Johnny, Why Nick?
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY (interviewer): We’re in the Salle des Manuscrits in the Bibliothčque Nationale. So, Johnny, why Nick? Nick, why Johnny? [Gesturing to JD] So, you start. Johnny, why Nick?
JOHNNY DEPP: Good question.
NICK TOSCHES: You start.
JOHNNY: Yeah, I start . . . For me, Nick Tosches—I mean, aside from the fact that he is a kindred spirit, somebody that I understand, and I think we have a mutual something that just works, you know?—For me, Nick Tosches—that guy—is one of a handful of writers from the States who has the ability to keep literature alive; to save literature. In this digital age, he really can save writing.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [to Nick Tosches] Nick, why Johnny? Who’s he?
NICK: He’s a guy whose name is Johnny Depp who is, to me, a rare kindred spirit with like sensibilities, who has escaped the beast. He’s probably one of the few people that have survived Los Angeles as a human being.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [reading the opening passage of The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger] “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap. But I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” All right. We’re not going to dwell at length on that, but just give us a few landmarks about your family background and childhood years. Early years, say. Johnny.
JOHNNY: Oh boy! Err . . .
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Briefly, just a few lines. And then we’ll speak about what’s really the link.
JOHNNY: I’m from the bellybutton of nowhere, y’know? Which is a beautiful place to be from, in fact. Kentucky. My earliest memories are of my brother, in fact, who—We were very close when I was growing up, and he’s a writer and has always been a writer. And from a very young age, even when I was doing horribly in school, my brother turned me on to great books and great writers and things like that, so . . . Yeah, well, I’m a gas station attendant who got lucky. That’s what I am.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Indian origins?
JOHNNY: Yeah, I’m a sort of—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Cherokee?
JOHNNY: Yeah, I’m a mixture of all sorts of things—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: German, Irish?
JOHNNY: Yeah. Pu-pu platter, yeah. Combination of weird things. Indian, Irish, German and god knows what. Just a mutt, really.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Nick? A few landmarks.
NICK: My first legitimate employment was being a porter in a bar, which I always refer to the most salient aspect of this job was picking the cigarette butts up out of the urinal by hand in the morning. And I’ve never tossed one in since. I’ve committed every other sin against mankind, but I’ve never done that. And—this is more than a few landmarks . . . As a matter of fact, Johnny and I were talking the other day and it was like: he said “Well I can always go back to pumping gas” and I said “I can always go back to being a porter. I was just as happy; at the end of the year I had just as much money left.” And we sort of looked at each other and said “No, we can’t.”
JOHNNY: [laughing] “Nah!” or “Better not!”
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Is this something that you have in common? You [indicating JD] used to be a gas station attendant in South Florida; a mechanic—
JOHNNY: [turning to NT] We also share the fact that we’re both drop-outs, you know?
NICK: Yeah, we don’t have—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Drop-outs to what degree? What do you mean?
NICK: Well, we’re not . . .
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You agree with that, Nick?
JOHNNY: We’re not college-educated.
NICK: We don’t have a degree. And in this almost post-literate cultural milieu, it’s the people with the degrees that are making it hard for—I’ll speak for myself—for me sometimes, and I think for Johnny, in terms of just ‘the industry,’ in terms of business.
JOHNNY: Business, yeah.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Coming back to you two, isn’t there anything like a generation gap between you two? Johnny, you were 20 in 1984 if I’m not mistaken.
NICK: I do resent the fact that I’m going to die before him, if that’s what you’re getting at.
JOHNNY: [laughing] That’s not necessarily so!
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You were 20 in 1969. You were in the Vietnam War. Isn’t there a generation gap? You don’t . . .
NICK: Most of our reference points have to do with either human beings, which don’t seem to change, or with things that existed 500 years ago, or were eternal. To me, the politics of the so-called Vietnam War is about as boring as the politics of this Afghanistan made-for-TV war. So, I don’t know. We have looked at newspapers and shared a laugh, but other than that . . .
JOHNNY: No, there is no—
NICK: There is a generation gap but it’s like it’s not there.
JOHNNY: Just in numbers. Just in terms of numbers, when we were sort of spat out, y’know, but I’ve never ever thought of it or noticed it, anything like that, no.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: The ‘60s, the early ‘70s were really exciting: wild and creative; inventive. Don’t you ever feel sorry, Johnny, that you were born too late? The reason why I ask is it seems to me you choose your parts carefully, very discriminatingly, as if you wished to embody certain characters and taste what they went through, by proxy. Do you see what I mean?
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: For example, a stoned rocker in Cry-Baby: the journalist who’s on acid in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas; or even Dead Man, Jarmusch’s film with a more mystical streak.
JOHNNY: Well, you know . . . I mean, me—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Again, there’s nostalgia for the ‘60s and ‘70s—crazy!
JOHNNY: I have great nostalgia for other times—
NICK: What was the period of Dead Man? Was that, like, 1890?
JOHNNY: 1880 . . . yeah, 1880, 1890. Me, I have great nostalgia for many other periods, yeah. The Twenties. To have been able to have lived in the ‘20s in Paris would have been something very special. I have great nostalgia for other times and I pine for other times, sometimes.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You do?
JOHNNY: Yeah, because other times—times when innocence was in fact a possibility. When there really was—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: And culture is a link into the past, also. If you have a little memory—
JOHNNY: Yeah, but the States doesn’t have much culture now though.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Both of you stand aloof from the mainstream. I mean you try to be apart; a little apart. How apart? How do you get along with Hollywood, the show business, and all that? Johnny?
JOHNNY: Me? Shhheesshh . . .
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: How do you deal with it?
JOHNNY: Well, you just deal when you have to, really. I mean, if the beast is on your back you just take a couple of pot-shots here and there.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: That’s not pleasant, having a beast on one’s back!
JOHNNY: It’s not particularly pleasant, but it is what it is, you know?
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Nick, in one of your novels, the character Louie in Cut Numbers—[to JD] You read that book, didn’t you?
JOHNNY: Not Cut Numbers, no.
NICK: [to JD] In French?
JOHNNY: [laughing] I’ll get there!
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: In French it’s known as La religion des ratés.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [Reads the opening passage from Tosches’ novel Cut Numbers, in French.] [Both Johnny and Nick laugh as they’re listening.]
NICK: Well, it’s true!
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Is that America today?
NICK: Well, if you look at it like this . . . I’ve tried to just periscope into a broad view of history. One point is: you look at empires. The Roman Empire: a couple of thousand years; this, that and the other . . . America: it’s 200 years old, and it’s already shot! It didn’t even get to fit that many candles on a cake!
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: That’s something you share. Shaking ‘the American Dream,’ both of you.
JOHNNY: It doesn’t exist.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: It doesn’t exist. It’s a dream. A dream never exists.
NICK: America’s the only country that ever envisioned itself as a dream. The American Dream.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [to JD] Tell us more about people you like. For instance . . . [reaching for a book]
Sur La Route
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [reading the opening of On the Road by Jack Kerouac]: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.”
JOHNNY: Beautiful! Beautiful. That’ll be old Mr. Kerouac, yeah.
NICK: It’s a beautiful first sentence.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: That’s the first sentence of—
JOHNNY: On the Road, yeah.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You played the part of Kerouac in The Source, a film which is not released in France; which nobody has seen in France, The Source.
JOHNNY: Well, not really. I didn’t play the part, in fact.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: It was not Kerouac?
JOHNNY: I didn’t play the part. I was asked by the filmmaker to read some of Kerouac’s works, which I did. But not as Jack, which I would really, really not attempt.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You wouldn’t dare?
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Really?
JOHNNY: Nah. Some things you don’t touch.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: He’s so sacred?
JOHNNY: Yeah. For me, yeah.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: More about people you admire. And even more than that: people who did things which are very, very meaningful for you.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [reads, in French, the Prologue to In the Time of Your Life by William Saroyan] “In the time of your life, live—”
[At this point, JD mimes ‘Cut.’]
JOHNNY: He could have stopped there, you know? He could have stopped there. “In the time of your life, live.” It would have been fine. But he continued. [Shrugs] Hey.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [continuing with the quote] “—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart. Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself.” [breaking off] You can comment on it, whenever you wish.
JOHNNY: No, it’s nice to hear it. No, keep going.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [finishing the quote] “No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret. In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.” William Saroyan.
JOHNNY: Fantastic! Unbelievable! Just . . . crazy. Beautiful. And perfect. And a kind of—for me, like a bible. A bible because, yeah: ‘The time of your life’—which is tiny—live! And don’t hold anything against others. But if someone comes in and you have to take care of it, you have to take care of it. Take ‘em out.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You said you adhered 100% to that text, and that all the parts you played in the cinema conformed to what Saroyan says.
JOHNNY: They’re somehow related, I think, yeah. I think they’re related because that, for me, is as much of a bible as what Kerouac wrote in On the Road. Maybe more, in fact.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You said, “If I were gifted enough to write something like that, I would have stopped. I would have stopped there.”
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: “No more cinema, no more music, no more painting—” You paint. You like to paint too.
JOHNNY: Yes. Yeah.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: “—no more nothing, nothing, nothing.” You would have stopped there. You admire that that much; it corresponds to you that much—
JOHNNY: Well, what else can you say? I mean—really, for me, what else can you say? That’s it. That, right there, is the great gift that Saroyan left to everyone. But to me; to give to my kids—to give to my daughter and to my expected child—to be able to say: “Here. Read that. Understand that. And, most important, live that.” Fine!
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: There’s another one who’s very meaningful for you. Antonin Artaud.
JOHNNY: Well, yeah.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: That’s a very meaningful one.
JOHNNY: Artaud. Yeah, Artaud was—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Why Artaud? For many people, he was just a crazy poor bastard, who went crazy.
JOHNNY: Well, I think that’s easy, y’know? I think that’s easy for people to say—certainly now, but probably as easy in fact at that time to say—’Bah, he’s just crazy, you know? Fucking leave him alone,’ y’know? Artaud was, I think, a guy who cared probably too much for his own good and it landed him in the—as NICK eloquently puts—the bug house. The crazy house. But he wouldn’t conform.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: The loony bin.
JOHNNY: The loony bin.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Kerouac calls it ‘the loony bin.’
JOHNNY: He wouldn’t conform, you know? He wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. And he spilled everything out of his—like Nick says, to just open your rib cage and let it out. And that is freedom. He did it. And was called crazy and sick and whatever.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: JOHNNY, what do you like in Antonin Artaud? Is it not the disgraced bastard; the loser?
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: No?
JOHNNY: Not at all! That’s the definition that he’s been given; that he’s been disgraced and everything. I never see Artaud as disgraced. Ever. Any more than I see Ed Wood—you know, the filmmaker that I played in the film Ed Wood—as disgraced. I don’t see these people—certainly not Artaud—as disgraced. I see him as a winner.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Doomed. Doomed?
JOHNNY: Not even. I mean, no—his destiny, whatever . . . I don’t see him as ‘doomed,’ even. I see him as a winner. I see him as someone who came before us, who knew; and who arrived at a point that some of us—most of us—won’t arrive at. And was blessed to have arrived there. And he’s so—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You talk of him as a prophet.
JOHNNY: He was a prophet, in a way.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: For you, as a prophet?
JOHNNY: In a way, yeah. As Kerouac was; as Rimbaud was. As Saroyan—for that paragraph alone—was, for me. Yeah.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Another important figure. A painter. Jean-Michel Basquiat.
JOHNNY: Great, yeah.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: You love him. Why? What is it about Basquiat? [laughing; goading him] What’s eating you about Basquiat?
JOHNNY: Nothing! Nothing’s eating me about anything.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Tell me about Basquiat.
JOHNNY: What I like about Basquiat was his sense of immediacy. He had a great respect for art, but in fact went so below that level. He just went for the immediate. His sense of immediacy. He just spewed onto the canvas what was in his brain at that moment. Whether it was a childish design, or a few words that he might have been obsessed with that day . . . And that—which in a way was a great ‘Fuck you’ to art at that point in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s—that I appreciate.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Do you think it’s still meaningful now, today? Now? 20 years after?
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Yes.
JOHNNY: Very much so. As much or more than Warhol. Warhol’s statement in the early ‘60s. Yeah. Definitely. Basquiat in a way was the Warhol of the ‘80s.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Other people. I give you the list and you pick up the one who you want to talk about, OK? At least, the ones I know about! We’ve talked about Kerouac. Serge Gainsbourg.
JOHNNY: [immediate fond smile] Gainsbourg is . . . Ahhh, there’s nothing anyone can really say about Gainsbourg other than one of the greatest minds of . . . any century. Really, I mean—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: He wanted to be a painter, and he never accepted the fact that he was not a painter and he always considered—
JOHNNY: He was a painter—
NICK: [interrupting] But in a way he was a painter, in a different medium.
JOHNNY: [turning to NT] But in fact he made great paintings and great drawings, and he destroyed them because he wasn’t satisfied with them.
NICK: That was part of his process, his painting.
JOHNNY: Yeah. A great, great artist.
NICK: I discovered him and I discovered a beautiful artist.
Gainsbourg and Cocteau
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: What a surprise, what a surprise! Jean Cocteau. That’s a surprise.
JOHNNY: Cocteau? Why?
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: I don’t know. It doesn’t conform to the—I didn’t imagine that you were crazy about Jean Cocteau.
NICK: [to JD] You liked his art work?
JOHNNY: [to NT] Very much, yeah. You don’t like him?
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: What did you like? The drawings? The poems? What did you like about Jean Cocteau?
JOHNNY: First of all, the drawings he made for the book Opium were . . . staggering, for me. Staggering. Because here was a guy who was writing about his cure, or coming off the drug, you know? Getting the bug off his back. He also had one of the greatest quotes that I think defined opium or opiates. He talks about a guy who says ‘You really have to quit doing opium, you know,’ and the guy says: ‘Yeah, I know, I know.’ Says: ‘If you don’t, you may as well jump off of a building.’ He says: ‘Yeah, I’ll jump off a building and my body will arrive slowly, after I do.’ [smiling] Really amazing. Perfect sense, y’know?
NICK: To me, an even more beautiful line he had was when he was kicking opium. Because he was a hard-core addict, as opposed to an opium smoker. And after he’d kicked he said: ‘I will tell you, it was the plague of my life for 10 years, but I will never betray my goddess opium. And I will still say it is the most beautiful thing I have ever known on earth.’ [JD and NT laugh together]
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [returning to his list] And then, among actors: Marlon Brando—tell me if I’m wrong—Marlon Brando.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Buster Keaton.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Lon Cheney.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: A trilogy.
NICK: Leonardo DiCaprio.
JOHNNY: [bursts out laughing] Yeah!
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [puzzled] Who? Leonardo DiCaprio? He belongs . . . ? So it’s not a trilogy anymore; there are four.
JOHNNY: [still laughing] No, no. It’s a trilogy.
NICK: It’s a trinity.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [smiling] Exit DiCaprio.
JOHNNY: No, sure: Brando, Keaton—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Tell me about those three: Brando, Keaton, Cheney. Three various types. They have nothing to do with one another.
JOHNNY: Well, no, they do, in fact—
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Tell me what you like. Brando. Cheney. Keaton.
JOHNNY: All beating hearts, you know? All great, amazing beating hearts. Cheney, in my opinion—Go in order, I guess: Lon Cheney was the first character actor. The first actor who said, balls out: ‘I want to do what I want to do.’
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: The first one accepted to transform himself physically; to become a monster—
NICK: He did it by himself. Just like Brando did a lot of times.
JOHNNY: Yes, he did it by himself!
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Exactly. By himself.
JOHNNY: Yeah, like Cheney took his leg and tied it behind his back, and stayed that way for hours on end. Great! Now, Keaton . . . I mean . . . One of the great expressionists. Just everything with his eyes.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Tell me the one you feel the closest. Keaton?
JOHNNY: Keaton is for me—I’d like to quote NICK Tosches—”a great unsung hero,” Buster Keaton. Everybody praises Charlie Chaplin; salutes Charlie Chaplin; gives him Oscars and awards up the ass, y’know? And Keaton walked away with essentially nothing, y’know? A drunk.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: What do you think of France and the French? Anything to say about that? Do you like France?
JOHNNY: [tongue in cheek] They talk funny.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: [laughing] They talk funny?
JOHNNY: No . . . France for me, France has been the greatest gift for me, y’know? France has been very kind to me; it’s been a very welcoming place for me. For me it’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to in fact call a place ‘home.’ So, France gave me that.
FRÉDÉRIC FERNEY: Thank you! Thank you, gentlemen.
JOHNNY: Thank you.
NICK: Thank you very much.
JOHNNY: [smiling & applauding FF] Thank you. It was really nice. Really nice.
The three of them shake hands and then rise to their feet. They stand talking and joking together in French while the closing music plays.