Ironically, Johnny Depp is a Hollywood giant. Not in terms of box-office clout, you understand. He's hardly one of those thoroughbred movie stars who can get a $100 million blockbuster green-lit just by signing on the dotted line. Neither is he in a position to demand percentage points of the gross box-office takings to boost an already sizeable pay cheque.
However, at just under six foot tall in his stocking soles, Depp towers over most of the elite Tinseltown club. The only way Mel Gibson could look him in the eye would be if Tom Cruise gave him a footie.
Still, slouched in a couch at the Savoy in London, Depp doesn't look all that tall. There's a hint of it when he half-stands to shake hands but it vanishes again as he folds himself back up on the plush red settee. It's harder to disguise his sheer, sculptural beauty, though. Even in beat-up jeans, worn boots and an ageing Apache T-shirt, it's hard not to forget what you're about to say when faced by those cheekbones. He's 37 but could easily pass for 25. Before him there's a half-full ashtray and a yellow whoopee cushion. After asking permission, he starts to neatly roll a cigarette while describing his day so far. “I did a few things in Paris,” he says, hand rummaging in a pouch of Bali Shag tobacco. “And then I caught the Eurostar over.” His fingers—two of which sport sparkly, chunky skull rings—are on autopilot, magicking a lopsided fag in a blur. “You ever been on the Eurostar? I really like it.” The cigarette's in his mouth now, Zippo flaming. Inhale. Exhale. “I think it's my preferred mode of travel.”
The whoopee cushion is a recent gift. It's pretty advanced, with a self-inflating mechanism. I try it out—a real Bronx cheer. Eerily, the novelty expands itself, ready to go again. “I like the fact it says Smiffy's Mega-Farter on it,” notes Depp. “Look! They've even got their own website.”
Turns out he's flying back to Paris in a couple of hours. This is just a whirlwind trip, ostensibly to promote his current movie Chocolat. The Lasse Hallstrom-directed film—adapted from the Joanne Harris novel—sees him eat lots of sweets and snuggle up next to the lovely Juliette Binoche. But while it impressed in the States—securing five Oscar nominations, including best picture—the sweetie-packed fable received a slightly frostier reception in France when it opened last week.
“Some of the French press were wondering why a movie that takes place in France—and is at its very base French—has one of the huge French film actresses speaking in English,” says Depp. Most of the cast—including Judi Dench and Alfred Molina—speak English with a French accent, a ruse strangely reminiscent of second world war sitcom 'Allo 'Allo. “I think that was the difficult question that went around me. And it's a valid one, but no-one asked me.”
It's not surprising, really. The French love Depp. Paris has been his European base since he upped sticks from Los Angeles over two years ago to live with Vanessa Paradis and their young daughter Lily-Rose Melody, and the French Film Academy has already presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He can follow the lingo but “I'm insecure about speaking it because I don't want to massacre the language.”
But later, when talking about Binoche in the 1991 film The Lovers on the Bridge, his pronunciation sounds pretty good. “The film that sticks out in my mind really was Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. She blew me away in that film.” In fact, he's overflowing with praise for his co-star. “She's relentless in her drive and her commitment to her work and to truth and honesty. She approaches the work like an artist, maybe like a painter approaches a canvas or something. I'm not sure art exists in movies, but that's the way she approaches it.”
Perhaps unusually for an on-screen romance, Binoche and Depp are only separated in age by a year. “Juliette has a little boy who's maybe seven and my little girl is 21 months so I hit her up for whatever advice she could give to a new father, what her experiences were,” he says. He smiles, and breaks out of his careful, considered tone for a second. “That's the interesting thing about becoming a father. Suddenly you universally have something in common with other people. I can be sitting next to a very straight, humorless businessman or stockbroker type on an airplane and we'll just start talking about kids, and that conversation will last three or four hours.” The whole breaking-out-the-Polaroids-in-the-wallet routine? Depp holds up his hands. “I'm the cliché. I've got pictures of my little girl and I'll bring them out. It's the only thing that's ever happened to me in my life.”
His enthusiasm is infectious. When Lily-Rose was born, he cut the umbilical cord. When I say I can't imagine what being a father is like, he leans forward. “It's an unbelievably amazing ride—but you're going to love it.” Can't see it happening soon, though. “You'll get there when you get there,” he replies sagely. “I mean, I do remember before she was born, but only vaguely. It sounds kind of dumb, but it's almost like existing but not really living. That's the kind of radical effect it had on me. It's proof that there is a God. It's all kinds of these profound things crashing in on you when your child arrives into the world. It's like you've met your reason to live.”
The fact that Depp's character in Chocolat—an Irish river-rat traveler named Roux—is marginalized by 1950s French society has gifted critics a shortcut to one of their favorite riffs: Johnny Depp is The Ultimate Hollywood Outsider. His pursuit of challenging roles over the years—misfits, cross-dressers, orphans with scissors for hands, gonzo journalists—means he has always been on the fringes of the establishment. But does he tire of the label?
“They gotta know what to call you,” he shrugs. “They gotta know what to name the product. I've been called a lot worse. And I guess to some extent I've brought it upon myself by doing whatever I've done. But I'm not sure I agree with any of the labels. Outsider? Why? That's a topic that will continue to fascinate me forever—why something is considered outside, outside meaning it's not ‘normal.’ What's normal? Why is it considered normal? Who said so? It's an endless . . .” He casts around for a phrase, before settling on the enigmatic: “It's like a gerbil's wheel.” It's testament to Depp's power—his spellbinding, chocolate-eyed presence—that this doesn't sound even the slightest bit weird.
Doesn't he ever want to throw his hat in for Die Hard 4, get a piece of that $20 million-a-movie action? “Yeah, absolutely. It's sort of fun to imagine what you could do with the money. God, I could buy that island I've wanted to buy all my life and live with my family. Or I could buy some great piece of art that's just going to feed my eyes every day. It's fun to toy with the notion of that, and it is very tempting. Because money, unfortunately, is freedom in today's world.”
There's a sense that the industry is beginning to realize what it's passed up on. Depp was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard in 1999 but it might be too little, too late. “I'll never understand the animal, the machine of Hollywood business. And I don't want to understand it,” he says. “It's like joining a club, a clique, just because everyone else is in it. You don't have any particular interest in it. It's got nothing to do with who you are as a person. You just join it because it's the in thing to do.”
The last time he returned to LA, he'd only been off the plane for 45 minutes before two people approached him in a bar with enthusiastic pitches for movie projects. “They began to do the song and dance for me,” he recounts wearily. “The intensity of ambition, the level of fascination, the level of whole weirdness that goes along with just having this specific job that you make movies is multiplied by billions over there. It's just not very agreeable if you have any kind of hopes of living a relatively normal life. I've found that, in France, the quality of life is so different. There is the possibility of living a simple life.”
Before the interview, Depp had been watching cable television in the next room. It is the day that 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams goes to school in a suburb of San Diego, shoots two classmates and injures 13 others. The tragedy appears to have riled and exasperated Depp. “Right now, live on CNN, there's another shooting in a high school. Some enraged student went into school in some kind of pathetic, desperate plea for attention and started shooting up other kids. I don't know what the results are. I don't know what's happening but that's nothing more than pure selfishness and pure ignorance. And it's gluttony and it's greed. There are no proper values over there and that's why it's going to explode. And it should explode.” So he would never consider going back to live in the States? “I'll never raise my daughter there. I would never raise any child there.”
It is time for Depp to leave. As he pulls on a leather jacket and scoops up his whoopee cushion, he makes sure I know that “Robbie Coltrane's one of the finest human beings I've ever met. And I know he's from around your parts.” They've been working together in Prague on From Hell, an adaptation of Alan Moore's meticulously researched graphic novel Jack the Ripper.
Fully stood up, Depp actually does look pretty tall, surprisingly broad-shouldered and even more depressingly handsome. But the most noticeable difference is that he's happier because the media junket is over and he's going back to his adopted France to be with his girl and their child. In Britain, we appear to have inherited Madonna. Watching Depp wander amiably off, it's easy to think maybe we got short-changed.