It’s a Pirates’ life for actor Johnny Depp who after doing a round of publicity is back to the set of the third Pirates of The Caribbean movie, At World’s End. Depp’s popular character Captain Jack Sparrow has created legions of new fans for the actor, and spawned an animatronics replica in the actual Pirates ride at Disneyland. During his gauntlet with the press Depp talked with iF about playing Jack Sparrow, what his kids think of his line of work, and what sort of projects he would like to do on next.
iF MAGAZINE: You make your comic pratfalls look easy and effortless but this isn’t easy and effortless. How do you get the timing so right and how hard do you have to work in making these falls look accidental and comic?
JOHNNY DEPP: Oh boy. That’s the key. How do you keep it fresh? How do you keep it working? For me, there’s a real fine art to the timing that I’m still working on because you go back and watch guys like Chaplin and Keaton or even in the dramatic roles, Lon Chaney. The timing, especially in those silent films is just astonishing. But also in today’s cinema, timing can be helped or hindered by editing. So I don’t know. I just sort of do my best.
Speaking of timing, what did you think when you heard about Keith Richards falling out of the palm tree, and were you concerned that he might not be able to star in Pirates of The Caribbean: At World’s End?
I thought that was bad timing. But it solidified my belief that he would be the perfect father for Captain Jack. Initially we were all super-worried—“My God, what has he done?” But being in touch with his people, his camp, I know that he’s doing fine and it was a momentary lapse and he’s back on the road soon and totally cool.
You were at the launch of the new revamped Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. How weird was it for your kids seeing a robot impersonating their dad as Jack Sparrow? How much did your kids contribute to your decision to do Pirates?
My kids were as excited as I was to see the animatronics figures at Disneyland. Yeah, they were pretty freaked out by that, as was I. Again, talking about timing being everything, right around the time I was offered Pirates, there was no script, no story at all, no characters, no nothing. At the time my daughter was two-and-a-half, three years old, so I’d spent those three years watching nothing but those Disney animated features from way back or old Tex Avery cartoons and tons and tons of animated stuff. Which was unbelievably helpful for me because through that time [watching the cartoons] I became obsessed with the notion that these cartoon characters, these animated characters didn’t have to play by the same rules as we did in live action cinema. The boundaries were quite wide and the parameters were really stretched out so they could fly around a lot more, and also the notion that a three-year-old could sit there and watch these characters with a 40-year-old and a 75-year-old and all walk away with the same experience, that universal thing, so you become a child again. I would say more than anything that was the main ingredient in Captain Jack for me.
Is there any truth to the rumor that you’re going to play INXS singer Michael Hutchence in a film?
It actually isn’t, it’s not true. But the funny thing is someone sent that to me and I read it and thought, “Wow, that’s kind of interesting because no one ever approached me about it.” I don’t think I’d be the guy to play Michael. I knew him pretty well and I think you’d need someone a little more, well, he was pretty broad Michael. He was a kind of a glam guy, like a god, like a shaman. I don’t think I’d be the guy.
What about playing a young Keith Richards?
Now that would be fun.
We’ve heard you stay in character when you shoot the film. Does that make your interaction different with your kids when they’re with you on set?
Well put it this way, it’s not that you stay in character, but because you’ve spent the majority of your day as that character, there is some let’s say residue by the time you get home. I’d get home and say [in Jack Sparrow voice], “Alright kids, everything alright?” And they’d say, “Dad, come on, I’m watching Spider-man.” To say they were used to it is a very kind way of putting it.
So Tobey Maguire is a hero in your house?
Oh man, Spider-man, Justice League. My boy has now gone into that full-on superhero phase. But I refuse to wear the tights.
If you had Jack’s compass, which direction would it be pointing?
It would be pointing wherever my family is.
What was your initial reaction when Disney executives panicked on first seeing dailies of your Jack Sparrow during the first movie, asking “Is he drunk, is he gay?”
This is totally irresponsible of me, but I thought it was hilarious. I really got a kick out of it because they were so worried, they were so freaked out, and it was so serious. And there were moments when you were in a very quiet sort of story situation, and you just go [trying to hold in laughter] "I lost myself, I went crazy.” It got close you know. They were definitely considering giving me the boot and I was okay with that really. But I really felt like I had a handle on the character and I knew what I was doing and that they had to trust me or fire me. And they didn’t fire me.
And how was it kissing Keira Knightley?
Oh the smooch. Well those things are always so awkward especially because Keira and I have never been in that kind of situation together. She’s three and I’m a thousand. I’m Methuselah and she’s a toddler. There was that, but more than anything, we’ve known each other for a couple of years and suddenly it was, “Are you ready for this?” And you just kind of do it. It becomes more like a stunt in a way. “Where’s my double?” She was a great sport about it. She was really sweet.
You might be a thousand, but you have this childlike quality about you. Where does that come from?
It’s probably ignorance. I might just be really dumb, I don’t know. What keeps you a child more than anything is your kids, hanging around your kids, watching them experience things for the first time, seeing new things, watching them develop smarts about various things and seeing their imaginations bloom and flower. That’s the key to all of it for me. Just the miracle of saving a drawing they made when they were three years old and looking at one they made when they were four, there’s a vast difference in that. And then up to six and seven and it’s like, “I’m raising Picasso.”
Can you talk about why you’re so comfortable living in France?
Well it’s a beautiful culture. It’s an absolutely perfect kind of culture, steeped in history, fascinating in that way. I’ve always been a real history fiend and, also on a personal level, I’m not sure that art in cinema is possible any more in Hollywood. But in Europe there’s a real regard for the filmmaker and the writer, the product too, sure, the end result. But they respect authors, painters, filmmakers, film, and creativity. They celebrate it. And the wine is pretty good.
Was 21 Jump Street the real turning point in your career?
That was a very important learning experience for me. That three and a half or four years I spent on Jump Street was my college, my schooling. It was great training, being in front of the camera five days a week, seven to nine months out of the year. You learn a lot about the process, cameras, lenses, lights; very good training. But the other thing that was very important for me was a situation that I was very uncomfortable with, the fact that they had turned my image of this character I was playing and sold it to the masses as me. This ball was rolling and it was greasy and I couldn’t get a hold of it, I couldn’t stop it, I couldn’t do anything, say anything. I just had to behave and be that guy for them. So as miserable an experience as that was for me it was actually instrumental in deciding where I would go after that. After I was out of that contract, I swore to myself I would never be that again, I would never let anyone do that to me.
So you went off and made Cry-Baby with John Waters.
Cry-Baby was the first sort of catapult out of that. They wanted me to go this way and I decided, “No, no, no, get John Waters over here.”
What is it like working with Chow Yun Fat on Pirates 3?
I think once we get into the ring, no matter where you’re from, everyone has their own process, everyone has a different approach to the work. I knew he was a good actor obviously, I’d seen him in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and I knew his work was terrific. More than that, I was really impressed with who he is as a human, as a guy. He’s very down to earth, a lot of fun. Probably the best way to describe the guy is adorable. He’s a super-sweet, very together, very centered man. I was really pleased to get to know him.
How’s your French now? Might we see you speaking French in a French movie some time soon?
It’s all right here and there. I can get through a conversation. I did a film a couple of years ago, right after Secret Window, Ils Se Marierent Et Eurent Beaucoup D’Enfants with Yvan Attal. I didn’t see the movie to be honest. But he’s a filmmaker I like very much, he’s very talented and there are great possibilities for the future; so if I did a movie in French I would definitely feel comfortable doing it with Yvan. Patrice Leconte is terrific too, going back to The Hairdresser’s Husband, and I thought his work with Vanessa [Paradis] in The Girl on the Bridge was stellar. He’s another one I’d very much like to work with. Of course the people I’d love to have worked with are people like Jean Gabin, Louis De Funes. I loved De Funes. I think he’s one of the greatest actors of all time.
Are you celebrating France’s magnificent victory today in the World Cup?
I just heard about that. The last time I followed the World Cup was in 1998 and it was only because I had a standing bet with Hunter S. Thompson about the outcome. And it was the only time—and I’ll say it as many times as I can because I’m so proud—it was the only time I ever won a bet with Hunter.
We know you based the character in the first film on Keith Richards. What did he have to say about that and what else did you bring to Jack this time?
Well I was scared. But his reaction was terrific. He was very supportive and has been ever since. When we were hanging out together before I did Pirates, it wasn’t like I told him, “I’m sponging parts of your soul.” So he was great about it. And what am I bringing to this version of Captain Jack. Basically he’s the same guy. There’s a purity to the character. We’ve seen him panic, we’ve seen him on the run but this is the first time we’ve really seen him in mortal fear, really afraid for his life. Once Davy Jones says, “Time’s up, you’ve got to pay up”, there’s real panic there and he knows the clock is ticking, so that’s what I was trying to do.