It used to be that when you interviewed Johnny Depp he’d wax lyrical about the environment, the perilous state of global politics, why he took drugs, drank, dated Winona Ryder and Kate Moss, trashed hotel rooms, attacked paparazzi, strutted in a rock band, adored working with director Tim Burton (“He's mad, man”) and was committed to ‘challenging’ career choices. For every commercial venture such as Donnie Brasco and Blow, there would be a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Dead Man, as if Generation X's reigning heartthrob really didn't want to be box office. Depp was the Hollywood bad boy who co-owned the Viper Room and who took the kind of risks that eventually killed Viper Room regular River Phoenix. There were those who predicted Depp would likewise die young and make a pretty corpse.
But here we are today in downtown LA and Depp has recently turned 40, though he still looks closer to 25 (“Bless your heart,” he murmurs). While Depp derides his party boy reputation “total media bullshit” he makes no bones about there being a few years where it was questionable whether he would make 40. “At the time, I almost didn't care. It had to do with me being ignorant enough to think I could self medicate to the point of numbness.
“None of that stuff was about recreation. It was all about being a dumb ass, who was just sort of confused with what life was and what I wanted it to be. Then Vanessa came along and saved my life. She gave me life. Lives, I mean Lily-Rose and Jack. Kids don't just give you perspective, they give you strength. What's important is their wellbeing, their safety, their future.” Vanessa, of course, is actress and singer Vanessa Paradis, his partner since 1998 and the mother of his “two miracles.”
We ought to be discussing Pirates of the Caribbean, the $150 million blockbuster that hopes to lift the curse on high-seas spectacles that has doomed previous big-budget vehicles such as Yellowbeard and Cutthroat Island.
And we are, sort of. Except every question circles back to the subject of his family.
For instance, ask Depp why he's doing his first family picture apart from the fee, rumored to be a personal record of $14 million and he starts telling you about the day long ago when his mother took the entire clan to Disney World in Florida, possibly because it was the eve of Depp's eighth birthday, or, more likely, to escape her husband's explosive temper. Depp still isn't sure which. What he does remember is that his favorite thrill was the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. “I went on the ride over and over again. I was obsessed.” The first thing Depp did when he signed for Pirates the movie was take his two children to Disney World. “I took my daughter Lily-Rose on the ride because she's four but Jack is only one and he's like, ‘So what?’ But being on it again” Depp, usually eloquent, struggles to find words, “I was transported back to the time when I was a little kid. I was in the same place and I was the same size. That belonging thing is amazing.”
Ditto Depp's performance. It isn't often that a summer blockbuster contains the sort of acting even Brando would balk at. As Jack Sparrow, Depp is all gold teeth, eccentric lisp and black mascara a hybrid of Angela Lansbury camp and Keith Richards cool. Depp acknowledges the Stones’ influence with a giggle.
“Well, he's not far off from being a pirate, is Keith.” Then we're back to the subject of family and why he took the Disney doubloon. “One of the things that made me do Pirates was that it was accessible to my kids. Lily-Rose just loved it.
“She came to the set and had a ball. She liked all the stuff dangling from my hair and she loves the teeth.” As Depp speaks, a sudden flash lights up his mouth. It's impossible not to point and stare. “Yeah, still got them.
“Platinum and gold caps. I jumped on a plane to Europe and I realized upon landing that I was 5,000 miles away from the guy who had to take them off. I was stuck with them until I got back to LA. I'll get them off, hopefully, this week.” He shrugs. “I was in a major hurry to get home.” Home is where his heart plainly is, a quiet chateau in the South of France he has shared with his family for the past five years. Fatherhood was something Depp says his own dad failed at. The family moved 30 times before city engineer John finally left, leaving Depp's waitress mother Betty to raise him and his brother and sister alone. “When he did go, it was a relief. A cloud of violence was lifted.” Still, it was the perfect background for Depp's gallery of brooding lost boys. Even his TV breakthrough role as the gorgeous undercover cop Tommy Hanson in 21 Jump Street had an unexpected agony. The same pain is evident in Edward Scissorhands and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, the roles that guaranteed Depp's transformation from teen idol to meaningful star.
It is, however, for the first time, entirely absent from his portrayal of Jack Sparrow, a character as full of bracing life as the little bird he's named after. A bird noted for its rather indiscriminate breeding. “Oh, yes, I want more kids,” Depp says. “I'll have a hundred! I've got the easy part of the gig.” His smile is literally golden. “But I'll have to ask Vanessa. If not a hundred, maybe 75.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl opens Fri 8 Aug.