Writer/director Jeremy Leven recognized it from 80 feet away. Everybody else will have to be content with recognizing it on the big screen when his Don Juan DeMarco, in which Marlon Brando plays a psychiatrist treating a delusional Johnny Depp, opens Friday.
“We were shooting this scene where Depp and Brando are standing on scaffolding 80 feet in the air and there is no question what is really going on up there,” Leven said.
“I was standing next to the director of photography, and we looked at each other at the same time and recognized what was happening. Marlon was passing the torch to Johnny. You could feel it in your bones. It was so obvious.
“Marlon was giving Johnny the room to be the next Marlon Brando. And you know something? I think Johnny can handle it.”
Faye Dunaway, who co-stars as Brando’s wife, said the same thing after the film was completed. In fact, she has publicly declared that Depp already is the “next Marlon Brando.”
And just how does the newly anointed king respond? In true Brando-esque fashion, he looks down at the floor, shuffles his feet and mumbles, “I don’t know what to say.”
Put him on a Harley, dress him in leather and you’d swear it was The Wild One, circa 1954.
“I think Johnny is far and away the most talented of today’s young actors,” Leven said. “He is very much like Marlon on many fronts. They both have a 100 percent bull detector in that they know what is false and not working in a scene. They both have an incredible instinct for knowing what writing is all about. And then, of course, they both have a lot of turmoil inside.”
Turmoil is Depp’s middle name. Well, OK, his real middle name is Christopher, but that’s not the point.
Depp, 31, is as famous for getting in trouble as he is for his gutsy film choices that range from Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Ed Wood.
Kentucky-born and Florida-raised, Depp fell early into the classic bad-boy pattern. The son of divorced parents, he dropped out of high school and got into some relatively minor trouble in his hometown. He formed a rock ‘n’ roll band, married early and then packed up the band and wife and moved to Los Angeles.
By 24, he was a divorced teen heartthrob thanks to his role as an undercover cop on the Fox hit 21 Jump Street, but he quit the show after three seasons to pursue a film career. There have been many intense love affairs along the way (actress Winona Ryder and current flame Kate Moss, the supermodel waif, to name two) and as many tattoos.
He owns the hip Sunset Strip nightclub The Viper Room, outside of which actor River Phoenix died from a drug overdose, has been the subject of countless tabloid rumors involving drug abuse, alcoholism and brawls. Last September, he was arrested on two counts of criminal mischief for allegedly trashing his New York City hotel suite.
He paid $9,767 in damages, and the next night he was in trouble again, accused by a man of starting a fight in a Manhattan bar.
So, Mr. Next Marlon Brando, how do you like the spotlight?
“The stuff they write about me is pure fiction, but unfortunately, people believe that fiction,” the soft-spoken actor said. “My nieces read that stuff, and that gets upsetting to me.
“Based on what they read, people think I’m this drug-addicted, brawling, brooding, angry, rebellious mental case. I am not any of those things, yet the media has created this image of me. I am just an actor, and there is nothing that fascinating about being an actor.”
Depp, who jokes that he wrecked the hotel room while chasing a rat (he doesn’t like that hotel very much), said he was stunned at the media reaction to his arrest.
“I saw one of those New York tabloids the next day, and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was on the cover alongside the possible invasion of Haiti. We were neck and neck as to which story was more important. I was shocked. All this fuss over me attacking a sofa.
“But I guess that’s what this celebrity thing has come to,” he added. “It used to bother me a lot more. I was ready to jump out of my skin for a while. But it’s so hard to complain about these things. I know I’m in a privileged position. I do the work I want, I work with the people I want to work with and I make enough money to live comfortably.” (His latest reported salary was $4 million per picture.)
“So I suppose that getting dissected in public is all part of the game. It’s something I have to deal with. It’s just another piece of lint that I have to carry around in my pocket.”
The good news for Depp is that he has managed to maintain a respected acting career despite the negative publicity and without sacrificing his basic principle of accepting only roles that interest him without any regard for the film’s commercial prospects. Reportedly, he was offered the Keanu Reeves role in Speed and the Tom Cruise role in Interview with the Vampire but turned them down.
“I’d feel ridiculous being in some of those movies because it would no longer be about the work.
“At the same time, I understand that you have to have a balance in this town, between commercial hits and smaller roles, and that balance is tricky to maintain. But I like to experiment and try new things, and my agents have been very supportive with my choices. They already think I’m weird, so they let me do what I want.”
Don Juan DeMarco, in which Depp believes he is the world’s greatest lover, was one role that Depp loved the minute he read the script. But he threatened to drop the project unless Brando was cast as the psychiatrist.
“Everybody looked at me like I was insane, but he is the one I kept seeing in that role when I read the script,” the actor said. “I’m not sure I really would have quit, but I thought we should at least try to get him.”
Leven said he thought his first directorial assignment was history when Depp made his request.
“I said, ‘Sure, let’s take it to Marlon Brando,’ and then we can move on and ask someone who would be serious about taking the role.
“The next thing I know, I’m sitting in Marlon’s living room, and we’re making a movie. I think he really liked Johnny.”