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Matters of Life and Depp

by Jonathan Cutler
photos by Cesare Bonazza
Venice Magazine
April 1995

It is the kind of story that pisses off tens of thousands of out of work actors—rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly—Johnny Depp’s career is proof that some people have all the luck, some people can’t lose for winning and some people step in shit with every stride they take. Stumbling head-long into stardom, somewhere between the tiny stages of a hundred tiny beer joints up and down the South coast of Florida and the cavernous sound stages of Hollywood, USA, Johnny Depp became an icon.

Johnny Depp stands in the middle of the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, surrounded by a tightly packed coterie of handlers, looking as if he’d rather be having invasive, non-elective surgery. His hair is disheveled, shorn for his next picture, a thriller of the main stream, big studio epic variety, to be directed by John Badham [Saturday Night Fever], called Nick of Time and represents something of a departure for an actor who has consistently shunned all efforts to lure him into a sale of the soul. Instead, Depp has vexed and perplexed his representatives at nearly every turn, eschewing Mobsters and a salary of millions in favor of a small, European film [Emir Kustarica’s Arizona Dream] that never saw the light of an American projector; walking away from an even larger salary on Speed, for the privilege of accepting peanuts on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

A series of performances in a few, well-timed films has cemented his place on not only the ridiculously arbitrary ‘A-List,’ but in the hearts and minds of millions of moviegoers who care deeply about what they spend their $7.50 on. In truth, Depp has the kind of laid back, anything-but-ambitious attitude that paradoxically attracts success in one of those double negatives that produces cosmic double jeopardies on a grand scale in the land of la. The only other actor who has the same lack of concern—indeed, whose films haven’t performed in anything like the way required for inclusion on that list [a list that is determined as much by the box office performance of their films as on their talent] is Robert DeNiro. The reason for Depp’s inclusion on the list is simple and should, by now, be obvious: Johnny Depp cares deeply about what he does. He’s arguably the most popular young actor of his generation and, yet, ICM could go broke on this guy!

To hear actors—especially stars—commanding tens of millions of dollars per picture plus a hefty percentage of the box office receipts—complain about their lives is enough to make your ears bleed. And yet, as unseemly as it is, it has become almost axiomatic that at some point in their careers, rising stars of a certain age will do just that. The sun shall rise, the rain shall fall, people will kill each other over religious differences, a pair of Nikes or a can of spray paint, and some, suddenly-wealthy young snot with little more than a great head of hair and limpid eyes will say, in print or on your television screen, “It ain’t easy bein’ me.” So many young actors today affect the attitude of indifference to stardom that it is almost a fashion trend.

Not so, Depp. He has shared the screen with Patty Hearst, Vincent Price, Martin Landau, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mary Steenburgen, Willem Dafoe, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis, and now . . . Marlon Brando. And yet, contrary to the vaunted ambition such as a meteoric rise as his might seem to indicate, he is strangely, almost maniacally detached from it all. “Hey,” he once said, “if all this ended tomorrow, I’d just go down to Key West, buy a boat and take fat, fish-hungry tourists out on the water and throw chum all day.” Sound like bullshit? It’s not. I searched his eyes when he said it, and they were filled with the kind of sincerity even he can’t conjure up at whim.

His sincerity, integrity and generosity are strong suits, worn casually not only in front of the camera, but to his friends and, indeed, all who know him. As he arrived for the photo shoot for this article, I watched him charm everyone from the makeup girl to the photographer’s assistant to the busboy who brought up his coffee. In the cramped quarters of the shoot, Depp made a point to thank people who weren’t even doing anything for him—presumably, just for being alive—grasping each person’s hand in both of his, looking them directly in the eye and saying “Thanks,” or even “Wow, man, thanks very much” when someone offered to hold onto his jacket.

You have to understand, for Depp, photo shoots are an obligation he must endure but one, of late, he has come to dread. Case in point is a recent experience with Esquire Magazine, on which he is the April coverboy. Recalling the event, Depp says, “I showed up for the photo session and the photographer says to me, ‘Listen, these guys have built this set—I didn’t know anything about it, so it’s completely up to you.’ So he takes me up to the studio where Esquire built this really elaborate, beautifully designed hotel room set—really beautiful. And, um, they thought it would be cute if they photographed me destroying the room . . . they thought that would be cute.” Depp had other ideas about what might be cute, however. “I took a copy of The New York Post with me in hand cuffs on the cover, crossed out the word Post and wrote the word Esquire over it, then I crossed out the E and S and wrote in I and N and then added an R at the end so it said, Inquirer. Then I stood in a big fucking garbage can and held the paper in front of my face.”

But the event that inspired Esquire to exploit an image Depp neither owns nor denies, is an incident that has fueled the press that has dogged him for years; his arrest last Fall for damages to his suite at the Mark Hotel in Manhattan. Standing in marked contrast to his demeanor that betrays not a whit of violence or temper is a man who seems to wear his sweetness like a comfortable pair of jeans. But hey, everyone has a temper—everyone has a line beyond which they cannot be pushed without reacting and on that brisk day, in that hotel room last September, Depp had been pushed well beyond his. So, what actually happened? “I like to joke that there was this huge rat in the room that I was swatting at and just kept missing.”

He thinks for a second, lights up another Camel and exhales a thick cloud that seems to carry with it his thoughts, for he watches the smoke intently as it dissipates and he begins to speak. “You know, there are just some people who shouldn’t be given a uniform or the authority they think that allows them. They instantly feel like Schwarzenneger in the movies or something and they get a little cocky—a little froggy. I was having a bad couple of minutes—I kicked a couch, punched a picture frame—and this guy—this hotel security guy—suddenly shows up at my door and starts giving me ultimatums—really provoking me—telling me what to do. I apologized and offered to pay for the damage, but that wasn’t good enough for him, apparently and he’s like, just, all over me: ‘You’re gonna do this and you’re gonna do that,’ well, not a fucking chance, bub! Next thing I know, the cops are there and I’m under arrest. I don’t know, the guy probably watches way too much television.”

Property damage is no small matter, of course, but one must examine the concept of property to one who has no real home and whose life is lived in a series of hotel suites for months at a time, and, therefore, become the only reasonable facsimile to a home he has. Who amongst us hasn’t punched a wall or knocked over a lamp in a fit of anger? The only difference is, the home usually belongs to us. Depp has no real home. The house he rents in Los Angeles is nothing more than a way station between pictures, visited for a week or two at best between extended stays in hotel suites all over the world. And is the mere fact of his stardom reason to expect that his life is all peaches and cream and that he should merely be grateful for what he has, so shut the fuck up? “It was an unfortunate incident but look, I’m human,” says Depp. “I can’t just sit around and swim in this stuff in my brain all the time. I can’t be expected to do that—nobody should be expected to do that. Why shouldn’t I have emotions and react to things. I mean, that’s my job! That’s how I make my living. When you’ve got a demon inside, he’s gotta come out—you gotta let him out. I’m not saying what I did was right by any means, but it’s not a person, it’s a picture frame—a couch.” End of story—if you want to hear more about it, you’ll have to pick up a copy of Esquire—they devoted better than 75% of their Depp cover story to the Mark incident alone. At least the Inquirer mixes it up with the latest on his girlfriends, tattoos or eating habits.

Johnny Depp is in pain—not the angst ridden, masturbatory pain affected by the openly disenfranchised of his generation, but real, palpable, physical pain. On the second day of our interview, Depp walks in, accompanied by his publicist and holding onto his side. He tells her, “If I pass out in the middle of this, I might have to go to the hospital for a second—just to get my appendix taken out—then we can come right back.” Depp is pressing his fingers into the area to the side of his abdomen and wincing. “Where’s your appendix?” he asks me. “I think I have appendicitis.” When I tell him it’s on the other side, he replies cheerfully, “Maybe I have an ulcer . . . or cancer.” I ask what he ate the previous night. He thinks for a second, then says, “Arby’s,” and laughs. I suggest he has Arby-citis. “Wow! Instead of having to remove my appendix, they’ll have to go in and remove the Arby’s from my gullet.”

Fifty-five feet above Sunset Boulevard, a sign beckons Los Angelinos visit “Fabulous Spain.” In Depp’s latest film, Don Juan DeMarco, the value of love, even in the face of death, is at issue. Several police cars have cordoned off the street and all eyes are upon a lone figure in black; black boots, black tights, black shirt, black cape, gloves and hat, his eyes visible only through a black mask. He brandishes a sword and paces back and forth on the scaffolding that is his perch. Just another Saturday night on The Strip? Hardly. Unless you think Zorro has come back from some kinescope to visit his special, if fictional brand of justice on the populace, what you have is your garden-variety, though spectacularly flamboyant fruitcake! And who do you call when ya got a fruitcake, cape or no, threatening to hurl himself into traffic on the streets below? Why, Marlon Brando, of course.

Actually, Brando was Depp’s idea. “I was just astounded by the script—the dialog was amazing. The voiceovers and the beauty of the writing—the rhythm of the writing . . . and the poetry—the poetry. But it was the scenes between Don Juan and the Psychiatrist [Brando]—this weird Father/Son thing—that caught my eye. This bonding, this emotional fusion that was going on. I just kept seeing Marlon Brando in the role for some reason. I can’t explain it but I felt real strongly about it. So, when they [NewLine] asked me who I saw in the role I just said, ‘Marlon Brando.’” There was a long pause in the room at the mere mention of the name, while NewLine executives looked from one to the other to see who would speak up first. “They were shocked,” Depp recalls with a laugh. “I guess they thought he was pretty inaccessible. So, they kept coming back to me and saying, ‘what about this actor?’ and ‘what about that actor . . . just as a backup?’ and I’d say, ‘well, sure, he’d be good, but we’re talking about Marlon Brando here.’ I mean, yeah, I could see the film getting made with someone else—hey, I could see it getting made with someone other than me, as well—I just didn’t think it would be the right film—it would be a very different film, whereas with Marlon it would just be, umm . . . special.”

“Special” not only describes Brando in the role of the psychiatrist—in any role, good or bad, success or failure, for that matter—but is an apt description for the relationship between the two actors, almost from their very first meeting. Barely two weeks into principal photography on the film, I ran into Depp at his club, The Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard. Harry Dean Stanton was up on the tiny stage warbling wonderfully with his band, when I first caught sight of Depp in the rear of the room, smiling, swaying slightly to the rhythms. We hadn’t seen one another for several months and we embraced and exchanged small talk for a few minutes before I finally asked him what Brando was like. Depp just stared at his feet for a few seconds, then at me—his eyes went soft, then he tilted his head back, spread his arms out and slowly brought them in towards his heart as if he was trying to encompass and gather in his emotions. “Oh, Jon,” Depp finally said in awe, “Marlon is so . . . he’s just so . . .” Depp neither had the words nor the ability to articulate what was obviously an overwhelming feeling of love and respect.

Now, months later, sitting in this hotel room, Depp is more articulate but no less sanguine about his feelings. His recollections of meeting Brando for the first time are crystal. “I was in New York so, at first, we just talked on the phone a few times and it was great—just great. We talked about everything but acting or the movies.” So, what did they talk about? “I told him that I wanted to move out of the United States . . . to escape. I just felt like I wanted to be in a different country where I could live with a little bit of anonymity—to just be able to sort of live and observe rather than be observed. He understood where I was coming from.”

This was in February of 1994. In the beginning of March, 1995, Depp returned to Los Angeles and called Brando again, this time to meet the legend in person. Brando invited Depp up to the house. “I was kinda nervous—I’m always nervous meeting someone I admire. It’s always odd to say ‘How do you do’ to a legend—a myth.” Nevertheless, Depp screwed up his courage, drove up to the famous compound on top of Mulholland Drive and soon found himself standing in the foyer of the great one’s home. It was late afternoon, the sun was setting and the light poured in through the windows facing him. “Suddenly I saw this image in silhouette that was unmistakably Him and I thought to myself, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’”

And what were Brando’s first words to Depp? What sage greeting or salutation would this great and vaunted presence offer in introduction to what some think might be his logical successor? There was a long pause during which Depp could not take his eyes off the hulking silhouette that faced him now. “I just heard, ‘Hey!’ [pause . . . then, again] ‘Hey!’” That was it? “That was it.” And thus, was the ice broken. They began to chat and “literally within two seconds I was right at home—totally comfortable. I felt fine. There were no more nerves, no more weirdness. I could have spilled everything to him—could have told him anything. I just felt completely comfortable, which is strange because that usually takes me quite a while with someone new—especially someone famous,” and you don’t get much more famous than Marlon Brando. Depp and Brando had dinner that night and, if he spilled everything, if he “told him anything” he certainly wasn’t about to tell me about it which, while some might say it’s my job, I had no desire to know. When I try to imagine the meeting of these two creative forces, for some reason my mind does not hear the content of the conversation so much as the quality of the company—the laughter, the shared intimacy of two people who know fame and have grown weary of what it represents, both of them at opposite ends of their lives, their experience, their careers.

One thing the two surely share is a deep mistrust and fear of the darker implications and results of celebrity. “Since 1987 I’ve had to relearn how to live my life. For a guy like myself—I’ve always been pretty shy—I was never an attention craver and I always loved being able to just blend in. [Depp sighs, lights up another cigarette and seems, all of a sudden lost and much younger than his years.] So, when all that happens—when the weirdness begins, you gotta learn how to adapt.” He’d seen this happen to others—the sudden recognition and the occasional resulting arrogance it could engender. “I went in the completely opposite direction. Everything started going in at that point and I just became more guarded.”

A few years ago, the ‘weirdness,’ as Depp calls it, became downright bizarre—even scary. Stalkers, death threats and phone calls of a truly peculiar nature began to be the order of the day. One guy went so far as to call 20th Century Fox, claimed he was Johnny Depp, that he had been in a coma “for a while”—he wanted to be paid for Edward Scissorhands—and that the person now claiming to be Johnny Depp was an imposter. Depp laughs when he thinks about it now, but the laughter is without much enthusiasm or humor. “It was, um, weird—kinda spooky. I mean it got really huge in my world to the point where even the FBI wanted to know what was going on.” Indeed, ‘what was going on’ went well beyond the fact of a single phone call to Fox. Depp2 (as he will heretofore be referred to) placed calls all over Hollywood claiming that Depp1 (the Depp we all know and love) is an imposter.

The hazards of living a life in public due largely to the vicissitudes of those reporting on that life, namely myself and others in the media, and the way in which that is done, are well documented and currently in focus as we watch the daily passion play and media feast that is the OJ Simpson trial. As a country we have not only grown used to our daily dosage of gossip and details of the tragedies of others—especially ‘our’ celebrities—we have come to see it as an inalienable right in much the same way some of our rights are protected in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal . . . unless they’re celebrities, of course, in which case it’s open season.’

Given the recent press coverage of the events in Depp’s life, (of which the Esquire piece is only the most recent example) coupled with the little-known facts of the ‘weirdness’ that is part and parcel of lives lived in fishbowls, he is, on the one hand, amazingly even-tempered in his attitude towards the press in general and magazines in particular, on the other, upset with how it limits everything. It comes with the territory and he knows it. He pirouettes on the paradox.

“It’s all part of the job,” he says, “and I’m completely fine with it. But, look at what Marlon has had to deal with for 45 years, as far as his reputation—a reputation he didn’t have anything to do with . . . an image that preceded the mere mention of his name and just because he’s this great actor and there’s this strange fascination with his personal life, and it appeared before the man did—before he ever had a chance to say, ‘This is the real me—this is who I really am—don’t believe that other crap.’ And for me, on a much smaller scale, because of all the stuff that gets written about me—because of the tabloids, those fucking idiot magazines and ‘news’ shows like Hard Copy and all that bullshit—because of certain things that have happened in my personal life that have been just one little tiny incident that’s been so blown out of all proportion into this mighty oak, I have to fucking drag that around. It just becomes part of everything. It’s just a drag to answer to stuff that really has nothing to do with me—with who I am and what I’m about as a human being. It’s not a political thing and I’m not trying to be anything other than what I am, which is an actor.” He puts out his cigarette and stares at his shoes for what seems like a long time before looking up at me again with a look of deep sadness. “I just want to be who I am and at times you’re just not allowed to be because people won’t accept it because they’ve already read too much fiction on you and now they’ve got the sneaking suspicion that you are the person they’ve read about and, you know, the unfortunate thing about it is that none of this has anything to do with the work, and that’s why I’m here. To do the work. To make interesting films. To give an interesting performance in something that maybe hasn’t been done a zillion times before and all these little gossip snippets are what people wind up talking about . . . not the work.”

Ah, the work! Actors, good and bad, are defined more by the choices they make than by any other single qualification. Coming off a hit series as the one, bright shining star to emerge in the hearts and preadolescent libidos of teenagers everywhere and the minds and pocketbooks of executives in Hollywood, Depp has his pick of projects from which to choose. Seemingly sure things at major studios with big-time directors and co-stars lined up to await his approval. He turned them all down in favor of a tiny, independent film, 1990’s Cry-Baby, to be directed by perennial bad-boy John Waters [he, of Pink Flamingo fame], co-starring such marginal celebrities as Susan Tyrell, Iggy Pop, Traci Lords, Mink Stole and Patty Hearst. In it, Depp tweaked the thin veneer of an image that was crafted for him by the Teen Magazines and Tabloid press that feed such hungers that can never be sated. It was a bold and crafty move.

Since then, Depp has worked with some of the most interesting writers, directors and actors in some of the most fascinating, if not quite mainstream [with a couple of notable exceptions] films that have been made in the last few years.  John Waters, Lasse Hallstrom, Emir Kusterica and Jim Jarmusch are the kinds of names that don’t exactly set the hearts or minds of Hollywood executives aflame, but it does, Depp’s and, as many of those executives have learned, much to their consternation and disbelief, Depp is not impressed by such things as cash. During a fierce courting-verging-on-stalking campaign waged by Universal Pictures [for the film, Mobsters] during which Depp was offered more money than he thought he’d ever be able to count, much less be worthy of, he had no trouble turning his back and beating a hasty retreat. “You know,” he told me at the time [when I had said something along the lines of ‘Five million dollars” And you turned it down? Are you out of your fucking mind?’] “there’s something fishy going on. I’m not worth that much money and I don’t think they’re offering it to me because they think I am.” Smart guy.

Which is why it surprises to hear that, for his next picture, Depp will be directed by John Badham in the Paramount thriller, Nick of Time. On the face of it, it’s an odd move in the extreme. Johnny Depp in a John Badham film seems as unlikely as DeNiro appearing in an Ivan Reitman or John Landis movie. Blue Thunder, Short Circuit, The Hard Way and Point of No Return were films that for any other director might have spelled the end of a career but, for Badham, who began his career by providing, with Saturday Night Fever, an entire generation with an identity it lacked until the moment of its release, even that litany of lackluster to downright stupifyingly bad films could not derail his. Nevertheless, it begs the question of Depp: Why Badham? Why a thriller? Why now? “Ya know, some journalist the other day asked me [Depp lowers his voice an octave to affect an ‘officious prick’ attitude] ‘Soooo, you’re doing an action movie now . . .’ and I said, ‘It’s not an action movie, it’s a thriller’ and then this other guy says, ‘Well, isn’t this a Keanu Reeves thing?’ I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about? Keanu Reeves isn’t in it. That kinda riled me up.”

Nevertheless, going from Jarmusch to Badham must be strange. “The difference between this,” Depp explains, “and say, [Jarmusch’s Dead Man] is that this one’s a studio picture with a director who’s known more for commercial, action oriented films, but to me, hey, I’m working with the guy who made Saturday Night Fever and, you’re right, it defined an era and spawned a lot of real weird stuff. That era pissed a lot of people off. I mean, punk rock came out of that, you know what I mean? And I’m working with Christopher Walken—a guy I’ve always wanted to work with in a script by Ebbe Roe Smith who wrote one of the best scripts I’ve ever read—Falling Down—though I’ve never seen the picture.”

In the film, Depp plays a single father who’s approached the moment he gets off a bus [Editor's note: it was a train, not a bus] in L.A. with his young daughter. They are thrown into a van where it is explained that either Depp kills the Governor of California—who is giving a speech at a nearby hotel in two hours or they’ll kill Depp’s daughter. “It’s pretty spooky. You go from one extreme with this guy to another—from one emotion to the next—in about an eighth of a second. It’s a really interesting story.” And, no doubt, with Depp in the role, a fascinating study of a man who’s reached the end of his rope in a world of trouble with No Way Out! A matter of life and death.

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