Hollywood Agents Don’t Get Pity. They get 10%. But Spare A Kind Thought for Johnny Depp’s agent, Tracy Jacobs. For more than a decade, her client—one of the world’s best actors and best-looking human beings—has consistently turned down glamorous leading-men roles in large, profitable movies so that he could play a chorus of memorable (to those that saw them) character parts, like Cesar, the Gypsy horseman in The Man Who Cried, or Bon Bon, the Cuban transvestite prostitute who smuggles prison contraband in his rectum in Before Night Falls. Only Crispin Glover’s representatives have suffered more for their percentage.
“Tracy’s taken a lot of heat over the years,” says Depp. “She has bosses and higher-ups, and every time I take on another strange project, they’re going, ‘Jesus Christ! When does he do a movie where he kisses the girl? When does he get to pull a gun out and shoot somebody? When does he get to be a fucking man for a change? When is he finally going to do a blockbuster?’”
In 2003 Depp did his blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and earned Disney 305 million. His Captain Jack Sparrow didn’t kiss or shoot anybody, and he kind of sashayed through most of the film, but Pirates proved that with the right material, Depp can be a huge multiplex draw. His long-suffering agent didn’t want him to take the part. “He was pitched the movie without a script,” recalls Jacobs. “They basically said, “We’re going to make a movie out of this theme-park ride. Want to do it? And he said, ‘Great! I’m in. I believe in the idea.’ I just thought, What idea, you lunatic?”
Now that he has blockbuster status and a surprise Screen Actors Guild award, prestige scripts are piling up on Depp’s doorstep. He reads them—“You kind of owe it to the writer, I think,” he says—but he has no plans to try to fashion them into any kind of sensible mainstream career. Why start now? “Nothing changes,” says Depp, who is in Wales shooting The Libertine, in which he plays the Earl of Rochester, a 17th century poet and pornographer who reportedly died of syphilis. “The challenge for me is still to do something that hasn’t been beaten into the movie going consciousness. Otherwise what am I in it for? The dough? Well, the dough is cool, but I don’t want to be 85 years old and have my grandkids go, ‘Ewwww, Grandpa did some dumb shit.’ I’d rather have them say, ‘Wow man, you’re nuts!’”
As proof of his willingness to be thought insane, Depp’s first post-Pirates movie is Secret Window, in theaters this Friday. He plays Mort Rainey, a successful writer being stalked by a psychotic dairy farmer. Before the movie ends, for reasons too crucial to the plot to fully explain, Mort manically consumes the equivalent of Iowa’s annual corn harvest. But that’s not the crazy part. “Much of the first half of the movie is just Mort in a cabin by himself not doing things,” writer-director David Koepp, a man you would expect to have a vested interest in making the movie sound more dynamic.
Depp claims he was riveted by Koepp’s adaptation of Stephen Kind’s novella—and the movie does pick up to become a Misery-meets-The Shining kind of thriller. But it was the character’s inactivity that really hooked him. “It’s always great to get in the ring with actors you respect,” Depp says. “But when you’re in there by yourself, it’s quite challenging. You’re not reacting, which is mostly what acting is. Instead, you just have to be. There are scenes where it’s like two minutes of just scratching the table-cloth. That interests me.” He took the movie to scratch a table-cloth? “I’m not really sure why he wanted to do it,’ says Koepp. “I’m grateful, but it’s hard to be certain of what motivates Johnny. It’s possible he just wanted to play a character named Mort.”
The whimsy that drives Depp’s career springs from his early days as an actor. It is easy to forget that he was the Aston Kutcher of his era, the hot young star of a mediocre show on Fox. “I wouldn’t say [21 Jump Street] was misery because it was a privileged opportunity. But it was very, uh . . . uncomfortable,” says Depp. So desperate was he to get out of playing Officer Tom Hanson, a dreamy high school narc, that Depp says he made like M*A*S*H’s Corporal Klinger, dressing up in odd clothes and speaking in tongues on the set in hopes of getting out of his contract. The producers didn’t bite. “It was a weird thing not to be in control of your own image.” He says. “I remember saying to myself, Man, when I’m free of this, I’m going to do only the things that I want to do. I’m going to go down whatever road I decide.”
In addition to choosing scripts based on his own internal logic, Depp decided that once he got jobs, he wouldn’t worry too much about keeping them. “All the amazing people that I’ve worked with—Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman,” he say, “have told me consistently: Don’t compromise. Do your work and if what you’re giving is not what they want, you have to be prepared to walk away.” Or get canned. Depp came perilously close to being fired from Pirates of the Caribbean when his melding of Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew freaked out a few senior Disney executives. “It has actually happened a number of times,” Depp says. “At the end of the first take on the first day they say ‘Cut’ and then . . . silence. I mean silence that is deafening. And you’re constantly waiting for the knock on the door—‘Uh Johnny? It’s not gonna work, man.’ But what are you going to do? It’s only a movie.”
This nonchalance is no act. Depp enjoys being in movies, and he says he enjoyed attending the Oscars, but he saw none of his fellow nominees’ performances and guesses the last movie he saw was Pirates—and only because he had to. “I like not knowing what’s happening out there—who’s doing what, how they were, what the box office was,” he says. “Even when I’m in the soup bowl of Hollywood, I just play Barbies and hang out with the kiddies.”
Depp; his longtime girlfriend, French actress Vanessa Paradis; and their children Lily-Rose, 4, and Jack, 1, spend about half of their time in Los Angeles and half in the south of France. Depp still owns the L.A. club the Viper Room, but at 40, he’s no longer a regular. “I swing by every now and again. But being a dad, waking up at 5:30 in the morning to make the bottle for the baby, you start thinking about being in a nightclub until 2 in the morning and you go, Nah. I’ve done it. No point in repeating yourself.”
In violation of the no-repeat principle, Depp has signed on for a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. Otherwise, his choices remain abidingly idiosyncratic. He’ll play J.M. Barrie in Neverland, which traces Barrie’s inspiration for the Peter Pan story; he has a small part in the French-language film, Ils Se Marierent et Eurent Beaucoup d’Enfants, and in June he teams for the fourth time with director Tim Burton to begin work on a long-discussed remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “I hope it’s going to be quite weird,” says Depp. “Weird and wonderful.”