The girls in the office were swooning with excitement. “You're going to interview Johnny Depp! Can I come with you and hold the microphone?” Join the queue, I told them, behind my flatmate, his boyfriend, everyone at the dinner party I went to last week—they all want to hold the mike for Johnny. Hold Johnny's “mike” more like.
Everyone wants him, but on the day, he keeps us all waiting. He presented an award the night before to Romanian folk group Taraf de Haidouks (Band of Outlaws) at the Radio 3 World Music Awards (they played Depp's Gypsy family in Chocolat) and he seems to be having a little lie in, pushing the interview schedule back 20 minutes. “Jet lag,” he explains apologetically when he finally arrives after being “groomed” for the television footage he'll shoot after our interview.
Although he only came from France to do this publicity round for From Hell, his latest movie, he's still recovering from a recent trip out to Los Angeles for the funeral of his friend Ted Demme, the director of Blow, in which Depp starred. “A fallen comrade,” he describes him. How was the funeral? “Devastating.” Depp shakes his head sadly. At 38, Demme was the same age as Depp is now. He'll be 39 this June.
He looks 10 or 15 years younger than that, with his hair long and (groomed or not groomed) boyish, soft stubble. In memoriam, Depp is wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Demme on it. Sartorially, he's big on tributes. He's also wearing a necklace with that famous stylised portrait of Che Guevara, and a ski hat that says “The Viper Room,” in honour of the LA club he owns where River Phoenix died from an overdose. More permanently, he has “Betty Sue,” his mother's name, tattooed on his body. He used to have “Winona Forever” tattooed somewhere else in honour of his then girlfriend Winona Ryder. Apparently it now just reads “Wino” after surgical treatment. [Editor’s Note: The tattoo reads “Wino Forever.”] The guy's a walking billboard for the people and things he loves.
I asked some other journalist friends what he was like and everyone said he was really nice. The PRs said he was really nice. Now, I too will forever say of Depp, “He's really nice.” We're supposed to be talking about From Hell, the film based on Alan Moore's graphic novel wherein he plays the detective Abberline, hunting Jack the Ripper. But he doesn't seem to care, and we natter freeform for 10 minutes about more personal topics closer to his heart, like how Lily-Rose, his daughter with his partner Vanessa Paradis, is becoming bilingual in French and English. Depp lives in France and that's where he feels comfortable. “I definitely feel a lot better in Europe. I feel more at home over here. And that's not to say anything nasty about America or the American people, it's just there's fewer strip malls here.”
Is he fluent in French now too? “I'm still very timid about speaking, but I can understand the majority of what people are saying,” he explains. “Someone would have to speak pretty quick to be able to insult me without me knowing it. I can tell if I'm being fucked with.”
We bond over smoking, both refugees from American Puritanism. He rolls his own, using liquorice-flavoured papers. Although he's allegedly cut right back on partying, it comes out in a cone shape like a mini spliff. Perhaps it's just an old habit, or maybe he thinks roll-ups taste better that way. He's very pleased to announce that he's cut back on regular tobacco, although “cutting is really a beast.”
Nevertheless, he's indignant that they've banned smoking on the Eurostar. “It's amazing! No smoking on a train! What happened? Are we in Waukegan, Illinois? Europe is civilisation. You're not supposed to be gawked at or pointed at or mocked for smoking. I've always thought of starting my own airline, if I could get a bunch of investors together, called ‘Air Smoke.’ We'd make smoking mandatory. We'd issue the customers a little pack of cigarettes and tell them we expect it to be done by the time we reach our destination.”
All this is said very deadpan. He often comes across as very earnest in interviews, but the guy's got a wicked sense of humour, streaked with whimsy even about serious subjects like the war in Afghanistan. What did he think of it? “I thought it could have been taken care of a lot quicker. I think [US defense secretary] Donald Rumsfeld is a scary guy, but a smart guy in terms of tactics. I think they should have saturated Afghanistan with liquid LSD and gotten everybody goofed out of their minds and then sent the military in dressed as the Teletubbies. At that point they would have just cleared it right out. And bin Laden would have been in eight-inch high heels with, you know, a blond wig, singing ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking.’”
He sounds like he's still in character for his demented romp as Hunter S. Thompson in the 1998 film of Fear and Loathing. I suspect only a former stoner would crack jokes like this. He may have calmed down of late, but clearly he still doesn't identify with the “straight” world all that much. He thinks the idea to make the character he plays in the film an opium addict may have been something he or From Hell's directors Albert and Allen Hughes “snuck in.”
He's serious about acting though, and reportedly researches roles assiduously. Mind you, research for From Hell couldn't have been too much of a chore because he's always been fascinated by true crime stories, especially the Jack the Ripper one.
“I sort of stumbled on a documentary about it when I was a kid. I guess I was about eight or something, and that sort of began the fascination,” he recalls. “And over the years I've read more about the case. It isn't some ghastly ghoulish obsession I have, but it's the mere fact that something so huge, so awful went unsolved. That first moment of intrigue was like, ‘Whoa!’ That guy was never caught, and there are so many theories on the case and good ones, that maybe it's possible that someone hit on it, but we'll never know who's right and who's wrong.”
Does he think people identify him too much with characters like From Hell's Abberline? Does he think viewers see him lying there, smoking opium, and jump to conclusions?
“They probably do,” he concedes. “It's funny, but ever since I've become a dad, a lot of times in the press they say, ‘Oh, he's mellowed.’ But I was always mellow! I mean, I definitely went through a period of time when I was a little bit nuts, but it had nothing to do with going out partying or whatever. I was confused and uncomfortable in life. I didn't know what life was all about, and having a baby puts all of that into perspective. I was never like some wild animal. I was always pretty mellow.”
Indeed, he's very mellow at the moment because he hasn't got another project lined up. “I've been on a break for a long time. I haven't worked since I shot Once Upon A Time in Mexico in June. And before that, it was the Don Quixote movie with Terry Gilliam [which was to have Paradis as co-star]. That started up really well and then ground to a really nasty halt. We started shooting and the lead actor, [Jean] Rochefort, who was playing Quixote, had some sort of back weirdness and then got sick. He's no spring chicken, Jean, but he's very virile and alive. But he's pushing 70 and he had to be on a horse all the time, so coupled with the back and the injury and stuff like that the whole movie evaporated.
“It was going to be a great movie, too, we [Terry Gilliam and Depp] have talked about reviving it. It was going to be like a ‘best of’ Terry Gilliam, he was like going, diving in. Before that it was From Hell. So I've been unemployed for quite a while. It's nice,” he grins.
Once Upon A Time in Mexico was directed by Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado, Spy Kids) and is yet another of Rodriguez's tributes to the westerns of Sergio Leone. Depp clearly had a blast making it. “It was great, man. Really great,” he enthuses. “Rodriguez is really a good guy, a really fun guy. We shot it in high def, which isn't even video, it's like digital something, digital miracle! It was incredible! Robert was just shooting this stuff and you'd never hear ‘Cut!’ You'd just keep doing this scene until he said, ‘Do it again.' You never hear ‘Reload!’—it was amazing. You're basically working off a tape that's 75 minutes long, so you can just go. You could do the whole film on one tape.
“Rodriguez is amazing, an interesting guy. He's going to be around for a long time.” The longevity mention sounds like he's thinking, a little sadly perhaps, of his fallen comrade Demme.
And before I know it, the TV people are here and impatient, and my time with the nice Mr. Depp is up. Again he apologises. “I feel bad now, everyone's getting penalised for my tardiness,” he says, and to make up for it he lets me take a snapshot of him with my super-cheap, super-crappy digital camera—and then wants to know the make and how much it cost. I sense that he really is contrite, and at the same time he's too mellow to stress about it.
Tomorrow he'll be back in France with his family. “There's that word that you don't quite understand what it means, which is satisfaction,” he explains at one point. “Then there's that great big question mark: What's it all about? What's it all for? You start thinking, ‘Am I just an actor? A puppet? Am I one of those ambitious cretins who's just looking for accolades and applause and recognition?’ I'm happy to say I found out that I'm not.”