Johnny Depp is two hours late for his interview with HQ, but is so charming when he arrives, it’s impossible not to be disarmed.
The morning after the premiere in Chicago of his new movie, Public Enemies, in which Depp plays the gangster John Dillinger, he is still shocked by the hordes of people who thronged the streets of the city the night before, calling out his name.
“Oh man, you don’t get used to that kind of thing,” he sighs. “If you do get used to it, you’re insane, truly. I mean, I appreciate it on a very profound level, but there’s only so much a human being can deal with and that’s why I don’t leave my house. I don’t go anywhere. I mean, why would you?”
At 46 and with more than two decades of screen success under his belt, he remains a somewhat reluctant star, who swears he didn’t plan anything that unfolded for him in his very successful career, but that luck has been the big factor in him becoming a huge box office draw.
“I’ve been very lucky, in the sense that things just arrived when they arrived. I didn’t sculpt anything. I just kind of did what I did and was very lucky to have had people like Tim Burton supporting me. Paramount Studios didn’t want to hire me for Sleepy Hollow and Tim fought for me, and that was a big shift in my—I hate to call it a ‘career’—but my life,” he explains.
It does not ring of false modesty, given the range of arthouse movies Depp has chosen, such as Ed Wood or Edward Scissorhands, when he could have opted for a plethora of highly paid, uncomplicated, heartthrob roles.
Playing Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the most interesting of the many iconoclastic characters Depp has inhabited.
He has just finished another Thompson project, Rum Diaries [Editor’s note: The Rum Diary] based on the novel of the same name. He and Thompson became close friends and to this day he wears a shark tooth necklace that Thompson gave him.
“What a pleasure to have been involved in that film. It took almost 17 years to make it happen. Hunter and I had talked about trying to get Bruce Robinson, who directed Withnail and I, to direct Rum Diaries. But Bruce was so traumatized by his last film and didn’t want to do it, but I badgered him for years to get him to come back. It was exhausting, but it was a great, great experience and I’m so happy and proud to have finished it for Hunter.”
When Depp is not making movies or out talking to the media he spends most of his time blissfully ensconced in family life in France or on his island in the Bahamas with his partner Vanessa Paradis and their two children, Lily Rose (10) and Jack (6).
He put down roots with Vanessa—after long and volatile relationships with Kate Moss and before that, Winona Ryder—after a chance meeting in France.
“My kiddies are infinitely smarter than I am and when I do leave the house to go to their school functions, and I witness their life in school with their friends, that’s the most sort of learning experience you could have. I learn so much just by watching them. When we go to the Bahamas, there are no toys and they just build little houses out of shells.”
Depp has always had a punkish sensibility, as an artist and as a musician. A long-time friend of both Shane McGowan and Iggy Pop, Depp also loves to play music and has a band called P. He confesses that the first thing he ever stole was a book of chords when he was 12.
“The age of 12 was a magical moment for me, because it was the age when I discovered the guitar. I don’t remember anything afterwards. I don’t remember puberty. I just locked myself in a room and played the guitar. I remember going into a store in Owensboro in Kentucky where I grew up, where I found a chord book by Mel Bay and I slipped it down my trousers and walked out of the store. And although that was criminal activity, that’s how I learned to play guitar.”
In Public Enemies, directed by Michael Mann and co-starring Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, Depp plays the Depression-era Robin Hood, John Dillinger, a character with whom he has been fascinated since childhood.
“I can remember being about 10 years old and having a fascination with John Dillinger and I didn’t know why. The same kind I had with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton when I was a child. I think it has to do with my family. My grandfather, who I was very close with when I was a kid, had run moonshine into dry counties, and my stepfather also had been a bit of a rogue. He’d spent some time in Statesville Prison.”
It’s been a while since Depp went on the road with the Pogues in the early 90s, but he and Shane McGowan are still firm friends and in regular contact.
“Shane, that great poet! I had an email from him the other day for my birthday and he’s doing great.
“Yeah, I need to try to get back to Ireland again soon, it’s been ages.”
Talk of Depp’s legacy or comparisons to old matinee icons, such as James Dean, frankly baffle him.
“I’m just an actor,” he says. “What I would like to leave behind is not to embarrass my kiddies with anything I did in terms of film or anything else.”
Public Enemies hits cinemas today