Johnny Depp has made more good movies in the 1990's than any other actor. I was dubious when I first saw him in John Waters' Cry Baby (1990), but after Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990), I was a fan. Depp continued to make daring choices all through the decade, giving amazing performances. Among them are: Arizona Dream (1993), Ed Wood (1994), Dead Man (1996), Donnie Brasco (1997), and last year's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So I was thrilled to have the chance to meet with Depp who was in town promoting Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.
I expected Depp to be a bit of a recluse, a bad boy amusing himself by torturing poor entertainment journalists. But I couldn't have been more pleased with the Depp I met. He was warm and humble, and had a calming effect, like a snake charmer perhaps. Fatherhood has done wonders for him. “My daughter is sublime,” he tells me. “She's the greatest, most amazing thing ever, and that's a tremendous understatement.” His hair was long and greasy, and he wore skull rings, one on each hand with a large leather bracelet on his right. He asked if we minded if he smoked. “I'm taking advantage of the fact that I'm not in Los Angeles at the moment. It's a lost art, smoking,” he says. I began thinking that I'd have to wash my clothes when I got home, but he proceeded to roll his own cigarette with some nice-smelling tobacco that I didn't mind at all.
Depp wasn't much interested in talking about Sleepy Hollow, or more specifically, his own role in it. “I get a little uncomfortable when I see the movies [I'm in]. I condition myself to believe that once the movie is done, my job is done, and whatever happens after that is none of my business.” On the other hand, he spoke of how difficult it was to let go of his characters. “I'm not sure any of them ever go away. It's nice. I can remember when I finished Edward Scissorhands, looking in a mirror as the girl was doing my makeup for the last time, putting on the appliances and the prosthetics, and thinking, wow. This is it. I'm saying goodbye to this guy. I'm saying goodbye to Edward Scissorhands. It was funny, I was kind of sad. But in fact, I think they're all still in there.”
Depp reveals that one of his heroes is Lon Chaney, the famous silent actor who appeared in different makeup in every movie, nearly indistinguishable from the last. Depp's own career is amazingly similar. The other side of this kind of career is that the actor never really establishes a consistently personal side of himself; a persona that an audience can latch onto and carry from film to film. For example, Jack Nicholson or Marlon Brando bring parts of themselves to each film role, and we expect certain things from them. Depp is completely different in each film, leaving himself free of stigmas and stereotypes, although we don't perhaps know who he really is.
“The thing is,” Depp says, “even if you're playing sort of a heightened character and playing inside sort of a heightened reality, you can still apply your own truths to those characters. It's funny because what happens to me when I read a script, when something grabs hold of me, I start getting these flashes of people or places or things or images. Like with Scissorhands, I kept thinking about dogs I had when I was a child, and newborn babies.” With Sleepy Hollow, Depp based his character on part Basil Rathbone from the Sherlock Holmes movies, part Angela Lansbury from Death on the Nile (1978), and part Roddy McDowall. “Roddy was a great friend of mine. I kept seeing Roddy in the way he had this very ethereal quality. He had a very odd . . . He was a great actor. Very original actor. He was a fascinating actor to watch.” Depp inflates himself and turns on an amazing Roddy McDowall voice to say, “I always liked the way he sort of, you know . . .” then comes back again. “And Angela Lansbury, the energy, the sort of righteousness that she had. I haven't even seen Death on the Nile since I was very young, but she was this force, she was this presence. This Ichabod Crane, it's very, very safe to say he's in touch with his feminine side. I thought of him as a very fragile young girl. So those are the ingredients and you just sort of mash then all together and see what you come up with. And it's always dangerous when you try that stuff. With Ed Wood, it was this sort of blending of Ronald Reagan, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and Casey Kasem.”
Depp admits that as a child he imagined himself as the first white Harlem Globetrotter. “I went through various stages in my childhood, as we all do, various stages of obsessions with people and things. I would spin the ball on my finger, and I would make it go through my arms, and I would dribble it very close to the ground like Curly Neal used to do. I went through that phase. But then I wanted to be Evel Knieval, but I was going to change my name to Awful Knawful. I wanted to be Bruce Lee. I've been through it all.”
Depp thinks for a moment then pops out with, “Do you remember a show in the late '60s called Dark Shadows? Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid) was a huge obsession of mine. I loved Barnabas Collins more than I loved the Harlem Globetrotters. I wanted to be Barnabas Collins so much that I found a ring, it was probably one of my mother's rings, and I wore it on this finger, and I tried to comb my hair like Barnabas Collins, and I was trying to figure out how I could get fangs. It really had a heavy impact on me, a heavy influence on me.”
As much work as Depp put into his Ichabod character, he remains grounded about himself and his celebrity. “If I walked into the movie theater and I saw the movie and I left there and went, ‘Boy, I really nailed it!’ — if I was completely and totally over the moon about my work and I was satisfied, I would get out of the business immediately. I would leave this work behind. Because I think, for me as an actor, if you get to a place where you're satisfied, you're happy with it, then you're dead. It's over. You're not hungry anymore. You won't try things anymore.”
Depp had originally wanted to play Ichabod specifically as he was described by Washington Irving in the story. “I was doing Snoopy dances thinking I was going to get to wear a long nose and big ears. Irving's description is really beautifully written, and is, in fact, a long, sliding nose, huge ears, and he talks about his hands being very far away from his body, and long feet. So, yeah. I did want to do that. And there was a fairly hefty silence from the upper echelon at Paramount.”
Depp has nothing but praise for director Burton. “I think that, in fact, my feeling is that Washington Irving, who wrote this story in the early 18th Century, wrote it for Tim to direct. I really do. When I got the call about this thing and that Tim was going to be doing it, it was just so perfect. If Tim wanted to remake The Lonely Lady (the 1983 Pia Zadora film), I would play the Lonely Lady with pleasure. When I got the call for this one, the reason I said yes was because of Tim. Obviously the material was great. But it was all about Tim. With a Tim Burton [film], you're invited into Tim Burton's world, and that's a great gift for any technician or for an audience member.”
My impression is that Depp and Burton seem to belong together, kindred spirits. With luck, they'll continue making movies together, like Scorsese and De Niro, Sternberg and Deitrich, Kurosawa and Mifune. Depp tells the story of first meeting Burton, interviewing with him for the part of Edward Scissorhands. “There was an instant connection. It was a kind of understanding, a non-understanding, an appreciation for life and human behavior, for what is considered normal and what is not considered normal. There was a connection even in a deeper sense of [both of us] having felt pretty outside growing up, and freakish, and a little bit weird. Also, [we were both] obsessed with horror movies, monster movies and found great sanctuary in those dark places.”
Depp's love for monster movies and the “dark places” is apparent from the way he talks about actor Christopher Lee, who has appeared in hundreds of films, many of them horror films. He has a cameo in Sleepy Hollow as the burgomaster who sends Ichabod on his mission. “Frightening. Honestly frightening. He's an amazing presence. I don't know how old Christopher is, but if I had to make a call on it, I'd say he's about 58, but I know he's not. But what a strong presence! You are looking into the eyes of Dracula! He was Dracula after Lugosi. You are looking into the peepers of Dracula, and he's about to jump down your throat. And it's real, and it's scary. He's amazing.”
Depp also worked with another horror film veteran in his first film with Tim Burton: Vincent Price. “Vincent was unbelievable. Again, there's another guy who was in his later years. It was his last film, yeah. Talk about presence! We would be sitting there talking about art or mostly we talked about Poe, Edgar Allan Poe, and he would be [whispers] talking to you at this level. He was very calming, and he had that beautiful voice. Then when they would roll camera and do the sticks and everything, I watched this incredible, physical transformation from this very gentle, man, this gentle, older gentleman—he filled up with life [puts his shoulders back, puffs his chest], his voice just boomed across the stage, and I just remember being covered in goosebumps [runs a hand up the bare part of his arm]. He was an incredible, incredible man. Very, very funny. I remember one of the last times I saw him. I ran into him in an Italian deli of all places. It was not long before he passed away. I walked up to him and said, ‘Hi, Vincent. It's Johnny.’ And he said, ‘Oh, Johnny, my God. How are you?’ We used to stay in touch, he'd send me a birthday card every year because he's a Gemini also. He'd send me birthday cards and he'd call all the time, and I'd go visit him. But I hadn't seen him in months. So he said, ‘Johnny, how are you?’ And I said, ‘Fine. How are you?’ And that week they'd lost Lillian Gish, who had passed away, and he said ‘Well, we lost Lillian this week.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.’ And he said, ‘I'm the only one left,’ and something to the effect of ‘I won't be around much longer.’ And I said, ‘Vincent, I have a feeling you're going to outlive us all.’ And his eyes got really big, and he just went [affecting deep English accent], ‘Oh, shit.’”
Depp follows up that thought with a confession about the supernatural world. “I'd like to think that there is another plane, another place, another life or something else going on around us. It would be interesting to think that we're all sitting here in the flesh and that in fact we're surrounded by many, many spirits just whirling around between us. It's an interesting idea. I've always thought, in fact, that someone, somewhere, must have been steering the boat that I'm on, because I've been unbelievably lucky, unbelievably blessed.”