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Johnny Be Good

by Darius James
December 2001

He is one of the most talented actors of his generation. Is that why Johnny Depp is so damn reclusive? Darius James sits down with him to separate the method from the madness.

When I arrived in Prague to visit the set of the Hughes brothers' new horror film, From Hell, I paid special attention to Johnny Depp, 38, who stars as Inspector Frederick Abberline. Jim Jarmusch, who directed him in Dead Man, once told me that Depp was the best actor he had ever worked with because he was conscious of where the camera was located, and what it would record, and he knew how to manipulate the filmic image.

Depp's concentration and focus were indeed impressive. He displayed a yogi-like ability to center himself in the moment, attune himself to his artificial environment, and project himself wholly into the reality of the scene.

When the filming ended, I overheard Depp and the Hughes brothers joke about blaxploitation novels—one of my favorite subjects—so I decided to ask Depp a few questions, even though Larry Garrison, the film's unit publicist, had already informed me that Depp rarely does press.

Rumor had it, and it turned out to be true, that because of his early success, which dates back to 21 Jump Street, Depp had become weary of his own commodification. He was tired of journalists inquiring about the shit stains on his underwear and the tabloid gossip about his sleeping with fashion models and destroying hotel rooms. So now he avoids Hollywood altogether. He doesn't go to movies, and he lives in the south of France with his girlfriend, singer/actress Vanessa Paradis, and their 2-year-old child, Lily-Rose. On his way off the set, I asked him, "Is it true you're a fan of Mr. Jive-ass Nigger?" Depp stopped in his tracks and, with his head tilted to one side, turned to appraise me with a slightly owlish stare. "That's a great fuckin' book," he replied. "The title alone must've freaked people out when it was published back in the '60's. There's this other book with a great title: Negrophobia. Do you know that one?"

"Uh, uh, yeah," I stammered. "I wrote it." With a gesture both grand and chivalrous, suggested by his 19th-century costume, Depp dropped to one knee, and with a flourish of his arm, extended the palm of his right hand. "I bow to you, sir!" he exclaimed. "That's one of my favorite books!"

Later that evening, I met Depp, Allen and Albert Hughes, and other members of the cast for dinner. Depp looked like an exhausted rock musician who's spent one too many nights in the tour bus while promoting an album unsupported by his record label. Ballpoint-ink drawings covered the white surface of his looped painter's pants, and he was wearing a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt with a blown-up image of Che Guevara. Depp digs Che, as well as the Black Panthers, Basquiat, Mingus, Coltrane, and the Hamburgler. The next morning, we sat down and talked. Thelonious Monk was playing on the box, and Depp, I discovered, is a Boss Cat Daddy original.

JOHNNY DEPP: I bet you were expecting a Hollywood putz, some fucking commodity without a brain in his head.

VIBE: The thought crossed my mind, but I'd prefer if you tell me about From Hell instead.

I've always been attracted to things of a darker nature. I remember getting in trouble in school for drawing pictures of Frankenstein, so a movie about Jack the Ripper was right up my alley. I was a big fan of the Hughes brothers' work. When they came to me with From Hell, I jumped on it.

Allen gave me one of the greatest pieces of direction I've ever gotten. He came in on this one scene, leaned up in my ear, and said, "No sunshine. No sunshine," then walked off. Action. It was beautiful. Everything just fell into place. They're the real deal. What they did with American Pimp is real filmmaking. Albert's got a camera, Allen's got a DAT machine, and they just do their stuff. They're not afraid of anything. It comes as close as you can to art in this field. To say, "I'm not afraid. Fuck the studios. Fuck this, fuck that. We do things the way we want to." That's why they're art. And that's rare.

Aren't you a fan of the Beat Generation? Weren't you thinking about doing a biopic on Jack Kerouac at one point?

On The Road was my bible for years. I went back and forth in my head about it. Do you do that to that book? The other side of me was saying jump on it, because someone else will do it and they'll fuck it up. But I decided it was one of those things you shouldn't touch. Just let the characters live in your head. Don't force images on people. They'll get their own if they read the book.

I read with Allen Ginsberg at St. Ann's. He asked me for a kiss.

I met him on the set of The United States of Poetry. I had to read one of Jack's poems. I'm a fuckin' chain-smoker, and he gave me a hard time 'cause he was allergic to cigarette smoke. He started correcting me on the way I was reading the text. He was saying, "Do it like Jack would have done it!" And I had to say to fuckin' Allen Ginsberg, I'm doing it as me. I'm not pretending to be Jack.

I said no to that project because mainstream media like MTV was destroying the New York spoken-word scene at that time.

MTV is a big part of the fuckin' problem.

No shit. What happened with your film The Brave?

I thought I was going to die every day. I was out there showing leg. Prostituting. That's basically what you do to get the money to make a film. The execs put it to me point blank: You can have a $2 million budget if you just direct it. Or you can have $5 million if you're also in it. It would have been impossible to make that film for $2 million.

One of the producers premiered it at Cannes, and it was placed in the competition category. I don't like the idea of competition, so I was frightened, because all eyes were on me and I felt like a schmuck. I was surrounded by a bunch of people in that world I didn't wanna be around. But the audience stood up for the film. The next morning, all the trades cut the movie to shreds. I was in misery. It was bizarre, because the reviews were the exact opposite of the screening. So I said, Fuck it. It released in Europe three years ago, but I haven't released it in the States. I don't want all the people who worked on the film to be disrespected and treated like some kind of product.

This is off the subject, but why are so many Hollywood actors into Scientology?

[Laughing] I guess it makes you feel good? When I was a little kid, my uncle was a preacher in Kentucky. Full on—Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! That kind of thing. I knew the guy off the podium. And I'd go and see this persona, and all these adults were screaming, crying, being saved, and kissing his shoes. I remember thinking, This ain't what it's about. If you have a god, you don't have to do this. It's got to be a little more personal. That turned me off to organized religion. But it's also where I first picked up the guitar. But back to the Scientologists. A while ago, I took over this little apartment on Hollywood Boulevard from a friend of mine. I was dead broke, scrounging. He'd go to Mexico all the time and leave all these pesos lying around. I'd change them at the corner check-cashing place so I could get a meal and some cigarettes. I did that until I found this Scientology place down the street. They'd give you $3 to take this weird fuckin' test. I'd answer all kinds of strange questions under different names. I survived that way for a little while.

Do you consider yourself an inspirational figure? Because the projects you do seem intended to inspire.

I want to make people think. I get McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken—all that shit. It's easy. It's quick. You use no brain cells to do it. But every fucking day? There's plenty of that in the movie theaters—high-profile, big-budget escapes. You pay to get into a movie and step out of your problems for two hours. It's escapism.

There are people out there trying to do something that could be considered art in film, but I'm not even convinced it's possible, because there's so much money involved. There's somebody back there expecting a fucking return. It's an investment, so it's become tainted somehow. It's a product, like when they talk about CDs being units instead of art. But if I'm going to do this for a living, I want to at least provoke a thought or make someone look at something, however subtle, from another perspective.

There's a dimension of empathy you bring to your characters that's deeply affecting. What happened to you that made you want to become an actor and commit to your characters' inner lives?

I don't know [laughs uncertainly]. Last night, when we were at that restaurant, this woman asked me if I would sign an autograph. I signed a picture she had, and in return she gave me a note that said, "Dear Johnny, thank you for playing those poor people. Love, Irene."

I thought, That's weird, why'd she say that? So I asked my friend Keenan what she meant, and he said, "Think about the characters you play. They're all these unfortunate guys who are judged harshly and get fucked around. That's the kind of thing you're going for." She connected to the sadness. There is an obvious connection between all these characters. They're all related in a weird way. I don't know why I'm attracted to these figures, but she woke me up to something I wasn't particularly hip to. That note meant a lot to me.

Over the past few years, I've been experiencing feelings of frustration and self-loathing. But your affection for my book was a moment of inspiration.

I know that feeling of self-loathing and feeling fucked up about the work. But I think that means you're doing the right thing.

-- donated by Joni

-- photos added by Zone editors