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A Man Apart

by Martha Frankel
Photographs by Bob Frame
March 2001

Here's an amazing thing about Johnny Depp: he's a sex symbol and a heartthrob who has seldom played a romantic lead.

Since he started out in A Nightmare on Elm Street 17 years ago, Depp has specialized in playing the outsider in films like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Donnie Brasco and Sleepy HollowAt the same time, his private life has seemed like a torrid soap opera. He has been engaged to the actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey, and Winona Ryder without marrying any of them. He dated model Kate Moss for several years (and will always be famous for trashing a hotel room in New York during a fight with her). And now he's become an expatriate father with French actress and pop star Vanessa Paradis.

Depp's contradictions hardly stop there. He co-owns the Viper Room in L.A. and the restaurant Man Ray in Paris, but says he never goes out. He's a high school dropout who reads voraciously. He's yet another movie actor who's been in a band, but he's actually a good musician. On-screen he's effervescent and effortless, but off-screen he's often described as skittish and uncertain. He decries the violence in America, but he himself once went after some paparazzi with a piece of lumber.

Depp's career makes his personal contradictions look mild. Perhaps because he's basically a character actor trapped in a movie star's body, his choice of roles has been mind-boggling, particularly in the last few years. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate? The Astronaut's Wife? Enough said.

On the other hand, there was Sleepy Hollow, which was not only a hoot to watch, it actually made a lot of money. And now there is Chocolat, in which he gives one of his slyest, most exceptional performances yet, as well as Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel's highly praised film in which Depp does a cameo as a transvestite. And he's got four more films that come out this year, the first of which, Blow, hits screens this month with major buzz on it.

It's impossible not to note that Depp's career upswing dates to his falling for Paradis, whom he met when he was shooting The Ninth Gate in Paris a couple of years ago. He saw her across a bar and had a friend ask her to join them. She admitted that she had been eyeing him, too. They now have a one-year old daughter together, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, and share an apartment in Paris and a house in the South of France.

At the moment, Depp is back in a hotel room in New York. Wearing jeans, a work shirt and fleece slippers, he's pulled the coffee table up close to his chair so he can hand roll one of the cigarettes that constantly hangs from his lips. “Please,” he deadpans when he sees me watching the process. “People live with the air in New York or L.A. and give me a hard time about smoking?” With that he finishes off the first of what will be at least seven cups of coffee while we chat. Actual food appears to be of no interest to him.

When Depp flicks open his Viper Room Zippo lighter, I tell him, “That sound is my first memory.” He raises his eyebrows and looks at me in a way that says, “Well, go on.” “As a child, I loved sitting next to my father when he smoked,” I tell him. “He died when I was young. For years I waited for my mother to give me his lighter—you know, my legacy from my dad. When I finally asked her where it was, she looked at me like I was nuts and told me she'd given it to his friend when he died. I was crushed.”

Depp stares at me for a long time.

“You were wild about him?” he asks quietly.

“Yes, absolutely.”

“That's the way I feel about my daughter,” he says. “The whole time Vanessa was pregnant, I thought we were having a boy. I don't know why—it's not like I was wishing for one, it's just what I thought we'd get. And even when she arrived, and you could see what was happening, for the first split second, I thought ‘there's my son, oh my God, how beautiful, my baby, my son—where's his cock?’ It took me a minute to realize that everything was okey dokey.”

The look on Depp's face is almost rapturous.

“I'm used to women talking about their kids like that,” I tell him, “but not usually men.”

“I'm a little girlie,” he says with a smile.

Although he still has a home in L.A., Depp is adamant that Europe is the place for him. Part Cherokee, he rails against the treatment Native Americans got in the United States, and he talks about the more lenient attitude towards “celebrity” in France. But the real deal-breaker in his relationship with his native land is probably smoking.

“In Paris,” he says with that killer smile, “they practically encourage you to smoke. What's not to love?”

When I tell Depp that I think he could be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Chocolat, he bursts into laughter. “I doubt it,” he says, wiping away tears of mirth. “I don't think I'm a particular favorite in the eyes of the Academy. I think there are guarantees for getting nominations. You have to take the most tragic Hallmark card, adapt it into a screenplay, bawl your eyes out constantly, do a bunch of clichéd turns and bing, you're in. I don't want to demean anybody. People are out there doing great work, and they get nominated and they win these awards based on the work that they've done and it's great for someone to be recognized for their work. But this whole award thing is really weird, really weird. When I did Donnie Brasco, I thought Pacino was as good or greater than he'd ever been. I was blown away by his performance, his subtleties, and his work in general. And he didn't get an Academy Award nomination. I just couldn't imagine.”

“He got an Oscar for a film in which he was mediocre, Scent of a Woman,” I note.

“I don't want to put that film down,” says Depp, “but I will say that his work wasn't on the level of Donnie Brasco. And then people said that he wasn't nominated because the film came out in March. Like these people only have an attention span of a month or something?”

“Have you ever read a script and thought, ‘This could be an Oscar winner?’”

“No, because you know what? It's out of my hands. You do your work, but the result may be quite different from what you thought. And to try to predict what people will like, or what the box office will be is impossible. I am always wrong about that stuff anyway.”

“What movie did you do that you thought, ‘Nobody will ever see this fucker?’”

“I say that most of the time,” cracks Depp, but he's not really kidding.

“Have you ever been to the Academy Awards?”

“Yeah, once. They'd been asking me for a couple of years to come and present. I was really uncomfortable with the idea. I'm not very good at public speaking and I didn't want to make a complete fool of myself. But somehow I agreed because I was going to be introducing Neil Young.” Depp sighs and runs his hand through his hair, which is down to his shoulders and has a blond streak on one side. “I went with my agent, and when we were doing the press line they kept asking me things like, ‘Who are you wearing, Johnny?’ I remember that I said, ‘The Italian guy,’ so I assume it must have been Armani. It felt like a do-or-die situation, like I was standing on the precipice of something very uncomfortable but I knew the end was over there somewhere and I just had to get through it. And everyone was on a first-name basis. Really, really famous people were coming up and saying, ‘Hi, Johnny, how you doing? How've you been?’ I'd never met them before. It was so weird. And then they wanted me to read this endless speech about the importance of music in film, and I thought, they don't want to hear this shit from me. They're waiting for Neil Young to sing his song. So I told them, 'I'll do this but I'm not gonna say all that stuff. I can't even read the Telepromptter; it's too far away. And I may pass out from nerves.’ So I just said two sentences, and then I said, ‘Please welcome Neil Young.’ Then I left immediately.”

“You left without even staying around to hear him?” I ask.

“Yeah,” remembers Depp. “As soon as I was offstage, I said to my agent, ‘I'm having a nicotine seizure. I've gotta get out of here.’ Then we couldn't find our driver—he was drunk somewhere. So we actually stole Harrison Ford's limousine! We told his driver, ‘Listen, there's still another hour and a half left to this thing. Just take us to the hotel and then you can come back. He'll still be here.’ All in all, it was an awful experience.”

“You've worked with some of the same directors again and again. Like Tim Burton [Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow] and Lasse Hallstrom [What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Chocolat]. Does that make it easier on you?”

“Working with Tim is always great. But I'll tell you something—on Sleepy Hollow, I was 100 percent convinced that I was gonna get fired within the first three weeks. I thought there was no way they were going to let me play the character that way. Tim's been very supportive of my stratospheric leaps at times, these kind of weird things I do, but I didn't think the studio would go for it. Luckily, Scott Rudin was there.”

“Yeah, your take on Ichabod Crane—as a forensic scientist with a weak stomach—was certainly different.”

“You know what it is with me?” asks Depp, leaning closer. “I'm going to tell you the truth—I never read stage direction when I read a script. I only read the dialogue. That's all that matters to me. I don't give a shit where the writer wants me to stand or any of that other stuff. I need a film to be a very collaborative process. When we start to shoot a movie, I need everyone to want to hear my input. I think it works better that way. And with Tim, he feels the same, so I never have a problem with him. Well, I wouldn't say never, but hardly.”

“What about Lasse Hallstrom?”

“You know, I never saw Gilbert Grape.”

“Get outta here.”

“No, really, I was 30 when I made that film. And it was a hard year, although now I'm thinking that they're all hard in some way. It was a rough, rough period for me, personally and emotionally. And when Lasse came to me with the idea of doing Chocolat, I was very surprised. We had a good experience on Gilbert Grape but it was also difficult. I was surprised that he'd want to go through something with me again, thinking that I was some kind of moody, brooding, horrible shithead.”

“Are you moody?”

Depp nods. “Yeah, I am. Sometimes I think it's necessary for actors. But I was so happy to work with him again, to redeem myself perhaps, because he's a very magical guy. And I wanted to work with Juliette [Binoche].”

“When I interviewed Juliette, she had just won the Oscar for The English Patient.”

“Oh, she won for that?” asks Depp. “I never saw The English Patient, but I saw The Lovers on the Bridge, which I just loved.”

“She told me that one of the greatest things was that when she won and was in L.A. for three weeks afterwards, she felt like the Queen of the World. Then she went back to Paris, and nobody mentioned it to her again! Didn't you win a Cesar [a French Oscar] recently?”

Depp makes a sound somewhere between a moan and a sigh. “That was a weird little deal. I was really taken aback by that: It was like the kind of thing you get just before you die, like a lifetime achievement award. I mean, I felt like maybe there's somebody somewhere who knows something that I don't, like they give me this award, and then tomorrow, wham, it's over. But I was really touched, because I'm not big on awards. I mean, I get the concept of awards, but the whole competitive nature of that kind of thing is too bizarre. And this felt like I was supposed to accept my award and then have a stroke and be gone.”

“You've gotten a couple of Golden Globe nominations, though,” I point out. “For Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon and Ed Wood."

“Yeah, now those are a bunch of people who know how to have fun. The Hollywood Foreign Press, I just love them. It's like being on someone's porch, like a weird family reunion, and they're all fighting and bickering. It's so real and crazy. They have a real sense of humor.”

“And you get to drink at the Golden Globes, too, right?”

“Yes, you can drink, and I think the first time I went you could actually smoke there, too. It was heaven.”

“Have you ever wanted to play a regular guy?” I have to ask.

Depp thinks this over for a long, long time. “You mean like, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again?” he finally asks.

I nod.

“There are other people who are out there doing it, and they're doing it well. Why should I? I don't know that I'd be particularly good at it. I'd be probably bored to tears if I had to do that kind of stuff. I'd just go crazy.”

“Let's talk about your new films.”

“What are they?” asks Depp, as if he is honestly curious about what movies he might have made.

“From Hell,” I begin.

Now Depp's animated again. “The Hughes brothers, what a trip they are. Did you see American Pimp? My God! From Hell is based on a Jack the Ripper comic, and the script is amazing. Shooting it was a lot of fun, although we were in Prague, which was very lonely for me. I play an inspector on the Jack the Ripper case. The Hughes brothers are incredible because they know everything—they study so hard and they know every angle, every theory. Anything those guys do, I'd do with them again.”

Depp lights a cigarette. “What else do I have coming out?”

“Blow,” I remind him.

“Ah, this is a wild one. Ted Demme directed, and he's hilarious.”

“Yeah, The Ref's up there in my top 10.”

It's hard to tell from Depp's reaction whether he's ever seen it. “He was great to work with because he was really open to any idea; you could just do anything you wanted to try. It's a true story about this guy who was basically the first gringo to get involved with Pablo Escobar and the Colombian cartels. Ray Liotta plays my dad, Rachel Griffiths plays my mom, and Penelope Cruz plays my girlfriend. This guy, he brought cocaine en masse to the United States, and saturated the marketplace with cocaine. He made between $300 and $600 million. And he got busted and now the money's gone.”

“Ah, a little morality play.”

Depp actually looks hurt. “I hope not,” he says earnestly.

“What about Before Night Falls, which came out last year?” I ask.

“That was Julian Schnabel's movie. I've known him on and off over the years. He's a great guy. Kind of odd, because he's always talking about his work and about himself, but he's really charming and funny and smart, and that was a nice surprise. He called me up and asked me if I'd play this character Bon Bon, a transvestite. And I don't mean just a little bra under your T-shirt. This guy was like Sophia Loren.”

“Do you have a lot more sympathy for women now?”

“Honey,” says Depp with a grin, “after I did Ed Wood I had new-found sympathy. Bras and girdles and what do you call them—garter belts?—and hose. You can't breathe, man. That's work. And then you gotta go out and walk in it. And try to be graceful. Men have no idea.”

“How about The Man Who Cried?”

“Sally Potter, who did Orlando, directed, and she is a really interesting, sharp, bright, deeply caring woman. The story is about when the Nazis started moving into Paris, and what the Jews and the Gypsies had to go through during the occupation. I play a Gypsy, and man, did those guys get fucked. Nobody ever talks about it, so I thought it was a great opportunity to get that information out there a little more. The Gypsy thing was a strange parallel to the Native Americans in the mid-1800s, that sort of reign of terror, like Andrew Jackson and those dickheads. The Gypsies, they've been hated for thousands of years. They were accused of being the only people who would build the nails that put Christ on the cross. I mean, the stories run so deep, Hitler didn't even want to put them in the work camps—he specifically said that they should be killed. But [Nazi doctor Josef] Mengele wanted the Gypsies to experiment on. He tried to change the color of their eyes.”

Depp is literally rocking in his chair, he's so upset. A little more coffee and a few more cigarettes, though, and he's back to his normal abnormal self. But by that time, I have to leave.

When I get up to go, Depp comes over and gives me a kiss, and then puts his hand out to shake. As I put my palm in his, he slips me his Zippo.

“No,” I protest, “you really don't have to do that.”

Depp beams. “If I had to,” he says, “I wouldn't.”

Ain't that the truth?

-- donated by Emma