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Satisfied Mind

by Philip Berk
Photographs by Kaori Suzuki
October 2003

Once one of Hollywood's most celebrated rebels, Johnny Depp is now a happy family man who has found peace and solace in France. And he's also riding the biggest blockbuster of his career with the swashbuckling epic Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl. Filmink's Philip Berk met the charismatic star in Los Angeles, and found a kinder, gentler Johnny Depp.

I once asked Johnny Depp if he felt personally responsible if one of his films didn't do well at the box office. "I've never considered myself a businessman," was the actor's reply. "Whatever result a film has at the box office is none of my business. My job is to deliver a performance and a director's vision. If I'm not a bankable superstar, I'm not unhappy. At least I don't have the responsibility of justifying a very large salary."

How things have changed! Before this, Depp's resume read like a canon of cool: Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow, Ted Demme's Blow, John Waters' Cry Baby, Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream, Terry Gilliam's Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas and Lasse Hallstrom's What Eating Gilbert Grape and Chocolat. But now, after doing quirky roles in idiosyncratic movies for years, Johnny Depp is suddenly the star of Disney's $150 million swashbuckler inspired by the Disneyland theme park attraction, Pirates Of The Caribbean. Starring opposite Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley and Jonathan Pryce, and produced by no less than Jerry Bruckheimer, Depp dominates the screen as the pirate captain Jack Sparrow. Since this interview, the film has become a huge blockbuster, grossing over $200 million in the US and Canada alone. Would Depp be willing to cut across the grain and do a sequel?

"I think that would be fantastic," he cheerfully replies. "It would be absolutely fantastic, because when I was first offered the role, I thought it was a joke. Why would Disney want to cast me? I was more shocked than anyone. But ironically while we were making it, it never felt like we were doing a blockbuster on a giant budget. In fact it wasn't until I saw the first trailer that I went, 'Oh my God, what's that?' But it would be nice to have a hugely successful film . . . especially one that you did because you loved doing it. I don't get offered too many."

While doing his press duties for the film in Beverly Hills—he had flown in from his home in Paris for the premiere—Depp resembles more the whacked out character he plays in the movie than the star he is. For the role, he had his front teeth gold-capped, and they're still there. What was the inspiration for that, and how long does he intend to keep them? "I never intended to keep them. After we finished shooting, I was in a hurry to get back to Europe, so I didn't get a chance to go to the dentist. It was only afterwards that I realized I was going to be stuck with these teeth for another four months. Personally I don't really notice them too much, although occasionally I get glances. 'What's in his mouth?' I remember reading as a kid that George Washington had wooden dentures, so I thought of getting wooden teeth. But wait a minute—bad dentistry or no dentistry—wouldn't these pirates just use their plundered gold to stuff in the cavities? So I went for different degrees—18, 24 and 22—and then added the platinum, so it would look like scraps they had found. But I'm going to get them removed as soon as I get to the dentist here in LA."

For the role of the swashbuckling pirate Captain Jack, Depp attended a pirate boot camp. How strenuous was that? "Mostly it was sword fighting, which was very demanding and physically taxing because it's a total body workout without breaks. I remember my agent telling me, 'This is going to be a tough one. You're gonna be exhausted,' and I thought 'no, it's going to be fine.' But then we started the sword training. By the end of the day you're about to fall over, but you push yourself through the pain. The first couple of days you're ready for eight hours sleep, but after a month I was up to it."

Does he like his new, physical look? "I don't like it in terms of vanity, the 'Look ma, I have muscles' thing, but as a dad with two kiddies—I've just hit forty—I have to cut down on my smoking and to do that, doing physical things like jumping in a swimming pool helps."

While shooting parts of the film in Los Angeles, Depp and his partner, French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis, took some time out to take their kids (daughter Lily-Rose Melody was born on May 27, 1999, while son Jack came into the world on April 10, 2002) to Disneyland to visit the actual Pirates Of The Caribbean ride. "We took both of them," Depp explains. "At first I thought Lily-Rose would only want to do the Toon Town kind of thing, Alice in Wonderland, and It's A Small World, and I was wondering if we'd ever get to the Pirates Of The Caribbean. But eventually we went on the ride, and she absolutely loved it. You want to tell her papa's making a movie about it, but she doesn't think of daddy as an actor. A few weeks ago we went to a Moroccan restaurant in Paris where they had a belly dancer, and she wandered over to her, while a friend kept an eye on her, and the belly dancer asked her, 'What does your mommy do?' and she said, 'My mommy's a singer.' 'And what does your daddy do?' and she said, 'I think he's a pirate'."

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, Depp was a carouser, a womanizer, a hellraiser, and a near alcoholic bent on self-destruction. Today he is a devoted family man all because of the aforementioned Vanessa Paradis.

Does he still love living in France? "I've always been drawn to France. I went there for the first time in 1989 after I finished Cry Baby. It was my first trip to Europe. I went there alone. I lived in Paris and I loved it. I didn't know a soul there, and I could never understand why I was so happy there. I'd go at least twice a year even before I met Vanessa. After I fell in love, it was a lost cause. And then a few months later we found out that she was pregnant and we were going to have a baby. When I went over there I had no idea I'd be living there permanently, but it's there that I've found a type of happiness I've never experienced anywhere else."

Did he ever think he'd become such a devoted daddy? "Quite frankly, no, but I have to say it's the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life. It's the only reason to live. It's the only reason to wake up in the morning. I used to say that more than the fact that Vanessa and I gave our daughter life, I think she gave us life. It was as though for thirty years I was walking in a haze, existing in a fog, not really living, and then on May 27th 1999 at 8:25 pm, everything suddenly became focused. It was sublime. And now we have two."

Depp and Paradis, however, are in no rush to officially formalize their union. "I consider Vanessa and I already married. We just haven't gone through the formalities, signing papers and all that, but to me and to her, we're husband and wife. However, when the kids are old enough, we'd like to have a three day gypsy wedding."

With all the anti-French sentiment in the US and the anti-US feeling in France, does Depp ever feel compelled to defend his country? "Oddly enough I haven't noticed any remotely anti-American sentiment. I think the French are too polished for that. But clearly they were upset when Bush decided to go in and police Iraq. To be quite honest, if you mention the name George W. Bush, there's a smile that comes over their faces. And I can tell you they laughed as much as I did when they wanted to change French fries and French toast to freedom fries and freedom toast.

So what type of script gets his attention these days? "I've always responded to the same thing. For example, when just the idea for making a pirate movie was floating around, the mere mention of the names of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who had written Shrek, which I had loved, gave me a good feeling right away. I also liked the idea of a pirate film—that's something that hasn't been visited for quite some time. On top of which they were taking that structure and stretching it out. And all that was in the screenplay; so that's what did it for me."

Though Depp is quick to credit the screenwriters for the success of the film, the critics have been almost unanimous in their verdict that what really drives the movie is his off-the-wall interpretation of the freewheeling Captain Jack. "In preparing any role, I become the victim of my imagination," Depp explains of his creation of the character. "I invariably get a flood of messages. So early on I thought that maybe Captain Jack's brain has been affected by the intense heat of the Caribbean. So I spent a lot of time in my sauna. And living on a ship all the time, his sea legs would be uncomfortable on land—so that's why he sometimes seems on the verge of falling over. But then I thought to myself, the pirates of the 18th century . . . who would they be like in today's world? And it occurred to me . . . rock stars! And then I asked myself, 'who is the greatest rock and roll star?' And it's Keith Richards of the Stones. So I modeled my character on him and also on the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew, who was always someone able to run between the rain drops."

Despite his famously funky and highly individualistic appearance, Depp has often been called one of the beautiful people. "I think that has a lot more to do with the makeup person or the lighting," Depp says, brushing off the claims. "And much less to do with me. What's beautiful? My daughter is beautiful. My son (one year old Jack) is beautiful, my girl is beautiful, my life is beautiful, my family is beautiful . . . there are a lot of beautiful things in the world. I have said a lot of harsh things about America, but I never meant it to sound as if I hate America because I don't. It has more to do with the fact that there's a lot of ugliness in this country, a lot of ignorance, a lot of violence, a lot of greed, a lot of gluttony. The truth is, I love America. I'm just disappointed in what it has become . . . so can I say that America is beautiful too?"

Despite obviously now being at peace, Depp was once famous for his darker side. "For a lot of years I went around confused about life, confused about growing up, confused about not really knowing what was right and wrong, and what was important. I was kind of miserable, abusing myself and feeling very angry and having a rage that was really close to the surface. I can't say that it has gone away. It's still there—anger, darkness, whatever—but I've never been closer to the light than right now."

And where does Johnny Depp see his career twenty years down the line? "Twenty years? I'm just astonished that I'm still here now! I'm astonished I can get work, that I can get a gig, do the things I want to do without compromise. I find that shocking. There must be some angel guiding things in the right direction. Hopefully I'm still around in twenty years."

Keira Knightley on Johnny Depp

"Working with Johnny was absolutely fantastic. I haven't got enough words to express how I feel. He's just such a fantastic person, besides being one of the best actors around at the moment. Going in, I told myself that this was going to be an experience where I can learn a lot. I'll see how these titans work. But I still haven't got a clue. They just go in there, and they do it. They make it look so easy, it's ridiculous; so from that standpoint it was an amazing experience."

Orlando Bloom on Johnny Depp

"Working with Johnny was one of the most rewarding experiences I could ever have. I think any actor my age would say that Johnny Depp's a role model. He's like the map. He's the gold, in terms of creating a character. And even though he's one of the best looking guys around, on screen he kind of morphs into these quirky characters, and he hides behind them and embellishes them with such detail. It's no wonder he's had such a fascinating career. It was so great to have somebody who I've looked up to for so long actually live up to everything I hoped he would be. He's a really cool guy, just a really nice guy. There was one time when we'd flown down to St. Vincent in the producer's private plane. Johnny and I were at the back of the plane. We just sat and drank some red wine. I don't know if the altitude had something to do with it, but when we arrived there, we sort of stump-crawled off the plane. The Prime Minister of St. Vincent was there to greet us and he goes, 'Hey, mon, very pleased to introduce you to St. Vincent,' and we're like just crawling past him, and then Johnny gives him a huge hug and like kissed him, and there's me trailing behind him, picking up his shit. It was crazy, but it was fun."

The Lost and The Brave . . .

Though renowned for his fine taste and on-the-money discernment as an actor, Johnny Depp came up snake-eyes when it came to his directorial debut. The Brave was never released in the US and only received an under-the-radar straight-to-video release in Australia. But don't let that put you off . . . it's a striking and sadly under appreciated film.

"I have absolutely no idea why I wanted to direct the film," Depp said on his ill-fated film's premiere at The Cannes Film Festival in 1997. "But I felt somehow driven to do it."

Depp leads an impressive cast (featuring the likes of his 21 Jump Street co-star Frederic Forest, Luis Guzman, Max Perlich, and the one and only Marlon Brando) as an Indian living with his wife and two children in a squalid trailer park perched on the edge of a town dump, who sells himself to the makers of a snuff film to raise $50,000 to save his family from poverty. The Brave is bleak, depressing, oddly fractured and often strangely beautiful. The film resonates powerfully with the spirits of the filmmakers that Depp has worked with, most noticeably Jim Jarmusch, Tim Burton and Emir Kusturica. There's a certain poetry at the heart of the film, and the wonderfully idiosyncratic score by Iggy Pop helps bring it out.

Depp's heritage is Native American and he saw the film as a metaphor for the US government's treatment of the Indians. "A lot of people live exactly as these people do, or some in conditions that are much worse," Depp said at Cannes in 1997. "So the American Dream—I don't think it exists at all. I think it's propaganda."

The film—which Johnny adapted from Gregory McDonald's novel with his brother DP Depp—was initially going to be produced by Jodie Foster, and Oliver Stone was also attached to the project at one stage. But despite the prestige, The Brave was savaged with uncommon cruelty at Cannes, and was never picked up for distribution in the states. The film has never seen the light of day in that country at all, be it in cinemas, on video or even on TV. It did, however, see a quiet straight-to-video release in both Australia and the UK.

The film is rarely mentioned when Depp's resume is discussed, and the actor has never directed since. He has not, however, been scared off for good. "There's something I want to do," Depp said recently. "If somebody will give me the money to do it, I'd love to."

The film is still most famous for the gloriously odd extended cameo from Depp's Don Juan De Marco co-star Marlon Brando. "We still talk now and then," Depp says of the acting great. "I'd have to say that no one has been as generous to me as Marlon. Not just in terms of ideas, but in helping me to understand myself. I mean, he came and did my film for me. He wouldn't take a dime. He wouldn't take a percentage point, nothing. There aren't enough languages to say thank you to him."

Johnny Guitar

Johnny Depp modeled his swaggering, perennially unsteady Pirates Of The Caribbean swashbuckler on infamous Rolling Stones rocker Keith Richards, but the too-cool-for-school actor's rock'n'roll pedigree doesn't stop there.

"Puberty was very vague," Depp once said. "I literally locked myself in a room and played guitar."

-- donated by Joni