In his new film, the probable Oscar contender adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning Broadway musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Johnny Depp plays the titular haircutter, throat slitter and serial killer. Directed by regular collaborator and best friend, the Hollywood Goth Tim Burton, it’s an intensely atmospheric and stomach-churningly gruesome horror movie that recreates Victorian London in black, white and plenty of scarlet. But beyond that, Sweeney Todd is also a tragic romance and a passionate tale of revenge.
“It’s the story of a man who becomes obsessed with avenging the horror of what happened to him,” says Depp, who’s in the big smoke on promotional duties, today dressed down in jeans and checked shirt, and evidently in a playful mood. “The idea of revenge is something most people don’t want to admit to. But I think we all have it, secretly somewhere in there. I’m a big fan of revenge. But I can’t give you an example,” the enviably good-looking 44-year-old says with a poker-face, “because I don’t want to implicate myself.”
Depp has defined his idiosyncratic acting career by playing an assortment of oddballs and bad boys, from John Water’s Cry Baby and Burton’s Edward Scissorhands to his stoned buccaneer in Pirates of the Caribbean (for which priceless comic turn he was nominated for an Oscar) and now the tormented mass-murderer of old London town. And having bucked the system Depp has, against the odds, became star and a sex symbol. His has been an uncommon success story.
“I suppose it’s just luck of the draw, really,” Depp says with a shrug. “I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to play all these different characters, whether they’re androgynous like [transvestite] Ed Wood, or incredibly macho like Captain Jack Sparrow. Sweeney’s a dark figure, but a hyper-sensitive one who has experienced something very traumatic in his life. I always saw him as a victim. I do believe that you have to bring some degree of truth from yourself to a role . . .”
Depp won’t get specific on this matter. When asked what part of himself he brought to the razor-wielding gullet slasher, he becomes evasive with a quip: “Okay, I’ll admit it here: I have shaved a grown man before. But he did survive, and he’s walking around to this day.”
Just as this joker’s career has taken an unconventional course, so too has Depp’s personal life. Born in a Kentucky backwater, Depp left school at age 15 (the year his parents divorced) to become a rock musician. He played guitar with a band named The Kids (once supporting Iggy Pop), got into the kind of trouble at which juvenile delinquents excel, married at 20, divorced two years later, and took a shot at acting (after being encouraged by fellow wild child Nicolas Cage), making his film debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Depp avoided the all-too-common fate in Hollywood of becoming typecast—as a pretty boy, obviously—by making Edward Scissorhands. He credits Burton with rescuing him from the Hollywood meat factory, which the Goth and his dark fairytale did by paving the way for all the offbeat films Depp subsequently made.
Then, in 1999, just as he was becoming an established star, Depp quit America to make his home in France with the French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis. They met in Paris while he was making Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, and soon after conceived a daughter, Lily-Rose. Depp credits his girls with transforming him from a bad boy to a family man. Nowadays, he and his family (expanded to a foursome with the arrival of son Jack five years ago) live an idyllic rural life in a villa in the south of France. “My kids and Vanessa have given me . . . a sense of home that I never had in my life,” Depp has said. So, while playing a pirate may have made Depp a bonafide movie star (albeit one who assiduously avoids courting fame), family always comes before career.
That last was exemplified last year while Depp was filming Sweeney Todd in London. Lily-Rose contracted suffered a serious health scare (reportedly the e coli virus) and Depp stopped work, filming was put on hold and the star suggested to Burton he should perhaps recast his lead. Happily, Depp’s daughter recovered—“It was a very bumpy patch,” the father told the press, “but she has come through it beautifully and unscathed, and she is now as healthy as she always was”—and Sweeney Todd was completed.
The question is, now that he’s become a movie star with the clout to pick and choose roles, and bearing in mind that the potentially softening effect of being a fortysomething family man, will Depp continue to inhabit the oddballs niche he created for himself? Well, he’s certainly not in the business of repeating himself. On the subject of musicals, he says, “I did do a musical many years ago with John Waters, a thing called Cry-Baby. But technically it was only really half of me—it wasn’t me singing. Tim’s the only person brave enough to let me try to sing. I’d never even sung in the shower; I was too mortified. But once I got over the initial fear it was kind of enjoyable. Sondheim’s melodies and lyrics are a real pleasure. It’s really beautiful stuff. So I enjoyed it. Would I ever do it again?” Depp says with a laugh. “No.”
What Depp is doing next is playing the notorious American gangster John Dillinger in Michael “Miami Vice” Mann’s Public Enemies. So, it’s back to the bad boy, then.