Four years, one month and eight days after he first walked on set as Captain Jack Sparrow and signaled the start of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, Johnny Depp raised a glass of champagne to toast the completion of his last scenes on the final part of the Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy, At World’s End.
As cast and crew, led by director Gore Verbinski, clapped and cheered, Depp was presented with a framed collage of photos from the shoot and a giant celebratory cake, decorated with toy pirates and ships. The iced inscription read: “Dearest Jack, may your compass always lead you back to us.” It was all very emotional.
“I didn’t get teary-eyed or anything,” Depp says boldly, before conceding, “Well, maybe a little bit. It wasn’t hysterical sobbing. But it goes deep into your body and into your soul. Captain Jack has brought a lot of good things into my world, and into my kiddies’ world. I’ll always hold him in very high regard. It’s been an absolute pleasure to play him; frankly, it’s been a total blast.”
Indeed it has. No one could have possibly imagined what fun it would be watching Johnny Depp playing Keith Richards playing a deranged pirate, especially when it was first announced that Jerry ‘Pearl Harbor’ Bruckheimer would be producing. But with its largely British cast, brilliant action scenes, glorious sets and rollicking sense of humor—this chiefly from Depp himself—it has been a monster box-office hit; which is why letting go was something of a trial.
Depp’s final moments were filmed at an old aircraft hangar in Palmdale, just north of Los Angeles, where a replica of Sparrow’s beloved ship, The Black Pearl, had been built. One of the scenes saw Sparrow all alone and wrestling with his conscience—a suitably reflective moment on which to bow out of the role.
“He was having a good-versus-evil dialogue with himself. It was one of those moments where you are just doing anything you can to postpone it. Gore said, ‘I think we’ve got everything, but do you want another take?’ And I said, ‘Yes, let’s do another take. Let me try something else.’ But it was only because I didn’t want to face the inevitable. I’d been that person for umpteen months. I didn’t want to say goodbye.”
From a purely commercial viewpoint, one can sympathize. Thanks to the phenomenal success of Pirates—the second movie, Dead Man’s Chest, grossed more than $1 billion and is the third-most successful film of all time—he now finds himself at the very top of the Hollywood tree. Indeed, a recent movie power list placed him at number two in a roll-call of the world’s most influential actors, second only to Will Smith. Depp now earns upwards of £8 million a movie.
In recent years, as he’s become more successful, his own style off-screen has become increasingly eccentric. Today, at 43, he’s as unconventional as ever. In a suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel, Depp wears a heavy, blue-check cowboy shirt with the collar turned up and a skinny black tie. The look is topped off with a grey trilby and two-day stubble. His hair is shoulder length and his hands are adorned with rings—a skull and crossbones (a souvenir from Pirates), a heavy platinum band with diamonds on his wedding finger (although he’s not married to his partner, French actress Vanessa Paradis) and an ornate gold signet ring. He has two tattoos. Jack, the name of his five-year-old son, is emblazoned on his right forearm, his daughter’s name, Lily-Rose, who is seven, is on the other. [Editors note: Lily-Rose's name is not tattooed on his arm; her name is on his chest, over his heart.]
It’s a relief to be sitting here with him; it’s taken a year to set up this interview. This is not normal. For a movie this size, the star would usually be expected to devote days of his time to promotional interviews for the film. But Pirates is effectively self-promoting, and Depp himself is at a level of stardom where he gets to choose what press he wants to do. Today, American TV journalists have been required to fly in to London to meet him. Later, a satellite feed will be open so he can take questions from a huge press conference back in California. When he sits down alone with Live, it’s the only print interview in the world he’s doing for the film.
Thus I find him perched on a sofa, offering me a glass of wine—Depp hasn’t touched “hard liquor”, as he puts it, since his younger, wilder days. Back then he was drinking heavily—“self-medicating” he calls it now. “It was trying not to feel anything,” he explains. “My drug of choice back then was alcohol. It might have had the facade of being recreational, but even then I knew it wasn’t.
“I would end up having to go places or do things that I didn’t want to do, and it went against the grain. I would end up in these strange situations, making small talk with people I didn’t particularly know. I literally had to be drunk to be able to speak and get through it. I had a keen idea that it was not good at that point. But you get liquored up and then once you are in that spiral you don’t even get hangovers any more. You wake up and have another drink.”
Which, conveniently, is the impression Rolling Stone Keith Richards has been giving the world for decades. When Depp walked on to the set of the first Pirates movie and launched into his punch-drunk cockney rendition of a pirate, the producers had a collective heart attack. Depp would not be dissuaded; he was basing the character on Richards, whom he met in the mid-Nineties through the guitarist’s son, Marlon, a friend of Depp’s. The same panic-stricken executives have, naturally enough, since lauded the interpretation as a triumph; so much so that Richards got a cameo in the third film.
The sequence was shot over seven days and involved the assembly of a council of ‘pirate lords.’ Richards, as Jack’s father, Captain Teague Sparrow, is the keeper of the pirate code to which even the most dastardly scallywag must abide.
“Keith was just so cool. Seeing him arrive for work, totally prepared, at 7.30 in the morning—it was incredible,” Depp recalls. “And then he just smoked us. The crew had been working together since 2002, but it was the first time I’d seen all of them on set. Instead of 200 people it was 1,000, all trying to get a glimpse of the maestro.
“I don’t think he has ever done a film before, but he came in like a gunfighter. He said, ‘Oh, so I stand here and say this and then I walk over here and do this.’ And the director said, ‘Yes, that would be great.’ And he did it in two takes. Gore said, ‘Oh. OK. Next!’ I called him Two Take Richards.”
After filming, Depp—a guitarist himself—and Richards would retire to his trailer for a drink. “I would have my glass of wine and Keith would have his usual. He drinks something called a Nuclear Waste, a secret concoction of his. Then he’d play guitar. We didn’t jam together because I’m so miserably shy. The furthest I got was when he was showing me this mandolin-type instrument he uses in the film. I plunked a few chords on that and then it was like, ‘OK, thank you. I’m done.’ And I gave it right back. I mean, he’s a god. He’s the master. Keith’s a terrific guy to hang out with, but he’s one of my guitar heroes and I can never escape that.”
You sense the Richards-fuelled Sparrow, the rock ’n’ roll pirate, has dominated Depp’s life so completely that even now, some six months since he finished filming, he still struggles to put the experience into perspective.
“I’m still swimming in it,” he says. “I loved the experience and even at its most grueling it was a blast. It was physically demanding for all of us, but none of it bothered me. I loved Captain Jack from the first moment I read the script. It wasn’t my intention to sell out and I don’t believe I have. I had pretty solid ideas about who he was and what he should be like. But there were a number of people who thought I was nuts.”
Indeed, upon closer inspection, Sparrow bears all the hallmarks of a classic Depp character—eccentric, rebellious, funny—with a decidedly unconventional dress sense. “All the guys I’ve played are outsiders,” says Depp. “Whether it’s Cry-Baby or Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood. They’re all a bit outside the norm.”
Depp often felt like an outsider as a teenager; it was an emotion that would inform his later work as an actor. “I felt completely and utterly confused by everything that was going on around me. I didn’t get any of it. It wasn’t so much that I felt outside of something as much as I didn’t feel inside of something and didn’t want to, either. I saw these boys and girls competing for most popular this and that, the Prom Queen or the Prom King, and it was like, ‘Jesus, what bollocks.’”
He fell into acting by accident when he was introduced to Nicolas Cage by his girlfriend, Lori Anne Allison—who later, briefly, would be his wife—on a trip to Los Angeles. Cage suggested he try his luck in front of the cameras and Depp went for several auditions before making his screen debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Casting directors raced to cash in on his chiseled good looks and teen appeal, but Depp instead chose one quirky role after another.
If his roles were troubled, so was his life. He has consistently been a magnet for beautiful women—he was engaged to the actress Winona Ryder and had a long, tempestuous relationship with Kate Moss—but was confrontational and surly during interviews. He trashed hotel rooms [Editor's note: only one hotel room] and snarled at photographers. Once, during the Cannes Film Festival, a whole day of press to promote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was cancelled when he failed to leave his room after a late night partying with Moss.
He says now that he was struggling to come to terms with what was happening to him—the fame and the money and the advisers who, back then, were simply telling him to cash in and make more.
“You have people around you who have access to you on a business level, and they are saying, ‘Look, you can do this movie, you can make this much money and you will be a huge success.’ And I remember thinking, ‘I don't know what the answer is but I know it ain’t that.’ Success or notoriety or fame, or whatever the horrible word, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted.”
These days Depp couldn’t be more polite. Meeting Paradis and having children has certainly helped make him far more at ease with himself. He says he is blessed, which he and his family indeed were after Lily-Rose was rushed to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital in March this year.
Her kidneys shut down after she reportedly suffered E. coli poisoning. She nearly died. Depp and Paradis kept vigil at her bedside for nine days while she lay critically ill. Depp refused to return to the set of his latest film, Sweeney Todd, until she was out of danger, forcing filming to be stopped. He is visibly pained when I raise it. “You know what, it wasn’t blood poisoning, but I’d rather not go into details. It was hell for us all, but Lily-Rose pulled us through it. She was amazing—a strong, strong kid. It was the most frightening thing we have ever been through. But the magic is that she pulled through perfectly, beautifully. Great Ormond Street were terrific, such a great hospital.”
It was no coincidence that Depp was in Britain at the time; he is an Anglophile, happiest working with British actors and crews. He lives mostly in the South of France and has a home in the Bahamas, but he feels at home in the UK, filming projects including Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and now Sweeney Todd, his sixth film with Tim Burton. His language is peppered with words like “mate” and “bollocks” and he’s good friends with Paul Whitehouse.
“I’ve always had a good thing with the Brits,” he says.”It’s the sense of humor. I’ve always felt 100 per cent at home in Britain and in London. I’m also fascinated by the history. I’ve loved taking weird little sojourns down to Bath or Rye or Chichester, or just wandering around Canterbury.” He says he collects old documents and first-edition books and will often set off, on his own, to research a role in unlikely parts of England. When he played debauched 17th-century poet the Earl of Rochester in The Libertine, he spent endless hours exploring Rochester’s old haunts.
Captain Jack Sparrow is a true Brit, of course. And At World’s End has a mostly British cast, including Naomie Harris, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Tom Hollander, Bill Nighy, Kevin McNally, Jack Davenport and Mackenzie Crook.
The film has a ring of finality to it, but Depp still can’t let it go. “You can never say never. If I were approached to play Captain Jack again, under the right circumstances, with all the right elements involved and a good script, I would give it serious thought. There are things that crop up in your mind—‘flogging a dead horse’ and ‘gilding the lily’ are two of them. But they don’t apply from my perspective. It doesn’t matter if the film makes a zillion dollars and breaks records. As long as it’s for the right reasons, I think you are in good shape.”
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End is out on Friday.
A quick scan through the cast list for the Pirates trilogy reveals 80 per cent of the players to be British. “I love British actors,” beams the film’s director Gore Verbinski, “they are classically trained.”
Of course, there is the commonly held assumption that those devils of the seven seas hailed from Blighty’s shores. “If you think of Captain Hook, that may be right,” says Verbinksi, who emphasizes that English accents sound more historically authentic.
Thus, as well as the heroes—Johnny Depp pretending to be British (we think), Orlando Bloom (as Will Turner), and Keira Knightley (as Elizabeth Swann)—we have the Anglo-pirates: Mackenzie Crook (as Ragetti) and Kevin McNally (as The Black Pearl’s first mate Joshamee Gibbs). And then a fair spread of ‘stiffs-in-wigs’ as Jack Davenport describes those who don’t get to dress up in pirate clobber. These include Davenport (as the duplicitous Norrington), Jonathan Pryce (as Elizabeth’s father, Governor Weatherby Swann) and Tom Hollander (as the dastardly Lord Beckett, commander-in-chief of the East India Company). Not forgetting Bill Nighy, the man beneath the computerized flesh of Davy Jones, albeit with a strong Scottish accent. All of which gave the set an air of home-from-home.
“We had this sort of unofficial British dining club,” laughs Hollander. “Basically, there was really only one place anybody wanted to eat in the Bahamas.”
“We were quite open-hearted though,” adds Nighy. “We would even invite Americans.”
McNally noticed the Britishness actually started to spread. “It was like an attack of scurvy; the crew, including the director, all started developing what passed for English accents. It was sort of a singsongy thing, saying ‘mate’ at the end of everything.”
Even Depp seemed to change nationalities on set. “He’s a great Anglophile and goes round saying ‘bugger’ and ‘damn’ all day long,” says McNally. “We did try to imprint a bit of class on everyone—although I’m not sure it worked.”