Vanity Fair
November 2004
by Steven Daly
Photographs by Mark Seliger

A Hollywood golden boy after his Oscar nomination for Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp is still keeping critics and fans guessing. Coming up: two kid-magnet movies (Tim Burton’s new version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a planned Pirates sequel), a Victorian drama (Finding Neverland, about the writer of Peter Pan), and the very adult The Libertine. In London, Depp tells Steven Daly about falling for French pop star Vanessa Paradis (mother of their two children), being attacked by Fox News, and the philosophy behind his unconventional career.

As he saunters into the grand lobby of London’s Dorchester Hotel at 10:20 on a Saturday morning, Johnny Depp is not wearing a curly blond wig. Although he’s currently taking on Gene Wilder’s titular role in a remake of the 1971 children’s classic Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the notoriously Method-prone Depp intends to offer a new and different take on the moralistic confectioner. The only hint of where Depp might go with the whole Wonka gestalt is the thick, horn-like tuft of black hair that crests up and away above his unfurrowed, 41-year-old brow.

Today, Depp is mostly in the guise of classic Johnny Depp, the former Hollywood pretty-boy maverick (he hates the word “rebel”) who, against prohibitive odds, dodged teen-zine obsolescence to become perhaps the most respected and beloved (and no less pretty) character actor of his age. Not to mention the father of two young children.

This morning, as the Dorchester’s well-heeled guests set out on their retail safaris, none of them pay any heed to this rangy figure in a brown suede jacket and nondescript jeans. Still, Depp has taken out extra anonymity insurance by masking the exotic planes of his visage with some chunky black shades and a khaki bush hat.

And yet, there remains one clue that would tip off even the most amateur Depp-watcher. For more years than anyone would care to remember, Johnny Depp has been synonymous with a particular mode of footwear, and, unlikely as it seems, here they still are, in August 2004: combat boots, their black leather long since stripped away to reveal the gray pulp beneath. Depp was wearing boots like these long before young Hollywood embraced them as a totem of early-90s grunge authenticity, and he wears them even yet. Old habits.

Depp is stopping off here for a chat on his way to the airport, to catch his usual weekend flight to the south of France, where his girlfriend, the French actress/singer/sex kitten Vanessa Paradis, is domiciled with their two children, Jack, two, and Lily-Rose, five. Depp’s London schedule precludes any weekday family time: he wakes before dawn and spends around 12 hours on the movie set before returning to his rented apartment—somewhere near Camden, he guesses—for dinner and merciful sleep.

“It’s amazing when you get to a certain age, and you talk about sleep in the same way you spoke about inebriates 20 or 25 years before,” says Depp. “ ‘Man, I got eight hours last night—it was fan-tastic . . .’ Happily, I haven’t found golf yet, but I’m sure that’s just around the corner.”

Upon entering the hotel suite where the interview will take place, Depp settles right down into an ornate floral sofa, tossing his black canvas shoulder bag—battered and book-filled—to one side. Then, amid all the hermetic international luxury, Depp does something that’s perhaps even more quintessentially Johnny than those old army boots: as he has done during so many, many press interviews, Johnny Depp whips out a pouch of Bali Shag tobacco, licks a dark-brown Rizla paper, and starts rolling his own. The convivial mood is dampened only by the task at hand.

Depp tends to avoid interviews in general; he has said they make him feel “violated.” Since this particular violation is a morning affair, there is not even the vaguest chance of any social lubricants to ease it along. Faced with the prospect of near-certain discomfort, a reporter might be well advised to address this “violation” issue head-on. Surely a man who wears battle-scarred combat boots can handle the odd bit of probing from the press?

“I just don’t quite understand it, really,” says Depp. “I don’t understand the animal. It’s a strange, roundabout way of selling something: it leaves a foul taste . . . The thing that fascinates me is: who cares what an actor thinks?”

The product putatively being flacked today is Finding Neverland, the first of an intriguing skein of pictures in which Johnny Depp will star in the coming months. In Finding Neverland, he plays J. M. Barrie, the married but childless Scottish playwright whose accidental friendship with the young sons of a Victorian widow (played by Kate Winslet) inspired him to write Peter Pan.

Depp admits that he has lately been looking to make films that his “kiddies” can watch, and Finding Neverland is one such picture. Which is not to say that the hotel-trashing hellion of yore has gone completely soft: Depp was well aware, as was his co-star Winslet, that a story like Finding Neverland’s (directed by Marc Forster of Monster’s Ball fame) could easily become cloying. “The script was always very, very good,” says Winslet. “But there were some things that were possibly too sentimental, and Johnny and I just instinctively found ourselves steering away from anything like that.”

Finding Neverland shows how well the two actors jelled professionally, and Winslet describes similar harmony offscreen. She talks glowingly about visiting Depp’s trailer for lunch and watching their daughters play together. Sometimes the two adults would just sit back and chuckle at episodes of The Fast Show, a BBC sketch-comedy series on which Depp once cameo’d. “Johnny almost isn’t like an American at all,” says Winslet, before paying him the ultimate compliment: “He’s got such an English sense of humor.”

This Limey love-in is a long way from Miramar, the nowheresville burg in Florida where Depp (born in Kentucky) grew from trailer-park tyke into lead guitarist for the Kids, a punkish band of local renown. As is well known to any semi-serious Depp devotee, the group’s unsuccessful move to Los Angeles cast our hero into a menial-job limbo that involved, among other things, telemarketing pens to suckers. At that point Depp was in a short-lived marriage to Lori Allison, whose former boyfriend Nicolas Cage helpfully suggested that Depp should meet with his agent.

A couple of minor movie roles later, Depp found himself starring in 21 Jump Street, a preachy teen-cop drama launched in 1987 by the nascent Fox network. The money was great, but all the Tiger Beat coverage felt to Depp like a bum note; when his face started to appear on lunchboxes, he consulted the counterculture ethos that he had learned way back from older brother Danny. “I thought to myself, ‘Is this Kajagoogoo? Is it A-Ha?’” Depp recalls. “Because it sure ain’t the Clash, it ain’t Iggy, and it ain’t Bowie. I knew it was wrong—it was a lie.”

After he exited 21 Jump Street in 1990, Depp cannily traded in his human punchline status by signing on to play the pomaded, semi-sentient lead in Cry-Baby, John Water’s 1950s-pop-idol satire; that same year Depp further distinguished himself as the protagonist of Tim Burton’s gimmicky-gothic parable Edward Scissorhands. According to Depp, the transition from music to acting could not have been more casual. “It’s never like I made the decision to pursue this,” he says. “Suddenly I found myself on this other road, so I figured I’ll keep doing it until they say ‘No.’”

It was Depp himself who began saying “No,” famously turning down big roles in major hits such as Titanic, Interview with the Vampire, and Speed. However, for all his predilections for grunge style, “inebriates,” and boldfaced fiancées (Jennifer Grey, Sherilyn Fenn, Winona Ryder), this was not your standard-issue Hollywood refusenik. Depp has doggedly traced out for himself a career arc of singular and puzzling shape, attracting in the process a significant following—all this despite his profound lack of acting background.

Depp harks back to lessons he learned when he was prowling rock-club stages with his beloved Fender Telecaster—classic ’56 model, cream-colored—on his hip. “As a guitarist, I would always look for whatever felt right, something tasteful—and I guess I still do.” He still owns that same Telecaster and remains “more interested in finding what fits the piece musically as opposed to how many notes I can play quickly. I was never one of those ‘look at me’ players.”

Discerning moviegoers came to appreciate Depp’s gift for understatement; sweet-natured performances in films such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and Don Juan DeMarco (1995) helped him build the beginnings of a post-teenybop fan base. Not that he shied away completely from “look at me” roles: barnstorming turns as a cross-dressing auteur in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) and as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) showed that Depp’s talent had evolved beyond all sensible expectation.

As Depp has grown more confident in his second profession, he has developed a curious habit of tricking out his characters with little bits of business that are both unprescribed and outré. (Depp has come to hate the word “quirky.”) And somehow his sincerity usually manages to sell the idea: in his hands, the most dubious of actorly conceits can end up improving and often defining a movie. We have almost come to expect from Johnny Depp performances that are better than they have to be.

For instance, in Tim Burton’s 1999 American gothic fable, Sleepy Hollow, Depp essayed a version of Ichabod Crane that channeled, according to him, the spirit of Angela Lansbury. In Robert Rodriguez’s whimsical 2003 shoot-‘em-up, Once upon a Time in Mexico, Depp decided that his character, a sketchy C.I.A. operative, should wear crassly humorous T-shirts (I’M WITH STUPID).

The 1997 Mafia potboiler Donnie Brasco was one picture that saw Depp hewing to the old-school Method approach, which meant spending several weeks shadowing the real-life undercover fed he was playing. Similarly, Depp befriended the gun-toting gadfly Hunter S. Thompson before playing the writer’s doppelganger in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This time, Depp’s uncanny characterization was aided by a bottomless trunk of props. “Every single day, Johnny would turn up with something new from Hunter’s house,” recalls director Terry Gilliam. “Some old airline bag, Hunter’s dirty underwear. Eventually he got the car.”

Even amid growing consensus that someone who had been 80s crush fodder might well be the Best Actor of His Generation, the film industry remained uneasy about Depp’s worth: here was an actor who, for all his apparent charisma, seemed to be getting career advice from the I Ching. Asked today about his choppy relationship with the industry, Depp shrugs like a Dan Tana’s lifer. “You’re on the map, you’re off the map… You’re on the list, you’re off the list…”

That was, of course, before Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, last year’s Disney blockbuster, to which Depp brought his most preposterous bit of business yet. For no clear historical reason, Depp elected to model his character, pirate captain Jack Sparrow, largely on Rolling Stone Keith Richards. The script had not specified stoned elegance or gold teeth or trinket-festooned semi-dreadlocks; as shooting got under way, Disney executives swilled Maalox and politely suggested that Depp tone down what one insider calls the “faggy” stuff.

Depp persevered with the Keith Richards schtick, having been entranced by the guitarist when he met him through Richard’s son Marlon, a good friend. Depp maintains that only a few fleeting impressions of Keith were the basis for his uncannily accurate Captain Jack homage. Although the Richards family strongly approved of Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean work, he has yet to hear back from the man he calls the Maestro. “From what I know of Keith, I’d think he’s probably O.K. with it,” says Depp. “Believe me, if he wasn’t happy about it, he’d have let me know by now.”

Largely thanks to Depp’s eccentric contribution, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was supersized into a $652 million global hit that will surely keep him “on the list” for years to come. And although summer blockbusters tend to be shunned at Oscar time, last year the Academy belatedly handed Depp his first nomination, for Captain Jack in the best-actor category. Terry Gilliam offers visceral evidence of the actor’s industrial upgrade, recalling a Hollywood meeting a couple of years ago in which he was seeking U.S. investment money for his film Good Omens.

“We had a lot of foreign money, and all we needed from America was $15 million. The two names I had were Johnny Depp and Robin Williams. And they said, ‘Johnny Depp—he makes those European art films.’ And that was the end of it. This is the joke. And now he’s on top of the A-list—he’s right up there with all the Scientologists.”

While Johnny Depp has yet to be linked with any Hollywood-friendly religious sect, it cannot be denied that his resume does indeed harbor some films of suspiciously European provenance. In the year 2000, for instance, we had Chocolat and The Man Who Cried—originally titled Les Larmes d’un Homme. And Before Night Falls, which, while not technically European, was directed by the New York artist Julian Schnabel and based on a memoir written by a homosexual Cuban poet.

There is a certain dissonance to the European stigma that’s been attached to Depp, given all the years he spent as virtual poster boy for Americana. But those Native American roots (a grandmother is Cherokee), the Jazz Age enthusiasms (the Viper Room was named in a nod to 20s doper slang), and the vintage Chevys he had garaged were all seemingly forgotten when Depp partially relocated to Europe a few years ago.

In 1999 [Editor’s Note: an error—actually, it was the late spring of 1998], Depp was in Paris to film one of his occasional B-movie projects, Roman Polanski’s supernatural thriller The Ninth Gate. As the actor stood in the lobby of the Hotel Costes—a venue so chic that it has its own tasteful line of funky CD compilations—he espied across the room the bare back of some anonymous female. That woman turned out to be Vanessa Paradis, whom Depp had met casually several years before. Paradis walked right over and said hello. “I knew at that moment when she came up to me, I was ruined,” says Depp. “Okay, I’m done…”

Within a few months, Paradis was pregnant with their daughter, Lily-Rose, and soon thereafter the couple were ensconced in a $2 million villa in a small town above Saint-Tropez. (The Depp/Paradis family continues to spend half the year at Depp’s $3 million house in Hollywood; and he has just put down a similar sum on an island in the Bahamas.) The French nation clutched Depp to its bosom, and at the 1999 Cesar Awards he was given an honorary statue. Depp’s acceptance speech was delivered, with typical self-deprecating élan, in French via tape recorder.

Depp’s French was up to speed soon enough, but late last year his European idyll was harshly interrupted. The German magazine Stern—the same organ, Depp points out, that published the fake Hitler diaries—ran an interview in which he was quoted as calling America “a dumb puppy that has big teeth—that can bite and hurt you, aggressive.” The Scheisse hit the fan: to the right-wing opinionators of the U.S. media, the word “Hollywood,” like “cosmopolitan” before it, has become a barely veiled synonym for decadence and corruption; with “European” high on the list as well, Johnny Depp was briefly given Jacques Chirac’s role in the headlines.

“I would never insult the American people,” Depp maintains, his voice rising for once above cool-deferential volume. “I used the metaphor of a puppy dog, but I never said ignorant puppy dog. I said it’s a very young country compared to old Europe, or Asia.

“It was misinterpreted. I was talking about the government, and especially the current administration. Never about the troops, even if I was not particularly enthusiastic about going to Iraq or whatever. I love my country. But fuck, if I want to say that I don’t agree with the president’s choices or words or intentions, so what? Even if I had said what they printed—which I didn’t—what’s the big deal? Some actor blurts out this thing—who gives a shit? He’s an actor!”

Depp endured the slings and arrows of the Fox News channel, but when his then agent started getting electronic hate mail, the actor said “Enough.” In a move that even a C. I. A. man in an I’M WITH STUPID T-shirt would have found strange, this Hollywood pretty boy asked his agent to find out if these disgruntled citizens would take his call.

“So I called them, three or four people,” says Depp. “And I said, ‘It’s very easy for a publication to print whatever they want to print as a representation of me, but it’s not me. If you would allow me just a moment to represent myself . . . if you still feel like I’m a shithead or a schmuck afterward, then fine. But at least hear me out.’

“These were heavy, right-wing, military people: one was a cop… one had a nephew who’d been wounded in Iraq. I told them, ‘What was printed was ugly, but this is what I meant…’ And each one of them said, ‘I understand.’”

With the question of patriotism well behind him, Johnny Depp refocused his energies toward the ongoing task of choosing which pictures to do. And, as has usually been the case, he has left us all guessing about the sensibility that guides him.

Take Pirates of the Caribbean: hard as it is to imagine just how earthbound that picture might have been without Depp’s transformative touch, it is no less difficult to see what made Depp gamble hard-won credibility on what looked like yet one more bloated summer franchise. He initially caught the pirate-movie bug when a Disney executive happened to mention Pirates of the Caribbean as a coming film franchise. The company, in reality, had not yet developed even the most basic pirate yarn—there was just the scurvy-flavored theme-park ride and some starry-eyed synergists. “It was just a vague thing,” explains Depp. “It was just the words. The gut feeling was like: I should do this.”

True, through his career, he has evinced a willingness to commit to movie projects at their most notional stage. Still . . . Pirates of the Caribbean?! Disney?!

“When I was a little kid I loved pirates, like all little kids,” Depp offers. “Living in South Florida, we made the family trip to Disney World once.”

Although Disney had found a leading man whose pay scale was well below the Cruise/Hanks level, the company did sweeten Depp’s deal by cutting him in for a slice of the film’s hardly-guaranteed-to-materialize box office. The actor allows himself a modest smile of satisfaction at the thought, then says, “That’s all for the kiddies.” Indeed: a movie they can watch as well as retire on.

He is confident enough to appreciate the acclaim of his late-arriving Pirates of the Caribbean fans while recognizing that the attention may prove temporary. “I get recognized by these really little kids my daughter’s age—five, six, seven years old—who somehow felt a connection to Captain Jack,” Depp marvels. “And a couple of weeks ago, this old lady came up to me, a beautiful old lady. She gives me this big smile and she says, ‘I just loved you in Pirates of Penzance!’ ” Depp smiles and shrugs. “Whatever you say, that’s great. It’s all just fine by me.”

While not previously well-disposed toward sequels, Depp has few qualms about slipping on the old gold teeth for Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Although his original contract committed him to a sequel, Depp never feared that some numbered dud might befoul his curriculum vitae. “I think normally one would,” he says, “but for some reason I didn’t have any worries. Because you always know that if the first one is a dog, there will be no second one.”

Sadly, that truism didn’t prevent Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Nevertheless, from Depp’s perspective, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 appears as sure a thing as he has ever had in his career. “I look at it like this: all my homework is done,” he says. “I can just settle in.” There will be comfort, too, in a greatly enlarged pay envelope: producer Jerry Bruckheimer has said that Depp has at last become a “$20 million man.”

Another of the films Depp took on with his kiddies in mind is Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the Wonka-free title of Roald Dahl’s original book), and on this picture there can be no question of just showing up. Some Hollywood sages say that one should only try to remake bad movies, never good ones, and although Burton would appear to have summarily proved the point with his unpalatable Planet of the Apes reheat, the director is now taking on a similarly beloved cult favorite. Depp insists that there is plenty of latitude for a version of Dahl’s tale that hews more closely to the author’s vision, although he admits that his first remake represents a significant personal challenge. Depp’s Wonka, unlike Wilder’s, will not be required to perform any musical numbers, but he knows that the original leaves him with a lot to live up to. “Gene Wilder was brilliant,” Depp avers. “Big shoes…”

While working in London, Depp has found his precious bedtime frequently postponed by postproduction chores on The Libertine, a film so grown up that his children may not be allowed to see it for 20 years or so. As if often the case with Depp’s movies, The Libertine is the product of a lengthy gestation. Back in 1996, Depp was invited to Chicago by John Malkovich, who was starring in the Steppenwolf production of the play, a neo-Restoration romp written in the 1990s by Stephen Jeffreys. The Libertine revolves around the real-life character John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, whom Malkovich has described as a “wildly gifted and irresponsible alcoholic, dramatist, lyric poet, essayist, sodomist, and man-about-town.”

In the opening scene in the Chicago production, Malkovich’s Rochester flounced through the fourth wall to warn the audience against liking him. To the assembled ladies, he promised, “I am up for it. All the time… That is a bone-hard natural fact.” The same guarantee was then made to the male half of the audience.

“Brilliant!” said the critics—and Depp heartily concurred. So he was most surprised when, at a postshow repast, Malkovich offered him the Rochester role in the movie adaptation. Depp initially demurred, insisting that Malkovich should keep the part for himself. Malkovich made his case, and Depp started to come around—with new reservations. “The first thing you think is: This might hurt,” says Depp of the Rochester role. “If you start to really get beneath the skin, it could sting a little.” He took the part, and Malkovich moved over to play King Charles II under first-time director Laurence Dunmore.

If there is any grand design behind the patchwork career of Johnny Depp, it seems almost impossible to discern, even with the amiable assistance of the actor himself. One suspects that the usual analytical tools should be sheathed, in deference to a quote from J. M. Barrie: “I do loathe explanations.”

Be that as it may, when the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel comes out, you can be certain that its financial performance will be keenly compared with the original film’s by both the movie industry and its stats-obsessed handmaidens within the media’s consensus factories. Depp will be judged, as never before, on the projects he chooses to do, since there is the widespread assumption that the success of Pirates of the Caribbean will guarantee funding for any film he wants to make.

“Er, I don’t have any sense of that,” says Depp. “I never think about what I do as a business, just like I never thought of my music that way. I’m not so aware of what’s talked about in the press or on those TV shows—who’s in, who’s out, who blew it. I find it infinitely more comfortable not being aware of that stuff.”

Depp is, however, entirely aware of the other main constituency that will be poring over his upcoming pictures. We are talking about Depp’s closest followers, who will always expect from him—while keeping alert to any signs of newfound complacency—the evanescent stuff that makes his films better than they have to be. Depp does not take for granted the public affection that he seems to retain whether he is on the list, off the list, or going native on the Riviera.

“I’ve known that there have been a kind of select group of people, amazing die-hard supporters, even through some of the more, shall we say, odd films,” says Depp. “These people, bless them, have stuck with me the whole length of the road. To say that you appreciate it is not nearly enough. It’s part of the essence, or fuel, of what keeps you going.

“These people are my boss; they’re the ones who keep me employed. A couple of times, they could have said, Let’s abandon him. And they haven’t. You don’t want to let them down.”

Depp gives a hopeful smile. He knocks a couple of times on the Dorchester’s coffee table; then he knocks on his head.

Via Johnny Depp Zone

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