Even in close up, there is a whisper of the elsewhere about him. As the camera molds itself to his delicate beauty, what is Johnny Depp conjuring: the anarchic literacy of his Beat heroes; the barfly tempers of a Hollywood anti-icon; the smitten second childhood of a new father? Or is he listening to the Clash?
The tiny earpiece transistor was Marlon Brando’s suggestion: Depp first used one on the set of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his bravura homage to Hunter S. Thompson. Depp chooses music appropriate to character: most recently harpsichord works for Ichabod Crane, the reluctant leading man of his latest film Sleepy Hollow. But he usually ends up listening to rock. “There’s nothing consistent about a movie set: there’s hammering, there’s this, there’s that, but I have total consistency. I can sit and dream and listen to the music.”
This is being Johnny Depp. Is he for real? Do you want him to be? On balance, I would rather have imagined him. Apply the rigors of reality and he slips away like a dream from wakefulness. His voice is soft and low, his speech trips and strains like a bird learning to fly. He tends towards moonstruck meanderings that mean everything and nothing, like: “As human beings we break something down to try to understand it, and by breaking it down sometimes you can kill the magic. If there’s something that just works, for whatever reason, don’t question.”
He is describing his relationship with Tim Burton, the darkly wistful director who presents almost as much of a conundrum to the movie business as Depp himself. Theirs is the success of altered states.
Sleepy Hollow, their third collaboration, following Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, is an adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic American ghost story about a small community terrorized by a headless horseman. “I just know that there’s a deep understanding that the two of us can’t even begin to talk about. There’s a deep connection, and I know that anything he wanted to do I’d be there. I just hope he gives me . . . another job.” He laughs, perhaps recognizing how ludicrous his final comment sounds.
There are some obvious deductions to be made from Depp’s choice of roles. With the exception of Scissorhands and Donnie Brasco, he has never starred in a commercial hit. His own directorial debut, The Brave, was slammed at Cannes in 1997. He has consistently played characters on the outskirts of convention: the cross-dressing B-movie director (Ed Wood), the shuffling man-child with blades for fists (Scissorhands), the delusional seducer (Don Juan DeMarco).
“I do have a strange fascination with damaged people, of which I’m one; Christ, who isn’t? And I remember very well that feeling in my early teens of being an outsider. I’m not sure it’s so much feeling like an outsider as just clearly not being an insider.” It is obvious that 36-year-old Depp recalls the awkward sensibilities of youth as the rest of us remember yesterday.
There are many people who act in life, he says, especially as outsiders. But the roles found him, he insists. It was not a conscious dedication to the maverick—for that is a convention in itself. It is the “true pedestrian way” of his literary hero Kerouac. It is equally the final retreat of a scared child.
He describes a violent and explosive family life. Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, his parents fought constantly and moved 30 times before his father finally left them when Depp was 15. He dropped out of school to pump gas and play guitar. He drove to LA looking for a record contract and wound up an actor. “When the homefront went into a tail spin, you needed to believe that somewhere, somehow, something was going to be OK. You had to believe that you just keep moving forward regardless and you’ll get to a place where you can breathe better.”
Do we create for our children the childhood that we wish we’d had ourselves? He talks about his baby daughter with raw joy. He wants “to create everything good” for Lily-Rose, born last May to Depp and his girlfriend Vanessa Paradis, the French singer, actress and former face of Chanel. Before he has even voiced the thought, invisible strings are tweaking the corners of his bow lips upwards. “I knew that it was going to be deep, even life-changing, but I didn’t have any idea that a person could love that deeply. And when I love—my mother, my family—I love deeply to the very core of my being.” Love is an odd thing to calibrate. There is a sweetness to him that would be cloying if it were transported beyond his dreamscape.
“When she arrived . . .” he pauses. “I knew her, looking into the eyes of this little angel,”—he mimes holding her—”this little thing that is going to know you deeper than anyone will ever know you.” He’s like an adolescent begging to be taken seriously. He’s exposed like a butterfly in glue. He invites one to pull his wings off, then cauterizes the impulse to cruelty.
Now based in Paris with Paradis and child, he wants “a simple, normal life”. He would prefer Lily-Rose not to go into acting. “Nobody puts money into a film because they love art, they do it because they want a return on their money, so it’s kind of dirty.” He laughs testingly, like a child telling a smutty joke. “I’ve made a career out of commercial failure.” But he doesn’t feel like a failure. “No, not at all, because it’s none of my business what the movies make in terms of money, and really none of the money’s going to me.” (Depp earns a reported $10m per movie.)
So what is the difference between commercial success and the kind of success that he enjoys? He doesn’t know. But he is very successful. “In an odd way. Luckily, I’ve been able to stay afloat. I don’t know why that is, because I made choices to go down another avenue that was not particularly solidly paved for you already. But it was the only way I could go, believe me.
All this is easy to say, if you’re Johnny Depp. Responsibility would fade the magic. He finds himself believable: but that he is wholly genuine doesn’t make him any less created. He has the sort of excessive beauty that is best understood in still-life. He is exquisite like an object, with the undeveloped charisma of a teenager. He is too bloodless to be sexually threatening. And he is adored for it.
He loathes it. Since his early elevation to sparker of teenage dreams as an 80s TV star, he has deliberately mauled his pale heart face on and off screen: with make-up, masks, itchy stubble. “I despised being a product. Not only is it limiting but it’s frustrating, because you have nothing to do with it. I’m much more obsessed with the idea of the truth and exploring than I am with creating an image that I can package and sell to people.”
Does he find his looks are a distraction? “It’s a distraction for me.” A delicate, observational player, with a fine comic talent, Depp has often been described as a character actor in a leading man’s body. “If you have a leading man type look, they expect you to be a leading man, and I find that impossible.” It begs two questions: would he be where he is if he didn’t look that way? Could Keanu Reeves play a failed film director with an angora fetish, as Depp did in Ed Wood? “I want to attract as little attention as possible. If I could morph my face for the night it would be one of the greatest gifts I’d ever be given. To be gawked at and treated like some kind of novelty . . . that’s really an ugly feeling.”
During the filming of Sleepy Hollow, Depp confronted a gaggle of paparazzi who were waiting for him outside a London restaurant. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be what you want me to be tonight, we’re celebrating something special so let’s just say we’ll do this another time.’ And they were aggressive, they said we’re going to get the picture so why don’t you just pose for it. I’m not going to pose for anybody.” He sounds like a man for the first time.
He picked up a plank of wood and hit one photographer on the hand, threatening the others. “Nobody took a picture,” he concludes, grinning dopily at the punchline: “Not until the cops came.
“I don’t regret that at all. I was invaded, and I have to protect what is mine, and keep it as pure as possible.”
During the interview, Depp kept returning to a “deep” passage by American playwright and novelist William Saroyan that, he said, encapsulated the values he hopes to pass on to his daughter. He became frustrated at his inability to quote it verbatim and promised to fax me a copy. I dismissed this as professional friendliness and didn’t believe him.
When I returned to the office, there it was, with an accompanying note: “Here’s the Saroyan piece that I butchered for you today. Hope you like it, it is everything to me.” It was a genuine, human gesture from a young man with an obviously good heart. The passage itself is one of those Desiderata-style invocations that one makes one’s motto before circumstance shakes the innocence out of you.
Johnny Depp is a star. He is as much dreamt as dreamer. Reality militates against him, so he remains in the fairy-tale because he can. Would you want him anywhere else?
I’m keeping that fax, because I like to believe in magic.
© IFOD 2003 – 2020