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An American in Paris

by William Georgiades
Photographs by Julian Schnabel
December/January 2000

With a new love, a new daughter, and a new outlook, Johnny Depp has found sweet sanctuary as an expatriate in the City of Light.

At 4 a.m. in a particularly lonely hotel room in Paris, you call the film actor's people back in New York. The interview was scheduled to take place a week ago, then the previous afternoon. Your flight out of Paris leaves in a few hours. It is decided that a car will come for you at 7 in the morning, drive you an hour outside of Paris, and there, wherever that might be, the interview will take place. At 6 a.m. a driver drops by and hands over a piece of paper with an address on the other side of Paris. Then he leaves. You take a cab across town and wait outside the address, a Cafe Sancerre in the 18th arrondissement, for a half an hour or so. And then Johnny Depp comes bounding down the street and says, "Hello, you must be you."

Roman Polanski, director of The Ninth Gate, which stars Depp and will be released in March, tells me that Depp is "very easy once he's on set, but it's a bit of a struggle to get him out of his trailer." What's he doing in there? "Oh, you know, reading, talking on the telephone, drinking."

It's a spooky time for Johnny Depp. The Astronaut's Wife, in which he played an all-American boy gone very, very bad and possessed, came out at the end of the summer; just out is Sleepy Hollow, in which he plays an eccentric 18th-century investigator looking into the case of the Headless Horseman; followed by The Ninth Gate, Polanski's mannered tale of a rare-book dealer seeking out the holy grail of demonic texts. And to top it all off, Depp completely altered the public perception of himself by settling down with 27-year-old French actress and pop star Vanessa Paradis, with whom he had a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, in May.

It's a chilly autumn day and Paris is just about waking up, and the spookiest thing about Johnny Depp are the skull rings on two of his fingers. He's in Depp character—work boots, jeans, a bomber jacket over a T-shirt, a jangle of chains and tattoos, and a hat covering his long black locks. It's a slightly bizarre meeting already, as two tables in the cafe start to rise up and greet Johnny, and he in turn introduces them all to me amid a jumble of names and job descriptions and drinks orders in the sleepy cafe. There's Ben, the "finest assistant director known to mankind"; Peter, a still photographer; Johnny's assistant ("I need a lot of assistance"); and his minder, Alain, who's "paid to keep me out of jail." Depp has been up for 20 or so hours, shooting nights on Sally Potter's movie The Man Who Cried, with Christina Ricci. He has two gold teeth in his mouth. "Normally I bite my fingernails with these two teeth," he says, "but I'm paranoid with the gold. Got them for this film." So you're in character? "No, I've just got a couple of gold teeth."

The cafe is the kind of place that has a large plastic cow on the wall and an electric guitar hanging from the ceiling. He rolls up the first of many Drum cigarettes in licorice-flavored papers and orders Jack Daniel's and coffees in what seems to be flawless French. Is he fluent? "A little bit. My girl is French, and I have a French daughter now, so it's learn, or wait in line. I'm determined to master the language before she can order me around, which I know is inevitable anyway. I can understand most French but speaking it is a motherfucker. The beast that holds a gun to my head is the accent. I can't bear stumbling through things."

A funny way to put it, as everything about Depp seems a bit of a stumble. The way he moved to Paris a year and a half ago, met a girl, had a child, ended up staying here. The way he stumbled into Los Angeles 16 years ago as a musician and ended up a TV star, and then a movie star.

So when Johnny Depp, star of three current supernatural thrillers, starts to use the word "destiny" to describe the course of events his life has taken, you go along with it. "I wanted to take the road with Roman because he made some perfect films, but also there was something still pulling me here, and now I know it was in fact destiny. I was drawn here for some reason that was not apparent to me, and this city, and this girl who I met who's from this city, has delivered to me the only reason to take a breath, the only reason to live—my daughter, my baby."

Depp punctuates conversations by saying "Lookit" and "Listen". His French really is quite good, and he's even adopted a few local customs: When his friends leave, he gives them all a kiss on the cheek. He has a marvelous vagueness about details: While his directorial debut, The Brave, will finally be released in the United States next year, two years after debuting at Cannes, he has no idea who's releasing it, and he doesn't know what's served at the restaurant he co-owns with Sean Penn in Paris, called Man Ray. "I went there once for like 20 minutes, real late," he allows.

There's something of the highly evolved adolescent about Depp. His tastes are all of a generic sort—punk, beatniks, Bukowski, booze, smokes. Even his interest in French culture smacks of the comp-lit student—his love of the Symbolist poets, for example. His youthfulness is all over the place: For his role in The Ninth Gate, Polanski tried to get him to age a little, with some gray hair at the temples. "He tried to grow what could generously be called a beard," Polanski laughs. Then again, in the course of some four hours, Depp doesn't mention his tattoos once, which I take as a tremendous relief (the subject is the dullest thing about Depp), and a suggestion that he's crawling out of the adolescent bedroom that Hollywood and the media have confined him to for the past decade or so.

He was born in Kentucky, and "Grew up all over" before his family settled in southern Florida, where he lived until the age of 20 ("the only time I felt like a local"), and played guitar in the Kids, a regional band of enough note that the band moved to Los Angeles to pursue whatever it is bands pursue there. The first angel would be his mother, Betty Sue, then his band, then Nicolas Cage, whom he met when he moved to L.A. at the age of 20. Then there was Jessica Craven, who persuaded her father, director Was Craven, to cast the young actor in A Nightmare on Elm Street. "She's the reason I started this horseshit," Depp says now. The films Private Resort and Slow Burn followed, and then the Kids broke up and a decision had to be made.

He gave acting a try, he says, because, "I was not a singer-songwriter who had a ton of shit to say. I was just a guitar player without a band." At a certain point, though, he began to get serious, because the presence he exudes in those early movies, and the presence that emerged even on the TV show 21 Jump Street, are two very different creatures. "I'm not sure what happened to me, but I made a decision. Okay. Deep breath. I'm no longer a guitar player, but at this point I'm deciding to become an actor. This is what's going to happen to me now. But clearly . . . it was destiny; some kind of weird shit dealt me cards saying, Hey, man, go in this direction, and without much thought I went in that direction and ended up here."

Destiny having a sense of humor, Depp went on to become the break-out star of the fledgling Fox network on 21 Jump Street, in which he played a detective posing as a high-school student. Deeply and publicly uncomfortable with his teeny-bopper success, Depp consciously turned his image on its head in John Waters's Cry-Baby and Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands.

For someone who is so seemingly indifferent about his success, Depp clearly wanted the role of Edward Scissorhands very, very badly. "When I read that," he says, "it was like really great literature, like when you finish a great book and you think, Thank God somebody wrote that. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing." He met with Burton reluctantly ("I was just some TV star, I didn't want to embarrass myself") and knew he wouldn't get the part ("a lot of people wanted that role. From Tom Hanks to Michael Jackson (!) to Tom Cruise"), but he did feel a connection to Burton. "It's dumb to say, but I felt that I wasn't in control of what I wanted to do or who I was or what I wanted to say, and I felt that Tim understood that."

Burton recalls, "I'd never seen 21 Jump Street but I knew who he was, and anybody on the cover of teen magazines understands the whole dynamic of being perceived by your image. He was perfect for Edward."

Looking back on that role now, Depp says, "It's almost like I had no choice—and in the beginning, I guess I didn't."

Scissorhands was the beginning of one of the sweeter and odder partnerships in Hollywood. Depp and Burton have also collaborated on the maniacally gleeful Ed Wood, about '50s schlock film director Edward D. Wood, Jr. (still his best performance), and now the brilliantly moody and atmospheric Sleepy Hollow, set at the "eve of the millennium," 1799. They're the fantasist Scorsese and De Niro. Burton has a tidy summation of their work together. "In Scissorhands, he didn't say anything; in Wood, you couldn't shut him up." And in Sleepy Hollow? "We don't quite know what's going on yet." Depp plays Ichabod Crane, who in Washington Irving's famous 1819 story, upon which the film is based, is a gangly, ugly bastard, but Depp's desire to play up the ugliness was nixed, so instead he opted for an over-the-top performance, somewhere in between his mad bravado in Ed Wood and his deadpan earnestness in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. Watch as Johnny jumps on a chair and squeals as a spider goes by, or as he hides behind a little boy while entering a witches' lair. But that's Johnny, always playing with his look, always defying the pin-up status conferred on him. He's happier fucking with his pretty face than utilizing it, and if he has to look good, as in Sleepy Hollow (and indeed he does—the first half of the movie is like one long extremely good-hair day, the second half a slightly puffy, not-as-good hair day), then he'll act like an idiot.

Obsession with appearance fires him up: "Looks are mostly about damaged goods. That's what it's all about." One of Depp's greatest heroes is Serge Gainsbourg, the French songwriter who happened to make a record with Paradis. "He was plagued by the idea that he was ugly, but he went out with the most beautiful women in the world—Catherine Deneuve, Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot. Gainsbourg said, 'Ugliness is much better than beauty because it lasts longer,' which makes a lot of sense. Fuck, I'm 36, man, the way you look is the way you look; nobody wins, gravity will get us all unless you get a great doctor. But what does it matter what you look like? It don't mean a fucking thing. It you ain't got the goods, if you ain't got something to deliver underneath that, then who cares?"

I mention to him that the mother of his daughter is one of the great beauties of the world. "She is the most beautiful woman in the world," he says. "And my daughter is the most beautiful creature ever invented. That ever existed. That ever drew a breath. I care about what happens in 40 or 50 years. This film, this freakish medium, will it be some kind of novelty at some point? I hope that my great-great-great-grandchildren will go, Oh, yeah, you wanna see something? Check it out, I'm related to this guy, he was trying to do something back then."

At Cafe Sancerre, it's clear that Depp is following the dubious path of Americans who've come to find sanctuary in Paris. Unsurprisingly, his passion for the city of lights, artists, and dairy products is fueled in part by resentment. "I hate Los Angeles now," he says. "And that's not like some dippy actor saying the right thing to do for me is to tell people that I hate it. It's like an animal now, filled with ambition, and before it was a place where you had the possibility of chance. The idea of just being able to express yourself is now sick. Los Angeles is a machine, and it can't inspire."

In an industry crowded with people reaching for fame for fame's sake, Depp has become the anti-movie star. He hasn't sought out acclaim or fame—or much of anything, really. I tell him that what's most interesting about him to me is the way his life seems lively—the fights with paparazzi, the temper tantrums in hotel rooms, the string of engagements (to actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey, and Winona Ryder and model Kate Moss)—but so many of his roles are straight and narrow, the only time he wears a suit (he doesn't actually own a suit, and the ones that are given to him he gives to his friends). There are the wildly straight-laced characters in The Astronaut's Wife, Dead Man, Nick of Time, Donnie Brasco (his first real adult role), and even Sleepy Hollow and The Ninth Gate; and then there are the wonderfully flamboyant characters—Don Juan de Marco, Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood.

"I just always hated the idea of a serious actor," he says. "I always despised that. It's an awful idea, it's an oxymoron like Republican Party or airplane food. Serious actor: What, a serious guy who lies? Who cares? Who gives a shit? The job is to observe—not imitate, but observe and understand, and then relate that message."

He likes the word "lively" to describe his life off-camera, but doesn't quite get the point: "I think they're interesting, straight guys. I like the idea of the guy who is accepted by what we call normal society who's a fucking freak. I'm fascinated by the guy who comes to the coffee shop every day and suddenly he's arrested because he has 15 bodies buried in his fucking basement."

Then he says, "I know this sounds so fucking stupid, but I can't help it—I just want to be normal. I mean, I got a strange job, yeah, [but] I'm a father, I've got a girl, I got a family, and I want to be normal, that's all—and I don't want to be looked at like some kind of freak. If you want to turn me into some kind of freak or animal in the zoo, the anger starts to rise in me. Immediately. I just don't like it."

Perhaps, then, these straighter roles are his way of being the normal guy the world won't let him be. Acting begets fame, begets anger, begets, in Depp's case, even more fame. "Fame isn't something you figure out until you've swallowed a bit of it, till you've had that ramrodded down your gullet," he says. "Celebrity is a strange word. I can't think of myself in those terms. There's no way I walk 30 feet down the boulevard and someone doesn't say, Johnny Depp. There is never that day. I don't have that day."

At the age of 17, Depp was the one giving a celebrity some grief. It's a tale that he recounts with glee. Playing in Florida, with the Kids, he had the opportunity to open for Iggy Pop, who at the time was walking around the club "with a fucking beagle on a lead. So I start screaming at him, 'Piggy Slop, Iggy Flop.' And he comes right up to me, puts his nose right against mine, and says: 'You little turd.' That was it, then he walked away." The two have since become friends—Pop acted alongside Depp in Cry-Baby and Dead Man—but Depp has yet to master Pop's ability to deal with his more enthusiastic fans.

"I'm not a prick," Depp continues in decidedly un-prick-like fashion, "but I cannot live the life of a novelty." Couldn't he perhaps take a page out of Mr. Pop's book of dealing with fans? "Lookit," he says, "every now and then you meet a guy who says, Hey, Mr. Fucking Artist. You can swallow that and walk away, or you follow through and you get in trouble. And I have a tendency to get in trouble."

So what's it like to wreck a hotel room?

"That's easy to do, to destroy a hotel room. I'll destroy this bar, easy." Is it satisfying? "Is it ever? Is anything ever satisfying? Is causing trouble, is getting into a fight satisfying? You do what you do in the moment, when you feel it, and if you don't do that then you're not true to yourself."

As he says all this, he removes his hat and his long black hair falls into his eyes on the left side of his face, creating an entirely odd presentation—the tough-talking, coquettish pretty boy. A certain photographer comes up in conversation, for no good reason, and Depp offers that he would "light that guy on fire and not think twice about it." Granted, the guy is not a very good photographer, but still . . . it rather begs the question: Are you a tough guy?

"No. I'm skinny," he laughs. "And I don't work out at the moment. I've encountered a lot of ignorance, and I have no tolerance, and I have a substantial reservoir of readiness to go against whatever I have to go against. One of the first things I can remember my mother saying to me was, Don't you ever take any shit off anybody. Never. If you get in a fight, pick up the biggest fucking thing next to you and knock the fucker out. Lay him out. It's a brick, a chair, whatever it is—knock him out. So the idea of the bigger guy or the little guy is irrelevant." (The little guy has hardly ever thrown a punch in a movie—in Donnie Brasco he strikes three people, and each time looks mortified by the act.)

Depp likes talking about actions, but he's not shy about consequences, either, and his credo of living in the moment, to hell with anything, reached a head of sorts, curiously between Ed Wood, his finest performance, and director Lasse Hallstrom's What's Eating Gilbert Grape, possibly his finest film. "That was a difficult time," he says.

And so the subject of booze comes up, as it will when you're drinking Jack Daniel's at 8 in the morning in sleepy Parisian cafes when nobody's had any sleep for the past 20 hours or so. "I have the honor," he says quite steadily, "of being both Native American and Irish, so the gift of drink is like the halo and the horns above me. I was sober for nine months while making Ed Wood. It gave me perspective, because before Ed Wood I was pretty tough on myself."

I mention that I saw Depp around that time, stumbling his way around Max Fish on Ludlow Street in New York, and that he appeared to be having a good time. "Oh, I was pretty poisoned," he says. "I don't think I was having a good time. It might have looked like it, but it really wasn't recreational for a while." He pauses for a moment before adding, "I was trying to destroy myself. I wanted to hurt myself for years.

"There was no poison I would not ingest. All my close family and friends got together and said, You're in some sort of dimension that we don't understand and we don't like and we would appreciate it if you did something else. And I, of course, at that time didn't understand it, and I thought it was stupid, but it rang true and kind of stuck in my head."

Sounds like an intervention.

"You could call it that, yeah. In retrospect, they were right. If I'd have kept going on in that direction I could have killed myself. I could have fucked up."

He calls Paradis on the cell phone and tells her, smiling at me as he does so: "I'm here with this psychotic fucking journalist." Then he lowers the phone and tells me it's time to make the bottles for the baby. "Look," he tells her, "I just wanted you to know I'm not dead yet."

Then he returns to his favorite topic: "I had some kind of greater picture in my head," he says. "There was something else that seemed more important than commercial success, or than continuing to be the flavor of the month. Words like "integrity" or "dignity" kept coming up in my life, and so for me I know now why they exist, and why I care about them."

Not so spooky after all. His assistant pulls on some sunglasses and says something in French I don't understand. Depp laughs and repeats what he said in English. "The sun is aggressive today," he says. "That's what I love about Paris—everything is poetry."

-- donated by Joni