By now Johnny Depp could, if he so desired, have turned himself into the conventional movie idol that so many in Hollywood want him to be. He could, for instance, have taken the lead in the huge box office success Speed, which made Keanu Reeves a star. Depp turned it down, as he rejected Legends of the Fall and Interview with the Vampire, major vehicles for Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise respectively.
Instead, the 33-year-old Depp has chosen his own path, preferring to devote his time to films often described as “quirky,” usually well-received by the critics, displaying a formidable talent that has drawn accolades from actors of the stature of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.
Depp's movies may have been slightly leftfield—such as Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Ed Wood—but they have never been anything less than interesting. And, if Depp is regarded as A-list in Tinseltown, then it's almost in spite of himself.
So, when the British director Mike Newell was casting for Donnie Brasco, the true story of an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the mob for six years, he knew that Depp was the man to place alongside Pacino.
“Why did I choose Johnny and not someone like Keanu? Well, I wanted someone who could act, for a start,” Newell says. “And Johnny is a very, very clever actor, make no mistake about that.”
When you point this out to Depp, and add the fact that both Brando and Pacino have called him the best actor of his generation, he positively squirms with embarrassment. “I don't know why people like that say those things, but I mean, obviously, that's great,” he stumbles. “I'm lucky to be able to say that they are friends of mine, but they are heroes too, you know? I have nothing but respect for them.”
A lesser actor could have been chewed up and spat out by Pacino, but in Donnie Brasco it is a bit like watching the Method King passing his blessings to his heir apparent. “Working with Al was everything and a whole lot more than I expected,” Depp says. “It was a real treat and an honor. I learnt as much as I could but it's difficult to pick out specifics. I expected him to be very serious and not very loose and playful, but he wasn't like that at all. He was constantly making jokes and making people laugh.”
The film's central relationship is between Joe Pistone, the real-life undercover FBI agent who adopted the identity of Donnie Brasco, a small-time Florida jewel thief, and Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino), the lowly, embittered Mafia man who unwittingly vouches for him so that he gains access to the mob world.
Before starting filming, Depp spent months in preparation with Pistone, now 58 and retired from the FBI. Depp, Pistone says, was hardly what he expected. “All I knew about Johnny was what I'd read in the papers,” he says. “You know, about him trashing hotel rooms and stuff. But we spent a lot of time together, we worked out together in the gym. I took him to the FBI academy in Virginia, and he wanted to know everything.
“He would even ring up my wife and ask questions. He kept saying, ‘I want to make this right for you, you have to live with this film for the rest of your life and I want to do it justice.’ And he did. He captured me to a T. He wouldn't even go to see a screening until I could go with him. Most actors wouldn't care, they would just take the money and run. He's a lovely guy.”
In the film Pistone makes a close friend of Ruggiero, a man Pistone knows he must ultimately betray. “I spoke about that with Joe,” says Depp. “He said that there is no way you can hang around with someone for six years solid and not feel something for them. On the one hand you can hate them and despise them, but on the other you sort of love the guy.
“But it's wrong to say that Joe was betraying them. If he had been a Mafia guy from the beginning, and then turned on his friends and associates, that would have been a betrayal. But the fact is that Joe came in as an FBI agent and he was just doing his job.
“He made an enormous sacrifice. He missed his children growing up, he faced the daily threat to his life, and he had to move his family constantly to protect them. He is maybe the strongest person I ever met in my life.”
Donnie Brasco is, on the surface at least, Depp's most mainstream film since he crossed over from television—where he played a cop in the hit 21 Jump Street—almost ten years ago. But it would be wrong to assume that he is now about to start accepting some of those blockbuster scripts that drop, unsolicited, on the doormat of the $3 million mansion he recently bought in the Hollywood Hills.
Instead, he is back in the editing suite finishing The Brave, a film which he co-wrote, directed and stars in alongside Brando. A dark, brooding story of a young man involved in a snuff movie, The Brave is hardly going to be mainstream.
“I've never seen a snuff movie and I didn't want to,” he says. “So when I made the film I tried to skirt around the idea of what he was actually going to be doing. So it's never really mentioned, but the audience kind of wonders about it.
“The Brave was the most difficult thing I've ever done and I was an idiot to attempt it. It's way too much work for one person. You get up before anybody else and you go to bed later than anybody and when you are asleep you are dreaming about it. I don't know that I'll ever catch up on the sleep I lost.”
Born in Kentucky, the youngest of three children, Depp moved to Los Angeles in his teens with the hope of carving out a career in music, his first love, and he started acting to pay the bills. Then came 21 Jump Street, and he was suddenly splashed across the covers of teen magazines all over the world.
It is an image he has been trying to resist ever since. Indeed, he is more likely to make the covers of teen mags these days because of his girlfriend, the British model Kate Moss, and his friendship with rock stars such as Noel Gallagher of Oasis.
“It's strange,” he says. “I never had much ambition. I never really wanted to be an actor and I never really wanted to be a director. I was a musician and I still am. This other stuff kind of happened.”