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Johnny Be Good

by Helen Barlow
Sun-Herald, Sydney AUS
May 3, 1997

The already impressive film career of Johnny Depp has taken another leap forward with a challenging turn as a Mafia mole

Johnny Depp likes to smoke.

“It was funny, when we were doing Donnie Brasco,” he begins, taking a long hard draw, “because Al Pacino is a reformed smoker, so he was chain smoking these weird fake cigarettes during the scenes. Between takes he would put his cigarette out and I would light mine up.

“He was actually rolling down his window and coughing—it was the complete opposite of in the film.”

If Pacino wasn’t pleased by the smoking, he was downright worried by the farting. It erupted in a scene where they were talking in the back of a car. Director Mike Newell called “cut” and they started again.

So did Depp. Pacino thought something was up. Depp had a whoopee cushion.

Pacino broke into hysterical laughter and from that moment they got on famously.

Depp’s pranks aside, the heartthrob shows a new maturity in his portrayal of Joe Pistone, a real-life FBI undercover agent who spent six years infiltrating the Bonanno Mafia family during the 70s. While many may wonder whether we really need another Mafia movie, Depp says he was attracted to the film’s down-beat take on Mob life.

“I’m a huge fan of some of the better films of the genre, like The Godfather I and II, Goodfellas and Casino,” he says. “But for me, those films slightly romanticize the Mafia and they deal with the upper echelons.

“While researching Donnie Brasco, I didn’t meet too many of the upper-echelon guys, but I met some of the grunts, the soldiers.

“These guys are really funny guys, and very charming. They’d do anything for a score. They will bust a parking meter open, they do that kind of stuff. There’s a whole lot of humor in the film.”

In the end, Depp came to the conclusion that the mobsters were “not too dissimilar” from the lower-level FBI agents he met.

“One thing I like is that the film doesn’t glorify the Mob and it certainly doesn’t glorify the FBI. There are no winners and I think that is more like life.”

While essential to the film, the daily life of the Mob provides more of a backdrop to the story of the friendship that develops between Depp’s Brasco and Lefty Ruggiero, a good-hearted, slow-on-the-uptake mobster.

Pacino excels as Lefty, and Depp learned a lot from the acting veteran, who knows a thing or two about playing a Mafioso.

Pistone, who is proud that his story has made it to Hollywood, admires the way Depp approached the task of portraying him.

“All I knew about Johnny Depp before was my daughters telling me how good-looking he is,” Pistone says. “‘Am I not as good-looking?’ I asked them?” (You cannot tell what Pistone looks like today, because he is in disguise, since he still has a $US500,000 Mafia bounty on his head, although he believes they’d never enforce it now.)

“I wanna tell ya,” he continues, sounding like the pseudo Brooklyn mafioso that he once was, “and I say this in all sincerity. After five minutes with this guy, I could tell he was nothing like what I had read in the newspapers, of him trashing hotel rooms. I spent a lot of time with him. This is a guy who is a very compassionate and nice individual.”

Depp drew his own conclusions about Pistone. “I think he did his job,” the actor says, becoming intensely serious. “He made an enormous sacrifice, missing out on his children growing up. I felt bad that he and his family had to change their name and live under a different identity and move constantly. But when you meet him and get to know him, you realize what a strong person he is, maybe the strongest person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s amazing. He’s like that childhood thing, when you’re trying to understand what a man is supposed to be like. The definition of a man, that would be Joe.”

Depp was born in backwoods Kentucky and spent his teenage years in Miramar, Florida.

The youngest of four children, he saw his mother, Betty Sue, and father, John, separate while he was young. Starting as a rock musician, he got into acting via his friend Nicolas Cage, and rose to fame on the television series 21 Jump Street.

“Ever since I got out of that TV series, where I felt like I was in prison, I decided I was only going to do the things I wanted to do,” he says. And he has stuck to his guns, aligning himself with idiosyncratic directors, and mostly playing outsiders, as he did in Tim Burton’s Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream.

Visiting Paris during fashion week while girlfriend Kate Moss took to the catwalk, Depp looked healthy and happy. His brown eyes were clear and wrinkle-free, though he has filled out a little in the face—all the better to play an Italian mobster.

He is not about to take up wearing designer clothes, despite numerous offers from designers. Today he is wearing a beaten-up pair of brown boots. “I’ve had these boots for years; they’re like old friends. They’ve got bullet holes in them from when I was doing Arizona Dream with Kusturica.

“On the weekends we bought rifles and we’d go in the desert and take beer cans and shoot ‘em. When we ran out of cans, I took my shoes off and they became the target.”

Of his waif-like, supermodel girlfriend, he says: “Kate, she’s my girl. She’s very smart, strong and has a great sense of humor. She’s from south London. It’s important. As we all are, she’s a product of her parents; you’re always a piece of that. She comes from good working-class stock. She grew up under modest circumstances, she knows what it’s like to be up here and down there. She’s not a spoilt kid, she’s not a spoilt brat.”

Meanwhile, Depp has taken to directing his own movie, The Brave, which he co-wrote with his brother (and which, he was happy to hear, is going to be screened at Cannes). He also did the editing and laid a soundtrack scored by his old friend, Iggy Pop.

“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and I was an idiot to attempt it,” he says, still amazed. “It’s way too much work for one person.”

The Brave tells the story of a Native American man who is living with his family in a garbage dump.

“Abject poverty,” Depp describes it. “They’re people whom society would consider disposable, pushed to the edge. My character could make a lot of money if he was to sacrifice his life (by making a snuff movie). So he makes a deal, and the film is about the last seven days of his life. It tells how he learns to live again, love his family and be loved by them. The snuff movie idea I killed a bit, I didn’t want people to focus on that. It’s much more a love story.”

The film, he says, is an important personal statement, “because I have some native American blood in me. I’m not sure how much; one will never know.”

Next up is a film of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “It’s a book that I read years ago and I’ve always been in love with it. Hunter Thompson is one of the only writers that I’ve sat down and read and laughed out loud.”

Depp in depth

Johnny’s career to date:

21 Jump Street (1987-90): “It was not too much different from a Burger King, fast food, in a way.”

Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Johnny gets eaten by a bed.

Private Resort (1985): Not even the film encyclopedias bother with this one.

Platoon (1986): Says he played “one of the 30 guys in green.”

Cry-Baby (1990): Played opposite transvestite Divine to be rid of his Jump Street image.

Edward Scissorhands (1990): On adjusting to those hands: “I just hung around the house doing ordinary stuff with them, dialing the phone, adjusting the stereo.”

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991): Cameo homage to his beginnings.

Arizona Dream (1992): It won a Silver Bear (they give them out in Berlin).

Benny and Joon (1993): “Like Rain Man with sexual complications,” wrote one reviewer.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993): “Gilbert is the most normal guy I’ve played and I’m not real comfortable with that.”

Ed Wood (1994): Months wearing high heels went into this role.

Don Juan DeMarco (1995): Felt unqualified to play the world’s greatest lover.

Dead Man (1996): “I hope American audiences will be able to understand this film.”

Nick of Time (1996): Depp’s character has 90 minutes in which to kill. Some said the film was just a way to kill 90 minutes.

Donnie Brasco (1997): Joins the list of actors opposite mobster Pacino.

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors