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A Man Apart

by Danny Leigh
The Guardian (U.K.)
May 24, 2001

He’s hardly a stranger to class A drugs. But as he takes the lead in a movie about a cocaine baron, Johnny Depp says he has put his “years of confusion” behind him. He talks to Danny Leigh.

The first time Johnny Depp went to prison, all he could think was how harmless it looked. How benign. “It all seems so anonymous,” he says. “Just concrete blocks, you know? Of course, that's just the facade. Then you notice the razor wire. And you go in past the metal detectors, and then you're right down in the belly of the beast. And then it's . . .” His face lights up, his palm raised. “Hi George!”

By George, he means George Jung, the drug trafficker who first introduced cocaine to a thrill-hungry America during the mid-70s, and whose misbegotten career forms the spine of Depp's new movie, Blow. The jail that Depp was being guided through (strictly for purposes of research) was Otisville Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility in upstate New York where Jung is serving 25 years without parole. And so the two shake hands. “At first it was almost too weird,” says Depp now, sitting in scarf and Stetson on a sweltering London afternoon. “All I could think of was, ‘What if I don't like him? What if he doesn't like me? What if he doesn't want me to do the part?’”

Not that Depp should have worried; his reputation had preceded him. Having embraced the idea of a biopic detailing his life, the dilapidated Jung reportedly expressed concern over who would be playing him. At the mention of Depp's name, he drew a blank. The next day, however, after consulting with his fellow inmates, he called the director Ted Demme. “So, this Depp guy . . . the boys say he's OK.” Lighting the first of half a dozen hand-rolled cheroots, Depp beams at the memory. “Yeah, I was happy with that. It's nice to know I'm liked in prison.”

Yet, if Blow is ostensibly the story of Jung's ill-fated journey from small-time pot dealer to lynchpin of the Medellin cartel, it also belongs to Depp, an occasionally great actor whose performance—all subtle tics and sad-eyed understatement— reminds you just how good he can be. While the resemblance between the two is non-existent (Depp a high-cheekboned leading man, Jung a ravaged cartoon of narcotic hangover), the line between them all but disappears on-screen. “You know,” he says, finally removing the hat, “George speaks in these obtuse . . . riddles. And apparently, he accused me of being a witch. Because I only had two days in prison with him, after he saw the film he accused me of being, you know, some kind of strange witch that took his brain out and stole part of his soul.” A beat. “Which was another nice compliment.”

But the flattery Depp receives from all corners of the US prison system has not been echoed elsewhere. To play any of the esoteric roles he has made a career of—transvestite film-makers, men with scissor hands et al—is, it seems, just peachy. In the drug-soaked States, however, to play a coke baron (and sympathetically at that) appears to be a moral faux pas. You can argue, of course, as Depp does, that Jung was simply an all-American entrepreneur who did “what 95% of the US population would do in that situation.” You could also point out the hypocrisy of the drugs war, and the “bajillion dollar” medical industry that “doles out pills without giving half a fuck why.” But, if you wanted to be literal-minded about it, the suspicion would remain that Depp—co-owner of LA's Viper Room, where his friend River Phoenix died from an OD in 1993—is not, let's say, anti-drugs.

The ellipses that litter his conversation grow longer. “Well . . . it would be difficult to argue that I was anti-drugs. I'm for, ah . . . being smart about the subject. I mean, does it make me sad when I see kids strung out on dope? Yeah. I've had a lot of friends die because of drug abuse. Or go completely sideways, you know? But what we should be asking is why kids need to anaesthetize themselves.”

There's an especially pregnant pause. For a second, I'm convinced he has forgotten what he was talking about. “I don't know . . . I went through so many years where I medicated myself. But ultimately, all you're doing is postponing the inevitable. Which is that you're going to have to acknowledge your demons.” Another cheroot, rolled and lit. What were you into? “Oh, you know . . . anything I could use to make myself feel better. Or to make myself feel what I thought was feeling better. But cocaine is a strange one. A really strange one. I mean, I hated it. You get this synthetic happiness, and then you're just panicking and grinding your teeth, and . . .”

He trails off. So, was getting clean the result of some wasted epiphany? Or simply growing up? “I guess . . . I mean, I drink, so I still have that form of escape. But for years, the whole thing was, ‘Ah, fuck it, I'll deal with it tomorrow.’ And then you realize that you're hurting the people around you, and you're scaring the people around you, and it just seems . . . dumb. So you stop.”

While Depp is nothing but candid about his “years of confusion,” his problem now would seem to be workaholicism. Recently, for example—having settled in Paris with girlfriend Vanessa Paradis and their two-year-old daughter—rather than entertain the tabloids, Depp has instead kept busy with role after role, film after film. Some have been accomplished, some woeful, and some plain baffling (specifically Chocolat, in which he sported an inexplicable Irish accent). All, however—as always with Depp—appear driven by a willful attraction for the odd. Having spent much of his career ducking beneath the commercial radar, you wonder how he feels about his peers, with their blockbusters and $20 million salaries? Before he can answer, an assistant brings him coffee. Asking if I want one, Depp immediately hands his to me.

“No, really, have mine . . . I mean, those guys who are doing well for themselves, I wish them luck. But I don't see too many movies, and I'm real comfortable not knowing what other people are doing. I will say that, over the last couple of months I watched a couple of these huge action movies, just to sit and absorb some mindless entertainment. And I was truly . . .” he searches for the language, “. . . stupefied. I mean, I was shocked at their badness. They were amazing! Surreal!”

And, you can't help thinking, exactly the kind of project he could easily have been doing himself. After all, back in the mid-80s, with a starring role on the teen-cop TV show 21 Jump Street, his route to Hollywood as a generic “hunk of the week” appeared assured. Instead, he blew out his contract and walked. Where would he be now, had he stayed put? He looks genuinely appalled. “Oh, God . . . oh, Jesus . . . I mean, I'd be disappointed. Disappointed in myself. So I'd probably be bloated and drunk and . . . doing a bad soap opera.”

Except, of course, he's not. Rather, he is a guy with a ferocious work ethic and an image somewhere between amiable kook with a taste for the unexpected (whether a brief dalliance with buying art by serial killer John Wayne Gacy or appearing on The Fast Show) and, by the blindly careerist standards of the American film business, professional rebel. Neither of which, it must be said, seems to have much in common with this gentle, softly-spoken 38-year-old.

“Well,” he says, “I guess I still feel a little bit outside it all . . . ish. I mean, not so much outside as just not inside, you know?” Does he know that the director Mike Newell, who worked with him on the immaculate mob drama Donnie Brasco, describes him as “someone you could take home to your mother?” Depp laughs, hard, at this. “That's very sweet of him. He never did, but . . . I don't know . . . I mean, we all have to go out and peddle our asses, but those things are just sticky labels people use to sell you. Because I'm not projecting anything. I'm just me. And you know, you feel kind of naked when it's just you. I mean, I still remember, when I first got thrown into the soup bowl, they tried to turn me into some kind of poster boy for teenybopper magazines. And I still remember how insulted I was by that. But you know, I lived through it, and now I'm a hundred, you know? Approaching Methuselah.”

And is he OK with that? He rolls a last cheroot and peers into the middle distance. “You know, I kind of like it. I mean, you get older and suddenly you don't have to go out and do all that shit you do when you're young and dumb.” The Stetson returns to his head. “Because now you're old and dumb instead.”

-- donated by Emma

-- photographs added by Zone editors