Johnny Depp has 12 Tattoos Fresh off the bounty of this summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean and back in theaters with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Hollywood’s hottest expatriate reflects on a 20-year career of odd choices. BY CHRIS NASHAWATY
Johnny Depp has twelve tattoos, a pair of gold teeth, two kids, a house in the south of France, a large collection of fake mustaches, one huge hit-and did you hear the one about the rubber bands?
Let's start with the story about the rubber bands, the turban, and the George Washington wig. It takes place in the late 80’s, when Johnny Depp had gone virtually overnight from pumping gas in Florida to being minted a teen-steam heartthrob on 21 Jump Street. It was a strange time. He was making more money than he’d ever seen in his life. And when he would walk past newsstands he’d see his mug grinning back at him from the covers of magazines like Tiger Beat and Bop. Despite all of that—or, more likely, because of it—Johnny Depp was miserable. He saw himself as an actor. America saw him as a small-screen pretty boy. That’s when he decided it was time to bust his ass. Bust his ass to get fired.
First, he tired by showing up on the set of the TV show with rubber bands wrapped around his tongue. When the cameras began rolling and he opened his mouth, he started mumbling his dialogue as unintelligibly as, well, a man who had rubber bands wrapped around his tongue. When that didn’t work he arrived on set wearing a feathered turban on his head, speaking in a curry-rich Bombay accent. No luck there either. By the time he finally waltzed onto the soundstage in a powdered George Washington wig and a pair of hip-hugging elephant bell-bottoms with the American flag embroidered on the crotch, it was becoming clear to the show’s producers that their star might be more trouble than he was worth. Still, they wouldn’t swallow the bait. After all, Depp had a contract and ratings were ratings.
“It was pretty obvious what I was trying to do,” says Depp some 15 years later. “It was a frustrating time. I didn’t feel like I was doing anybody any good on there. Not them. Not the people watching the show. Certainly not myself. But at the time I tried to mask it by saying these were the choices I made for the character.” After he says this, Depp begins to crack up. It’s unclear whether he’s laughing at his sartorial creativity at the time, or just his jerky hubris. But perhaps it says something that the first two movies he starred in after his initial unwelcome taste of hunkdom were John Waters’ Cry-Baby (a satire on teen idols) and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (a film in which his face is covered in scars and white Kabuki makeup, and framed by a fright wig).
There’s a second Johnny Depp story worth telling here too. A more recent one. It takes place in San Miguel de Allende on the set of his new film Once Upon a Time in Mexico. In the movie, a sequel of sorts to 1995’s Desperado, Depp plays a sociopathic CIA agent who hires Antonio Banderas’ El Mariachi to sabotage a political assassination on the Day of the Dead. Not surprisingly, when Depp arrived on location, he had certain ideas about his character. “Before he even got there he called and said, ‘I imagine this guy wears these really cheesy tourist shirts,’” recalls Robert Rodriguez, who admits that he still had no idea what he would be in for.
Before showing up in Mexico, Depp called his sister in Florida and had her scour the area for T-shirts with silly slogans like “CIA: Cleavage Inspection Agency” and “I’m With Stupid,” featuring an arrow pointing below the belt. “Florida has no shortage of idiotic T-shirts,” says Depp. “I was also desperately looking for one of those baseball caps that say “Shithead” and has a picture of a coil of dookie on the bill.” Some of Depp’s other idiosyncratic flourishes for his character included carrying around a Judy Garland biography (“I just kind of figured that this guy might have a sideline obsession with Broadway”) and wearing an assortment of obvious disguises (“That’s why I brought along all my wigs and fake mustaches”).
On his last day of shooting in Mexico, Depp was trying to nail a bloody gunfight scene before the afternoon light ran out. But every time Rodriguez yelled “Action,” a mangy white dog wandered in front of the camera and started barking. Finally, Depp, in one of his freaky wigs, turned to the dog, locked eyes with him, and began waving a pistol in the air like a lunatic. Then he started barking at the dog. Loud. The dog never returned.
You might wonder what these two stories say about Johnny Depp. And the answer may be nothing more than this: first, that, even from the beginning of his career, Johnny Depp bristled at stardom; and second, that he’s the kind of man who possesses his own personal stockpile of wigs and fake moustaches and who also barks at dogs. Then again, it’s possible that somewhere in the strange little area where these two stories overlap lies the explanation for how Johnny Depp became the strangest—and perhaps the best—actor of his generation.
Johnny Depp has a knack for making memorable entrances. Just think back to the opening moments of Ed Wood, where as the cross-dressing director he stands in the wings of an empty theater giddily watching one of his own horrible plays as if he were witnessing Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Or, better yet, the entrance he made in Before Night Falls as Bon Bon—a transvestite Cuban prisoner who smuggles book manuscripts out of jail by stuffing them in a certain body cavity.
Now, two weeks before Once Upon a Time in Mexico hits theaters, he doesn’t disappoint, either. Depp enters a spacious hotel suite high over Manhattan by making a beeline for a baby grand piano in the middle of the room. Without saying a word, he sits in front of it and makes a production of stretching his arms into the air and cracking his knuckles as if he’s about to launch into Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He pauses. Exhales. And finally lowers his hands and strikes the keys . . .
“I honestly have no clue how to play,” he says apologizing. “But if you walk into a room with a baby grand, you’re kind of obligated to fuck around on it.”
Depp recently turned 40, but he carries the same merry prankster attitude of the young punk who showed up for work with rubber bands wrapped around his tongue. His jeans are ripped at the knee, his boots so scuffed it’s hard to discern what color they might have once been, and he’s covered in silver rings, charm necklaces, and conversation-piece tattoos. He has a dozen of them. He got the first at 17 (an Indian chief on his right bicep) and the 12th just recently (his son’s name, Jack, on his right forearm). When he laughs, which is often, you can still make out the pair of shiny gold capped teeth he flashed in Pirates of the Caribbean—the biggest hit of his odd 20-year career.
Depp still seems a bit dazed by Pirates’ success and all the attention he’s gotten for his swishing, sozzled performance. So it’s strange to hear him explain how his mascara-clad riff on Keith Richards almost got him fired. “There were a couple of high-end Disney executives who were fine with what I was doing,” he says. “But there were a couple who were very worried.”
Asked to elaborate, Depp reaches into a pouch of Bali Shag tobacco and begins rolling a cigarette with chocolate brown papers. “You know, like, ‘He’s ruining the movie! Why is he acting like that? What’s he doing with his hand? Is the character a complete homosexual?’ There was a lot of that going on for a solid month and a half. And I understood their worries, but I felt so in tune with this character and so confident that what I was doing was right that I had to say, ‘Look, I understand your fear. But you’ve hired me to do a job. You know what I’ve done before, so you know it’s going to be something along these lines. So please trust me. And if you can’t trust me then you probably should replace me.’”
Depp continues, “I’m all for playing a character straight if that’s what the script calls for. You can’t go out there and be totally irresponsible. There’s a lot of money on the line, people’s careers are riding on it, I understand that. But it’s like, ‘This is my little circle here . . .’” Depp sweeps his hands around the sofa he’s sitting on. “‘This is my small circle that I’m standing inside. You’re welcome to come in there. But if you start fucking with it, you gotta get out!’”
When Pirates surpassed $100 million at the box office, then $200 million, then $250 million, Depp says he would get congratulatory phone calls from the same folks who had initially questioned his performance. He says those calls were “deeply satisfying.” Now all is forgiven and he even hopes to do a sequel. It would be his first. After all, Depp’s never been in a movie that’s done well enough to warrant a sequel. Not that his fans mind. In Depp, they’ve seen an artistic martyr—Hollywood’s very own Saint Jude, patron saint of cinematic lost causes. Until now, studio heads have had a less charitable label for it: box office poison.
“I think he’s probably the premier actor of his day,” says Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, whose Dimension Films division co-financed Mexico with Columbia pictures. But, he adds, “I think he’s been frozen out for years. I think he was looked at as too risky for a lot of the top stuff. A lot of people are going to be kissing his butt now. But what they don’t understand about Johnny is that he can smell BS 10 miles away. The same guys who a year ago were saying ‘Him? Are you kidding? He’s box office poison’ now [think] he’s the hottest thing in the universe.”
Depp swats away these kinds of observations about opening weekends and tracking numbers. “It’s really none of my business,” he says. When pressed why movie studios keep hiring him since his films tend to be commercial disappointments, he shrugs, “I don’t know. Because they’re mad. They’re insane. All I can say is for a guy like me, who’s been dangling in this business for the last 20 years, to finally have something hit, it’s unexpected and very touching.”
Hunter S. Thompson is on the line. Turns out the famous gonzo journalist and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has a Johnny Depp story he wants to share too. It seems that six or seven years ago—Thompson doesn’t remember the dates very well—he met Depp at the Woody Creek Tavern near his home in Colorado. Over drinks, the two hit it off. And when Thompson found out that Depp had been born in Kentucky like he was, he invited Depp up to the house. There, Thompson decided that he and Depp needed to cement the bond of friendship by blowing stuff up.
Thompson’s property in the Rocky Mountains includes a sanctioned firing range. So the two grabbed a couple of propane tanks rigged with nitroglycerin triggers and a short-barreled 12-gauge shotgun. That night the skies over Aspen were lit up by giant exploding balls of fire. A couple of years later, when Depp was preparing to play Thompson in Fear and Loathing, he moved into Thompson’s basement and stayed for more than a month observing the author’s every tic and mimicking it.
“What I like about Johnny is he follows his own thing,” says Thompson, “sometimes to an almost crazy extent.” He mentions how one winter night Depp took the writer’s vintage fire apple red convertible and drove it from Colorado to Las Vegas. “It was 15 degrees out and the convertible top was broken. And he drove that sonuvabitch from here to Las Vegas with the top down. He was determined . . . I like the way he approached the bombs and I liked the way he wanted to take the convertible in a blizzard to Vegas.”
Benicio Del Toro has a story from the Fear and Loathing period too. He remembers they were filming in the middle of the desert when Depp all of a sudden motioned for Del Toro to come join him inside the red convertible, which he just assumed was air-conditioned. “The windows were rolled up, so I thought it would be cool and refreshing in there,” says Del Toro, “but he had the heater on. He was about to do some scene where he was stoned and here he is Method acting in the middle of the desert with the heater on so he’d look all dehydrated and crazy. He’s always surprising you. And he makes it look really easy and fun.”
Depp insists it’s not easy. But fun, well yeah, sometimes it may take a George Washington wig or a pair of bell-bottoms with the American flag embroidered on the crotch to goose the proceedings along, but it has to be fun. “One of the most important things I learned in the couple of times I worked with Marlon Brando, and just by spending time with him, is it’s okay to have a ball. It’s okay to have fun and fuck up because, after all, it’s only film. If you’re able to get to a place where maybe your only motivation in the scene is to make the crew giggle, that’s okay too.”
Tim Burton seems to think that Depp has the most fun before he even gets to the set—when he’s deciding who to model his performance on. Burton has directed Depp three times and each time, he says, inspiration comes from weirder and weirder places. “On Edward Scissorhands, I think he kind of based his performance on certain pets he’d had. For Ed Wood, he said Ronald Reagan and I suggested back to him Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist’s dummy. On Sleepy Hollow, it was Angela Lansbury. He wanted to make it the first action hero who acts like a 13-year old girl.”
After the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp can probably channel anyone he wants in any movie he pleases. Comic-book heroes, franchise no-brainers—easy paydays for easy performances. Instead, he seems hell-bent on continuing to heed the call of Saint Jude. Already in the can is J.M. Barrie’s Neverland [Editor's note—later named Finding Neverland], a drama in which he plays J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. And right now he’s working on Secret Window, an adaptation of a Stephen King novella, where he plays a writer being stalked by deranged hack accusing him of stealing his ideas.
After that, there are a couple of possibilities. One is picking up where he left off on Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote—the movie whose disastrous unraveling was documented earlier this year in Lost in La Mancha. “One of the reasons I was delighted he did Pirates and it turned out to be so successful is because now we can raise the money again,” jokes Gilliam. “Actually, Johnny told me that selling out was really quite pleasurable.”
Another possibility is reuniting with Burton to remake Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. “I’m so jealous I can’t even think about it,” says Columbia Pictures chairman Amy Paschal, “I would give anything to make that movie with Tim and Johnny.” Unfortunately for Paschal, the film is set up at Warner Bros.
While it’s not a done deal, Depp sees Wonka as the ultimate without-a-net challenge. “You’ll never escape that memory that’s seared into your consciousness of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka,” he admits. “It was really amazing to watch as a kid growing up, and I’ve watched it with my kids. So it’s just, Okay where do I go from there? Gene Wilder did something very beautiful and it’s time to take it somewhere else.”
Depp doubts that Burton will make him belt out musical numbers like Wilder did in the original, but he’s not exactly opposed to the idea, either.
“Sure, why not?”
Because you’ve never sung before . . .
“That’s all right.”
Aren’t you scared of anything?
Pause . . .
Depp lives in the south of France with his girlfriend, 30-year-old actress-singer Vanessa Paradis, and their two children, Lily-Rose, 4, and Jack, 1. “Living there has been good for me,” he says. “It’s given me the opportunity that when I do come back to Hollywood I can almost enjoy it. I honestly love being ignorant of the whole thing.”
According to the actor, a typical day in the life of Johnny Depp, Gallic Gentleman Farmer, includes the following: He gets up at five or six in the morning, brews some coffee, prepares a bottle for his son, maybe watches a little CNN if it’s not too depressing, then strolls around in his vegetable garden to see what’s happened overnight. That’s pretty much it. If he’s feeling ambitious, he may venture into town with his family, have a glass of wine, and chat with some locals. After that, he may read a book or paint for a while.
The only thing that seems to be absent from Depp’s idyllic life is going to the movies. He says he has no desire. When I ask if he even knows where the nearest theater is to his home, he smiles a gold-tooth smile and just laughs. “You know what, I have absolutely no idea . . . no idea at all.”
Any highlight reel of Johnny Depp’s quirky 20-year career would draw heavily from his performances in these six films.
Edward Scissorhands (1990) In Depp’s first collaboration with Tim Burton, he is an outcast with giant metal shears for hands. Frightened as a poodle at first, Depp’s eyes turn to pure joy as he transforms suburban-mom hairdos into gravity-defying topiaries.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) What isn’t eating Gilbert Grape (Depp)? His mother (Darlene Cates) is a 500-pound shut-in and he has to keep a constant eye on his retarded brother (Leonardo DiCaprio). Depp’s face is a portrait of resigned claustrophobia.
Ed Wood (1994) The grinning, angora-clad Depp portrays the transvestite who’s still considered the Worst Director of All Time. His performance is, to use a Wood expression, “Perfect!!!”
Don Juan DeMarco (1995) Is this psychiatric patient Johnny DeMarco from Astoria, Queens? Or Don Juan DeMarco, the world’s greatest lover? Shrink Marlon Brando doesn’t care either way once the Latin lothario manages to re-spark the old doc’s love life.
Donnie Brasco (1997) Depp is an FBI agent who goes undercover and hooks up with sad-sack wiseguy Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino). Check out the Japanese restaurant scene, where a panicked Depp (wearing a wire in his boot) has to think fast when he’s asked to take off his shoes.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) Terry Gilliam’s queasy voyage to America’s neon Babylon is like an out-of-tune symphony that won’t stop. As the symphony’s mad maestro of mayhem, Hunter S. Thompson, Depp revels in the psychedelic dissonance.