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Depp Charge

by Elizabeth McCracken
June 1998

For the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the best actor of his generation gets bald and goes in search of the American dream.

Maybe you never really know a guy until you steal his car. Johnny Depp was set to play Hunter S. Thompson, inventor of gonzo journalism, in Terry Gilliam's screen version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the classic story of hell-bent joie de vivre in the city that never sobers up. Depp had been hanging around Thompson's Woody Creek, Colorado, ranch when he decided to steal Thompson's early-'70s red convertible Chevy and take it to Los Angeles, by way of Las Vegas.

This was not grand theft auto, this was research. Fear and Loathing: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream—Thompson's drug-, liquor-, and citrus-addled account of the 1971 road trip he and his attorney, dubbed Doctor Gonzo, made to Las Vegas, ostensibly to cover a car race—is all about bad behavior in an early-'70s red convertible. Benicio Del Toro plays the larger-than-life lawyer. Depp plays Raoul Duke, Thompson's alter ego. That's why he'd gone to Thompson's ranch in the first place. He ended up staying for months. "We went through the manuscript and the notes," Depp says. "There's notes on napkins and everything: He saved it all. Not only is [the book] true, but there's more. And it was worse."

It's a fine Sunday afternoon in fin de millennium Los Angeles, and we're on the patio of the Chateau Marmont, where, for the moment, you can still have a cigarette. (You can't legally smoke in Californian bars anymore, even in the Viper Room, whose owner—Johnny Depp—smokes famously and prolifically.) When our beers arrive, Depp pays so quickly that I'm still scrambling for my wallet. Wait, I want to tell him. I've just reread Fear and Loathing, the definitive guide to going to hell on an expense account (and trashing your hotel room) and I think ELLE should be paying for a lot more than a couple of beers. They should be paying for dangerous drugs. They should be paying for weapons. If we get lonely, we should be able to order up a monkey to sit with us at the table and destroy the wicker chair and harass people and possibly out drink us, and ELLE should pay for everything. "Thanks," I say, because I am not Hunter S. Thompson, nor was I meant to be. Depp is, and was—he's been a Thompson fan since he was seventeen.

In some ways Fear and Loathing seems made for the movies; in some ways, it seems foolish to try. The book is a song, bleak lyrics set to bouncy music: Nothing in it is fun, the guy who's singing keeps explaining it isn't fun, but, by God, the tune makes it sound like the best fun ever. It's a requiem backed by rock `n' roll, steel drums and cowbells and fiddles, playing along, with a manic energy so unflagging it's easy to miss its seriousness. It's about as serious as a heart attack.

Depp first met the man himself in 1995, when he and Kate Moss went to Aspen for a white Christmas and ended up at the Woody Creek Tavern, near Thompson's ranch. "My first image of Hunter was, he walked into the Woody Creek Tavern with a Taser gun in his left hand and a huge cattle prod in his right hand, and he was swinging them around, getting people out of his way." Thompson took a seat at Depp's table, and they talked about their Kentucky roots—Depp's from Owensboro, Thompson from Louisville. He invited Depp and Moss back to his place. That was about eleven o'clock at night. "By one," Depp says, "I had a shotgun in my hands, firing at a bomb that we'd built in his kitchen." After that, Thompson, like other Depp heroes Johnny Cash, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg, did a gig at the Viper Room, with Depp emceeing. "He stabbed a blow-up doll with a fork. I think John Cusack brought it to him. Madness." When Depp signed on to play Thompson, he even ended up as Thompson's book-tour road manager, responsible for arranging the bottle of Chivas and quantity of ice required at every stop, among other duties. Says Depp, "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, trying to wake Hunter Thompson up."

There's a poetry reading going on in the hotel lobby; from outside, we can hear the occasional polite applause. You could tell Depp sort of wished I'd suggest we forget the interview and join the audience. Depp's passionate about books. He collects Kerouac memorabilia, is currently reading Artaud, and so admired Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart that he tracked Gilmore down to tell him so. "I'm a complete whore for books," he says. "I've had friends and girlfriends refuse to go into bookstores with me, because I'll be two or three hours. Its like being a kid in the cereal section."

The guy likes evidence: weird antiques, bugs, the matchbook and used Kleenex in the pockets of a jacket that once was Kerouac's. "I lived in thirty, forty houses when I was a kid. Little by little, all these things you saved, your football pads or your football helmet or the drawings you made, they disappeared. I hate that. I guess that's made me a collector, a pack rat."

Talking to him, its easy to forget he's famous. ("I can't think of myself as famous," he says. "I just hate that word. And well known is really awful.") He's wearing a striped knit hat to keep back his hair, which is short and highlighted blond for his current project, The Astronaut's Wife. Also, weirdly, he's wearing a duplicate of a jacket I used to own. "The Ricky Ricardo look," he calls it—it's a 1950s Latin-influenced cowboy number, black with white applique curlicues, but modest. I bought mine in a thrift shop in Iowa a decade ago. You know that Proustian rush you get when, after years, you're reintroduced to a favorite piece of clothing? Imagine that, with Johnny Depp inside.

"You get to see him bald," says Terry Gilliam of Depp's performance as Thompson. "They say he became a man in Donnie Brasco, now he's a bald man. Grown-up at last!"

"When you make the choice to play a living human being," the thirty-four-year-old Depp says, "there's a lot of responsibility. Especially when you really care about them. You put so much of them into your system, its like there's residue when you're done. It took me a while to stop being Hunter. I cursed him every day, I said, This cocksucker, got him under my skin, can't get rid of him. He's still there. I hate him for that."

"Johnny was amazing," says Gilliam. "He was like some kind of vampire. Each time he'd come back with more of Hunter's clothes and things. He was stealing Hunter's soul, really, secretly. Which Hunter was apparently quite happy to go along with." Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni wrote the script in eight days, rewrote it in two. The shoot took place in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Nevada desert, and involved a great deal of heat and dust and a relatively low budget of $18.5 million, and, says Depp, "a whole lot of fun, and a whole lot of misery. We got it all—the fear, the loathing." He is not, he says, a Vegas guy: "I can't even look at it on a novelty level. People with plastic cups filled with nickels, spending their retirement money."

Terry Gilliam has high hopes for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the movie. "I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time."

"People are going to freak out," Depp says. "I'll be audited and sent out of the country probably, become an exile." But it's time. "Everyone's so politically correct and it's fake." He believes in the American Dream, sort of. "I believe in it because there's no such thing. You can live the American Dream. Live it by having a barbecue every Sunday, going to church or to a porno theater, whatever. I hope this doesn't come off as if I'm a cynic, because I'm not. I think I'm a realist." It comes off as kind of an earnest, romantic disillusionment. Exile isn't completely unappealing. He dreams of being an expatriate, he says ("Once you've read A Moveable Feast . . ."), or going Brando and buying his own island.

But wouldn't he miss people? I ask. "No," he says. "I love people. And when you love people that much, that you're disappointed in them every day—that love can turn to hate in a flash of a second." He's especially disappointed in young people. "They have this nonconformist approach, but they're exactly like their buddy, who's exactly like some other guy, who's exactly like another guy, because this other guy saw it on MTV." He shakes his head. "The people I love are old people. I like old ladies."

These days, it seems like the greatest compliment we give an actor is: He's just a regular guy. Johnny Depp gets his chops busted in the press for not acting regular—for his tattoos, his famous paramours, his tendency to avoid Hollywood blockbusters. I tell him he's the subject of an item in todays Walter Scott's "Personality Parade," perhaps this country's least hip gossip column. "What did I do now?" he asks. So I paraphrase:

Q. I haven't heard about my favorite bad boy, Johnny Depp, lately. Has he settled down since his hotel-trashing days?

A. Friends tell us Depp is still rebellious. Between takes of his supernatural thriller, The Astronaut's Wife, Depp was rolling his own cigarettes and discussing the legalization of marijuana . . .

"Discussing the legalization of marijuana," he says. "What a rebel. You gotta watch out for guys who roll their own cigarettes. Stay away from those boys."

In person, though, Johnny Depp does seem like a regular guy, as long as your statistical sample is neither movie stars nor Middle America. He's polite, with a perverse sense of humor. He's a good conversationalist; you want to jot down the books he recommends. He seems like what he is: a rock 'n' roller who happened to hit big in another field and who happens to be very good in that other field. You can see him think as he talks. He says plenty, but too slowly to come across as talkative. He mostly holds still. It's what he does as an actor, too, playing the title characters in Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Dead Man, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and The Brave (his directorial debut), among other roles. Though he moves beautifully, he also stops moving. Even when he plays outstandingly weird characters, he's never the weirdest; he's the quiet center of the story, the guy you look at to see what he thinks is going on.

"You're a hot dog, man," Depp says of being a movie star. "You're a Ball Park Frank. They sell you on television, that's the part I despise. They make you this product and they want to sell Ball Parks. They don't want to sell Jose's All-Beef Franks. Or Really Weird Franks. Or Interesting Franks."

He's famous for choosing his projects carefully. "I've been so lucky, because the guys I've worked with are my favorites. John Waters is one of my favorites. [Jim] Jarmusch is certainly one of my favorites. [Emir] Kusturica is without question one of the greats. They're heroes and they're friends. They're people I admire a lot. Tim Burton. I'm going to work with [Roman] Polanski on The Ninth Gate. I'm excited about it."

Off-camera, he writes—"brain vomit," he calls his journal—paints and draws some, plays guitar. The band he's in, P, released an eponymous album last year, for which he steadfastly refused to do videos or much publicity.

It's all evidence: "I like the idea that I can make a drawing or I can make a painting or I can write notes, my sort of journal thing," he says, "and someday, my kid will have that. And his kid will have that. If they're interested. You can leave behind these pieces of you, honest pieces—things that you really cared about. That's what movies are to me in a way." He's not even opposed to leaving behind his tattoos—"Maybe invent a frame with some kind of fluid that keeps them." Which means that in 100 years, someone might pick up Johnny Depp's tattoos the same way he picked up a couple of Jack Kerouac's jackets. "Yeah," he says. "They could end up in some dentist's office in Philadelphia. Why not?"

-- donated by Joni