There are a handful of actors in Hollywood who, despite having starred in dozens of successful films, are not classified as “movie stars.” Sure, people know their names and acknowledge the fact that they can carry a film on their own, but when someone asks who the most successful stars are in the entertainment business, their names are usually forgotten. Johnny Depp is one of these actors.
Depp, who made his feature film debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, has appeared in over 30 projects throughout the past two decades. Despite his memorable performances in blockbusters such as Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow though, Depp is legendary for his roles in cult favorites like Ed Wood and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Even with his latest project, the mainstream Fox movie From Hell, Depp acknowledges that he’s better known for some of his lesser-seen roles. In From Hell, Depp plays inspector Fred Abberline, a man whose addiction to opium enables him to see the future. Among his visions are the future victims of the serial killer known only as Jack the Ripper.
When I met up with Depp at the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Rey, he was not only dressed for the occasion (he wore a three-piece, pin-striped suit) but also ready to talk about From Hell despite the fact that our nation went to war only a few hours beforehand. As we discussed the film and his own career, Depp was open to why he feels he is not bunched with the Tom Cruises and Julia Roberts of our generation. While this could bug some actors who strive to be the next $30 million star, Depp admits that his own decisions play a key part in why he is not seen as a huge star—and that honestly he could care less.
You look nice. What’s the occasion?
I just figured that if there was ever a day you should begin to grow up that would be today, I guess.
You just flew in from France, no? Do you feel safe traveling by plane right now with your family given all that has happened in recent weeks on airlines and in airports?
Yeah, I got in the night before last but without the family. I left them back in France. I go back in a couple more days.
Let’s talk about From Hell. There have been a lot of stories about the Jack the Ripper murders throughout the years, including Alan Moore’s comic book take on it. Were you familiar with Moore’s From Hell before signing on to the film, and have you read any of the other stories on Jack the Ripper?
I’ve read most of them, but this one is a strong one. The one that rings the most true to me though I think is about an American quack doctor who was in London at the times of the murders. He was brought up for questioning and was detained, and when they let him go back to America the murders stopped in England but began to occur in the states. That was pretty strong.
Because of the way 20th Century Fox is promoting From Hell in its trailers your character seems to resemble the role you played in Sleepy Hollow a lot. Are there really any similarities between the two characters, and were you at all worried to take on a role that could so easily be compared to Ichabod Crane?
No, not really. It’s similar territory in a way, but from my point of view the characters are so different, they are just such different guys, that in my perspective I think Abberline would have despised Ichabod Crane.
Recently you starred in Blow where you played George Jung, the man who established the cocaine market in the ’70s. Now in From Hell your character is addicted to opium. Is there a theme fans of yours should be looking for?
[Laughs] There’s no theme.
Was it hard for you to play Frederich Abberline, a character that is so well-known, yet people know so little about?
The facts that remain on Frederich Abberline are so few and far between. I know where he was born and raised. What bothered me was that the studio wanted Abberline to live and they wanted Abberline and Mary Kelly to end up together on a beautiful rocky cliff. I was adamant that that wasn’t going to happen to my character. Mary Kelly’s none of my business, so I suppose she survives.
If you knew so little about the character, how did you build him up?
When I was thinking about how to build up the character my first instinct was that he should be balding, but those ideas were shut down as the words were coming out of my mouth.
I know you filmed Chocolat and From Hell simultaneously. What exactly was your main interest in doing From Hell? Was your interest peaked due to the fact it was so drastically different from Chocolat?
Above and beyond everything else, the source material was just so well put together. The vision of the Hughes Brothers combined with the vision of Alan Moore . . . it’s one of the theories on the Ripper case that was pretty shocking and pretty important. It was just a great piece of work and they should be proud of that.
What was it like working with Heather Graham?
She’s real sweet. A nice kid. Worked real hard. I had only seen her in Austin Powers.
How about the Hughes Brothers? Most actors have a hard enough time taking direction from one director, what was it like for you to work with two directors? Only a handful of directing teams can actually do it right.
I was really impressed with the Hughes Brothers. As much as they bicker and fight, they really respect each other. They were really a gas. They were fun. Allen actually gave me one of the most beautiful pieces of direction, very subtly, during a fairly large and tense scene. As an actor each take you want to try something and go somewhere—just shake things up—and not get caught up in a competitive thing. So, I was trying stuff and Allen came over after the take, leaned down and said into my ear, ‘No sunshine.’ And I went, ‘Okay.’ It just made perfect sense to me.
When I spoke with the Hughes Brothers earlier they mentioned that you had a personal DJ on the set that spun music into an earpiece you wore during takes. How could you hear anything they said if you were listening to “Uncle F*&ker” while they were shooting?
I didn’t actually hear what they said. I said, ‘What?’ [Laughs]
Did the Hughes Brothers make you watch any of the other films based on the Jack the Ripper tales?
Are there really that many? I watched Hitchcock’s before.
You’ve come a long way since your days on 21 Jump Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street, yet most people still don’t classify you amongst Hollywood’s leading men. After everything you have accomplished as an actor, do you take offense to that, or is it something you planned?
It’s not that I shy away from being a huge star, it’s just that the idea of being a movie star . . . I’ve never seen myself in that role. I think that being a movie star would get in the way of being an actor. When I am in movies I want to play characters. My favorite actors are character actors, and I think that is just more interesting and more fun.
Many of your roles are based on real people, not all of whom have passed away. Is playing real characters something you enjoy, or is it just a coincidence so many of your roles aren’t fictional? And how does the pressure differ from playing people who are still alive versus those who are deceased?
I like playing real life characters. If you play a real person though there’s a whole lot more responsibility. With Ed Wood he was a real guy and there was footage of him in his movies, but there wasn’t that much material on him to be able to tell what he was really like so I had more freedom in a sense. I was always afraid on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas though that Hunter S. Thompson would sneak up behind me and attack me.
Now you mentioned that you like character roles and you enjoy playing real people, but outside that, how do you know when a film is meant for you?
I can pretty much tell in the first ten or fifteen pages. It will get inside me. You know, when you read something and it surprises you—when you are actually surprised by what you are reading—you read a lot of things and they don’t surprise you. It’s just straight forward stuff and I liked to be surprised.
Recently you starred in The Man Who Cried, a film that had a very strong message in it regarding gypsies. What was it liked working on the film and what drew you to it?
To me the gypsies—I feel uncomfortable saying the word since they are all people—but they paralleled the Native Americans in this country and what happened ever since Whitey stepped foot on American soil here. It’s been that way for the gypsies, so The Man Who Cried was a great opportunity to get to know those people and where they come from. Each film though that I make, more than it is a career move or anything like that, it’s just an extended education each time. I take the opportunity to learn each time.
Up next you have Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico. What can you say about that?
It’s been great fun. Robert Rodriguez is a great filmmaker and I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me to co-star in the film. I play an awful FBI agent stationed in Mexico who’s just not a nice guy.
Do you have any plans to work with Tim Burton again in the future? You’ve done some excellent work when the two of you teamed up together.
I hope so.
Finally, looking back on the career you’ve had so far, how much of it do you credit to yourself and how much to your agent?
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve known my agent, Tracy Jacobs, for about 14 years and she’s just been so supportive. Even at times when I’ve gotten very vocal about some choices that I made, she’s supported me. I know that I could have made her job a whole lot easier, so I’m really lucky.