In the opening frame of The Libertine, Johnny Depp, all delicious cheekbones and tousled hair as the sexual omnivore the Earl of Rochester, begins by challenging his audience.
“You will not like me.” But of course you do.
You love him because Depp—in real life an outsider—is fantastic in the role. And because in many ways the 17th-century Earl, “the first punk rocker,” whose poetry was so lewd it was banned for centuries and who died of too much drink and syphilis, has much in common with Depp—ex-lover of Kate Moss, ex-drug-user and ex-trasher of hotel rooms.
We meet in a sterile hotel room in Beverly Hills. Depp is wearing a scraggy T-shirt and jeans, spiky hair and hornrimmed glasses—but still looks absolutely gorgeous. Looking at him—and back at his history—it is easy to understand why director Lawrence Dunmore might have seen him as the perfect person to play the Earl, a man whom Samuel Johnson described as having “blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness.” Depp himself is the first to agree.
“I definitely had a phase in my life when Rochester and I would have spent the night together,” says Depp. “He is a character I know in a lot of ways. Guys that are parallel to him are Jack Kerouac—great writer, but horribly misunderstood; Shane MacGowan—one of the greatest poets of the 20th century but he imbibed to a degree where we would all be in the gutter. And Hunter Thompson—a great hero and a great friend of mine. All these guys came into my mind.”
But Depp also saw closer parallels between himself and Rochester. “I recognised something that I had gone through. I quit drinking spirits because I wouldn't stop. I would just keep going until a black screen came down where you can't see anything any more and you don't know if you're around.”
Depp quit drinking, thinking it was “wasting time,” and in the same period he stopped doing drugs. “Trying to numb and medicate myself was never about recreation. It was existing without living. If I'd done this part 10 years ago, when John Malkovich first approached me and I agreed, it would have been very different. I would have made a dangerous mistake of trying to live it.
“Not necessarily going out and shagging everything that had a pulse, but drinking, and I would never have got through it. Ten years later, I have a solid foundation to stand on.”
The Johnny Depp of 10 years ago was a more destructive soul. He played a headless horseman (Sleepy Hollow) [Editor’s Note: actually, Johnny played Constable Ichabod Crane, who investigated the case of the headless horseman], an opium addict (From Hell), and had serially dark love affairs with gothic-looking actresses like Winona Ryder.
Then, of course, there was the raging, destructive, on-off relationship with Kate Moss. He regularly trashed hotel rooms (when he wasn't strewing them with flowers for Moss) before he left the model to settle down with the French singer Vanessa Paradis, who changed his life. [Editor’s Note: another bit of inaccuracy; Johnny didn’t “leave” Kate Moss for Vanessa Paradis; the relationship with Moss had ended.]
When we last met I had told him that he and Kate and all their tumult seemed to prove that true love exists. He got very wistful and said: "I don't think I was good for Kate." I'd read that he had taken an interest in her troubles, invited Pete Doherty out for lunch and warned him to “lay off the drugs. Be nice to Kate.” He reels back into the sofa. “Oy, oy, oy Jesus. That never happened. I've never met him. I like him in that I like his music very much.
“I think he has a great talent and it seems to me that he and Kate could be great together because she's a great girl. She's got a great brain on her and I think she's a good mummy.”
He is shocked at her treatment by newspapers. “Dragging her through the mud like that. They are weird and twofaced.”
When I tell him that Robbie Williams commented that the very hacks writing about “Cocaine Kate” are the ones he had done lines with, Depp says: “That's fantastic of him,” his eyes warming to a hot black.
“[Kate's] growing up,” he adds. “We all are. Let her be. But I never took Pete Doherty aside and I never sent her a mirror, as has been written.
“They said I sent a mirror to the place where she was getting straight because it is supposed to be an old Indian custom: look in the mirror and find your own strength to abstain. But I would never have thought a mirror would be the right thing to send her. I feel so bad for her.”
He has not spoken to her directly.
But his message to her? “Fuck 'em. They [the press] are trying to crucify her, and all that's gonna do is give her more power. She should take that and run with it. Ultimately I know she's very strong and very smart. She'll be fine.”
After the split with Moss, he fell in love almost at first sight with French singer and Moss lookalike Vanessa Paradis, who quickly became pregnant with Lily Rose, now six, then Jack, now three. Fatherhood revolutionized Depp. “I helped give our daughter life, and she gave me life.”
He is a die-hard romantic and believes that Vanessa is The One. He's fiercely loyal to her. “It's amazing to be parents together, that's the truth.” It is perhaps because of this fierce loyalty that he has never been in touch with Moss.
Does he believe it's possible to be in love with more than one person, I ask? “For some people it is,” he says. “Everybody's different. Some people, they call it an arrangement, don't they? But that's not for me. I'm old-fashioned. It's my Kentucky mentality. I can't seem to escape it.”
Depp and Paradis moved to France to bring up their children because he said LA was too violent. Has he become disenchanted after the recent riots and curfews that spread out from Paris? “It's insane that setting cars on fire is the new strike.
“It takes a lot away. I'm sure it'll clear up to a certain degree, but now we are based back in LA because I have work here. I went there [to France] to live because it seemed so simple. Now it's anything but. I don't know how they'll recover from this.”
Perhaps he'd like to move to London, I venture. “I love London. There's no shortage of comedy programmes—Johnny Vegas—restaurants and newspapers.”
Are you still a fan of the Mirabelle? “Oh yes, where I got arrested” [in 1999 Depp was held in a police cell for four hours after he chased a photographer outside the restaurant with a piece of wood]. “I'm not sure they want me back, but they do have a terrific wine list and I do like a good claret.”
Does he feel that character who chased the paparazzi is a long way away?
“Nooo. I think the perception of me over the years was off-kilter from who I really am. I mean, I've had my problems here and there, but I was reduced to the bad-boy rebel. But I really don't get that,” he adds.
“You know the incident at the Mirabelle was because they [the paparazzi] wanted to get a photograph of Vanessa and me and her tummy. She was about to burst and I thought, I am not going to allow fatherhood to commence as a novelty. I was already protective of my kiddies.”
I ask him if he wants more children. “Oh yes. I'm pretty good at it,” he says, twinkling. “They make me happy. Simple fun things. Me and my son zooming around in little cars or my absurd stories about Barbie dolls getting obsessed with peanut butter. And, of course, work keeps me happy.”
Next up is a story of an Australian bank robber who escaped maximum-security jail and went to live in Bombay as a slum doctor, then became involved with the Bombay mafia. It's an epic story. Bad boy turns good—and typical Johnny.
He rolls up another cigarette in black liquorice paper, the gold and platinum caps on his teeth glittering. They are very fetching. “It's for weekend appearances and kids' birthday parties. I'm Captain Jack Sparrow [his part in the children's blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean]—which is what I'm sure I'm destined for."
He laughs. “They're not permanent, but the dentist who does the violent scraping to get them off hasn't been available.” [Editor’s Note: Since the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were not finished shooting—they had another year to go—Johnny kept the gold caps on his teeth.]
So, from hotel-trasher to children's entertainer (he's off to film the third Pirates film soon)? There's a line in The Libertine where his character says: “Things I cannot do and feel in life I must do on stage.”
Is that how he feels? “No, and I don't think Rochester did. He was just masking things. I think he felt too much.
“He was looking for an escape from reality, from his thoughts, his fears, his pain.”
So his Libertine phase, he says, is ended.
But has it? His eyes light up when I produce a gift for him. Because the film features lots of 17th-century pornography and elegantly carved dildos, I bring him one from a chic Los Angeles sex-toy emporium called the Booty Parlor.
It's one that's been named after him. He is genuinely ecstatic and starts waving it around. “I haven't had one of these for 20 years. It's gorgeous.”
He says that he's going to put it in a frame similar to the ones fire extinguishers are held in.
Depp the libertine is back? There's a pause before he says: “It'll have a sign: break only in an emergency.”