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The Weird and the Wonderful

by David Eimer
Sunday Times Magazine (London)
December 12, 1999

The characters he plays are deeply peculiar, but that's what makes Johnny Depp a star. And for his latest role, discovers David Eimer, Angela Lansbury was the inspiration . . .

Nothing is ever straightforward with Johnny Depp. This is a man whose outlaw image started to take shape when he dropped out of school at 16 and pumped gas while spending his nights playing guitar in a band; who drove to LA looking for a record contract but ended up becoming an actor; who got married at 20, divorced at 22, and who'd been engaged three times to three different actresses by the time he was 27.

Then there's his bizarre career, which has seen him establish himself as one of the genuine screen icons of the decade without ever playing a conventional romantic lead. In fact, with the exceptions of Edward Scissorhands and Donnie Brasco, he's never starred in anything resembling a hit. Instead he's moved between the uncommercial—Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Arizona Dream—and the hopelessly uncommercial: his own directorial debut, 1997's The Brave, was hardly released at all.

Depp, though, could never do anything so prosaic as make a movie because it might be a success. “I don't mind the idea of a film doing well at the box office, I think that's great. But what I dislike very much is doing a film for that reason,” he insists, with a vaguely Gallic intonation that befits the youngest-ever winner of an honorary Cesar, the French Oscar. “It's been a very long ride and I've had great support from the people who go see my films, and some of the films are a little bit out there, they're not your everyday, normally structured films, and I feel I owe it to the people who've stuck around with me over the years to try and do something different each time.”

An admirable sentiment, and Depp seems to mean it, just as he's trying manfully to deal with the interview process in a New York hotel suite not too dissimilar to the one he famously trashed back in 1994. A slow and deliberate conversationalist with a sly sense of humor, he crouches forward in his seat and occupies himself by rolling thin little cigarettes that go out almost immediately after he lights them. He deliberately downplays his looks, so his hair is greasy, he's unshaven and he's dressed in jeans and a grey shirt. He's also sporting two gold teeth, a hangover from playing a gypsy in Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried, opposite Christina Ricci.

She's his co-star in Sleepy Hollow as well, and although he might roll his eyes at the prospect, it's shaping up to be his biggest hit yet. A remix of Washington Irving's classic American ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it reunites Depp with the equally idiosyncratic Tim Burton, who previously directed him in Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. “I think Tim and I connect on a few different levels,” he says, “and I think the connection was immediate when we first met for Scissorhands and had coffee. There was just an immediate understanding without a lot of small talk, a kind of verbal and emotional shorthand that we luckily have. We look at things in the same way, I think; we understand the idea that you can't understand anything in the world, the absurdity of everything.”

Although as Ichabod Crane, a New York policeman sent upstate to investigate a headless horseman who's terrorizing a small village in 1799, Depp is nominally the hero of the film, he typically chose to make him so neurotic and timid that he jumps at the sight of his own shadow. He used his late friend Roddy McDowall as the model for Ichabod. “It was an opportunity to pay a homage to him. Roddy had a sharpness and an energy to his work as an actor. He was very exact and precise, and he was the same way in life. Also, Angela Lansbury was somehow a great inspiration.”

Huh? He claims it's the standard Depp technique. “As soon as I'm reading a script for the first time, I get flashes of images in my head. I start seeing people and things. Like in Scissorhands, I kept seeing dogs I'd had when I was a kid, the innocence of unconditional love. I kept seeing infants—you know, when they see something for the first time, that wide-eyed amazement. With Ed Wood, I kept seeing Ronald Reagan and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz."

Which is enough to make you wonder what he's putting in those roll-ups. But when combined with Burton's blood-drenched visuals—think of Sleepy Hollow as the first #40 million Hammer Horror movie—it does seem to work, and it's certainly fun to watch. But what about observation and drawing on real life for his characters: isn't that what actors are supposed to do? “Well, that's the weird thing about acting, I think. Your business, your job, is to be the guy on the outside watching. You have to be a great observer of people, and then what happens is, once people know who you are, it's flipped around and they're observing you, so it makes it difficult for you to watch people because you're not able to get the real essence of who they are. They're putting on airs or some kind of show.”

Not that it bothers him too much. “I think it's just a normal thing. I think people are generally okay. They've seen you in a movie and they like what you do or they don't like what you do, and I've had both. It's probably just strange for them to see a guy they've seen on a movie screen in a coffee house or something.” Staying out of circulation doesn't seem to be an option for the 36-year-old. “I think I have a tendency to get into trouble at times because I just want to be as normal as I can be.”

Trouble is something Depp knows all about, and it mostly stems from his love life. If going out with Winona Ryder was a tabloid treat, then his subsequent relationship with Kate Moss was like manna from heaven for the men with the long lenses. But even that pales when compared to the press attention focused on Depp and his current companion, Vanessa Paradis, the French singer and the mother of his daughter. It came to a head while he was in London shooting Sleepy Hollow and she was pregnant. One night they found some photographers waiting outside a restaurant, and after he'd asked them to leave, Depp reinforced his request by wielding a piece of wood. Despite the six-odd hours he spent in the local nick, he says he has no regrets about the incident.

 “Not to pat myself on the back, but I did approach them in a calm and gentlemanly manner. You know, I'm not going to plead with them, but I did ask them, ‘Please let's not do this tonight,’ and they weren't going for it. So what ensued, ensued, and I think I did the right thing. I really believe I did the right thing.” He's willfully thin-skinned when it comes to the media, even though he's been making films since 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street and is hardly a newcomer to the fame game.

Paradis—who he refers to as “my girl”—gave birth to Lily-Rose Melody last May, about a year after they met. Depp is a doting dad and says his life changed as he clutched his camcorder in the delivery room. “Anything I say would be an enormous understatement. It's a miracle, it's given me life, it's given me clarity. I love waking up and seeing that little smile. There's no other way to explain it other than I know I was alive before May 27 and I did a lot of things and stuff, and I was happy for the most part, but I really don't think I ever really smiled and felt it until Lily-Rose was born. I'm a cliche, I am a walking cliche. I'm the dad who carries the photos. I have documented everything, above and beyond, and she'll probably bawl me out for it one day.”

Lily-Rose was born in Paris, and Depp wants to keep her there for now. “At the moment, I think I prefer that my daughter is raised in Europe. Just watching the news here is so depressing. It's a very violent time, a very ugly time right now. That guy going into the Jewish community centre and firing off rounds at little kids, Columbine. I don't want my little girl raised in that.” It's not the first time he's criticized his homeland. At Cannes in 1997, after a less than successful screening of The Brave, he sounded off about the “gluttonous” state of the nation.

But he has other reasons to stay in France. He's working in Europe more and more: before The Man Who Cried, he played a book dealer in Roman Polanski's upcoming supernatural thriller The Ninth Gate, and he appreciates a less film-frenzied society. “When you go out to a restaurant with friends and family, you're not talking about movies. You're talking about the guy down the road who makes a very good cider, or this other guy who raises horses. You talk about simple things, beautiful, simple, nice things. I flew back to LA for one day when I was doing The Man Who Cried and got off an 11-hour flight and decided to go get a bite to eat—and within 45 minutes of being off that plane, two people hit me up with scripts and wanted to go into business. I mean, two people within 45 minutes. That's not good to have that all there in your head all the time, it's not right.”

Paris is a long way from both Owensboro, Kentucky, where he was born, and Miramar, Florida, where he was raised with his two sisters and an older brother. Despite his stint as pump jockey in a local petrol station, he was never trailer-trash: his dad was a civil engineer, albeit one who felt the need to move his family no fewer than 30 times until he left, when Depp was 15. His roots are German and Irish with a dash of Cherokee, which explains the cheekbones.

His childhood seems to have played a key part in the development of his nonconformist streak, although he denies that he ever sought to be tagged a rebel. “I've never tried to create or keep alive some kind of public image,” he claims. Nevertheless, he likes to hang out with Hunter S. Thompson, whom he played in Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and he's a huge fan of the beat generation. “They changed writing, just like Marlon Brando changed acting, just like Iggy Pop changed rock'n'roll. The beats are great revolutionaries. I would have loved to have lived at that time, but I'm stuck here.”

He's such a devotee that he's bought many of Jack Kerouac's personal possessions. “I had this wave of paranoia that important letters and artefacts would end up in Planet Hollywood, or Planet Beat.” The beats also provided the inspiration for the name of The Viper Room, the LA club Depp owns: viper is prewar hipster slang for a pot-smoker. He also part-owns Man Ray, a restaurant in Paris, with Sean Penn and Bono, and when in LA he calls Bela Lugosi's old house home.

A return to directing is planned and he continues to play guitar with a rotating group of semi-famous LA types. Above all, he seems determined to cling to his belief that he isn't Johnny Depp, but just a regular guy trying to make a living. “I've never felt like a movie star and I hope I never do,” he states. “I think that if the moment comes when you do feel like a movie star, it's over. When you start believing that stuff, it's finished.”

-- donated by Emma

-- photographs added by Zone editors