Johnny Depp enters the room, a walking urban myth, a bad boy with confusion in his soul and tattoos all over his eloquent torso, a legacy of many love bonds. His most terrifyingly intense love seemed to be with Kate Moss. It began with him filling a room full of daisies, but ended with her in rehab—and was quickly followed by his first-sight passion with Vanessa Paradis. Three months into that relationship, Paradis was pregnant.
Now, two children later (Lily-Rose, five, and Jack, one), he's full-on with fatherhood, saying that the birth of his little girl was “not just the greatest thing that's ever happened to me—it's the only thing that's ever happened to me. I helped give our daughter life, and I feel she gave me life.”
He's warm, but not soft. He has a rip in his jeans that reeks rock 'n' roll hero. We're sitting in a smart hotel room in Los Angeles that must be similar to the room at The Mark hotel in Manhattan that he famously trashed. “I was having a bad day. Those days happen. Some guys hit things, bust something up, or go to the gym and take it out on the hitting bag. Had that hotel installed a bag, we'd never have had a problem,” he says, with a very sweet smile revealing four glittery gold teeth that he had fitted for his role in his latest film, Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.
There are many myths about him that turn out to be true, such as the one about him chasing some paparazzi down a street with a large block of wood. “I asked the cops if I could have the block of wood back at the end of my little stint in the custody suites. They wouldn't let me have it. It was well worth it, going to jail that night. I didn't mind.” He settles into telling the tale of that night. He tells it like a bedtime story.
“It was an invasion. To make a long story short, my girl and I were in London. I was doing Sleepy Hollow. We had some friends who'd come in from Texas. My girl was six months pregnant and we were celebrating the fact that we were going to have a baby. Somebody recommended this restaurant, so we went there, and there was wine and we drank the wine. We were about to leave, and someone came up and said, ‘Listen, there's a gaggle of paparazzi outside, so if you go through the kitchen, we can take you out of a side door.’ And I said, ‘Let's do that.’ But they were waiting for us, so I said to Vanessa, ‘I'm going to keep them busy. You guys go around to the front and get in the car and I'll stop them getting a photograph of the belly,’ because that's what they wanted, that's where the money is.
“I told them, ‘Listen, I know the photograph you want. You're not going to get it. Not tonight. Just let it go tonight. I don't want to be a novelty tonight.’ They were really rude and said, ‘We're going to get the picture. You can't escape,’ and it just happened that there was this block of wood on the ground. I guess it was a doorjamb, so I grabbed it, and the guy who was trying to pull the door open, I smacked his hand with the wood. He recoiled, and I said, ‘Now I want you to take a picture. I'm going to cave in your skull with this hunk of wood,’ and miraculously, no one took my photograph. It was becoming more surreal.
“I made them walk backwards down the street because I wanted to humiliate them. So they walked backwards, they looked really stupid, and I guess one of them had made a call to the cops. As soon as the cops arrived, they started taking photographs again, but it was worth it. Surreal, poetic, fun.”
All this because he didn't want to be a novelty, a product. He has said that before, many times. When he first got into acting, it was something that he did while he was trying to make his rock 'n' roll band, The Kids, work out, but he never got a deal. He got a part as a clean-cut cop, the good guy, sexy and cute, always very clean, in the TV series 21 Jump Street. He hated being this cutesy.
He later wrote he felt “plastered, postered, postured, patented and plastic, stapled to a box of cereal, novelty boy, franchise boy, no escape.” He wrote this in the foreword to Burton on Burton, the autobiography of Tim Burton, who directed Depp in the lead roles of Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, and who was his way out.
“Well,” says Depp now, rolling up another cigarette in brown licorice paper, “I haven't had so many bleak periods lately. Becoming a dad, you don't. It was something that was frustrating when it mattered.” And now it doesn't matter so much, being a product? “Not so much. Kids give you that kind of perspective, that kind of strength. It mattered before, the idea that whatever you do, you were just this thing.”
The contradiction of doting daddy and wild man sit very comfortably within him. He's part Cherokee Indian, 40 years old, but looks about 30. In the Pirates movie, he has decorated dreadlocks and a very fancy goatee. In real life, he has longish hair, below chin-length, one of those knitted fez hats, dark-rimmed glasses, trimmed-up facial hair, a few raggedy layers of shirt, and skull-and-crossbones rings. His childhood was more gypsy than pirate; the youngest of four, born to working-class parents in Kentucky, eventually shimmying to Florida, not making friends easily because he preferred to be weird. He saw a fire-eater at a circus and, at 12, he almost set himself ablaze trying to emulate the act. He has often said he's really only a musician and everything else about his career was an accident.
“When I was a little kid, that was always my dream. I remember when I was 12 years old, puberty kicking in. You start to get interested in girls and things are going on in school and there's weirdness in your home life and you're embarrassed to be seen with your parents. That's when I got a guitar and everything else disappeared. It saved me. I locked myself in my room and taught myself how to play. Of course, that 12-year-old kid is enthusiastic about rock 'n' roll, but it was really just about the playing. That was the great escape for me.”
He was 15 when his parents split up, and he says: “I was pretty much ready to leave myself, and did so not long after that. They'd had a fairly prickly relationship for a number of years, so on the one hand it was a relief, and on the other hand it was a radical change for my mum and she got very ill, so there was never any time for that kid to feel bad about his parents splitting up because the kid in me had to go straight for the mum, to look after her, to make sure she was going to be okay.” Given his checkered romantic history it comes as a surprise to learn that Depp was married when he was 20, to a make-up artist called Lori Allison. “Yes, it just kind of happened. It seemed the right thing to do at the time, but at 20 years old, you're kids.”
And was that such a bad experience that it turned you into the serial fiance, that you can never go through the actual ceremony again? “No,” he says. “Once again, this is a myth, the serial fiance. I was engaged a couple of times to a couple of different girls. Every time I had a girlfriend, it was, ‘they're engaged.’” Most commonly attributed fiancees are Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey, Tally Chanel, Kate Moss and Winona Ryder. And what about the myth of the “Winona Forever” tattoo?
“Yes, I have a tattoo on my arm that now says ‘Wino Forever.’” He peels back his denim shirt to reveal the botched tattoo with the last two letters erased. His and Kate's love was perhaps more indelible. He says wistfully: “She's a good girl. I'm really happy for her that she has a kid.” Do you talk? “No. I haven't seen her. It's been quite a while. But someone told me she had a kid and I was ecstatic for her. I think she'll be a great mum.” I remind him that after he and Moss split up, he said there was a part of him that really missed her and he kept wondering why they weren't together and starting a family.
“I don't remember saying that exactly.” There's a silence, but it's more sad than awkward. He's not trying to avoid the issue, but it's obviously causing him pain and he says very slowly: “I don't know. At a certain point, I don't think I was very good for her. I don't think I was very good for Kate, so we did what was right and walked away from each other. She went on to bigger and better things, and I went on and fell in love and had kiddies.”
Do you believe in love at first sight, I ask, providing him with a crossroads: he can segue into Vanessa now. “I believe in something at first sight, absolutely,” he says. “But you can never truly love a person till you know them. You have this feeling, but you can't really explain it. I had that when I first saw Vanessa. When I met up with her again, I saw her across a room, just her back, and it was an instant sort of, ‘Oh my God, what's happening?’ But then I had no way of knowing how great a person she was, and how great a mother she would turn out to be. She's unbelievable.”
I get the feeling Vanessa becoming a mother clinches it for Depp. He loves his own mother very deeply, has a tattoo for her too, in that full bad-boy tradition. Vanessa also gave him the chance to be a father, which seems to be the biggest hero role he ever wants to play. You said becoming a dad changed you. How did it manifest itself?
“I think that the poor bastard who was stumbling around for many years shed outer layers of bullshit, and finally I was able to see clearly, to see the truth, to understand, at least on some level, what it's all about. People talk about career, success, money, and equate that with happiness, and it never made any sense to me.” And you felt forced to go along with it? “I did and I didn't. I kept doing movies, but I wouldn't say that I'd made the wisest choices in terms of career from a businessman's point of view.”
There are a slew of blockbuster parts he turned down, such as career-breaking stints in Richard Attenborough's Chaplin, Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise, and Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. “Yeah, there were things that might have made a whole lot of money—sick money. That's not what I was after. Money's a good thing and a bad thing, but to do something just for the money—I haven't arrived at that place yet. The beauty is, I don't have any regrets about the stuff I've done. There might have been things I could have done better or smarter.”
Are we talking business or relationships? “Just in life. I could have done things differently. I made mistakes, but that's how you learn. The years that I went through life existing without living, poisoning myself, trying to numb and medicate myself, were really just a great waste of time. It was never about recreation. It was about numbing. It feels good to finally be away from that now,” he says.
Was there a final straw that made you say you didn't want to be numb any more? “Yes, I think things happen in life that you experience. Either you're at the center of a storm, or you're on the outskirts and you feel a cold wind. But it's later that everything starts to make sense. Things that happened over a lot of years were awful, devastating, hideous. I lost a lot of friends.” He's mumbling. He lost his friend River Phoenix to a drug overdose outside the Viper Room, the LA club he owned. “I wanted to escape. Now I want to survive and experience things. Having kids certainly changed me.”
Do you do total sobriety? “No I don't. But no substance abuse. No drugs. No hard liquor. My whisky days are pretty much over. I have a glass of wine now and again. I have Irish and Indian blood,” he says, like he can't help himself. He can't be a really good boy, but he perks up and says: “Hence, the ‘Wino Forever.’”
I tell him that I once downed a very rare bottle of port, only three bottles left in the world, and owner of the vineyard said Johnny Depp had just paid £2,000 for one of the other two.
“Quite possible,” he says. “I was with a friend, a photographer; we used to draw together and paint. One night we bought a 1908 port, a Taylor. We bought it and drank it that night in an hour. It was perfect and amazing, like drinking history. It actually made us paint better, which is nice.”
Depp still likes to paint, and as he still likes wine, it’s fortunate that he’s based no longer in Hollywood but in the south of France.
“I went to France to do the Roman Polanski movie, The Ninth Gate. That's when I met up with Vanessa, and three months later she was pregnant, so it was like, ‘Okay, what do you want to do? Raise kids in that violent, weird atmosphere, or a place where there's world culture, quality of life, simplicity?’” Everything changed in those few months. A lot of people have met the right girl, but at the wrong time. Do you think Vanessa was the right girl at the right time?
“I don’t know. I can remember thinking the last thing in the world I wanted was a relationship, but it was impossible to escape. I was gone.”
Are you romantic when you're in love? “I don't know. You'll have to ask her, but certainly I do things to make her happy, feel good. I want to do that with my mum, my sisters, my friends—so certainly with Vanessa, yes.”
So why do people think Depp is a troubled bad boy? He doesn't seem bad to me. He's probably the most charming person I've ever touched the tattoos of. He's funny, kind, and gives himself totally in every moment. So tell me about the bad-boy myth? “That's so strange. I really don't get that. Another one about myself was that I rented a room in London at a hotel and filled the bath with champagne, and I thought, ‘Man, that's a good one. I'll let that one be.’”
I tell him that particular urban myth has a part two. The champagne was Cristal, and when you and your inamorata—who at that time was Moss—went to have a drink in the bar, the maid came in and let the bath water out.
“Mmm. You'd think we'd just kind of lean in and lap it up, wouldn't you? I like that story. That would be good if it had happened. I wish it had. I'd like to fill a bathtub with Cristal,” he says.