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Johnny Forever

by Martyn Palmer
The London Times
July 9, 2005

For years the eccentric outsider, Johnny Depp has become Hollywood's favourite son. Martyn Palmer went to meet him

Johnny Depp has a style that is all his own. His look for today blends equal parts of Keith Richards and Errol Flynn—chic rebel grunge. Then there are the tattoos: “Jack,” the name of his son, is emblazoned across his right forearm; “Lily-Rose,” his daughter, is on the other. [Editor’s Note: Actually, Lily-Rose is tattooed on Johnny’s chest.] Lower down the arms come an assortment of coloured bangles, beads and studded leather straps. There's an embroidered white silk shirt and golden brown pantaloons.

When he smiles, he flashes gold-capped teeth and his hair, though piled up beneath a grey beret, is long and braided. With the moustache and pointy beard, he has a rakish, devilish air. Most men dressed like this would look daft. Depp just looks cool.

Paradoxically, this is precisely because he never shies away from ridicule—just the opposite. His most memorable screen roles have been as oddballs and weirdos (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Ichabod Crane), and while Hollywood keeps encouraging him to play his trump card—the way he looks—Depp has consistently refused, preferring to disguise himself and do his very best to make us forget that it's oh-so-pretty Johnny Boy up there on screen. It's as though he were a character actor trapped in a leading man's body.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his fourth, hugely enjoyable collaboration with the director Tim Burton, his Willy Wonka is pasty-faced with a bob, perfect white teeth, skin-tight purple gloves, a cane and an array of frock-coats.

Knowing that Depp based his Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean on Keith Richards, it's tempting to see echoes of Michael Jackson here. This is Wonka as a troubled loner, an eccentric who has turned his back on the outside world and finds it uncomfortable now that he has invited it in.

“Michael Jackson never crossed my mind,” he demurs. “I guess I can understand the comparison. But you could just as easily think of some kind of recluse, like Howard Hughes.”

Felicity Dahl, the widow of the original book's author, Roald, told the director after a private screening that she loved the film, singling out Depp for special praise. Such compliments don't come easily. Her husband was so furious with the saccharine 1971 adaptation of his book that he refused to grant the film rights for its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Since Dahl's death, his family has guarded his work and reputation with similar ferocity.

We are in the Bahamas, in a resort jam-packed with holidaying Americans, where Depp is making two sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean. He can't get away from filming to promote Charlie, so selected journalists from around the world have been flown in to meet him. “I thought you might like it,” he says, deadpan, when I express enthusiasm after a preview of the film. “I did it all for you . . .

Once, flying all this way would have been a highly risky undertaking on the journalists' part. Depp, in his earlier days, was not exactly Mr. Reliable. The boy who grew up wanting to be a guitarist was living the rock'n'roll lifestyle to the full—drinking far too much, trashing hotel rooms, snarling at paparazzi. The tabloids loved it. Deep down, Depp hated it.

It was during this period, in 1998, that I was first invited to meet him at the Cannes Film Festival. Along with several other journalists, I traipsed out to a hotel 20 miles outside Cannes, where Depp was waiting to fulfill his promotional duties for Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The only thing was that Depp wasn't out of bed. He and his then girlfriend, Kate Moss, had been partying the night before and hadn't yet surfaced. After waiting four hours, we were informed that Johnny was “unwell,” and invited to return the next day, when a monosyllabic Depp answered questions as though he would rather be hugging ‘gators in Florida, where he spent much of his childhood.

Depp subsequently admitted to me that he had been drinking far too much as he grappled with the distortion created in his life by celebrity.

“When you are doing that to yourself, self-medicating, it is to avoid feeling,” he says. “There is a degree of me, me, me that you can't escape.”

Part of the cause of the effect was that Depp didn't want to play the game. He didn't want to become a poster boy—the roles he has chosen reflect that. He came out of the cop show 21 Jump Street with Hollywood ready to give him a shot but on their terms, as the latest heart-throb.

Instead, he held out for a role that would test him. The cult film-maker John Waters was the first to take a chance on him, with Cry-Baby, and then Burton, with the magnificent Edward Scissorhands. “John went out on a limb for me with Cry-Baby,” Depp says. “And Tim's risk was quite a bit higher, and that's something I will never forget.

“I also know that over the years he has had to knock heads with studios because I wasn't very popular. He has fought long and hard to get me in, and won. And because of that there's a bond and a love and respect that will be there forever. And the other side is that he happens to be one of the most interesting film-makers.”

At some point, Depp stopped fighting fame and concentrated on the work and, more importantly, his family. The latter—the French actress Vanessa Paradis and their children, Lily-Rose, six, and Jack, three—is vital to the former, he says. Quite simply, he has grown up.

“It's all about perspective,” he says. “When your baby comes along you go: ‘Oh, that's what it's all about.’ And all that stuff that was spinning around your head, all that stuff you placed so much importance on, when they wrote this about me or when they took a picture outside this restaurant, all of a sudden you go: ‘Fuck it, who cares?’ So what. Vanessa and the kids are my foundation.”

The difference between the new Depp and the old is amazing. I've met him three times in the past year: on set for The Libertine on the Isle of Man, at the Venice Film Festival and, now, in Nassau. On each occasion, he has been a delight to talk to.

In the Bahamas he apologizes for turning up a few minutes late and cracks lame jokes. When a Dutch journalist asks him why he appeals to so many women, he squirms, where once, perhaps, he would have snarled.

“My gosh, I have no idea. Maybe it's because they feel sorry for me. Maybe they saw Ed Wood or a snippet of Before Night Falls and they saw me in drag and they want to give me tips on how to dress as a woman.”

He is comfortable with travelling, and now divides his time between France and California. “I don't like to stay in one spot. My childhood was spent moving around and that's kind of ingrained into my psyche,” he says.

But there's more to it: “I like keeping a distance from Hollywood and the social expectations because I'm not good at it. I find great comfort in having that kind of distance because I don't have the pressure of knowing who's the top dog this week.”

Part of today's look—the gold teeth, the hair and the beard—is for his role as Captain Jack Sparrow, but the rest (the tattoos, the clothes) is all him. He loves playing Sparrow and the pirate has been good to him. It's been reported that he is being paid $37 million for the sequels. “Jesus,” he says, when the huge figure is mentioned. “Can someone call my business manager, I have some questions for him!”

More important than the money, though, is the status that Pirates has given Depp in Hollywood. While it was filming, nervous executives would view the rushes of Depp lurching camply from side to side and worry whether they would still have a job when their blockbuster opened, and sank like a stone. They tried to get Depp to tone his performance down, but he would not be swayed. Instead, the film was huge. After years of being the quirky outsider, he is now a leading man who can open a picture. And if anyone's more surprised than the studio bosses, it's him.

“The other day somebody mentioned that I was on the Forbes List or something,” he says. “And it just made me laugh. But it doesn't mean I'll be there next week.”

Burton has now cast Depp in a fifth film, The Corpse Bride, which opens this autumn.

“The amazing thing about Johnny is that he has always stuck to what he wants to do,” says Burton. “And finally, after all these years, I think people ‘get’ him.

“The success of Pirates helped, because in Hollywood they see that as meaningful.

“But, you know, he is more of a Lon Chaney than a leading man.”

In other words, don't expect Depp to start competing with Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.

He plans to carry on doing the same as always—making sure that each role is different. And expect more films with Burton.

“The other day I said to Tim that I would shoot anything with him,” says Depp.

“And he said: ‘Well, next I'm going to do the Gypsy Rose Lee story.’ I said: ‘Can I play Gypsy Rose?’ And he said: ‘Yeah.’ So I said: ‘I'm in!’”

This is probably a joke, but I wouldn't bet on it.

-- donated by Emma

-- Photos added by Zone editors