by Holly Millea
Photographs by Andrew MacPherson
Johnny Depp believes in ghosts. He has come to this haunted place looking for one in particular, a little girl wearing a silk party dress with a powder blue sash. She is often heard playing in the room across the hall from where Depp is sleeping in the Mackay Mansion, a three-story Victorian built high in the mountains of Nevada.
The small spirit likes the room. A cranberry glass chandelier casts spirals of ruby light upon shelf after shelf, each filled with antique French and German porcelain dolls. Side by side they sit, forty pairs of eyes staring toward the door, waiting for her.
Depp waits as well. “I want to run into some spirits here!” he says eagerly. When he isn’t gazing across the hall, he’s shooting Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man, a western set in the late 1800s, in which he finds his mug on a wanted poster. “When I was a kid I used to have these dreams,” says Depp. “But they weren’t dreams. I was awake, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. And a face would come to me. Someone told me it was the spirit of someone who died that was very close and never got to say something that they wanted to say. And I believe it.”
Depp’s face possesses a beauty usually reserved for apostles and saints and silent-movie stars. Draped over perfect bone structure, his impossibly pale skin is without a line or crease—this despite 31 years, too many cigarettes, other interesting substances, and frequent extreme acts of human expression. It is a countenance one would not hide, but in his latest film, Don Juan DeMarco, Depp is a masked man.
“It chose me, it came to me,” he says, speaking not of a ghost but of the script by writer and first-time director Jeremy Leven. Depp in turn chose Marlon Brando to play the psychiatrist who tries to convince a Don Juan wannabe that he’s not the world’s greatest lover, just a guy having delusions of greatest-lover grandeur.
His first meeting with the mythic Marlon took place at Brando’s house, over Chinese takeout. “He’s maybe the greatest actor of the last two centuries,” says Depp. “But his mind is much more important than the acting thing. The way that he looks at things, doesn’t judge things, the way he assesses things. He’s as important as, uh, who’s important today? Jesus, not many people . . . Stephen Hawking!”
The admiration is mutual. Faye Dunaway, who played Depp’s lover in Arizona Dream (which was never released in the United States) and plays Brando’s wife in Don Juan, says, “Brando adores him. He loves Johnny’s genuineness and modesty and that he is who he is. You’re not a great actor like Brando for nothing, you know. He knows how to recognize a sham in any shape.”
Dunaway says that the two became so close, in fact, that when Depp went through “this recent fracas in New York at the Mark, Brando called the police station, he called the hotel—he called everybody!—to do what he could to be of help.”
In the Mark Hotel incident, Depp deconstructed the furniture in his room at a cost of more than $9,000 and several hours in jail. “I thought it was funny—I have to go to jail for assaulting a picture frame or a lamp! The rags said, ‘Well, he was drunk and he was having a huge fight with his girlfriend.’ Complete bullshit! But, you know, let’s say the guy over here in the bar, he’s having a hard day, man, and eventually—one more stubbing of the toe—the guy’s gotta hit something. So you punch a wall or do this and that. Fuck it, I’m normal and I want to be normal. But somehow I’m not allowed to be. Why can’t I be human? I have a lot of love inside me and a lot of anger inside as well. If I love somebody, then I’m gonna love ‘em. If I’m angry and I’ve got to lash out or hit somebody, I’m going to do it and I don’t care what the repercussions are. Anger doesn’t pay rent, it’s gotta go. It’s gotta be evicted.”
“Sometimes you feel like you’ve just got to kick over the traces,” explains Dunaway. “And the Mark took advantage of it. A publicity trip; it’s outrageous. I would have probably smashed up the lobby after that. I think they should count themselves lucky that he didn’t.”
After taking just so much of being “scrutinized, judged, even stalked at times,” Depp escapes to Europe, where he moves undetected. “It’s a different thing in Paris. It’s more about the work than about anything that’s called celebrity. It’s not as sensationalized.” Another bonus: interesting spirits. “I’ve stayed at this little hotel in Paris, in the room where Oscar Wilde died,” says Depp. In homage to the wit, the furniture is kept in the style that it was at the moment of his passing. “I slept in the room that Oscar Wilde died in, and I thought that quite possibly, if I fell asleep too deeply, somewhere around 4 a.m. I might be abused in some obtuse way. Get taken advantage of. At least he had a good sense of humor.”
He conceals himself behind a veil of Marlboro smoke and verbal mirrors. With the skill of a magician, Depp pulls odd but entertaining answers from the air, all the while willing to let you check up his sleeves. “If someone were to harm my family or a friend or someone I love—I would eat them,” he says quite seriously. “I might end up in jail for 500 years—but I would eat them.” Of his latest tattoo, three small black boxes staining his ring finger, Depp explains, “I always used to just draw these. Somehow they mean something for me, a personal significance. I don’t understand it totally yet. I think I will someday.” Ask what could possibly frighten a believer in ghosts: “I’m especially scared of boogers. Snot freaks me out. If someone ever showed me a booger I’d smash their face.” Oh, grow up. “I would! There’d be lawsuits everywhere.”
Only later do you realize that what he has really done is perform a disappearing act. Depp’s utter openness is the sleight of hand that keeps him from being seen.
Here’s a trick: finding a revelation about someone who has already had all the significant and insignificant details of his life scratched out on a whole forest of paper.
“He was born in Kentucky,” Depp drones, his head lolling to one side. “He’s the youngest of four children. He moved to Miramar, Florida. His parents were divorced. He dropped out of school. He played in a band. He has tattoos . . .” And he was engaged to so-and-so and, of course, to you-know-who of that tattoo.
Even the subject is bored with the subject matter.
Just about the only unknown is the extent of his dental work. It’s a glib observation, but no sooner is it made than Depp unhinges his jaw, opens wide, and happily gives an intimate tour of his choppers. “I’ve got loads of cavities. I had a root canal done eight years ago that’s unfinished. It’s like a rotten little stub.” He pulls back the curtain of flesh covering his upper-right molars, revealing the oddity. “But I like it. It’s like when the Indians would make something beaded, they would always put imperfections on it.” Running a finger along his zigzagging bottom front row, he says, “I’m proud of these. When I see people with perfect teeth, it drives me up the wall. I’d rather swallow a tick than have that!”
While bumping your nose up against his uvula, you notice the most fascinating facet of this oral inspection. Despite a chain of cigarettes and several glasses of merlot, Depp’s breath has no odor.
Sifting through the voluminous chronicles of his existence, you can forgive Depp the fact that he has on more than one occasion recycled “sucked into a bed” to describe his role in A Nightmare on Elm Street. After that painful initiation, Depp co-starred with Rob Morrow in the T-and-A spectacle Private Resort, and played a soldier in Platoon. Then came Fox TV fame as undercover cop Tom Hanson in 21 Jump Street. “Oh God, was that my name?” he says. “For the last two years of the show, I didn’t know what my name was.”
“He made a choice when he came out of the television series to take a left turn as opposed to a right,” says his ICM agent, Tracey Jacobs. Hence Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Arizona Dream, Ed Wood, and Don Juan DeMarco. There’s not a Dracula, Speed, or Interview with the Vampire type of film in the bunch, yet according to a source in a position to know, he has been offered all of those and many more.
Depp is a gambler. He committed to four of his past six projects before financing was secured. When Ed Wood was put in turnaround by Columbia, he stayed with the movie even though he was offered seven other films during that period, says Jacobs. “He had an allegiance to Tim [Burton] and stuck with that process for almost six months. He did the exact same thing for Dead Man.”
If you were earning 10 percent of Depp’s winnings, you might want him to play for bigger stakes. “Am I disappointed that he turned those projects down? No!” blasts Jacobs. “Do I want him to be in a movie that does $400 million? Of course! I’m not stupid! Let me make this really clear to you—he wants to be in a commercial movie. It just has to be the right timing and the right one, that’s all. Hopefully he’ll be available when those come along again.” His Ed Wood co-star Sarah Jessica Parker observes, however, that “things aren’t arbitrary in his life at all. There is nothing random in anything that he does.” Who wants to see Johnny Depp riding a bus through a movie, anyway? What a miserable fate that would be for a guy who just wants to turn left.
Remark that Depp’s offscreen life seems to be full of left leanings, and Jacobs suggests, “’I have taken the road less traveled and that has made all the difference?’ That would be the quote I would use to describe him in general.”
“He’s a doll. He’s a dreamboat. He’s a delinquent.”
That’s the tag on the poster for Cry-Baby, Depp’s first film after he was sprung from television. In one cool move, with one very cool director, Depp totaled his teen-idol image. John Waters’s Cry-Baby was such a riotous send-up of a rebel loverboy that there was no way in hell Depp could ever be credibly cast in such a role again. Whether conscious or unconscious, it was an ingenious career move—Depp was now free to play the beautiful losers everyone longed to save.
“He has an almost burning desire to make ugly choices,” says Peter Hedges, who wrote Gilbert Grape. “He comes with a physical beauty that’s just astonishing, and at the same time he has no interest in being that.” Depp committed to do the film, about a young man drowning in a dysfunctional family, before there was even a screenplay. “When I met him he had this really long hair,” recalls Hedges. “He showed up at the meeting, very quiet, really shy, and was teaching us magic tricks. I thought, I suppose he could be Gilbert . . .”
Co-star Leonardo DiCaprio saw the parallels pronto. “He was extremely like Gilbert,” says DiCaprio, who played his retarded younger brother. “But it wasn’t something Johnny was trying to do. It naturally came out of him. I never quite understood what he was going through, because it wasn’t some big emotional drama that was happening every day on the set—but subtle things I’d see in him would make me question what was going on. There’s an element of Johnny that’s extremely nice and extremely cool, but at the same time, he’s hard to figure out. But that’s what makes him interesting.”
“His childhood informs who he is, but his choice of roles is where he wants to live as an artist,” says Dunaway. “Whatever has happened to Johnny Depp, this is what he in his own uniqueness made of it.”
It’s when you’re not looking that he appears. Relaxing between questions, Depp lets his psyche wander into the room.
“. . . Like a person who makes a fatal mistake with drugs for instance,” he’s saying one night at Adele’s, a restaurant just down the highway from the Dead Man shoot in Virginia City. “You can say, ‘Okay, the guy was having a good time but he made a big mistake and now he’s not there. He doesn’t breathe anymore and his mom doesn’t get to see him anymore.’ ” Are we talking about River Phoenix, who died of an overdose outside Depp’s club, the Viper Room, more than a year ago?
“Yeah, oh yeah,” he says quietly. “He made a mistake, you know? And if he hadn’t done this particular thing that night, it wouldn’t have been . . . but he was . . . it happened. It scares the shit out of me because I see my nieces and nephews growing up and it’s fucking hard. It was hard for me to grow up and it’s even harder now with all the scary, spooky shit that’s out there and . . .”
He breaks off, looks up. River Phoenix should see Depp’s eyes now. “The thing is, he came with his guitar to the club. You could cut me open and vomit in my chest because that kid . . . what a beautiful thing that he shows up with his girl on one arm and his guitar on the other. He came to play and he didn’t think he was going to die—nobody thinks they’re gonna die. He wanted to have a good time. It’s dangerous. But that’s the thing that breaks my heart, first that he died, but also that he showed up with his guitar, you know? That’s not an unhappy kid.”
What’s his take on the afterlife? “Oh boy, I don’t know.” Depp sighs heavily. “I would hope to think that this is maybe hell. Maybe this is hell because then we could go on to something else. Because this ain’t so bad.”
He bites into a steamed clam; his face grows genuinely pained. “It’s chewy,” he says, chewing aerobically. “These are big clams. Are you sure about these clams?” He swallows hard. Using his fork, Depp pokes about the bowl. “These are brown. I don’t think I can go there.” Prodding a green spot on a particularly large specimen, he makes this diagnosis: “That’s his doo-doo.” Depp retreats. “I tried. I did one.”
An older, elegant woman with a silver bun crowning her head glides toward the table. “I came in when I heard you would be here,” she says, extending a soft, well-manicured hand. “I’m Adele. I’m quite a fan of yours.”
“Well, thank you,” replies Depp graciously. “I’m quite a fan of yours.”
“I can’t believe how you look like yourself.”
“Do I?” Depp asks, smiling.
“Yes, you do. It’s great!”
“Well, that’s good.” He laughs. “I guess.”
“Will you come and meet my son Charlie? He’s cooking your dinner tonight.”
“Sure. Can I bring my cigarette?”
Back in the kitchen, Charlie chats with Depp: “You couldn’t have picked a worse day to shoot in Virginia City.”
“Ah, visibility was about like this,” says Depp, holding a hand to his face. “You couldn’t see the camera, couldn’t see anybody. It was kind of nice, actually. I was standing in a fog somewhere.”
“It’s a real early winter,” Adele says, on the way back to the table. “Well, I’m upstairs sitting next to the white-haired man.”
“Buck? He’s a crazy man!” says Depp. Buck isn’t a stranger to film sets: He mentions that he had small parts in M*A*S*H and The Wild Bunch. These days, Buck is in the actor’s employ; Depp calls him his partner.
“Do you want me to tell him to join you?” Adele asks.
“No, he’s okay. He’s fine.”
“He’s having soda with lime,” she reports. “Obviously, he doesn’t drink, which is nice.”
She walks away and Depp shakes his head in appreciation. “Oh, what a doll she is. She’s beautiful! Married 44 years—that’s happiness. See what that does for you?” Perhaps Depp should try it soon himself. “I’m happy, I’m happy,” he stutters. “I’m happy right where I am. Sliding along. I’m in good shape.
“You know,” he continues, lighting another cigarette, “I was married when I was twenty. It was a strong bond with someone but I can’t necessarily say I was in love. That’s something that comes around once, man, maybe twice if you’re lucky. And I don’t know that I experienced that, let’s say, before I turned 30.
“I remember being in seventh grade and I was one of the kids that was considered a burnout. I had the most intense crush on this very popular girl. I pined for this girl, like beyond Romeo and Juliet. Shocking. I just chewed my tongue up for her. Eighth grade comes along, we hang out a little at those parties where you end up making out. So we did that and I just couldn’t have been happier. Then she goes for the football guy, and leaves me just dangling in the breeze.
“Years later, after I dropped out of high school, I’m playing a club. I’m onstage and I look out and I’m like, ‘Fuck, it’s her!’ So I finish the set and I go directly to the bar where she’s sitting and I walk up to her and it’s that face, man—incredible. And I went, “It’s so nice to see you!’ And I look at her and she’s 250 pounds! She is mammoth! She’s as wide as this table, but her face is still the same. And I went, ‘Oh my, nice to see you—how many kids do you have?’ And she had four kids. And I thought, What fitting payback for fucking breaking my heart when I was a little kid.”
If he really hasn’t been in love before 30, that would make model Kate Moss the only woman eligible for in love status. The two met a year ago in a restaurant, introduced by a mutual friend. “And we’ve been together ever since,” says Depp, eager to fade from the topic. “We’re just having fun. A lot of fun.”
“She must be great,” opines Sarah Jessica Parker. “I’m going to just assume that and endow her with good qualities because I can’t imagine him spending time with anyone who wasn’t his equal.” Dunaway sees Depp as “uncorruptible—he always believes in this pure way about love, ya know? He’s got those kinds of values and it’s all instinctive with him. This isn’t something he’s worked out in his head. I love that he believes in love.”
It isn’t by accident that he’s playing Don Juan.
“Oh yeah!” Dunaway growls. “He’s a greeaat kisser!”
Buck has surrendered to the strong stuff. It is three hours later and upstairs at the bar he is glowing. A tall, fit, handsome devil with clear blue eyes and a white shock of hair, he has been listening to ghost stories and enjoying himself, having been told that PREMIERE would be happy to pick up his dinner. So Buck has pickled half the patrons, unaware that Depp paid the bill without looking at it.
“Darling,” he says, smiling broadly, “your magazine bought four rounds for everyone at this bar!” Depp’s eyes pop. “Bu-bu-bu-buck, what have you been doing?” The peanut gallery roars, and Depp recovers when the bartender delivers another round on the house.
“The whole town in haunted,” a local named Tito has been telling the assembled.
Sipping his merlot, Depp is anticipating. “I hope I don’t get a wink of sleep tonight!”
“We’re going up into the attic with a flashlight!” says Buck, rubbing his hands together. “Come on out, you bastards!”
The Mackay Mansion was built in 1860 and its first resident was William Randolph Hearst’s father, George. The attic was once the servants’ quarters, and their horsehair mattresses still rest against the walls, blanketed with layers of dust and cobwebs. “You have to crawl up a ladder to get there,” explains Buck. “The sign on the door says DON’T ENTER.”
“That’s probably where she lives!” says Tito, talking about the little girl ghost.
“Have you been in the room where she plays?” inquires Depp. The doll room. “The one that’s really scary is a slave doll from the Civil War. A black rag doll with red thread-stitched eyes.”
The bar sits entranced. Depp smiles, throws back his drink, and sets his glass down. “I want to go back to the house, roll up a big fatty, and wait for the little girl to sit on my lap!”
Virginia City has seen its share of death. Signs posted along the highway into town urge travelers to stop at the Bucket of Blood saloon and an attraction called the Suicide Table, where more than one gambler, after losing his life’s savings, ate a bullet.
The Dead Man crew members could themselves use a shot of something as they ready a location on one side of a snowy hill above the town. They work quickly in an effort to beat the fading light and falling mercury, which, measured by the frozen carton of milk on the craft-service table, is below 32 degrees. In this scene, Depp leaves the fictitious Dickinson Metalworks (actually an old mill near the Comstock Lode), having been turned away after seeking much needed employment.
“He really is one of the most precise and focused people I’ve ever worked with,” says Jarmusch, who’s also a friend. “The whole crew is kind of amazed by that.” He chuckles warm puffs of breath. “That’s a side of him that I’m not really familiar with, you know? I’m more familiar with seeing him fall asleep on the couch with the TV on all night. But it somehow fits; he’s full of paradoxes.”
In Depp’s ratty little trailer, which Buck has plastered with a chaotic constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars, the Mackay Mansion ghostbusters are reporting back their findings, or lack thereof. “We were in the attic with the bats, and in the basement with the rats,” says a disappointed Buck. “I think we scared off the ghosts, though.”
“They’re not used to people looking for them,” Depp says consolingly.
Buck nods in agreement. “I checked with the owner today and he said, ‘Yes, if you get aggressive with them, they’ll back off.’ ”
“We were calling, ‘Come on out, you bastards!’ ” adds Depp, cleaning his fingernails with the point of a Beavis and Butt-head pin.
“Of course,” Buck says, facing facts, “they knew we were hopelessly insane.” He turns to leave. Depp calls fondly after him, “Be careful out there, Bucky, it’s a cruel world.”
After shutting out the cold, Depp settles down to demonstrate a video game called Road Rash. “Watch this,” he says, revving a biker’s engine. “He can jump the curb and punch pedestrians.” Gee, he really can. With each innocent bystander sent flying, Depp lets out a hearty howl. His delight in such harmless delinquent behavior is contagious.
“I bought these for my little Kate,” he says, pointing to a skeleton accessorized with long strands of copper, silver, and gold beads. The necklaces are heavy, cold, yet sensuous to the touch. Around Moss’s neck, they’ll warm to body temperature. Back when Dead Man was shooting in Sedona, Arizona, Depp bought Buck a present too: a suede billfold embossed with a cowboy on his bronco and the words LITTLE BUCKEROO. If one were shopping for Depp, what would be the killer purchase? “A Jean-Michel Basquiat, I guess. There’s one of his paintings called Riding with Death. That’s my favorite.”
Moss’s picture is taped to the dressing-table mirror. It shows her with a bride-of-Frankenstein hairdo, modeling a purple, sequined one-piece pantsuit. FROM YOUR DISCO QUEEN . . . HA, HA, HA, HA. LOVE ALWAYS, KATE. Also on the mirror is a single coarse, gray hair with a note: HAIR OF JARMUSCH. These seem like distractions. Warning: Objects in the mirror may appear closer than they really are. Depp’s real reflection, also stuck on the mirror, is a typed quote from the playwright and novelist William Saroyan: “In the time of your life, live, so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
Depp dies at the end of Dead Man. Hardly a giveaway, given the title. “I hope that this is the last of these innocents I play,” he says. “It’s a character that is, again, like a naïve young guy who’s trying to get his life together. He’s trying really hard to make his life work and he ends up slowly dying. And he knows he’s dying.” A half-smile. “It’s a beautiful story, though.”
“There is something haunting about him,” says Parker. “But it’s not like Johnny is this troubled young actor and he’s poetic and brooding. It’s just that he’s real and complicated. He’s not like a showman. He doesn’t belong in show business. He belongs somewhere better.”
A month of shooting left, and he’ll be a free man in Paris—unfettered and very much alive. But at this moment, the actor is being filmed slowly walking away from the mill through the fog. You can see nothing, save his sorrowful eyes. Emerging from the mist, a face takes shape, the only thing distinguishing it from the grayish whiteness being a black frame of hair. He continues past the camera, staring intently at something in the distance. Following his gaze . . . there appears to be nothing there.