Johnny Depp tackles roles that few stars of his generation dare to deal with. In his latest film, Blow, Depp delivers another startling performance. Based upon the book, Blow: How a Small-Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellin Cocaine Cartel and Lost it All by Bruce Porter, Blow is the story of George Jung, currently serving a 15 year sentence. This is the true story of Jung who worked for reputed drug kingpin Carlos Escobar, and is accused of single-handedly importing cocaine into the USA in the 1970’s. Jung’s rise and fall coincides with the switch from pot to cocaine as the drug of choice among the rich and famous. This interview was conducted in Los Angeles, March 2001.
CrankyCritic: Tell us about your meetings with the real George Jung . . .
Johnny Depp: I tried to steal as much of him as I possibly could. [Laughs] To sponge up as much of George as I could. He was very open with me about a lot of things. He was able to sort of spill his life to me in a very short period of time. We didn’t really have all the time for like: “How’s the weather, how’s life in prison treating you?” It was more like: “Okay, we have two days, let’s go.” He was very generous with his life. What I learned from him? [Pauses] He’s a guy who’s been rotting away in prison now for a number of years and he realizes his mistakes and I believe, he’s paid his debt to society. Now, it would be nice to get him out of prison so he could try and pay his debt to his family, but he can’t do it when he’s bound and gagged. He’s a heart-breaking guy. And a really smart guy.
Is there a certain responsibility playing a real person?
The responsibility I have as an actor is to really not think about how big the role is or what you’re doing in terms of the whole film. My responsibility is to the character—especially when you’re dealing with a guy who, in fact, exists. A real guy. It certainly places a very intense kind of responsibility, because you want to do the best job you can for him. You want to do him justice. And you want him to be proud of it.
What attracted you to this movie?
I thought it was a really interesting angle on this type of film, on the drug genre. But really what was most attractive to me was; you know, it would be very easy to make a character you didn’t like so much. The challenge was to make him human. I read all the material and I met George and it was very easy to see that—the great challenges are to present the facts in terms of George, that he is a victim as much as anybody else. He’s a product of where he came from, of what his parents had instilled in him. And also the thing that they call the American Dream, is to guzzle up as much as you possibly can and to take, take, take and to greed, greed, greed and glutton, glutton, glutton. That’s how he ended up in prison.
Was it important to you that the film didn’t judge?
Oh yeah. I mean, one of most interesting things about the story is that it doesn’t judge, and it doesn’t point the finger. Ultimately, we don’t know who’s wrong. We don’t know why this is, we don’t why people want to take drugs, really. So, it’s important to let it just be one man’s life. And to show the highest highs and the lowest lows and everything in between. Really, the thing which affects you is the reality. It’s the heartbreak of what this guy has had to live.
Did you ever search as why people take drugs?
I remember in the 80’s when there was the Just Say No thing. War on drugs. I don’t believe there really was a war on drugs. When prohibition happened, say there were a hundred bars in one town, as soon as they made alcohol illegal, the next week, there were two thousand bars in the same town. People who had never had a sip of alcohol, started guzzling Gin. That’s just the nature of the beast. You tell someone don’t do this, don’t you dare do this, stay away from this, but you’re not educating them on it, you’re just saying, don’t do this, it’s forbidden. Bing! The first thing they do is run out and do it! That’s human behavior. If I told you right now, “Don’t think of a pink elephant” [Laughs], it instantly comes into your head.
Didn’t you have an experience with drugs?
Well drugs need to be understood and learned about. We need to be educated, we need to know what they are, and we need to know the hazards and the tragedies that can happen. But before that, shouldn’t we find out why we want to take them. Shouldn’t we know why? Is it recreation? Should it just be used on the weekends and then go to the work nine to five every day of the week. When we do that for recreation, to party? I doubt it. I don’t think so. I think it has less to do with recreation and more to do with the fact that we need to escape from our brains. We need to escape from everyday life. We need to escape from the bad news on television. It’s self-medication and that’s the problem.
How do you escape from everyday life?
Well, I went through 35 years of a very strange and dark fog. I never really understood what the point was to anything, in life. I knew that I had some degree of luck and success in my chosen field, in my business and work. I knew that I was very lucky and my family, my mom, my sisters and my brother, my dad is okay. I had good friends and stuff like that. It wasn’t until Vanessa and then the birth of our daughter, Lily-Rose, that I finally realized that there is something to live for. I then knew why I had to be alive. There was a reason to live.
How do you juggle fatherhood with all your traveling?
It’s actually been really great, I’ve been really lucky, because whenever I’m away on location, they come and spend the majority of the time with me. We did Blow here in LA and they were with me. Then I was in the Czech Republic doing From Hell, they were there and in England for Chocolat.
Did being a father bring something more to your character in Blow?
Oh, I think I probably couldn’t have avoided that anyway at all. There’s no way to avoid what now lives inside of me, that feeling. There are certainly things you can access—your own emotions in your own life, use in your work. Not to say, little Emma Roberts (an actress in Blow and daughter of Eric), made it incredibly easy, because she was just such a sweet kid. Really smart. Really funny. And free.
So, you are happy with yourself now?
Yeah. Get over yourself, you know. When my daughter was born it was absolutely without question the first selfless moment I had ever had. And what a gift that is, to be able to step outside yourself and go: “You know what, I didn’t have the greatest childhood, things didn’t go the way I wanted them to here and there, but you know, tough shit. So what? There are plenty of people who’ve been through much harder and much more difficult, and much more devastating things than you have and get through it. Just keep walking forward and that’s all that matters.” That whole thing of wanting to do drugs and wanting to numb yourself, it’s just postponing the inevitable, which is that one day when you’re going to have to meet the demon and acknowledge that he’s there and say,—You!
Have you made a conscious decision to live in Europe?
I live in Europe pretty much all the time. I go back and forth. The majority of my time is spent in Europe. I would like to say I moved to France so I could smoke in peace. It’s more than that you know. I always felt very drawn to France, and that culture and I was never really clear why. Now I’m convinced that it was some sort of grand plan that was drawing me there to meet Vanessa. That was kind of a strange, and beautiful destiny. The good thing is, if I want to see a lot of violence on television, or if you want to experience school kids going in and shooting up their classmates and shooting their teachers, or a guy going to the Jewish community center banging away on his rifle—there’s always CNN.
Have you campaigned for George’s release?
We have, Ted Demme and myself. We’ve all investigated the possibilities of going before whomever we have to go before and talking to them about George. We talked to some people in the FBI. It is possible to take up arms in that fight and maybe even get some kind of good news out of it, but the amount of red tape and stacks and files and papers, is unbelievable. It’s staggering really. The rules and regulations and everything are pretty amazing.
Will people help him get back into society when he is released?
Oh absolutely. George really more than anything, I’m not sure prison rehabilitated him, but he’s rehabilitated. He’s the man he started out being before he lost himself.
Has anyone contacted his daughter to reconcile him or her together?
There are certain places where you don’t have any business going. It’s kind of one of those things where you would like to do what you can to help, but it’s really none of my business. I met her and she’s a great girl. She went through whatever she went through. They deserve a shot to be together definitely. He’s desperate to see her.