Johnny Depp would be late. Whatever time he agreed the night before, one thing could be guaranteed: he wouldn't keep to it. Don't take it as an insult. It's just . . . well, Johnny's way.
This, a film company executive explains before our scheduled meeting in Paris, is how he does business.
In Depp's suite at the Hotel Raphael in tree-lined Avenue Kleber, a pack of cigarettes is opened and a box of matches placed on it. Give him 15 more minutes, they say . . . He suffers from insomnia, he paces his room and slips out in the middle of the night to go who-knows-where. So he may be catching up on his rest at noon, which is the time he's supposed to be up and talking about his new film, Don Juan DeMarco.
The film, in which he more than matches the on-screen presence of his hero and co-star, Marlon Brando, is pure Depp. His misunderstood character truly believes that he is Don Juan, the world's greatest lover and seducer of more than 1,000 women. Devastated by the loss of his one true love, he prepares to jump to his death. Police, convinced that they are dealing with a madman, turn to Dr Jack Mickler (Brando), who talks him down.
During the psychiatric sessions that ensue, Don Juan recounts fantastic exploits of adventure and romance. Brando's character is forced to examine the importance of love in his own life, as he rekindles the long-lost spark with his wife, Marilyn (Faye Dunaway).
The Depp-Brando combination was irresistible to the film-makers. Brando, 71, without a decent review for years, was an irascible genius who might just turn in a performance to match his talent. Then there was Depp, at 31 being touted as having a similar strain of magic. Just as difficult, but the sort of difficult that comes with being 40 years younger. Depp cannot help comparing his own rebellious behaviour, including arrests and constant clashes with the law, with Brando's early life on the wild side. The wreckage some 40 years later is now to be surveyed: a daughter, Cheyenne, who committed suicide last month, aged 24; a son, Christian, 36, in jail for manslaughter; a brilliant career in a cul-de-sac of appalling films.
Depp's own wreckage at this stage is more mundane. He trashed his suite six months ago at the Mark Hotel, New York, causing $10,000 worth of damage, after a row with his girlfriend, the British supermodel Kate Moss.
He was wound up, say friends. There was no need to take him, handcuffed, to New York police cells. It was his fourth arrest. The others were for arguing with a Los Angeles police officer, arguing after a speeding offense in Arizona and allegedly assaulting a hotel guard in Vancouver, Canada. There are quite a few things that can wind Johnny up, apparently. For one, why is his body covered in so many tattoos, one of them proclaiming love for a former girlfriend, the actress Winona Ryder? For another, why does The Viper Room, the Hollywood club he co-owns, seem to be the venue for such tragedies as River Phoenix's death and, on a lesser scale, Jason Donovan's collapse?
Johnny Depp finally arrives. This is great, say his aides, only 45 minutes late. He quickly lights a cigarette. The fact that he looks like a dog's dinner is neither here nor there after spending half the night flitting back and forth to his $2,000-a-night suite. Black suit, grey shirt, crepe-soled, Elvis-style brothel creepers, and a face of pale parchment.
But the eyes are something else. As clear and as mournful a pair of eyes as any of us is likely to see. His soft-voiced introduction—"I know it is afternoon, but it feels so early"—sounds ridiculous, when his eyes appear as if they have slept for 20 hours and then been polished with Optrex.
Directors of photography on various film sets try to articulate what these looks can do on camera. Something seems to happen inside the lens: a magic, an intensity, an emotional metamorphosis. The fact that this is the wild kid from Miramar, Florida, with a no-hope future is forgotten.
Depp's parents divorced. His father, John, a public-works official, was mystified by his son's huge mood swings. His mother, Betty Sue, tried her best, but felt that her best was not good enough. Depp dropped out of high school. There were spats with local police—no arrests. But he was known as Trouble. At 20 he married a local girl, Lori Allison, and walked out on her within eight months. [Editor’s Note: The writer is in error here; Lori accompanied Johnny and his band, The Kids, to Los Angeles and their decision to separate was mutual.] After failing at a series of dead-end jobs he moved the 4,000 kilometres to Los Angeles, tried his hand at rock 'n' roll and fell into television work. Ironically, considering his relationship with the police, he played undercover cop Tom Hanson in 21 Jump Street. But his debut movie in 1990, John Waters's Cry-Baby, captured his elusive personality: "He's a doll," screamed the posters. "He's a dreamboat. He's a delinquent."
Once he'd proved he could act, he played surprisingly sensitive roles in films such as Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Benny & Joon. All won excellent reviews, yet none became a box-office blockbuster. Earning $4 million a picture, he is not yet in the league of Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise (in spite of his recent appearance in Ed Wood) but it certainly places him alongside those other younger stars, such as Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt, who have had big hits.
Don Juan DeMarco, which last month was the top release in the US, may not be the blockbuster that Hollywood demands, but it does show Depp is adept at making you believe in his character. “I never met a better analyst than Marlon's character, though,” he says, through a plume of smoke from his second cigarette. “If I had, then he would have sorted me out a long time ago. I had such a messed-up mind. I felt weird at five—an outcast from the rest. By the time I was 12, it was me against the rest of the world.
“This is why I feel so much in touch with Brando. He judges this crazy industry perfectly. Here is a man who has been through everything and still survives. Marlon has a lot to offer the world.
“He had the right perspective on this industry from day one. He did not need to kiss ass and pretend to be something he wasn't. He told everyone—to their face—what he thought. He did not have to play the rebel. Man, he was the rebel.
“From my first memories, he has been my biggest hero. Yet within seconds of meeting him, all the myth and the legend went away and here was this guy, full of humanity, who wanted to help me. He not only made me want to look good on screen, but he was rooting for me as a person. He could see that I am still trying to come to terms with what I am and who I may become.”
Brando, who was a guest at the Hotel Raphael 30 years ago without breaking so much as a toothbrush, patiently explained that such rushes of anger show a weakness.
Depp said: “I have to learn to control my anger and love and doubt. It flows through me. I have to let off steam occasionally and relax. If things are getting too much and I can't see a way out of it, then I blow. Newspapers said that I was drunk and having a big fight with Kate. Untrue! I was just angry with myself and my lousy day. OK, it cost $10,000. But I was willing to pay it. There was no need for the arrests, no need for all that publicity.”
The way Depp reasons, it all seems plausible. Had a bad day? Is tension building up? Smash up your room. Why not? If it belongs to somebody else and you can afford to pay the damage, even better.
But this is no act. Johnny Depp really does follow his emotions. Falling in love is one of them. So far, he's been engaged to Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder, for whom he had "Winona Forever" tattooed on his shoulder—a move that now seems remarkably daft.
Kate Moss, 21, is the latest. “Kate is different,” he insists. “I am crazy about her; it was love at first sight. Fortunately, she felt the same way. Is it sex—is it love? Well, one can quickly lead to another if you really have heart. I don't go for fast and easy sex. I never have done. Each of my relationships has been the only thing in my life at the time. I have not slept around and I don't keep count. I feel exactly as my character, Don Juan, in this respect: each woman he has ever been to bed with has been the most important love in the world.
“Don Juan says that he has slept with 1,502 women and I have slept with just a handful. But he never talks of ‘conquests’ and neither do I. A woman is to be respected far more than that. Don Juan shows the outside world that love does not have to die and passion does not have to go away. I try to live like that. All this talk of me being bitter after Winona is crazy. I am not trying to wipe the memory of her from my life and I am not ashamed of the tattoo, either. I still love her, in a way.
"We are all capable of falling into a routine with any relationship and this is very dangerous. I think I might have learnt a lesson from that. If you feel a relationship is fading, then remember the reason you fell in love in the first place.”
He gives a shake of his head and gulps at his coffee. “Kate and I met in February 1994 and my life has never been more together. She keeps my feet on the ground with that down-to-earth English charm, you know? Makes sure I don't go too crazy.”
He cites River Phoenix, for example, who died of a drug overdose right outside his own club more than a year ago.
“He was not unhappy and he did not come to die that night,” Depp says. “He arrived with his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, and his guitar. He came to play—and enjoy himself. He made mistakes over things he was taking. It was stupid. A waste. But it was nothing like Kurt Cobain (Nirvana's lead singer), who committed suicide. The only thing I would say to people who feel things are that bad is: why die?
“Why not give it another day? Love can be a cure, art can be a cure, music can be a cure. But I don’t give up. I did not know Kurt, but felt very close to him and his work and understood his music very well.
“If he hated what he was that much, why not just give up and escape and go somewhere? Grow flowers, catch fish, do something else. Don’t hang around waiting for something to happen.”
Johnny Depp has finished his coffee and Coca-Colas and smoked several cigarettes. He looks fresher, leaner and more alert than when he arrived.
“One consistent theme in all the characters I play is that they are considered freaks and outsiders,” he states, getting up to stare into the Paris street. “They might seem crazy to the outside world. But to me, they are all real people . . . I just hope that people see me as real too.”