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Johnny be Good

by Martyn Palmer
Times Magazine
October 23, 2004

The unflinching glare of the limelight once drove Johnny Depp to the edge. Now, as he steps into his latest role as Peter Pan's creator, he's discovered his own Neverland—at home

At first it's hard to spot Johnny Depp when you arrive at the Hotel Cipriani in Venice. There's the unmistakable, impressively proportioned figure of Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein reading the newspaper. There's a huddle of film executives whispering in low voices at a nearby table, Armani jackets slung over the backs of chairs and the debris of a high-powered meeting before them. And then there's a slight, dark-haired man wearing thick-rimmed glasses and rolling himself a cigarette over in the corner who doesn't look like he belongs amid such opulence. Ah, that will be Mr Depp, then.

On closer inspection, he's also wearing ripped jeans, leather straps and brightly colored plastic bangles, with his hair thick and chopped at unlikely points that match the angles of that face of his. The face is quite unlike any other and now, at 41, hardly seems any different from when he launched his career some two decades ago, playing an undercover cop in the television show 21 Jump Street. It's a boyish man's face, and the voice that comes from it is quiet, hushed almost, and very deep.

A half-empty bottle of water and an overflowing ashtray are the only signs of the Depp breakfast, and although it would be wrong to suggest that these days he's ready for his pipe and slippers, Depp insists he is a changed man from the one that ripped up hotel rooms and chased paparazzi snappers with a piece of wood.

It's the morning after a late, late night before at the Venice Film Festival. Last night, the locals stayed up till the small hours to catch a glimpse of Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet walking up the red carpet for the premiere of Finding Neverland, the story of how J. M. Barrie was inspired to write Peter Pan. The Italian crowd made a huge fuss, all the more impressive because it was something like 2am before the stars made their entrance amid an explosion of flashbulbs. Italians love Hollywood, but Hollywood doesn't like to be kept waiting—as Weinstein, who produced the film, noted when he wryly welcomed everyone to the “breakfast” screening, adding that he was about to give the festival director a concrete overcoat and then push him into the lagoon. He was joking, of course. Sort of.

“It was a little late,” Depp says of his big night in Venice. “I guess it was just a mix-up. I was pretty tired, though. I needed some sleep. We all did. But everybody was pretty cool about it.”

Once, not so long ago, being out on the town till the early hours would have suited Depp just fine. He was a night owl, a creature who felt more at home after dark when the paparazzi would follow him, expectantly, long lenses pointed like snipers, waiting for some expletive-laden indiscretion outside a London restaurant or New York club. A few years ago, when he was in Cannes to promote a film, he stayed up all night and missed an entire day of interviews, sleeping through them with a “Do not disturb” sign on his hotel room door. When he did eventually surface, he was sullen and uncooperative and hard to talk to. Another time, there was a trashed New York hotel room to provide the headlines. Not these days.

Depp once wrestled with fame the same way he occasionally grappled with one of the paps. He couldn't quite work out why part of the job seemed to involve meeting a whole convention hall of people who, really, he had nothing to do with, and less to say to. He also couldn't see why it should be anybody's business but his if his chosen squeeze at the time was a supermodel—our own Kate Moss at one point—or another actor; Winona Ryder was a partner, too.

His attitude, his image, was definitely more rock'n'roll than luvvie. He still looks like he should have been in a grunge band, from the tattoos—Betty Sue (for his mother), an Indian chief, Wino Forever (it used to be Winona)—the hair, the whole alternative ensemble. While others seem to try it on for size before heading back to designer labels, Depp is the real thing. He'd look like this, I'd bet, whether he was famous or not.

And it's true, he set out wanting to be a musician and had some limited success in a band called Kids, which led him from his native Florida to Los Angeles in the first place. His mates are the likes of the Gallagher brothers of Oasis. Like them, at imes he seemed to possess a fuck-you snarl with which to ward off predators. But Johnny became a film star, and with that came the attention, the fans and the intrusion. And to cope with this scrutiny he would drink—“self-medicate” is how he describes it—and get loaded to get through the night. “It's very difficult to see the ignorance of it when you are spinning around in it,” he says now. “And no one is completely innocent, but I'm not self-centered, I'm not self-obsessed. I never have been. But when you are doing that to yourself, it is to avoid feeling. There is a degree of me, me, me that you can't escape.

“My drug of choice was alcohol more than anything—hard liquor, spirits.

“And it might have had the facade of being recreational but even then I knew it wasn't. I'd go to these functions, and back in those days I literally had to be drunk to be able to speak and get through it. And yeah, I had a keen idea that it was not good. But you get liquored up or whatever and then once you are in that spiral you don't even get hangovers any more. You wake up and have a drink again.”

The irony was, of course, that the more famous he became, the worse it got.

From the start, the media treated him as a heart-throb even if he didn't want to be one. Depp loved the work but the rest of it was slowly driving him nuts. “And even if you are surrounded by people who say, ‘Listen man, you have to get it together, you can't do this to yourself,’ it's difficult to hear them. And you have others, who have access to you on a business level, saying, ‘Look, you can do this movie, you can make this much money and you will be a huge success.’ I remember thinking, ‘I don't know what the answer is but I know it ain't that.’ Success or notoriety or fame or whatever the horrible word, I knew it wasn't that that I wanted.”

If you talk to the people who work with Depp—like Marc Forster, the director of Finding Neverland, Kate Winslet, others on the small-budget British movie The Libertine in which he plays the mad, bad Earl of Rochester—they will all say the same thing. Depp is quiet, kind and funny. And he hates being a movie star.

We are, of course, used to hearing about extremely well-paid actors complaining of intrusion. With Depp, though, it's hard not to have some sympathy. Firstly, he strikes you as a very gentle soul. Look at the roles he plays—eccentrics like Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, outsiders like Ed Wood, arguably the worst director who ever had a career, social misfits like Edward Scissorhands in Tim Burton's glorious contemporary fairytale set in American suburbia. In fact, Depp had done everything to avoid the mainstream until last year's Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, when he delivered a hilarious turn as pirate captain Jack Sparrow, a creation that owed more to Keith Richards than the high seas. He was so good, so obviously enjoying himself and letting everyone else in on the gag, that the performance earned him an Oscar nomination.

Playing J.M. Barrie, the man who wrote the ultimate fantasy about the boy who refuses to grow old, is a complete contrast but fits the Depp credo perfectly. And he is quite excellent as yet another misfit, a man who prefers the company of children, who is ill at ease among the stifling social conventions of Edwardian London. He could well get another Oscar nomination, and deservedly so.

“It's a fascinating theme, what society deems as normal and abnormal and who decides and why,” Depp says of his affinity for these misfits. “How that kind of judgment is placed on people, a lot of times people in the public eye, but also people in villages and small towns. ‘Oh that guy is different. He's the weirdo.’ Well, why is he? That kind of thing I'm fascinated with. And also there is the sense of not allowing the world to throw too much garbage on you, to try and retain some of those gifts we are given as children, those childlike qualities—curiosity, fascination—and not be jaded.”

His own childhood must have been difficult. His family moved 30 times when he was growing up and his father left when Depp was 15, shortly before he checked out of high school and started concentrating on his band. “For the most part, my childhood was pretty normal,” he says now. “I mean, we had our moments, there were times when it was very, very difficult, but compared to what a lot of kids have to go through in this world my childhood was a blessing.”

But did he feel like an outsider? “Oh yeah, absolutely. I felt completely and utterly confused by everything that was going on around me. It was the one thing that the teachers didn't want you to do in school, you know, question things. But I always wanted to know why. It really pissed them off but it shouldn't because it's a valid question—it's the only question. I didn't get any of it. It wasn't so much that I felt outside of something as I didn't feel inside of something, and I didn't want to. I saw these guys and gals competing for most popular this and that, the Prom Queen or the Prom King and it was like, ‘Jesus, what bollocks,’ you know? Absolute crap.”

That feeling of looking for, but never quite finding, something to hang on to stayed with him for years. But the work, at its best, gave him the chance to complete his education his way.

“I become fascinated by things. For example, you start reading about pirates and you find out that no one ever walked the plank. How about that? They keelhauled people, yes, walking the plank, no. Never happened.”

He tells you this with a kind of childlike delight. He loves “documents”, is happy spending hours doing his own research. It's easy to see why Marc Forster, who directed the acclaimed Monster's Ball, couldn't see beyond Depp for Barrie. Yet at first, Depp was noncommittal. Then he read the script and started his research on Barrie, read biographies, and was hooked. “I really liked Andrew Birkin's J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys,” he says. The story is a version—Forster admits that they have changed some historical facts—of how Barrie met Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played by Winslet) and her four young sons, and began a close relationship with them that would scandalize Edwardian society.

In the film Sylvia is recently widowed—in fact, her husband was still alive when they first met but would die from cancer—and has four children when in reality there were five. The timeline has been condensed, too—Barrie wrote Peter Pan over several years; in the film it's much shorter.

His own, childless marriage would eventually end and he would propose to Mrs. Llewelyn Davies, but illness would claim her life, too. It's a heartbreaking story, of how Barrie lifted the spirits of these youngsters who were reeling from the loss of one parent and facing the death of another.

For Depp, there is also the chance to put to rest some of the unsavory rumors occasionally linked to Barrie's name—that his interest in the Llewelyn Davies boys was unhealthy. “I remember hearing stories about Barrie that were less than kind,” Depp says. “No, in fact they were downright monstrous; basically it boiled down to rumor and hearsay and I thought, considering what he gave to the world, he deserved more. And if there was any way I could brush off some of the dirt, then I would do it. I mean, here's a guy who left the proceeds from the play and the book to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. I think he was a great man.”

The young actors who play the four Llewelyn Davies brothers are all very good. One, Freddie Highmore, who plays Peter—the boy who inspires Peter Pan—is quite exceptional. Depp recommended him to Tim Burton for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“He is 12 now, and a very special young man: funny, sweet, honest, sharp as a tack. He has a good head on his shoulders and is so great about all the hullabaloo. I don't worry about him at all in that sense. He is not even sure he wants to be an actor.”

There's also a cameo by the comic Paul Whitehouse—they are close friends and Depp once appeared on The Fast Show in a “Suits you, sir” sketch. “I wanted him to do something on the film, selfishly, so we could hang out. But he did hard labor, like the rest of us.”

Depp feels at home in the UK. He's made three films here virtually back to back—Finding Neverland, The Libertine, released next year, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “I am absolutely 100 per cent at home in Great Britain. I'm fascinated by the history. But I've loved just being there and taking weird little sojourns down to Bath or Rye or Chichester or Canterbury.”

He has a home in France, with his actress girlfriend, Vanessa Paradis, and their children, Lily-Rose, five, and two-year-old Jack. They have changed his life. “It's all about distance and perspective for me,” he says. “When your baby comes along you go, ‘Oh, that's what it's all about.’ All that stuff spinning around your head that you placed so much importance on, worrying about when they wrote this about me or whatever. All of a sudden you go fuck it, who cares?”

In the new year, Depp will start work on a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and we'll see him in The Libertine as the Earl of Rochester, sexual adventurer, poet, satirist and a classic Depp character. He loves the contrast and is enjoying the work “more than ever.”

His life has changed from the self-destructive boozer to happy family man and he can pinpoint the moment that it did. “More than anything, the thing that gave me real clarity was meeting Vanessa,” he says. “Her getting pregnant, living that crazy nine months and then meeting my daughter for the first time. That was the absolute moment of clarity.

“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Where's your Neverland?’ Well, I got it.

I got my everything. My girl, my kids, my family. Pure happiness. I've arrived there and I'm blessed in that sense.”

-- donated by Emma

-- photos added by Zone editors