You wouldn't believe how relieved Johnny Depp is at having missed out on an Oscar nomination. He's been to the Academy Awards once before, and the memory still causes him some pain.
“It was an awful experience,” he sighs. “They'd been asking me for a couple of years to present but I was really uncomfortable with the idea. I'm not very good at public speaking and didn't want to make a complete fool of myself. I agreed because I was going to be introducing Neil Young.”
The 37-year-old actor—whose exceptional performance in Chocolat, as Juliette Binoche's gypsy lover, promised a Best Supporting Actor nomination—runs his hand through his long hair, dark, with a blond streak on one side. “They kept asking me things like, ‘Who are you wearing, Johnny?’ I said, ‘The Italian guy,’ so it must have been Armani. It felt like a do-or-die situation, like I was standing on the precipice of something very uncomfortable.”
His agony continued. “Everyone was on a first-name basis. Really famous people were coming up and saying, ‘Hi Johnny, how you doing?’ I'd never met them before. It was so weird. Then they wanted me to read this endless speech and I thought, ‘They don't want to hear this shit from me. They're waiting for Neil Young to sing.’ So I told them, ‘I'm not gonna say all that stuff. I can't even read the Teleprompter—it's too far away—and I may pass out from nerves.’ So I just said two sentences, and ‘Please welcome Neil Young.’ Then I left immediately.
“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 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 awful.”
Since then, things have picked up personally and professionally for Depp, though all elements of his life appear to be infused with great contradiction. Depp is a sex symbol, but he has seldom played a romantic lead. Since he started out 17 years ago, in A Nightmare On Elm Street, he has specialized in playing the outsider in films like Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, his private life has seemed like a soap opera, with engagements (but no marriages) to the actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder. He dated supermodel Kate Moss for several years. And now he's become a father with the French actress and pop star, Vanessa Paradis.
The contradictions don't stop there. He co-owns the Viper Room nightclub in LA and Man Ray restaurant in Paris, but he never goes out. He's a high-school dropout who reads voraciously. On screen he's effervescent and effortless; off screen, he's often described as skittish and uncertain. And, perhaps because he's essentially a character actor trapped in a film star's body, his choice of roles in the past few years has been mind-boggling.
Now, however, there is Chocolat, and four more films before the year's out. It's obvious that Depp's career upswing dates to the moment he met Paradis 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 eying him, too. They now have a one-year-old daughter, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, and share an apartment in Paris and a house in the south of France.
Today, in a New York hotel room, Johnny pulls 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 LA and give me a hard time about smoking?”
When Depp flicks open his Viper Room lighter, I tell him how that sound is my first memory—of my father's lighter. When he died, I longed to inherit it and when I didn't, I was crushed. Depp stares at me for a long time. “You were wild about him?” he asks quietly. “That's the way I feel about my daughter,” he says. “The whole time Vanessa was pregnant, I thought we were having a boy. It's not like I was wishing for one, it's just what I thought we'd get. Even when she arrived, for the first split second, I thought . . . there's my son, how beautiful, my baby. It took me a minute to realize that everything was okey-dokey.”
The look on Depp's face is almost rapturous. “I'm a little girlie,” he says with a smile.
Although he still has a home in LA, Depp is adamant that Europe is the place for him. Part Cherokee, he rails against the treatment of Native Americans in the US and 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?”
We get back to talking about the Academy Awards and he bursts into laughter at the prospect that he might ever be embraced by the powers that be. “I don't think I'm a particular favorite in the eyes of the Academy,” he says. “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 cliched turns—and you're in.
“I don't want to demean anyone, but this whole award thing is really weird. When I did Donnie Brasco, I thought Pacino was greater than he'd ever been. I was blown away by his subtleties. And he didn't get a nomination. He got an Oscar for a film in which he was mediocre. [Scent Of A Woman].”
Depp also admits he has no talent for spotting an Oscar-winning script. “You do your work, but the result may be quite different from what you thought. To try to predict what people will like is impossible. I'm always wrong about that stuff.”
He has worked with a small number of directors again and again, people like Sleepy Hollow's Tim Burton and Chocolat director, Lasse Hallstrom.
“Working with Tim is always great. But on Sleepy Hollow, I was convinced 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 kinds of weird things I do, but I didn't think the studio would go for it.”
Depp leans closer. “You know what it is with me?” he asks. “I never read stage direction, I only read the dialogue. That's all that matters to me. I need a film to be a very collaborative process. 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, hardly ever.”
Before Chocolat, Depp worked with Lasse Hallstrom on What's Eating Gilbert Grape. “I was 30 when I made that,” he recalls. “It was a hard year, although now I'm thinking that they're all hard in some way. It was a rough period for me, personally and emotionally, and when Lasse came to me with the idea of doing Chocolat, I was surprised he'd want to go through something with me again, thinking I was some kind of moody, brooding, horrible shithead.”
And is he? Depp nods. “Yeah, I am. Sometimes I think it's necessary for actors. But I was so happy to redeem myself, because he's a very magical guy. And I wanted to work with Juliette [Binoche].”
Binoche has said in the past how returning to France brings you back down from post-Oscar euphoria with a bump. No one cares about such things there. Though they do have the Cesars, mention of which provokes a moaning sound from Depp, who was recently awarded one.
“That was a weird deal. It was like the kind of thing you get just before you die, like a lifetime achievement award. I felt like maybe there's somebody who knows something that I don't, like they give this award, and then tomorrow, wham, it's over. But I was really touched, because I'm not big on awards. I get the concept, but the whole competitive nature is too bizarre.”
It seems the time to ask, is Depp ever going to play a normal person? “You mean like boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again?” he finally asks. “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 probably be bored to tears.”
Refreshingly, he needs reminding about the films he has coming up. From Hell, for instance. Now Depp's animated again. “What a trip! It's 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.”
Depp lights a cigarette. “What else do I have coming out?” he asks. Blow, I remind him. “Ah, this is a wild one. 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 brought cocaine en masse to the United States and saturated the marketplace with cocaine. He made up to $600 million. He got busted and now the money's gone.” So it's a little morality play? Depp looks hurt. “I hope not.”
Last year saw Johnny donning a bra and garter belt as a transvestite in Before Night Falls. “I was called up and asked if I'd play this character Bon Bon—and I don't mean just a little bra under your T-shirt. This guy was like Sophia Loren.” So does he have more sympathy for women, having endured that? “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. And then you gotta go out and walk in it. And try to be graceful. Men have no idea.”
Veering into far more serious territory, and something he can identify with, Depp then worked on Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried. “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 screwed.
“Nobody ever talks about it. The gypsy thing was a strange parallel to the Native Americans in the mid-1800s, that sort of reign of terror. The gypsies have 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. The stories run so deep.”
Depp is so upset, he is rocking agitatedly in his chair. A little more coffee and a few cigarettes, though, and he's back to his normal, abnormal self. When I get up to go, Depp comes over and gives me a kiss, and puts his hand out to shake. He slips me his cigarette lighter.
I tell him he really doesn't have to do that. Depp beams. “If I had to,” he says, “I wouldn't.” Isn't that the truth?