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The Esquire Interview: Johnny Depp ESQ

by Jessamy Calkin
Photographs by David Bailey
February 2000

The week that Tim Burton’s film Sleepy Hollow opens in LA, its star, Johnny Depp, is on the Tonight show, answering questions about bugs. Jay Leno holds up plastic bugs, a giant grasshopper and so on, and Depp, a bug expert, has to identify them. David BaileyDepp, in jeans and a bomber jacket, lank hair, is pale and uncomfortable, but he does his valiant best. He laughs at Leno’s jokes and manages to inject a thin air of sincerity into an inherently insincere format—he talks about his new baby daughter—but it is clearly absolutely excruciating for him: you can’t smoke, you plug your film, you let the host take the piss out of you, five minutes max, then off you go, next guest. Switch the channel and there, talking to the supercilious Conan O’Brien, is Tim Burton. It’s a cattle market out there.

When he gets back to LA, Johnny’s phone rings. It is Hunter S Thompson: Good call on the bugs, Johnny!

Johnny Depp. A man alone: there really is no-one else quite like him in Hollywood. He’s 35. There is something very male about him, but he is also, as they say, in touch with his feminine side—not only in touch with it, but practically touching it. He is tall (it’s relative among actors), slight, but broad shouldered. Long fingers, shaggy hair pushed into a woolly cap, tattoos, jewelery, a couple of gold teeth in his mouth these days. He is certainly not a man who plays to his good looks—if anything he does the best he possibly can to dumb them down. But it’s a losing battle: he has a face that’s hard to sabotage.

That face would lend itself perfectly to silent film, so expressive are the eyes, the little nuances he instills for each character he plays. Expressions dance across his visage in a minute ballet of innuendo. “I think I was first aware of his magic when I saw him in Edward Scissorhands,” says director Terry Gilliam. “He comes out in that fright wig and all that make-up and I thought, ‘this is horrendous’, but within 15 minutes he had completely convinced me he was a real character who I cared about. To be able to do that seems to me to be at the heart of what real acting is about. He doesn’t engage the audience by asking for their sympathy, he’s not like Chaplin, saying ‘oh please love me’; he’s probably closer to Buster Keaton—he does it all with a straight face.”

In Sleepy Hollow, it’s Ichabod Crane’s little squeamish sneer of fear that marks him. As William Blake in Dead Man, it’s his quizzical impassivity. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s the way he wields the cigarette holder in his mouth like a baton, punctuating the air with exclamation marks. Johnny Depp has an extraordinary charisma on screen; he is on friendly terms with what the gypsies refer to as the duende—an inspiring spirit, an irrational presence, a genie. There’s an almost musical rhythm to his acting.

Of course, there is a theme to his choice of films: he plays characters who are damaged, outsiders, underdogs, innocents, flawed heroes, people who are not what they seem. So far his CV is pretty immaculate, pretty controlled. He regrets nothing.

I first met Johnny Depp in early 1994, just before the release of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, around the time that he fell in love with Kate Moss. The previous year had been a bad one for him—he had been hitting the bottle quite hard, he had had a terrible time from the press when River Phoenix died and he has since spoken of the making of Gilbert Grape as one of the worst times of his life, because he was so sad. But to me he was effortlessly charming and courteous and, when I realized that my tape recorder had fucked up, he let me return the next day and do the interview again.

I saw him a year later in LA (another magazine interview) and he was relaxed and open and funny. We went to the Viper Room and talked about his demons, about Princess Diana, his love for Kate, his band P, about excess. We talked about his European sensibilities and how he wanted to move to Paris.

David BaileySince then he has split up with Kate Moss, had a daughter, Lily-Rose, and moved to Paris where he lives with Vanessa Paradis and the baby (the French adore him and have awarded him a Cesar for lifetime achievement), but he also has a house in LA above Sunset Strip, a house that used to belong to Bela Lugosi.

Nearby is the comforting gothic bosom of the Château Marmont hotel, where Depp used to live, pretty much, and where we are now ensconced. He looks tired—as well he might. The previous night was a long one; the Taraf de Haidouks, his gypsy brethren, as he calls them, played a benefit at his club the Viper Room (for the Make a Wish Foundation which helps seriously ill children). And the day before that he had flown out of LA to New York, arrived at 6:30 am and spent the whole day doing chatshows, even with David Letterman who’s been trying to get him for 10 years. He sighs. “I’ve never peddled my ass this much in my life.”

This is partly, he says, because having Lily-Rose has put everything into perspective for him; he’s stopped resisting stuff so much and accepts the circus for what it is. And partly, of course, because he likes his new film, Sleepy Hollow, and loves its director, Tim Burton.

When Depp met Burton, 10 years ago now, he felt like he’d come home. They recognized something in each other: it may have been their shared empathy with the outsider or perhaps it was their mutual respect for velvet Elvis pictures and macramé owls. Depp saw the character of Edward Scissorhands in Burton; Burton recognized it in Depp. “He is an artist,” wrote Depp of his friend. “A genius, an oddball, an insane, brilliant, brave, hysterically funny, loyal non-conformist, honest friend . . .”

Six months earlier, on the set of Sleepy Hollow, I am standing in a wood which has been created inside an aircraft hanger at Leavesden studios, on the outskirts of London. Outside, a windmill is partly on fire, awaiting the scene where Ichabod Crane (Depp) and Katrina van Tassel (Christina Ricci) flee from the headless horseman. “Ext Windmill. The Horseman smoldering,” reads the call sheet appealingly. Johnny Depp, looking supernaturally pale in a frock coat and breeches, is drinking a can of Red Bull and talking to a member of the crew. Christina Ricci, in a frightful blonde wig, is hauling up yards of silk dress to protect it from the mud, which is everywhere.

Tim Burton peers balefully at monitors. In six hours, they have shot what will amount to about 10 seconds of film. In black from head to toe, bereted, slightly goofy-looking, he grins when I tell him I’ve come to observe. “Observe paint drying,” he says.

In the event, Sleepy Hollow turns out to be one of the most visually beguiling films I’ve seen for years. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker (with an uncredited overhaul by Tom Stoppard) and with the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs, Burton has created a vision of gothic voluptuousness which captures the feel of the cheap horror films, Mexican B-movies and the gothic American fairy tale by Washington Irving that inspired it. The film is suffused with hauntingly surreal images which overrides the Hammer horrorness of the story.

Which is: a New York detective, Ichabod Crane (Depp) arrives in the village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders that the inhabitants maintain have been carried out by the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a Hessian mercenary (Christopher Walken) who thunders around on a black stallion, decapitating victims with his sword and making off with their heads. In Irving’s story, Crane is an ungainly schoolteacher whose “whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes and a long snipe nose . . .”

True to form, Depp pushed hard for the ears and the nose, but the answer was no. Instead he invented his own Ichabod Crane, based largely on Angela Lansbury in Death on the Nile. Depp’s Ichabod is a slightly camp, prissy, fastidious and cowardly liberal intellectual, a keen advocate of early forensic science, unconvinced by ghosts and local legend. It is a very mannered and funny performance and the final chase sequence is probably the closest Johnny Depp has come to playing an action hero.

In America, Sleepy Hollow was an incongruous Christmas hit, taking $31 million in its opening weekend, beaten only by the new Bond movie. Depp’s previous ventures with Tim Burton have been commercially erratic; though both wonderful films, Edward Scissorhands was a hit and Ed Wood was a flop. In Edward Scissorhands, Depp learnt how to smoke with scissor blades for fingers and hung around for hours in sweltering heat, dressed head to foot in leather. In Ed Wood, he wore stockings and angora jumpers, taped up his delicate parts and inserted fake teeth behind his lower lip to enhance his larger than life, Ronald-Regan-style grin. Has Burton ever asked him to do something he didn’t want to do?

“Never,” grins Johnny.

How about the other way round? “Well . . . Tim lets you try anything. And there are things we tried in Sleepy Hollow that were definitely funny, but maybe too sick and dark . . .”

Hello? What’s too sick and dark for Tim Burton? Well, there’s this scene when Ichabod comes out of the crone’s cave, says Johnny, where he has witnessed something terrifying. “And I thought, from what Ichabod had been through inside this room, he would definitely have soiled himself. So when I was walking out, I was doing it like this [he stands and begins to walk through the bar of the hotel as would a man who’d soiled himself] with clenched butt cheeks, and then doing this [holds his jeans away from his body slightly]. But Tim thought it was a little too much.”

Mike Newell, who directed him in Donnie Brasco, relates how in their first scene together Depp and Al Pacino were in a car and Johnny let rip with a massive fart. He apologized humbly, said he had an upset stomach and Al shrugged and said ‘that’s OK’ and then it happened again, even more profusely. By this time, Al was getting a little uncomfortable and winding down the window. Then it happened again and then Johnny revealed it was a whoopee cushion. Pacino thought it was hilarious – he had to borrow it and try it for himself. “Johnny’s a seducer in that way,” says Newell, “but he has such a wonderful light spirit and sense of humor that he gets away with it. He was pushing his luck—he just wondered how far it could be taken. Because he’s a cheeky little sod as well and that’s part of his charm.”

Johnny Depp’s humor is very much of the childish European variety. He likes Absolutely Fabulous and Whose Line Is It Anyway? And what he really likes is The Fast Show. His favorite character is Rowley Birkin, QC. Pissed and posh. Paul Whitehouse, says Depp, is a genius. He recently spent the evening with him and made him do Rowley Birkin all night. Johnny himself was very keen to appear in The Fast Show. They were going to write a special sketch for him, based around the piece of wood incident (more of that later). It was his idea.

“They said, ‘are you sure?’ and I said, ‘yes, absolutely’.”

“What’s wonderful is he’s got no vanity,” says Terry Gilliam. “I suppose when you’re that good looking you don’t have to worry about vanity.” Probably many actors hate watching themselves, but Johnny really hates it. It makes him feel uncomfortable and miserable and when he first saw himself on screen (in A Nightmare on Elm Street) he got physically sick. Directing his film The Brave, in which he also starred, it got to the point where he couldn’t even watch the dailies—he just wanted to edit himself out. He hadn’t wanted to cast himself, but it made such a difference to the budget that he had no choice, he says. But he’ll never direct and star in the same film again. Never.

They were shooting in Death Valley, where it was 130°, for 50 days. “I thought I was going to die, every day. I would shoot all day and act as well, then go home; do rewrites; do my homework as an actor; do my homework as a director. Go to sleep and even then I’d dream about the film. It was a nightmare.” But, he adds, an education.

David BaileyThere was another education awaiting him at Cannes, where he took the film in 1997. He’d been invited and, feeling obligated, had rushed to finish it. “I was cutting the film with the Cannes Film Festival in mind; it’s not a proper motivation. If I’d had more time to edit the movie, it would have been a different film.” At the end of the screening there was a standing ovation and, he says, clearly moved, some people were crying.

But the next day the reviews came in. “And they just fucking destroyed us. It was like an attack on me—how dare I direct a movie. They ate me alive. It was vicious. I was totally, totally shocked.”

It was never released in America, or here, and recently Johnny has recut it. He was able to gain some distance on the film, he says, he was able to be brutal, and that’s hard for Johnny. “There are actors who did great work for me and I had to cut them out because they don’t add up to what the film needs to say. When I was editing the film before, I knew that certain scenes didn’t need to be in the movie, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut them out because I didn’t want to hurt the actors’ feelings. And you can’t be like that. You gotta say ‘fuck it’.”

The Brave tells the story of a young American Indian who volunteers himself for a snuff movie in order to make $50,000 for his family. It also stars Marlon Brando, who Depp had met when making Don Juan de Marco, who Depp loves, in fact.

In 10 years, Johnny Depp has worked with some truly great actors—Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Mitchum—and more than a few great directors—Emir Kusturica on Arizona Dream; Terry Gilliam on Fear and Loathing; Roman Polanski on his forthcoming film The Ninth Gate; Burton, obviously, and Jim Jarmusch on Dead Man. And, for their part, these directors just cannot say enough good things about Depp. “It’s hard to put your finger on why he’s so extraordinary,” says Gilliam. “But technically he’s astonishing, he’s absolutely brilliant, with the kind of technique you’d only get if you’d spent 10 years at RADA—and it’s all self-taught.” Gilliam will be working with Depp next year on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and he can’t wait. “You don’t want to work with anybody else once you’ve worked with somebody as good as that. For me, it was like working with Python again—he’s that fast and that funny and inventive.”

“He’s very intuitive,” says Jim Jarmusch, who wrote the part of William Blake in Dead Man for him. “It’s kind of contradictory because he’s incredibly intelligent and smart, but he will react from his heart and not from his head. For me, really good actors don’t act, they react; they become a character and they’re put in a situation that their character’s in and react to it.”

One of Johnny’s more straightforward roles which was both a critical and commercial success was in Mike Newell’s brilliant film, Donnie Brasco. Depp played Joe Pistone, an FBI agent who infiltrated the Mafia (as Donnie Brasco) and still has a $500,000 contract on his head in real life. It is a complicated study in friendship and treachery. Johnny spent a tremendous amount of time with Joe, says Mike Newell, and he is a great mimic. “But there was a lot else besides, he’s not only a mimic. He may start there, and the exterior is very important to him, but he’s got a deft, instinctual sense of the shape of the part—where it starts, peaks and where it finally comes to rest. And he had that kind of Greek tragedy pattern of the character worked out very well.”

“It’s this nice boy thing,” continues Newell. “What Johnny does is he stands one pace behind you with his cap doffed, you think he’s tremendous and all the time he’s taking notes.” He has a way of getting close to people, adds Newell. “It is one of the ways he works. He’s presentable, he’s well mannered, he’s gentle and he doesn’t come on too strong. I think that he becomes a sort of favored son.”

He became a kind of surrogate son to Hunter S Thompson, too. When plans for the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came together, Johnny moved in with Hunter for weeks at a time, living in his basement, studying his moves, taking notes, wearing his clothes and just talking, talking, talking for hours on end. “I think he probably stole Hunter’s soul,” says Gilliam. “He’s like a vampire; he was up there for ages. Each time he would come back from Aspen with more bits of Hunter, more talismans.” Finally, Hunter let Johnny drive the red shark—the Chevy convertible they used in the film—through to Las Vegas.

Depp’s performance as Raoul Duke (who is 97 per cent Thompson) was largely dismissed by reviewers, but Gilliam and others who knew Hunter say how uncannily accurate it was. Johnny shaved his head for the part, then decided he hadn’t gone far enough and let Hunter—wearing a miner’s lamp—do the job for him. He then had a toupee made with 17 long sad hairs lying across his baldness; had some uncomfortable plastic wedges fixed behind his ears to make them stick out more and took to smoking Dunhill through a plastic tar-reducing cigarette holder, like Thompson. They are still close friends.

Depp’s friends are fanatically loyal to him and he to them. But there is a part of him which remains closed, out of reach, and he is very self-protective. He is there but he is not there. He idolizes and abandons people at the same time, according to his mouthy co-star in Arizona Dream, Vincent Gallo. But when he is with you, he leaves such an intense, vivid impression that you feel bereft when he’s gone.

Johnny Depp is a gentleman and a gentle man. But he has a rage inside him.

And it’s been well documented in the tabloids: Depp trashes hotel room; Depp bashes photographers. We’ve read about the first episode, when he lost his temper in the Mark Hotel in New York and photographs showed Johnny being led off in handcuffs and a green hat (“The hat really bothered my mother,” says Johnny. “She thought she’d taught me to dress better than that.”). As for the second event, well there was Johnny having dinner at the Mirabelle in London with Vanessa and some friends, celebrating the fact that she was going to have a baby. And lying in wait outside were the paparazzi. Well, Johnny just wasn’t in the mood and he left his table to ask them, very politely, if they could back off and leave him and his friends in peace. When they refused, Johnny grabbed a piece of wood, rapped one photographer across the knuckles and invited them to take a picture. Seeing the fury in his eyes they retreated, walking backwards, then called the police and Johnny was led off in handcuffs and the paparazzi got their picture.

What I really want to know is this: where did you find the two foot plank of wood? Talk about the perfect situation, says Johnny. There he was, trying to dissuade the photographers, and there’s this shelf by the door and on it—magic!—is a plank of wood, good size, probably used to jam the door open for deliveries or something. “It actually was fun, really fun—the cops, the wood, making the press walk backwards down the street—even going to jail, it was fine, you know? The cops were really nice to me, they were terrific, real gentlemen. They booked me, finger-prints, all that stuff, put me in a cell. And there was this woman screaming and screaming in the cell next door, drunk or gone crazy or something. And, after a couple of minutes of this, the cop came back and said to me, ’this is horrible, right?’ And I said it is what it is and he said, ‘OK, come with me’, and he moved me to a different cell because he figured the screaming would get on my nerves.”

Of course, nobody wanted to press charges. When Johnny got out, around 6 am, the cops let him out through another entrance, so the waiting paparazzi couldn’t get another shot.

And Johnny said, “Can I have my wood back, please?”

“I’ve never seen him lose his temper, but I’ve seen the results of it,” says Terry Gilliam. “Broken doors and things; I’ve seen his trailer roughed up a bit. It’s interesting, because he is a gentleman and he’s very considerate and very intelligent and if people take advantage of it, or if things build up, they have to find an outlet—like a piece of furniture. He wouldn’t do it to a human being, he’ll take it out on inanimate things—like paparazzi.”

“He bit my ass a couple of times,” says Mike Newell, “and to this day I don’t know what I did. He suddenly fell completely out of love and was vile. The reason it was disconcerting is that he is so sweet the rest of the time; he’s so hard working, so sensitive, with all the right vibrations and just of couple of times he comes on like the bloodbeast terror and you don’t know where you are.

“Because there is a great deal more going on underneath than the sweet boy your mother would like. Somewhere along the line that sort of rackety life on the wrong side of the tracks has left a big mark, which—because he’s so strong a character and so intelligent—he has disciplined, but once in a while when he’s not looking, something jumps out that is ancient and atavistic. But it’s another mark of how decent a person he is that it’s over almost instantaneously—you don’t carry any resentment about it. I didn’t.”

“I got my demons,” Depp says. “I mean, I have a lot of love inside me, but I also have a tremendous amount of anger . . . which I think is normal.”

There aren’t many things that make him angry, but one of them is undoubtedly intrusion and those that hang out with him attest to the fact that the press never leave him alone and sometimes it just gets too much. Especially in France.

“The tabloids there are really nasty,” says Johnny. “They’ve got tougher rules in France, but they break them. I had an incident with a really dumb magazine called Voici where they printed a photograph of Lily-Rose, a long-lens shot from very far away, and I just went ballistic. You can sue them—I’ve sued a couple of times, Vanessa’s sued and we win every time—but this time I was beyond suing. I just wanted to beat whoever was responsible into the earth—I just wanted to rip him apart.

“So I tracked him down and gave him a few suggestions about how to live life and stay healthy and he took my advice.” Johnny is very serious. “Because that’s just unacceptable. They can do anything they want to me—most tabloids have—but not my kid, not my pure, innocent little baby. She didn’t ask to be in this circus.”

He doesn’t seem to regard any of his more unruly behavior with remorse; he lost his temper; no-one got hurt; he paid for the damage; he felt better afterward. It is true that after the incident in London, the reason for his good spirits may have been connected to the fact that he had a few glasses of Romanée Conti 1978 at the Mirabelle. What, I wonder, does an ?11,000 bottle of wine taste like?

It is without question, says Johnny, the greatest wine you’ll ever have in your life. Unbelievable. “You take a mouthful and suddenly five different flavors go off in your mouth—wood, smoke, like barbecue . . . it’s so smooth. It was worth every penny, the memory of it . . . Yeah, I want more . . .”

He sighs. Unfortunately, they don’t have any at the Château Marmont, so we settle for a glass of Cabernet. Johnny touches my glass with his. We toast his daughter.

When Lily-Rose Melody Depp was born on 27 May 1999, says her father, everything suddenly made sense to him for the first time. He is living in the third dimension now. “It’s exactly that, like living in 3D. I don’t feel as if I smiled before—which I did, obviously, but I really didn’t feel it like I feel it now. I mean I can feel myself smiling and I smile every day—a lot. There just wasn’t any particular reason for anything before and Lily-Rose has given me a reason. Now I have my own little family; I’ve got my girl Vanessa, we have our daughter and it’s a beautiful kind of simple life.”

Johnny Depp says he’d always known that one day he’d have a baby, but never known when—or if—there would be a right time. But when he met Vanessa in Paris (for the second time—he’d met her two years before) he knew instantly, he says, that she was the one who would be the mother of his child.

So it was all planned? Oh yeah, he says. Absolutely. Had he not felt like that about anyone else? Well, he says carefully, the situations were difficult. “It was a different world, or different worlds. It was too hard before—it was like everything moved really fast around me and suddenly, I don’t know, it just got really calm and slow, really slow. Things weren’t calm before, never.”

He has, he says, discovered the difference between night and day now, they don’t just roll into each other like they used to, and when I ask him if it has altered his lifestyle in any way, he takes a long time to answer. When he does, it’s convincing. “Er . . . I don’t want to poison myself any more.” Pause. “For years and years you drink and you . . . inebriate yourself in one way or another and it seems like recreation, but in fact it’s not. You’re trying to medicate yourself and numb yourself, to be comfortable in your skin, to be calm—and I don’t want to do that any more. Vanessa and the baby have really given me a reason to live.”

“He’s really, really centered and happy at the moment,” says Jim Jarmusch. “He still has the same quick perceptions and sense of humor, but whatever used to gnaw at him doesn’t seem to be there any more.”

“All he does is talk about the baby,” giggles Gilliam, whom Depp frequently phones for child care advice. “He’s becoming an incredibly boring human being. He’s no longer a great actor, just one of hundreds of millions of fathers . . .”

Is this the new Johnny Depp? He’s just been awarded a Hollywood star on Sunset Strip, something given in recognition not just of good work, but to an upstanding member of the community.

At least they’ve got that bit wrong.

-- donated by In-too-Depp