Johnny Depp doesn’t mind admitting that he’s enjoying a very happy life these days. Not only has his marriage to Vanessa Paradis produced two children—5-year-old daughter Lily-Rose and 2½ -year-old son Jack—but it’s also given him the peace of mind and sense of place in the world that he was missing for most of his life. He’s also found a new home in his beloved France (dividing time between Paris and Provence), where he feels that the French pay him the kind of respect for his privacy that America’s celebrity-obsessed culture never could. He’s also basking in the success of the first family-style film of his career, Pirates of the Caribbean, which earned over half a billion dollars and landed him an Oscar nomination. But don’t think that a sudden boost to his bankability as an actor will change his attitudes toward fame and fortune. The only thing which truly matters to him is the private joy found in his relationship with the French singer/actress and his two children.
“I was in a fog for so long that I never really knew what it was like to have peace of mind,” admits Depp. “I spent a long time feeling uncomfortable in my own skin and that led me to do a lot of stupid things. I was caught up with poisoning myself with the life I was leading in LA. But when I met Vanessa and fell in love with her, from the very beginning it completely changed my thinking. She gave me a reason for being, and when we started our family I just knew that this was what life was all about. Now I’m just a regular guy, a family man who loves his family to death and just has this strange job to go along with it.”
Depp’s new film, Secret Window, has him playing a writer working from a remote mountain retreat whose life is suddenly threatened by the presence of a mysterious stalker (John Turturro) who claims that Depp’s character has plagiarized his work and must now face ‘justice.’ Depp, 40, speaks softly and in a very affable tone, and is as polite as one could possibly imagine.
Was your Oscar nomination a career validation?
It was a shock! My performance was pretty out there and while we were filming Pirates there was a lot of people who worried that I was pushing the envelope a bit far! [Laughs.] But it worked out in the end and everybody came away from the film feeling pretty good about the result and obviously it reached a huge audience. So, overall, I’m really happy about the whole experience.
Is it odd how Pirates has thrust you back into the Hollywood mainstream after many years where your films—with the exception of Sleepy Hollow—often didn’t find a large audience?
It’s surprising considering how I’ve spent a lot of time fighting against the mainstream and playing a lot of characters and doing a lot of films which were pretty unconventional. I always fought the whole movie-star trip because I didn’t see anything creatively interesting in playing up to a certain fixed image.
You hated your pretty-boy image that was foisted on you after 21 Jump Street . . .
In the worst way. When I started doing movies I didn’t want to be a poster boy and get turned into something saccharine and obnoxiously cute and processed. I hated the idea of becoming a commodity, where nothing has any value and it's all about appearances and image and everything artificial just for the sake of making money. I remember getting scripts—action things, romantic leads, which had its life sucked out of it. But I can still remember reading the script for Edward Scissorhands and I immediately identified with this guy who is totally out of place in the world.
Your new film, Secret Window has you playing a writer living in an isolated setting with a strange man (John Turturro) stalking you . . .
It’s almost like having my own worst private nightmares come true. [Laughs.] I’m paranoid about being watched and so playing someone who’s basically being stalked was a very weird experience.
The producers must be quite happy that suddenly the star of their film has gotten a huge amount of visibility from Pirates and the Oscar nomination?
Yeah, it’s kind of a nice bonus and I think Secret Window deserves an audience.But the truth is that I’ve never purposely tried to make unsuccessful movies. I simply wanted to make interesting films, which often means that you’re not going to be playing action heroes or romantic leads because often the substance to those kinds of characters is very thin. And as an actor, I like having something to think about when I’m working and I truly enjoy the process of creating a character.
Does your current box-office standing mean you’re tempted to take advantage of your success and make movies now that you might have turned down before?
No. I pretty much spent most of my career doing everything I could not to become a star and play romantic leads. I’ve been running away from celebrity for so long now that I don’t think I’m suddenly going to go down that road even if a lot of money is getting thrown my way. I’d still rather play interesting characters than go down the movie-star route. The only thing I really care about is what a wonderful life I have with Vanessa and our children—my work only interests me to the point where I can be creative in some way. You won’t see me flying my own private jet to Aspen or skiing in Switzerland with the aristocracy. [Laughs.]
When did you first meet Vanessa?
I was working on a film and happened to be sitting in this restaurant one night. I was kind of bored, and then I noticed some woman with her back to me. I was kind of intrigued by her neck of all things, and then she turned around and looked back and we made eye contact. That was all it took. I was completely in love. She had me!
What has your life together meant to you?
It’s completely transformed my way of thinking and my outlook on everything. I was functioning in some strange kind of fog before we met. For a long time I was deeply uncomfortable in my own skin and though I had a lot of outward success as an actor I was very miserable and unhappy for most of that time. I just couldn’t find any peace of mind. But being with Vanessa and having a family with her has just made things come together for me. I needed to have something to hold onto and a life which seemed real and meaningful to me. And I’ve found that. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Is it important for you to be living in France now?
It’s much easier for me in France. No one cares who I am and it’s very rare that anyone acknowledges me in the street or takes my photo. The French public keeps a polite distance from so-called celebrities, and since I’m fairly paranoid about being watched or followed this gives me a lot of peace of mind. The only people who bother us are the paparazzi but even they’re bored with watching us take our kids for a walk or seeing me wearing bad clothes and a funny hat. [Laughs.]
Does being a happy family man come as a surprise?
Oh, yeah! A huge surprise but a very nice one! When I found myself with this incredibly beautiful and talented woman I just knew that we were going to be happy together. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind. I just knew it. My family is everything to me. I want my children to grow up in a simple and calm environment. Everything is not about the next movie or pay check. I love the idea of our children growing up in France and in the US. People think we never spend time in the States but that’s not true, it’s more that their mother is French and that I love living over there and taking in the culture and the cafés. It’s a different way of life. They’ll spend time in the States and get to know their father’s culture, but in terms of educating them and protecting them from their father’s celebrity, they’re better off being in France. And their father’s head is much better off for not being in LA. [Laughs.]
Are you an active father—playing and feeding your kids and so on?
I love playing with my kids. I just love seeing their happy faces and how unspoiled and free they feel. I also laugh at their reactions to things they see for the first time or the way my son Jack runs back and forth around the house and smashes into everything and then just keeps on going like a little freight train.
Is it tough being away from them when you make movies?
It can be. But if possible they’ll come visit me or I’ll get away and spend time with them. It’s usually not a problem.
Was it a question of finding the right woman or having gone through a lot of stuff in your life to get to the point where you were ready to find the right woman?
It’s hard to say. I feel like I’ve been on this long strange journey for many years, not knowing where I was going or what I was doing with myself, obsessing about a lot of nonsense. And suddenly all that neurotic garbage that has been churning around in my brain for years and years simply disappeared. It was like this switch got thrown and, boom, I could see everything clearly for the first time. It sounds like a bad cliché, but that’s exactly what happened to me. When you click with someone, it’s hard to explain why everything becomes so easy, but it does. It wipes the slate clean.
Have you finally made peace with your celebrity and movie stardom?
In some ways. I’m still uncomfortable with the attention because there’s still a deeper side of me which doesn’t feel I’ve really done anything so important to deserve this much attention. I feel I have a certain gift for mimicry and stepping into characters as an actor, but it’s not something I find very difficult. So it’s constantly amazing to me that there’s so much attention paid to what I do. It used to bother me in a negative way and made me angry. Now I’ve just accepted it as part of the culture. It comes with the job. I’m not fighting windmills anymore. I sometimes wonder why it took me so long.