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Heartbeat Poet

by Philip Berk
FilmInk Magazine
August 2006

Hollywood movie star or cutting edge indie hero? JOHNNY DEPP is both: he revisits the rakish rogue Captain Jack Sparrow in the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and lets fly as a sex-and-booze addicted poet in the indie Tthe Libertine. Not surprisingly, he delivers brilliance on both sides of the fence.

Generally conceded as the best actor of his generation, Johnny Depp is certainly the least predictable. Having completed two back-to-back Captain Jack Sparrows for Pirates Of The Caribbean, he’s free to take a stab at something different. Last January when I interviewed him, Depp was contemplating a number of offbeat movies, including the sprawling adventure Shantaram, Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, and a Hungarian project called Ballad of the Whiskey Robber; at that time he was enthusiastic about doing all of them. Six months later [in the interim he’s completed the second Pirates sequel], reports are flittering around that he’s in line to play Michael Hutchence in an INXS biopic. Even more mind boggling are claims that his ex-girlfriend Kate Moss has been signed to play Hutchence’s unhinged girlfriend Paula Yates.

As crazy as this sounds, it’s an interesting reflection on Johnny Depp’s career. Granted, he’s given great performances—as Ed Wood, Captain Jack, Willy Wonka, and some might add Donnie Brasco—but for the rest, it’s been more his unorthodox path to stardom that’s earned him his reputation. That is until The Libertine. The film came and went so fast in the US that you’d have to wonder if Disney had engineered its disappearance. Was the studio worried that Depp’s appearance in this sex-and-profanity-filled art film might adversely affect the Mouse Factory’s billion-dollar Pirates franchise? But truth be told, The Libertine is a Weinstein Company release, and is one of the few properties that Harvey took with him when he exited Miramax and Disney. Harvey happens to love Johnny’s performance in the film, but he admits that the movie is a tough sell. Only those who truly appreciate the art of great acting will be able to sit through it. I am one.

You may hate the movie, but even so, you’ll have to concede that Johnny gives a spectacular performance—staggering in every sense—and had it been judged fairly, he would have run off with all the acting awards last year. So now Australia has a chance to look at the film, and maybe give it its just reward. Ironically, Disney allowed Johnny time off from filming in the Bahamas to promote the movie. And in fact, he did as much press for The Libertine as he’s done for any movie. But alas, to no avail. Audiences beware: this is not a film for the squeamish or faint of heart. As Johnny himself told me, “I’ve told my kids they’re not going to see it until they’re, like, thirty . . . if then!”

So what exactly makes the film so shocking? Well, for one it’s about a libertine. Let Johnny explain. In the prologue to the movie, Johnny—as John Wilmot, the debauched, sexually outrageous Earl Of Rochester, who arrested his loins for long enough to pen scandalous poetry before drinking and shagging himself to an early grave—addresses the audience, “You’re not going to like me,” he warns us.

The very first line of the film is a challenge, and it’s something Johnny Depp responded to immediately. “I liked him when he delivers that challenge,” the actor says. “There’s something intriguing about being challenged. Once you start examining him, there are various layers you peel away. I saw that he was a drunk. I saw that he was self-destructive. I saw that he was vicious at times. But then you start thinking, “What got him there?” And as I read on, I discovered that he had been in the war, and as a very young man his battalion had been decimated. That experience plagued him for the rest of his life. ‘Why them and not me?’ So then I started to think of heroes I’ve had in the past, and artists I’ve had great admiration for. People like Vincent Van Gogh, Jack Kerouac, and Shane MacGowan, who I think is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. You start putting these things together, and you realise that the guy wasn’t vicious. He wasn’t cold or closed off, and he wasn’t a hedonist; he was hypersensitive. What he was doing was trying to mask his pain, to numb his pain. He was self medicating, and I could feel nothing but pity for him.”

As an artist, does he share those insecurities? “I don’t necessarily consider myself an artist,” Depp replies, “but there was a period of time when I couldn’t stand being looked at or pointed out in a street or restaurant. It took me a long time to get used to that. Not used to it, but accepting it as being not such a bad thing. I felt as though I’d been turned into a novelty. I could only be myself when I was alone. It made it difficult for me in social situations where I was expected to behave properly. So to compensate, I drank my guts out. It took me a number of years, maybe too many, to grow up and not take it all so seriously. The thing that gave me real perspective and understanding was getting together with Vanessa [Paradis] and the birth of my first child.”

The Libertine had been in pre-production for a long time, and Depp was involved almost from the get-go. “It was about ten years ago when John Malkovich called me to come and see the play and asked me to play the part in the film,” he explains. “He was playing the role of John Wilmot—we hadn’t met before—and I didn’t know why he’d invited me. I watched the play. I was amazed and devastated and thought it was brilliant. We went to dinner afterwards, and he goes, ‘I’d like you to play the role in the movie,’ and my first reaction was, ‘Why don’t you do it because you were brilliant onstage. You’d be amazing in the film.’ And he said very simply, ‘Well, because I want you to do it.’ And I went, ‘Okay, I’m in.’”

In the intervening years, he and Malkovich became neighbours, two expatriates living in Paris, France. Is John as languorous socially as he is in interviews, hanging onto every word he utters? “John makes me look like a speed talker,” Depp jokes. “He’s always like that, except when he’s acting. Then his motor gets revved up. I think he’s a brilliant actor, a great guy, a terrific man, and very funny, but it takes a long time for him to get to the point. You want to go, ‘John, spit it out.’”

The Libertine is dedicated to Marlon Brando, a dear friend of Depp’s. The pair starred together in Don Juan DeMarco and Depp directed the master actor in his sadly little-seen directorial debut The Brave. “When I arrived in London to start The Libertine, I had spoken to Marlon about the play,” Depp explains. “We were always in touch. He wasn’t familiar with John Wilmot, The Earl Of Rochester, but it was something I was excited to do because I thought it would be a film he might want to watch. And then when we finished the film, I got the news that Marlon had passed away, and as you can imagine it was like a direct blow to the skull. I decided then to send this one out to Marlon because he never got to see it. And it wasn’t long after within the same year that Hunter S. Thompson made his exit. He was a another dear friend and a great hero; so I thought it was right to make that dedication because there was a lot of the artist in Marlon. There was also a lot of the artist in Hunter. There was a lot of the artist in Rochester, too, as tormented as he was. I wanted to give that to them. It’s not very much—just a little salute to my friends.”

Not surprisingly, Depp sees parallels between hard living gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson [Depp played his alter ego Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas] and the sexed up, morally audacious John Wilmot. “In the early ‘70s, Hunter was inventing a new style of journalism, a new voice, and that’s what John Wilmot was doing 400 years earlier. He’s been written off through the centuries as a pornographer, a lunatic, a drunk, and a hedonist, but I can tell you, I went to the British Library, and I was blessed to have his actual letters in front of me, written in his own hand, to his wife, to his mother, to his kids. So what I was reading wasn’t pornography. They were beautifully poetic letters from a concerned father, from a tortured human being to his wife. He was a great artist—it was a waste what he did to himself—but I believe he made a great contribution.”

Depp, however, doesn’t see Wilmot’s booze-and-sex sodden brand of self-destruction as being solely peculiar to artists. “I think it happens to others as well,” he says, “but we just pay more attention to creative people. I believe it happens to everyone. When you’re unstable or sensitive, you’re looking for an outlet for your pain or confusion. I found an outlet for my weirdness when I was twelve-years-old. It was the guitar. That was my whole life until I started acting. I think we’re all looking for some outlet. We’re all weird. That we know,” he jokes.

Depp’s performance in the film is the rich, full-bodied kind that cries out for a proscenium arch. Has he ever thought of doing theatre? “I’ve thought about it, but I’m too scared to attempt it even though I’m aware fear is a necessary ingredient in everything you do. And as an actor you should be afraid of taking risks and be prepared to fail miserably. The audience deserves that. If you do the same thing over and over, they’ll pick up on it. They’ll go, ‘Oh well, he’s just phoning it in. He’s not doing the work.’ One of the things that Marlon said to me was, ‘You should play Hamlet,’ and I said ‘Come now! Go from doing no theatre at all straight to Hamlet?’ and he said, ‘Do it now, while you’re still young enough.’ He said, ‘I never got to do it. I never did,’ so it’s the one thing that’s always spun around in my head, playing Hamlet. If I did, I’d like to do it in a room that seats maybe forty. I wouldn’t want it to be some big sprawling epic. I’d like to do something small. There’s less room to fall,” and then jokingly he adds, “You hurt yourself when you pass out.”

Despite his intense passion for The Libertine, Depp is not quite prepared to recommend it without reservation. “I think it’s a good movie, but it’s not for everybody,” he says. “And it would be irresponsible of me to say to the kiddies who watched Pirates and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory to come see it.”

Despite the masses of acclaim that Depp has received [including an Oscar nomination] for his imaginative creation of Captain Jack Sparrow, he found more inherent difficulty in playing the rakish John Wilmot. “With both, you’re doing your best to serve your character, to serve the author, to deliver the director’s vision, and the writer’s vision. But when John Malkovich talked to me about doing The Libertine, I’d been doing Pirates with its comedic twists and stuff. Suddenly you realise that this is a lot to chew on. You have to take yourself to places that are not really fun; so in that sense it was more difficult. With Pirates or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it was all about making Tim Burton laugh or making the crew laugh. With this, it was very intense and emotional and a little ugly; so I guess it was more difficult.”

Six months later, and Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the first of two sequels intended to repeat the blockbuster business done by the first, is upon us. The film is big, bloated, and over plotted, but Johnny’s performance is as inventive as ever and I apologise to him for ever having suggested that he might have sold out. Rest assured, he hasn’t! He arrives for his press duties looking surprisingly healthy; you’d think he’d quit smoking but he hasn’t. He’s calm and serene, and hasn’t lost any of his unalloyed charm. His candour—when talking about his lack of facial hair or his tempestuous on-screen kiss (no telling with whom)—takes your breath away. And when he chuckles approvingly about something he’s just said, you have to love him.

My first question to Depp is about The Libertine, and he has no idea that the film is just opening in Australia. Was he disappointed when it came and went unnoticed in the US?

“I was,” he replies, “The horrible thing is that I’d been attached to that project for ten years. The process was gruelling and exhausting, as it is for everyone when they do a labour of love. It’s a film I’m proud of because everyone’s work in it is very good. And then, as you say, it came and went so quickly. I think it was simply a case of mismanagement. It wasn’t a good product for them to sell, and that’s a drag because everyone worked very hard. But even though it was critically and financially a flop, to me it’s a great success because we got it done. We were able to do what we wanted to do, and I feel good about it. Obviously I was disappointed that it got mismanaged but I think it will have a long life. People will have a chance to see it on DVD and make their own choices.”

The same fate is not likely for the Pirates sequel. The film already is being touted as the summer’s top moneymaker. But for Depp, it represents something else; a chance to investigate the fascinating character of Captain Jack even further. “I didn’t want to say goodbye to him,” Depp says. “I wanted to spend time with him again, and as far as going back and watching the first Pirates to get the essence or the feeling of Captain Jack, the truth is that I avoided it. I didn’t watch it. It was very simply just strapping back into the costume and going through that process again, stepping on set and seeing all the familiar faces, the same crew members. It felt like we’d taken a week’s break.”

This sequel assumes that bigger is better. Was he involved in that decision? “The most important decision in making a sequel is to not rely on whatever formula made the first successful,” Depp replies. “We wanted the second and third to stand on their own as self contained films, yet at the same time we wanted them to make sense in terms of a trilogy. And that was no small feat. But I think the director and the writers achieved it. I don’t think anyone went in saying, ‘We need to top the first one.’ The real task was trying to exceed everyone’s expectations and yet leave room for the magic of the first one.” Even the idea of a fourth film is met with a smile. “If the scripts were good enough and they had something to offer, I’d keep going. I think there’s still more to explore. For me, he’s endlessly entertaining to play. He’s really fun to be.”

And this time, there was no interference from the powers-that-be regarding his unapologetic “gay” interpretation of the character. “That was the one advantage I had on this one,” Depp laughs. “We weren’t getting the panicked phone calls, and the threats we had on the first film like, ‘You’re ruining the movie!’ which gave me the added confidence to play it as I did.”

As with the first film, there were manifold physical challenges. “Being strapped into this massive wheel and rolling upside down days on end was the worst,” Depp laughs. “I really didn’t mind that, but at some point they struck my foot, and I lost feeling in the upper half of my left foot. For four months you could put a pin in it and I couldn’t feel it. It was scary.”

How about the kiss? Apparently when asked who the better kisser was, he or Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley named him. Without missing a beat, Depp responds, “That’s funny . . . I thought Orlando was a great kisser.” After the laughter subsides, he gets serious. “It’s always awkward, kissing someone that you’re not romantically involved with. But then it’s acting, it’s fake. And the fact that Keira is twenty some years younger than me made it infinitely more awkward. But she was a good sport about it. We just sort of did what we had to do, and then it was over, and we moved onto the next thing.”

Looking back over the three years he’s devoted to Captain Jack, does he have any regrets? “The thing I’ve always wanted regardless of success or failure is to look back on my work and feel I did all right. I’m proud of that. I didn’t sell out. I didn’t make a bad choice for the wrong reason. So really, that’s all I care about. I’m looking forward to the time when my kids will be able to say, ‘You did well, pop. You did well.” I know it’s crazy, but even the ones that could be the worst of the worst, an absolute dog, it happened for a reason, and there was something to be gained, maybe a learning experience. I don’t regret any of it now.”

In Dead Man’s Chest, British actor Bill Nighy is hidden behind a phantasmagoria of CGI as the film’s chief villain, Davey Jones. Depp shakes his head in bemusement. “Bill Nighy is the most patient man alive,” he says. “He had his little grey outfit on with the black stripes and the ping pong balls [whereby the computer animators took their cues] and his cap. One of the most disconcerting moments I’ve every had was knowing that he’s going to have those tentacles hanging from his face and being told, ‘Watch out when you step round him. Make sure you don’t step on the tentacles.’ And yet it’s Bill standing there in that weird outfit.”

The pirates—particularly in Dead Man’s Chest—look like they could use a bath. Knowing how hot and steamy it is in the Bahamas, did that ever pose a problem on the set? Taken aback by the question, Depp gathers his thoughts. “I’ve never been asked that question before,” he laughs, “but I’m determined to answer it. Let’s see. Personal hygiene. I can only speak for myself. Once you get off work, and you had all sorts of makeup, you have to be scoured. You have to take a hot fire hose to yourself. From what I could tell, the majority of the cast and crew were of a similar feeling. You do, however, hit the odd foul smell, but it’s occasional and you can either get past it or know that the wind will change any second. Everybody looks like they stink real bad, but in fact they don’t. It’s the magic of the movies.”

For the past two years—even when promoting Finding Neverland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory—he’s always sporting a Captain Jack beard. How come? “Oh, that’s a good question,” he laughs. “It’s very simple and a little embarrassing because if I shave, it would take me months and months and months, like a half year, to grow it back. What I have is like a full beard for me. [Pointing] Seven hairs here, three over there, all this kind of patchy stuff, and that’s it. That’s all I get. So if I shaved, they’d have to glue something on, and that wouldn’t work. So that’s the answer.”

The one thing he doesn’t talk about is the island he owns in the Bahamas. But while doing press for Charlie And The Chocolate Factory in the Bahamas, he acknowledged ownership. “I still have trouble,” he apologised. “I refer to it as ‘the’ island. I have difficulty saying ‘my’ before that word. We get there as much as possible. It’s a very special part of the balance. The idea of going to a place where there are no telephones, no cars, no streetlights or noises or anything. There’s just nature and the sea and the wind and the sun. It brings things down to its absolute base level. And for the kids it’s a great education.”

Despite Depp’s celebrity, he insists that his children—daughter Lily-Rose and son Jack—have a relatively normal life. “They do their schooling, and they play with their friends. Okay, they get to go to Disneyland maybe a little more often than other kids, but that’s part of the gig. I haven’t really noticed any difference.”

As for the future, Depp is tightlipped despite the variety of rumours flying around linking him to all manner of projects. “I report back to the Bahamas in August to complete the third Pirates film and after that nothing is in place,” he says.

In the meantime Shantaram has been delayed [director Peter Weir has walked off the project under mysterious circumstances] and because Tim Burton’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not project with Jim Carrey has been delayed a year, Paramount is scrambling to find a replacement. Believe it or not, they’ve put Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd—about the 19th century murderous barber who sold his kills to the local butcher for use in his famous meat pies [Editor's note—actually not a butcher, but the pie-maker Mrs. Lovett]—on the fast track. “Tim and I have had discussions about it,” Depp says. “Everything’s looking very good. It’s a great opportunity to be working with Tim again. This would be our sixth film together and our first musical. I love the score, not that I’m a singer. I would never claim to be one, but I am willing to give it a shot. I think it might be all right. I’ve always felt it important to try different stuff. And growing up, I was a guitar player. I was a musician for most of my life. I am musically inclined. I am not tone deaf . . . at least not yet,” he jokes. “I would definitely work with a vocal coach . . . at least until they fire me!”

Is he still enjoying being a daddy? “Oh yeah,” he replies enthusiastically. “The kids—especially at this age of seven and four years old—are a high energy, high stakes experience. It’s never boring, and it’s always fun. It’s interesting the way they grow, and how quickly they grow up. My daughter is exiting that Barbie period and moving into fashion accessories, real teenage stuff, which is unbelievable to witness. It’s amazing because it’s no longer about princesses and fairies and all that. Now she wants to watch big girl television. It’s frightening. And Jack, my boy Jack, is still a blessing. He’s discovered superheroes, which is really fun. Now he’s going into the area of comic books, an area I happen to be pretty good in. Vanessa and I have been lucky enough to spend much of our time with the kids, but we also take time for ourselves. You’ve got to remain not only lovers but friends as well.”

Do their careers ever collide? “The good thing about Vanessa is that she can pack a bag and split. She can still do her work when I’m filming. In terms of her music, she can play, she can write, she can do her demos. She’ll fly to France for a couple of weeks and then come back. She’s working on an album right now that’s really promising. The only tough time I can remember was a couple of years ago when my daughter wasn’t yet two. Vanessa had a concert tour to do, and she had to go on the road. We didn’t have a nanny; so I was the tour daddy. We travelled by bus and watched The Wizard Of Oz 7000 times. I was just being poppa, and I had the distinct impression that my daughter wanted to spend more time with her mother. Understandably that was a great challenge entertaining a two-year-old. That was tough!”

-- donated by Deppink