He may be one of the most gifted actors of his generation, but Johnny Depp is not about to use that gift rashly. The 37 year old, Kentucky born actor has built an impressive body of work by choosing his roles judiciously and selecting directors he wanted to work with just as carefully.
Yet while From Hell could easily have fulfilled the criteria he has diligently applied to his other film roles, the subject matter was undoubtedly too tempting for him to refuse. For the sweet natured, angelic looking actor admits he is a bit of a Jack the Ripper buff, and has been for years. “I’ve been fascinated by the Ripper case since I was a kid,” he explains. “I read tons of books on it, and have learned about all the various theories about who did it. But the From Hell comic book was amazingly thorough in its research, and was beautifully done, really painstakingly done. That impressed me. But that book is really amazing; really, really impressive. It’s a great theory that they come up with, and mathematically it works. It’s very well done.”
This comic book by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell forms the basis of the film by Allen and Albert Hughes, one that may not offer any particularly fresh insight into the deadly doings in Victorian Whitechapel, but which had stylishly drawn a whole new generation into the dark deeds of the Ripper. Following his murderous path with some frustration, Inspector Frederick Abberline (Depp) risks everything to expose the man he believes to be the culprit, risking his career and the carefully structured society of late 19th century England to do so.
The Hughes Brothers’ film builds up the tension and achieves a stunning atmosphere, despite the fact that they had to recreate the mean streets of old London town in the increasingly popular movie location of Prague. “There were about 14 other productions shooting while we were there,” Depp adds. “In fact there was one time when we were driving to set, and you would see the trucks and we saw the trailers and trucks up ahead and started to get out, and someone said: ‘That’s not us, man, we’re two blocks down.’ It’s amazing really.”
Partaking of the Prague nightlife, Depp—for some time now a resident of Paris, along with girlfriend Vanessa Paradis and their daughter Lily-Rose Melody—found the time to enjoy himself despite a grueling shooting schedule. “I didn’t go out too much because I was working pretty heavily,” he insists, before adding: “But there were a couple of good restaurants that I found. I found one place that had some good French wine.”
You get the feeling that Johnny Depp simply has a good time simply being Johnny Depp. And if the by-product is that he turns in some impressive performances in a wide variety of films, then why not? But by his own admission he is not the most ambitious actor you will ever meet. “I’m not,” he shrugs. “I don’t set myself some sort of target and go for it. And I don’t watch too many movies either. I just know I’d love to work with Tim Burton again or Terry Gilliam, or the Hughes Brothers. I’ve been real lucky in the people I’ve worked with.”
The criteria is always something that challenges him artistically, and appeals to him emotionally. Since he has become a Dad, Depp appreciates the whole notion of leaving some kind of legacy behind him is an increasing preoccupation. “If you think in terms of being able to leave something behind when you escape this world, and leave something for your kids, or your grandchildren, something that they can say ‘for a certain amount of time Dad—or Granddad—didn’t compromise, he did what he wanted to do. He was trying to do something interesting.’
“It hasn’t got too much easier. I’ll never understand it, the animal, the machine, Hollywood, and that business. All that. I don’t want to understand it. It’s like joining a club, a clique, just because everyone else is in it. It has nothing to do with who you are as a person; you just join it because that’s the in thing to do. The job that I have, making movies and being able to act in movies, and the opportunities I’ve been given have really been great. It’s a terrific job, I’ve enjoyed myself. It’s certainly a privileged position to be in.”
He is not one to get sucked into the whole big star mentality, Johnny Depp. The work he does is in direct response to his own taste, the satisfaction all the greater for the collaborations he gets to embark on being crucial to his choices. “I don’t regret making any films,” he explains, “Not even the worst of them. I’m sure there are a number of bad ones, but I don’t see them all. I worked on a television series for three and half years, I think I was in probably 75 episodes and I saw about five of them. So I’m sure there’s some questionable work in there. Over the years I’m sure I’ve done some goofy things.
“I don’t read reviews. If you read good reviews you have to read bad reviews. You got to read them all. It’s none of my business what happens after the film is released. My job is done. And I’ve been so lucky to have worked with the guys that I’ve worked with.”
As long as the subjects of films he is offered continue to reflect his personal, quirky tastes then we will be able to see Johnny Depp doing good work. But few are likely to come along that have so strong an echo for him as a script about the pursuit of Jack the Ripper. From Hell has, in a sense, been Heaven for a distinctive and highly individual actor.
© IFOD 2003 – 2023