I cannot decide if I am comforted or troubled by the fact that Johnny Depp has just turned 40. It’s an iffy marker at the vanguard of the middle years that hardly seem suited to the ageless Depp, the effortless virtuoso, perpetual fawn boy and onetime consort to all manner of gamines. A former teen idol, he remains a youth icon for all time. And yet teen idols age about as well as child stars, every one of whom winds up looking panicked and plucked. For Depp to suffer the C-list indignities of middle age and obsolescence—well, it would just be so horribly wrong.
Much as we have grown to count on Depp for a singular performance every time out, I suspect he’ll handle his forties with the same demented grace that has marked his very odd body of work. Because—and this just might be the key to Johnny Depp—he makes choices. In art and in life, his instinct is to deviate rather defiantly from the script.
Consider his path from heavily moussed and packaged newcomer to reflective expatriate. At first he seemed to be sleepwalking the familiar part of the sulky star, a tempestuous gossip-column favorite whose entanglements with women, paparazzi and hotel security were reported upon in boring detail. Wholesale self-destruction was a given. But then, a plot twist: He fell in love with a French pop star and moved to the south of France, whereupon he began breeding in chic seclusion. “It gave me everything,” he says, stroking a tiny soul patch and widening the matte brown eyes fixed above the famously jutting cheekbones that create deep canyons where cheeks should be. “A reason to live. A reason not to be a dumb-ass. A reason to learn, a reason to breathe, a reason to care. It gave me everything, oh God.”
The “oh God” comes with a whiff of revulsion at what might have been, had his shit not coalesced when it did. “Oh man, I wasted so much time,” Depp says. “I had great experiences, and a great education from all of it, but what a dumb-ass. I was just confused, and I didn’t know what it was all about or what the point of anything was. I was just kind of pickling myself over a period of years. Self-medicating, trying to numb myself, and just being a self-centered prick, essentially.”
Depp tells me this over a glass of Merlot in the loungy anteroom of a discreet hotel located on a small, snaking side street in Paris. He came in wearing a poncho. His hair is shaggy and his manner gentle; there is something pleasantly world-weary about him. Even his voice seems mellowed and weathered by time. It is a measure of the years Depp packed on while we weren’t looking that one can easily picture him the sun-beaten paysan, the wise elder in wine country, chain-smoking cheroots and sipping strong coffee from tiny cups while his offspring laugh and tumble around him.
Today the curious outerwear obscures his station less well than he might have wished for, for his Dolce & Gabanna suit—a gift from the designers—is plainly visible underneath. Indeed, Depp’s bone-deep ambivalence toward his fame and good fortune is almost comically evident in his chaotic attire, accented by black work boots so scuffed they’re nearly white. Around his neck on black cords hang a tiger’s tooth, a Che Guevara medallion, and one of Ganesh. Adorning both hands are chunky silver gem-studded skull rings—the sort worn by his buddies Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch. Contrasting oddly with the Fisher King effect is Depp’s candy-color-bead bracelet, a gift from his four-year-old daughter Lily-Rose, whose name is tattooed over his heart (proudly, Depp yanks down the neck of his shirt to show me). Assembling a look like that must take a fair bit of time and thought, and maybe that’s the point. Depp has literally etched and layered himself with memories. He is ornamented with souvenirs of the road to here.
Producing a pouch of Bali Shag tobacco and rolling the first of innumerable cigarettes, he takes pleasure in recalling the days before fame, in the early 80s, when he worked construction, pumped gas, and sold pens by the gross over the phone. At one point, unemployed and recently evicted, he crashed in the Hollywood Boulevard apartment of his young actor friend Nic Cage, where he stole Mexican money Cage had tossed in a drawer, exchanged it at the check-cashing place on the corner, and got something to eat. “I come from that,” Depp says with an asymmetrical smile that reveals a full inch of gleaming gold-plated molars, “so it’s pretty hard for me to take any of this too seriously.”
But judging from the infamous hotel incident (“Which one?” he laughs), Depp wasn’t always so blessed with perspective. By the time he laid waste to a posh suite in New York’s Mark Hotel in 1994 while dating Kate Moss, fans were soiling themselves at the mere sight of him. He’d been the star of 21 Jump Street, playing an undercover cop whose pouty demeanor owed mostly to Depp’s grave displeasure with the scripts, his seven-year contract and the plasticky image being fashioned for him by the TV network and the media. “Especially in the beginning, they have to be able to label the product,” Depp says. “So they just go”—and here he flips through an invisible Rolodex before plucking out a card—“‘Rebel. This one’s a rebel.’ Wow, I had no idea! There’s that hideous pressure they hit you with initially, based on your image and how you look, and I never tended that garden. I was always scared shitless of that—it’s really limiting and very dangerous.
“As far as I knew, I was just playing a character, and suddenly I’m hearing that TV-announcer voice—Johnny Depp—it was frightening. The monster had been let loose. I had no control. It was the furthest thing in the world from who I was. And the threat was that this is what you get: two or three years on a TV show and then you’re out. It’s over. That’s your ride. Please step to the right and fuck off. I didn’t know when the show would end, but I knew it would, and I saw it coming. They’d chew me up and spew me out on the side of the road somewhere. So I said, Fuck that, I’m going my own direction.”
Scripts came in by the bale, but none were right until, as Depp remembers it, “John Waters swooped down from heaven like an angel and said, ‘I’ve got something for you.’” It was the camp-saturated Cry-Baby (1990), with a part for him that would cleverly lambaste teen idolatry. “I was about three pages in and I knew it had to be done.”
It was a start. The next step in reversing the Scott Baio-fication of Johnny Depp was to play a fragile goth in Edward Scissorhands, a character as sweet and deeply felt as he was edgy and startling, and therefore ideal for Depp. “I didn’t even know him,” says director Tim Burton. “But I did know enough about him to know what sort of a trap he was in, being perceived as something he wasn’t. And that’s very much what the character was.” (There is a nice irony, I think, in the fact that Edward’s remarkable feature—shears for hands—recalls Depp’s 1984 debut, at the dawn of the It-boy years, in blade-fingered Freddy’s Nightmare on Elm Street.) A few years later, he did a Buster Keaton-like turn in Benny & Joon. Like Edward, the character is a love object of sorts, but a fey, ethereal one, distancing him even farther from the one-note smolderer he’d been set up to be. It was also during Edward Scissorhands that Depp was finally released from Jump Street servitude on a contractual technicality. “I was Mandela, man,” he says. “I was floating.”
And yet he was still sloe-eyed, soulful Johnny Depp, who emanated mystique in great rolling waves in spite of himself. And his weakness for skinny, yummy, high-profile girls only increased his value to the press. He was more than a star; he was that tantalizing, holographic thing, a celebrity, and he never adjusted to the whispering, the pointing and the flashing of bulbs that come with it. So Depp fought back, taunting the paparazzi and becoming (or so it seemed) precisely that which he’d refused to be molded into; a spoiled and petulant scenemaker who has tantrums in places like the Mark Hotel.
“It was a bad day,” he says. “It was just feeling on display, feeling like a novelty, really. And it was being around people who only talked about the work and the money and you just think, Fuck you. Fuck you. And then you walk into this hotel you’ve never been at, that someone’s booked you in, and you go, Blaaaaagghh—I can’t stand it anymore, man. I hate it! I would have been much better off in a barn with a bottle of wine and some hay.
“There was a part of me that was just like, Fuck it. I don’t want to be stared at, I don’t want to be poked at, I don’t want to be prodded. You just want to live simply and not be fucked with. So it just mounted and mounted and I socked a vase or something. It felt good, felt right. It just seemed like the right thing to do, smash a couple of things. And it was.”
He spent a few hours in jail for his trouble while the Mark enjoyed unusually brisk bookings. “The owner approached my publicist about two years after the incident and thanked her,” Depp remembers, somewhat incredulous, his small mouth an absurdist moue. “Said, ‘It was so great for us that Johnny got arrested at our hotel and sent to jail. You can’t imagine the business we got out of it.’”
Although Depp ascribes that fabled lapse in decorum to the obvious pitfalls of stardom, the death of River Phoenix less than a year earlier almost certainly contributed to his disequilibrium. After all, Phoenix had been at the Viper Room, the club Depp owns on Sunset in West Hollywood, before dying of a drug overdose on the sidewalk outside. Depp was right there.
“It was just a nightmare you never recover from,” he says. “You’re watching this thing go down, and you have no arms, no legs, no tongue; you’re just an amoeba. There’s nothing you can do.
“What a waste. What a waste of a talented, beautiful guy. Obviously, whatever ‘it’ is, he had it. He was luminous—a brilliant guy with great taste. But on the other side of that, he was a kid, and that can be a dangerous thing to be, especially in that world, being in that position.” Every inch as special and as vulnerable at the time, Depp can well imagine Phoenix’s need to get numb, although his take on him now seems to come from the other side of a yawning divide. “I was very lucky I pulled out of it,” Depp says. “But River—he didn’t get out. There was so much ahead for him. Like the beauty and the luxury of making a family.”
Depp dons his poncho, plops a floppy cap on backward and tucks a folded bill under the base of his empty wineglass. Fifty euros—a little less than $60.
Before we find our next smoky venue, he says he wants to show me some paintings in a gallery across the street from the hotel. It’s a small show by a 69-year-old artist called Robert Guinan, whose Hopper-esque canvases whisper anomie and despair. Depp marvels at his draftsmanship and at the fact that he’s worked in relative obscurity his whole life. “He paints this hard, dark south side of Chicago stuff—like a Tom Waits song. He’s someone who deserves some love, some press.” I think of Depp as being first in a generation of blessed young actors who understand the capriciousness of success, know how lucky they were to find it so fast, and ease their guilt by paying regular homage to old guys. Particularly old guys like the lesser known Beats and painters like Guinan, who demonstrate such compassion for life’s losers. So there you go, Robert Guinan—there’s some love, some press.
Cottony clouds move quickly across the sky as we wander east past mannered little shops run by languidly chic women smoking cigarettes. Depp looks utterly at home. At one of these ubiquitous cafes with the caned chairs and the charcuterie and the jarring Interpol-type sirens screaming by once a minute, he tells me how that came to be.
He saw Vanessa Paradis across a crowded room. A hotel lobby, actually, in Paris, where he was making The Ninth Gate with Roman Polanski. Having met briefly years before, he and Paradis began to talk. They had a drink. And suddenly, life as he’d known it was “over with.”
“The last thing in my head was a relationship, a girlfriend, anything,” says Depp, who has a history of falling hard for the ladies (such as Winona Ryder, of whose retail troubles last year Depp says, “I don’t know what she was feeling or what she was going through or what the reality is. I just hope she’s okay, and I think she is; she’s a very sharp kid”). “I remember the first few days hanging out with Vanessa; in the front of my brain I’m thinking, No way. A real guy thing, you know? No fucking way, man. But somewhere in the back is the real truth, and you know you’re fucked. It was practically like I’d said ‘Never’ –and boom. You know? Boom.”
They live a little bit inland in the south of France, in a small village near vineyards that produce a decent rose. There’s a butcher, a bar—“real simple,” Depp says. “Exactly everything I ever dreamed of.” There’s a picturesque writer’s cottage on the property, where friends stay. Marilyn Manson, whom Depp calls “the sweetest guy”—who was once, unimaginably, an extra on Jump Street—has been for a visit, during which he sat on the floor and drew flowers with Lily-Rose. Tim Burton has also come by, and he says Depp’s contentment is obvious. Because, as he puts it, being an actor “is a harsh, circus-y, gypsy life, and to finally have found some sort of nucleus is quite amazing.”
Depp and Paradis had their second child, Jack, sixteen months ago. “He’s a hellcat, boy, he’s something,” says Depp, who, as it turned out, was better prepared for parenthood than he realized. “The best training you can have for toddlers is having spent a number of years hanging out with drunks. Helping them walk, cleaning up their vomit, putting ice on their head when they fall and smack it on the table; the uncontrollable rage and tears and joy all in, like, ten seconds. He’s just a cool little drunk.”
Now Depp hopes that his long and colorful history with drugs will also come in handy: He figures if his kids want to smoke pot when they’re older, perhaps he can score it, so they don’t end up with something laced with PCP. “Out on the street, you never know what you’re getting, and suddenly two days later you’re beating yourself in the head with a tennis racket, wearing a towel, quoting Poe. You don’t want that for your kid. You really don’t want that.” Such parenting conundrums are still a ways off. For now he’s enjoying his four-year-old’s unfailingly loopy inquiries, along the lines of “Does God have a maid?” As for Jack, while other new fathers might pass out cigars, Depp gets tattoos: The name Jack is inked on his right forearm, just beneath a bird in flight.
He orders a glass of wine in passable French from a waitress unaware of, or perhaps just unmoved by, his celebrity. The sophisticated European sensibility suits Depp, to the same degree that he’s flat-out mortified by the childishness of “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” post-Iraq. Although Depp still speaks of “us” and “we” when referring to the United States, his heart now resides in France.
“It’s been very good to me, this country,” he says. “It’s been welcoming, and it’s given me what I’ve always wanted—a really cool, simple life,” free of gamesmanship. In a very real sense, his purgatory as a reluctant player in Hollywood led him inexorably to this place. Depp couldn’t have recognized the grace of the quiet, rural life had he not known the toxicity of the schmooze. “There are a number of years where you feel like you have to be a whore,” Depp told me earlier, “be seen, flap your jaws, make small talk, meet the new hot filmmakers, know who’s running what studio, and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to. And finally, you get out and take a breath, and you see what kind of life is available to you, and you go, ‘I was right: I didn’t have to play the game.’ I’ve been very, very lucky. It’s amazing I’m still around and able to get jobs.”
Well, he has a point. It is the rare Depp movie that makes a dime, which is to be expected when your aesthetic is “the weirder, the better.” He simply doesn’t care for the big-money genres, action and romance; he’d rather play transvestites (Ed Wood, Before Night Falls), neurasthenics (From Hell), and loons (Don Juan DeMarco). And he leaps at the chance to monkey with his much-vaunted appearance. (“You’re always having to go, ‘No, Johnny, you can’t have a four-foot nose and five-foot ears,’” says Burton, who has worked with him three times.) To this point, box office hasn’t even figured in Depp’s choices. He turned down Speed, turned down Interview with the Vampire, turned down Legends of the Fall, to make movies like the bleak, pretentious and little-seen Dead Man. “For me, that was a perfect situation,” Depp says. “Go to work with Jim Jarmusch, who’s one of my best friends in the world and a filmmaker I respect and admire. Why would you do something else just for a whole bunch of money? For me, it’s been not so much about the choices of what I’ve done but the choices of what I’ve not done that has been satisfying.” It’s hardly surprising to learn that one of his favorite jobs was playing his friend Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—a spot-on hare-brained impersonation in a movie reviled by the odd few who saw it. Surely it’s a credit to Depp’s unique appeal that so many fans have stuck by him for so long. Yet I imagine that their loyalty is being tested by Depp’s participation in Pirates of the Caribbean, an aye-me-hearty extravaganza produced by inveterate Supersizer Jerry Bruckheimer and based on a theme park attraction. (At least Depp didn’t take a role in The Country Bears.) This naked exercise in corporate synergy seems a strange fit with Depp the purist, the subtle interpreter of human behavior—so much so that I can’t help but wonder if he finally feels pressure to put up some big numbers.
Apart from wanting to make something his children might enjoy, Depp says his motivation was, quite simply, to play a pirate. He liked the script, which was written by the guys who wrote Shrek, and he loves Shrek—in fact, children’s movies are all he ever sees (“I find it comforting not knowing new films, not knowing what’s happening out there”). And he visibly shudders at the mention of bankability—“I don’t think I’ll ever be there.” Depp realizes Disney took a chance in hiring him for something so commercially motivated. “I mean, the way I’m thought about in Hollywood—I’m not one of those guys.” Not Cruise, not Pitt. Not even Josh Hartnett.
And so Depp’s interpretation of the pirate Jack Sparrow wasn’t likely to be the bare-chested swashbuckler one expects from a Hollywood leading man. “I’d seen all the pirate movies,” Depp says of his preparation; “I’d seen the ‘Arrrrrr’ stuff, so I thought, How can I find a pirate that hasn’t been done or seen before? And the first thing I thought of was heat. I’d go in the sauna for thirty minutes, 200 degrees—basically cooking myself—and the body language came out of that. I was also reading a lot of books about the pirates of that time, and these guys were absolutely without question the rock stars of that era. So I thought, Who’s the greatest rock‘n’roll star? Keith Richards. Keith is everything. He’s so smooth, so brilliant. So he was a great inspiration for Jack”—as were Shane MacGowan, apparently, and Pepe LePew.
Contriving a suitably outrageous look for Jack Sparrow, Depp wove beads and stones and leather into his hair and ringed his eyes with charcoal. “He was a true believer from day one,” says studio chairman Dick Cook. “When he arrived for a costume check, he was in full pirate mode, and his teeth were completely capped in gold. And while it was extraordinarily effective, on-screen your eyes went right to the teeth, away from his eyes. So he cut back on the number of gold ones.”
Surely Disney knew that in choosing him they were going for something a little offbeat. But they hadn’t figured on eccentric and louche. Occasionally, Cook admits, the studio’s reaction was something like “Wow. Oh! Uh-huh. Okay, gotta think about this for a minute.”
“There were some long faces at the company, let’s say—people who weren’t particularly enthusiastic about my choices for my character,” Depp says, more amused than surprised. “They’re just going, ‘Oh, my God, is he wearing mascara? And why is he staggering?’ And finally, I just had to say, ‘Listen, trust me or fire me. We’ll get through this and it’ll be okay. Once everything’s all put together, I think you’ll like it.”
“A lot of actors wouldn’t have the courage to say that,” says Depp’s co-star Orlando Bloom. “And he does, because he knows what he can do. He told them, ‘You have to wait and see.’ So they waited and saw. And it was so funny; by the end they’re all applauding.
“I loved sharing a screen with him. God, I feel like such a little kid right now, talking about a hero, but he’s the man”—both onscreen and off. Among comers like Bloom, Depp is routinely lionized for his skill and his cool—the cool of the unco-optable, the incorruptible. And yet Bloom couldn’t have known the full extent of Depp’s cool until the Pirates shoot, during which Depp lived on a yacht docked near the set on St. Vincent. “You should have seen this boat, man,” says Bloom. “Shag pile carpet, mirrors on the ceiling, velvet everywhere, like an Austin Powers boat. It was mad. I love the fact that he lived on a boat. How cool is that?” Which is to say, Johnny Depp may have done a big, fat potential cash machine of a Disney movie, but he did it his way.
Beyond the upcoming Neverland, about Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie, and Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, it is difficult to know in what direction Depp will take his shambling career, and who’d want to? His ability to surprise is but one source of his greatness. The only area in which Depp is growing a tad predictable is his personal life, which is likely to keep flourishing in the south of France. I can’t imagine it doing otherwise, given the clarity and the tranquility that allow Depp to say things like “When I’ve got my kiddies and my girl with me, I’m good.”
Of course, he’ll never forget what it took to get here. “What comes to my head is a simple, beautiful line from a Van Morrison song: ‘It’s a hard road, Daddy-o,’” Depp says, and laughs—I mean really laughs, fully exposing the gold caps. “That line always kills me. The shit you put yourself through before you arrive.”
But the destination justifies the road—and the frustrations, the revelations and the ravages of growing older. Or, as Depp puts it, “You start getting cracks in your face, and fuck it, why not? I earned it.”