In a year full of odd and unexpected Oscar nominations, none is more unlikely—more genuinely subversive, in fact—than Johnny Depp’s as best actor for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Here’s this kids’ movie, a comedy about guys who wear eye patches and say “Arrghh”—not exactly a successful genre in this generation—and it’s based on a Disney theme-park ride, no less. Then suddenly, standing atop the mast of his sinking ship, in sails Depp. Not only is he tarted up with beads in his beard, gold in his teeth and bike tire-size rings of makeup around his eyes, he’s also doing a full-on Keith Richards at his most addled, crossed with Pepé Le Pew at his most devious, with enough word slurring and hand flapping to power a small TV station.
Not surprisingly, reports surfaced of Disney executives’ terrified reactions when they glimpsed the first bits of film coming in from the set on St. Vincent. A scene in which Depp and costar Keira Knightley get drunk on rum, dance around a campfire and roar out the lyrics “Yo ho, you ho, a pirates life for me” is particularly ripe. (Check out the depths of irony with which Depp delivers the line “I love this song!”) But one can imagine the mental gears shifting back in Hollywood as audiences not only got what Depp was doing but adored it, to the tune of more than $300 million, making Pirates the second-most successful film last summer (after another seafaring story, Finding Nemo).
In one fell swoop, Johnny Depp changed from a paparazzi-baiting, nutty-hat-wearing, tattoo-covered, Hollywood-rejecting expatriate (he lives in France) who made interesting but not particularly lucrative movies into a critics’ darling and box office hottie. The success of Pirates powered Depp’s follow-up film, the nihilistic Once Upon a Time In Mexico, to a $55 million gross, landed him on multiple awards lists from actors’ and critics’ associations, and earned him Golden Globe and Oscar nominations (the Oscar nod is the first of his 20-year career).
And yet, he didn’t really change at all. Ever since he lit his underwear on fire in his trailer back in the late ‘80s—a reaction to being unable to get out of his contract for Fox’s 21 Jump Street—Depp has stubbornly remained acting’s most iconoclastic outsider. Though Depp, 40, is one of the most beautiful creatures you will ever meet, with skin like maple butter, cheekbones you could camp under and bottomless dark eyes, he is forever subverting his looks with things like scissor hands and snaggleteeth (or, in Before Night Falls, a bra and garter belt).
His fey Capt. Jack Sparrow is just one more in Depp’s long line of kooks, misfits and outlaws: He played a sad-eyed monster in Edward Scissorhands; emotionally paralyzed young men in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Benny & Joon and Don Juan DeMarco; and real-life loonies in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (he was Hunter S. Thompson) and Ed Wood (the cross-dressing D-movie director and title character).
In 1998, Depp relocated to France (though he still lives part-time in L.A.), where he had fallen in love with Vanessa Paradis—who, ironically, is one of his adopted country’s most hounded celebrities (she’s a popular singer and actress). The couple, who have not married, have two children, Lily-Rose, 4, and Jack, nearly 2. Periodically, Depp stomps back to Los Angeles to work, see his family, check on the Viper Room (the Hollywood nightclub he co-owns) and rant about tabloids and politics.
Depp’s slate of upcoming projects is as full, and as nervy, as ever. It includes a starring role as Willy Wonka in a remake called, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Depp’s fourth outing with Tim Burton; The Libertine, in which he’ll play the Earl of Rochester, a legendarily debauched 17th-century poet. And there is already Oscar buzz around his performance in this fall’s J.M. Barrie’s Neverland, in which he plays the Peter Pan creator as a drug addict with pedophilic leanings. [Editor's note: Obviously the writer is completely mistaken here—that description has nothing in common with Johnny Depp's portrayal of J. M. Barrie.]
Depp is not a front-runner in this year’s best-actor Oscar race; Sean Penn (Mystic River) and Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) are. Nonetheless, it will be a gas just to see what he wears. (His handlers apparently are pleading with him to leave the wacky hat at home and put on a tux.) And one hopes he is also writing a speech, just in case. After a year like this—on top of a career like his—whatever Depp has to say is sure to be wildly memorable.