Few actors of his generation have carved a career in quite the same way as Johnny Depp. A teen idol in the TV series 21 Jump Street, he made the inevitable jump into film not with a blockbuster but with John Waters’ white-trash cult classic Cry-Baby.
Since then, the tense, troubled and brilliant young actor has gone on to give one superb performance after another. Critics rave about the sensitivity and melancholy he brings to widely varied roles, from the lead in Edward Scissorhands opposite one-time love Winona Ryder, to Leonardo DiCario’s elder brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, to the dreamer who teaches Brando about love in Don Juan DeMarco, to possibly the world’s worst-ever film director in Ed Wood.
But his latest movie, Donnie Brasco, has given Depp the best reviews of his career. Based on the true story of an FBI agent who infiltrated the Mafia in the 1970s. Johnny plays the tough guy so easily and charismatically that it’s hard to believe he played the sensible Gilbert Grape, would-be Don Juan and fragile Edward Scissorhands.
Depp has always avoided using his looks as a box-office draw, choosing to ply his trade in art-house movies for directors like Emir Kusturica and Jim Jarmusch. But Donnie Brasco, directed by Mike “Four Weddings and a Funeral” Newell, in which he plays opposite Al Pacino, will undoubtedly bring him the widest possible audience. At 33, Depp may yet acquire the kind of edgy, mainstream stardom his co-star enjoys. Pacino himself is full of admiration: “Johnny has incredible instincts,” he says. “He’s able to put himself into the head of his character and vary his level according to the needs of each scene. That’s a very rare gift.”
But while his work has brought widespread admiration, the public behaviour of Johnny Depp has earned him a reputation of a petulant, typically Hollywood, spoilt brat. But what has been written off as self-indulgence, is ironically, usually his attempt to find an honest route in a film industry obsessed with image, idolatry and money.
Born in Kentucky to a troubled family that couldn’t give its children roots, values or advice how to adapt to the world, Johnny grew up in Florida, the youngest of four children whose dirt-poor parents frequently moved from one apartment to another.
Even now, Depp is still bent on discovering where he fits into the scheme of things. He often displays the anguish of a man who would love to rescue the world but knows he can’t. On the streets of LA, he has been known to hand out $100 bills to homeless people hanging around outside his Viper Room (the club outside which young actor River Phoenix collapsed and died) or take a group of homeless kids for a feast in a restaurant.
At the same time, the actor, who has turned down at least $5 million-worth of work over the past three years out of a refusal to compromise, hates the idea that people will think he’s just another self-absorbed artist who struggles with the “burden” of being a millionaire celebrity.
Recently Depp was in LA editing The Brave, his first outing as a director. We met him at a cool Venice Beach café, where he talked about life, work and steady partner Kate Moss. Looking more relaxed than usual, he still eyed other diners warily and chain-smoked his favourite Gauloises.
JAN JANSSEN: Johnny, Donnie Brasco is a big film for you. Does it matter to you whether it does well at the box-office?
JOHNNY DEPP: I think it’s a good film and people should see it, but I can’t worry about that. I’d like my work to contribute to whatever value a movie has, but I’m much happier if the film wins recognition rather that getting good reviews for myself.
What was it like to finally direct your own movie, The Brave?
It was a big step. I never realized you have to worry ten times more when you’re a director. It was fun, it was a challenge, but I was exhausted. And the worst part is that you never know if what you’ve done is good or not—not until you start putting it together in the editing room. It kind of freaks me out.
And would you ever give up acting to work as a full-time director?
I don’t think so. Acting is in my blood and it’s the most beautiful form of escape. Directing is hard work and you don’t have the time to focus on any one thing because your mind is 100 different places at once.
Does the attention surrounding your relationship with Kate Moss get on your nerves?
Sometimes. The paparazzi are the biggest pain. Since Kate and I began seeing each other, I’ve only been to one fashion show—I don’t want to make things more difficult for Kate than they already are. It would be nice to walk down the street together to go into a restaurant without getting mobbed. But I don’t want to sound like I’m whining, because I don’t have material worries like wondering about finding a job.
I have no right to complain because I choose to work in movies and that means I have to live with that kind of exposure. But it’s a real bitch to wake up each morning and realize you don’t have a private life any more.
Your roles tend to be loners. Do you feel that way yourself?
I’ve always felt an outsider. I don’t know why, but I can’t get used to the fact that we exist in a state of warped values. I feel lost so often that I wish I could just take off and not have to worry about the world.
I’ve always had a problem relating to other people’s way of living and how they make their pact with all the bull in society. I hate sounding pretentious and pontificating as if I have the answers—I don’t—I’m just trying to find my own path and not get in anyone else’s way . . . I suppose part of my problem is that I’ll always have this image of myself as a 17-year-old geek working at a gas station.
People who admire your work remark on the integrity of your career. You’ve avoided making films that focus on your looks.
That’s nice to hear because I want to do interesting work. I’m the exact opposite of what a film star is supposed to be and I’m just trying to go my own way and make good movies that one day I can be proud of and tell my grandchildren—hey, your grandpa didn’t sell his soul, that’s why he’s broke.
You don’t care about the money?
Oh, I don’t mind the money I’m making. I could earn a lot more, but I refuse to do dumb comedies or slick Hollywood garbage. Beyond a certain point, I couldn’t care less about money—I just need enough to travel, hang out and help some people if I can.
It’s bad enough that I have trouble sitting down for a coffee without people staring. I’m paranoid enough as it is without having to deal with all that. What I want is to be able to make it through each day without feeling I’m living a lie.
Do you feel you’ve escaped the Hollywood star thing?
I think so. I don’t feel like they can package me. In Hollywood, they’re not comfortable unless they can label you. I don’t want to be called anything other than a guy who makes an interesting movie now and again. I don’t know what I’m going to do—I’m just trying to hang on in there.
How do you feel about your role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
That was a difficult experience for me. I still haven’t seen the film and don’t think I will. It reminded me a lot of my childhood, my problems with my mom and dad and having to deal with their divorce. I didn’t have a lot of fun on the set and I still can’t watch the film because it was the saddest time in my life.
Those were dark days. I was caught up in my own fear and loathing. I think I liked feeling that the world was closing in on me. I was on a self-destructive roll for a long time. I was lost.
John Badham, your director of Nick of Time, said it looked like you never got much sleep.
I’ve always suffered from insomnia. But I also like staying out late and it’s never affected how I work. I actually think I’m better when I’m a little whacked. I wish my call time [when actors must be on set] was ten in the morning instead of seven, but I still manage to stand up as long as I can have six or seven cappuccinos.
How much do you enjoy acting?
I feel more comfortable in front of the camera than I do in life. On the set, you feel close to the people you’re working with, it’s like your own little family. But in real life, you’re having dinner with your girlfriend, drinking wine, you look around and there are all these people staring at you. It’s weird.
Maybe I feel some guilt over having a certain level of material security for doing a job that isn’t as important as the media would have people believe. I know I worry too much about not living up to my own standards of what I think I should be doing with my life . . . But at least I have the chance to work in films that aspire to art.
Who does the press coverage bother more—you or Kate?
We both hate it with equal passion. We hate reading we’re breaking up because our friends might start to give us strange looks. Sometimes we have to set them straight if some sick story has been printed.
Do you feel more at home in your life these days?
I’m a lot more together than I was. Five or six years ago I would go on nonstop benders without sleeping or eating. I was always bugged about something or trying to get away from life. I was a victim of my own demons and had a rough time dealing with it.
When you go through that, you don’t even know why you’re so self-destructive and mixed up. You just feel like you’re out of control and that nothing is the way it should be. You expect to find some form of peace and salvation and it never comes. It’s like the promise of growing up and finding out that maybe life isn’t as alienating as when you’re a teenager. When I was in my 20s, I found life was even worse than I thought it was.”
I don’t know. I don’t see the silver lining or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I don’t see the brighter side that much—although I’m starting to understand the things I want to do and the type of environment I need to create in order to be happy. That’s maybe the secret—to find a daily routine that gives you pleasure and puts you into the frame of mind that doesn’t give into your fears.
What are your fears?
The biggest is not belonging anywhere or feeling a part of anyone or anything. You do your work, you hang out with crew or the cast, then you go to your hotel, you turn on the TV and think to yourself—is that all there is? It is a sick feeling and it’s maybe a stupid way of putting it but I feel that way a lot. When I’m with Kate it’s different and we enjoy our time together. The only thing that keeps us apart is our work.
You’ve said in interview that drinking used to be a big problem for you. How do you handle it now?
Sometimes I drink a lot, but most of the time I don’t drink. I drank and did drugs in the past because I was feeling so terrible and I’m sure the fact that I was doing so much stuff made me feel even worse. Alcohol starts messing with a mind like any substance; it can just intensify our anger or hatred. That’s why I’ve pretty much stopped abusing myself with drugs and alcohol. I’m living a more moderate lifestyle, you might say.
Did the death of River Phoenix scare you?
It was a signal that you can only go so far to saturate yourself in toxic substances. Drinking and taking drugs and getting high is how we try to numb our emotions. You don’t want to feel any pain . . . you don’t want to feel anything. I was painfully aware of what I was doing to myself and somehow didn’t care. But then I realized that I wasn’t having fun, it wasn’t cool any more and it was waste of my life. So I pulled back from the edge and got serious about my life again. I started to think about why I was unhappy. I kind of figured out that the reasons for being unhappy didn’t exist any more.
Do you ever still feel engulfed by fear and loathing?
Everyday. No, that’s an exaggeration. But, yeah, I still think I’m a loser sometimes, that I’m not making it, that I’m wandering through life in this miserable mood instead of feeling happy that I have a career, that I don’t have to worry about feeding or clothing myself. But over the last few years, I've been able to relax more when I’m not working and instead of freaking out, I actually have a pretty good time.
Do you think you’re still affected by your teenage years and your difficult family life?
Yeah, sure. We moved over 30 times before I finally moved out for good. That’s probably why I’m always travelling mentally and feel like being somewhere else. It’s my sense of being out of place in the world.
What worries you? Is it a lack of sense of security?
Probably, but I don’t know what the real reason is. If I did figure it out I’d probably be a much happier guy. When I was 12, and my parents were always fighting, I had hardly any contact with the outside world. As soon as I got my guitar, I locked myself in my room every day after school and did nothing but play until I fell asleep. Music was very important to me and I almost had a career with my band until I got signed up to that dumb TV series [21 Jump Street]. Sometimes I think I should have concentrated on my music.
How do you relate life today to how you thought about life when you were a teenager?
Life was simpler, because you didn’t have any idea what you were supposed to be doing. You just did things. But as you grow older you begin suffering from chronic self-awareness and disgust. You live with this constant agony over everything you’re doing or not doing and wondering why things aren’t working and why you don’t have any answers to the big questions.
Do you think about how different your life is from the norm?
All the time. The trouble with being an actor is you don’t have a lot of perspective on the world. You’re living this unreal existence that’s probably the worst sort of life someone like me should be living. That’s why I’m so uneasy about the whole process.
What was the wild lifestyle about?
I hated who I was and what I was doing. I was drinking, smoking, just ruining my body. I wouldn’t do anything but drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and get drunk for weeks on end. But I had a bad scare when I felt my heartbeat running at 200. I thought I was going to die. So that experience taught me to eat a little better and not live on coffee.
Is Kate an influence? Many people don’t think she eats either.
That’s another thing the media always gets wrong. Kate has a great appetite, she’s just built skinny. She tries to get me to eat healthily and stop eating hamburgers and junk. Kate’s a better influence on me than I am on her.
Do you get tired of reading that you and Kate are breaking up?
Yes, but we’re so used to it we just shake our heads and wonder why the world isn’t interested in something more important. The press seems totally obsessed with what Kate and I are doing—and if we’re seen separately everybody tries to make something out of it.
How would you describe Kate?
Very smart and quick-witted. She works hard, she’s got a wicked sense of humour. But no one ever writes about that, no one ever tries to say that we’re happy together—never.
We have a lot of fun hanging out and watching people and trying to figure out what makes people tick. Unfortunately, we get recognised too much and that takes away the pleasure of one of our favourite pastimes. But I think I worry about all the paparazzi more than she does. She’s much more level-headed and together than I am.
How do you feel these days?
I think I’m evolving to the point where I can see some hope for myself. I mean, we all invent our own reasons for whether we’re happy or sad, whether we’ve learnt from bad times or whether we let them slowly drag us down, feeling sorry for ourselves. That’s the eternal trap we live with.The trick is to find your way out and never look back.