And Roky Erickson is sitting in Austin, Texas; he’s just sitting there. And Robert Plant had a huge hit. It always goes back to those guys, you know? I love those fucking guys.
He lights another one of his little cigarettes, pours a little more water in his coffee.
Depp: The interesting thing is, like, for the most part, I’ve kind of been able to glide through this weird little thing they call a career in terms of the business world and in terms of the industry in many movies that were considered absolute failures, flops. So I’ve kind of made a career of—
Then there’s a knock on the door and in comes David Koepp, director of his latest movie, Secret Window. It’s time for Depp to go back to the odd business of being America’s most eccentric movie star, the man who inspired my sister-in-law and made women all over America drool over a fey pirate in makeup.
Depp: That’s the thing, a pirate could do whatever he wants. He’s a pirate. Bind his feet like a geisha. He could do whatever he wants. Anything. He’s a pirate. There’s no limit.
Depp: That’s what’s so fun.
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