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Keith Richards, cheating death, my fear of camera phones and Vanessa Paradis: a surreal evening with Johnny Depp

by Martyn Palmer
The Mail on Sunday
October 29, 2011

An audience with one of the world’s highest-paid actors is a rare thing indeed–happily, as Live found out during a compelling evening-long interview, it’s bizarrely entertaining when it actually happens . . .

At a plush hotel in Whitehall, I’m waiting to see if, after 18 months of planning, I’m about to interview Johnny Depp. Loitering at the bar with me is Bruce Robinson, the writer/director of Withnail and I, as well as Depp’s latest film, The Rum Diary.

“What’s happening?” Robinson asks. I tell him I honestly haven’t a clue.

I do know Depp’s films are among the highest-grossing in the history of cinema—Pirates of the Caribbean has made £2.5 billion and Depp has earned £80 million in the past two years, vying with Leonardo DiCaprio as the highest-paid actor in Hollywood—and he neither enjoys nor needs to do publicity. When he does engage with the world at large, which is rarely, it’s on his own terms.

At the recent GQ Men of the Year awards he presented an award to his good friend Keith Richards, but spent most of the time in his own private room nursing an expensive bottle of wine.

Finally a car arrives to take Robinson to Depp. I’m instructed that Christie, Depp’s sister and a key member of his entourage, has organized another car for me in half an hour’s time.

On cue, a silver Mercedes turns up, and within 15 minutes I arrive at a small street off Park Lane. Huge white electronic gates open to reveal, in magical style, the courtyard of a seven-bedroom, early-19th-century, £50 million Mayfair mansion, which Depp is renting. I’m led into an enormous hi-tech kitchen, where Depp, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and heavy boots, waits to greet me.

His thick black hair is cut shorter than usual, for the part he’s playing in Dark Shadows, a Tim Burton vampire movie being filmed at night at Pinewood Studios. He’s clean-shaven and rather pale, I suspect from spending his days sleeping and working nights.

We walk through a lounge littered with six or seven guitars, books and computer equipment, and into a dining room heavy with abstract art and African sculptures, where Robinson is waiting for us. A bottle of Château Haut-Brion 1996 (£364) and three glasses are on the table. One of his assistants brings some sandwiches as Depp sits down at the table.

He rolls a cigarette and asks, “What do you want to know?”

At the height of his fame, Depp, now 48, has become increasingly reclusive. He says he doesn’t enjoy the attention of paparazzi or fans with camera phones. Out in public he feels uneasy. He’s more at home, ironically more “himself,” on set in front of a camera.

“I don’t know when it happened exactly,” he says, removing his thick-rimmed black glasses and placing them on the table in front of him.

“Outside in life people are looking and staring at you. You see them taking your picture all the time with their iPhones. You become a kind of novelty in the world.

“At some point, it became more honest for me on set. I understand it—everything is defined. Here are the lights, here’s the scene I have to do. It has become very natural, while the outside world has become unnatural. It’s bizarre, because I’ve done interviews where there’s a camera on and I still feel uncomfortable. Yet if it’s a scene and I’m in character, then I’m not.”

Depp has always felt like a misfit. His Kentucky-based family relocated to Florida when he was seven, and subsequently moved houses over 20 times.

“I was all over the place and always the new kid at school, which is never easy,” he says.

“And now I go out and meet kids at premieres to say thank you and sign autographs. I remember many years ago this one kid, a little girl with glasses, maybe 12 or 13, said, ‘Thank you for making glasses cool.’ You imagine the history of haranguing this poor kid had endured—four-eyes, or whatever they called her. It really got to me.

“If someone is being bullied or feels like an outsider and they relate to something that I’ve done, even if it’s just igniting a spark, that’s great. I had that feeling as a kid. I was messed with no end. And then you fight back—and that’s the rage that’s just under the surface, and in the end it comes out.

“I find it disheartening these days that everybody is like everybody else. Less and less you see real individuals. They all wear their trousers down below their crotch. I don’t understand that kind of lemming mentality.”

Depp’s close friendships are typically with iconoclastic celebrities such as Keith Richards, Marlon Brando and Hunter S Thompson, the author and journalist famed for his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the invention of first-person gonzo journalism.

“The common link with these people is that they’re all outsiders, straight shooters. My grandfather was too (he was a moonshine bootlegger during the Depression); he was a great guy.”

On filming Pirates . . . with Richards, he says, “I’d have my glass of wine and he would have his usual. I’ve no idea what that is, because it looks like nuclear waste. We’d just hang out.

“I’ve had relationships with amazing people in my life, individuals who play by their own rules, who in a way are totally indefinable. Hunter was intimidating. He could decimate people. He had an allergy to bullshit and I can’t stand it either.”

The Rum Diary is based on a Thompson novel written in 1959 that lay unpublished until Depp discovered the manuscript at the writer’s home in 1997.

Depp plays reporter Paul Kemp—a semi-autobiographical character in the book–who arrives in Puerto Rico to take up a job on a newspaper. Surreal, hilarious and at times an ode to excess, the film is a searing indictment of corrupt capitalists ravaging paradise in Latin America.

It was born of a promise Depp gave Thompson that his book would make it to the screen. Depp had been friends with the writer for a decade when he committed suicide by shooting himself in 2005.

“It was the one promise I made to Hunter,” says Depp, “apart from shooting him out of a cannon.”

This is a reference to Thompson’s spectacular send-off, with Depp commissioning the construction of a cannon to fire his friend’s ashes into the sky at his wake.

“It became more important after Hunter made his exit. I had to finish this dream we had for both of us. I felt more responsibility.”

The actor and author first met in December 1994. There was an instant connection—two eccentric, kindred spirits who bonded over a bottle of Chivas Regal.

“We arranged to meet at a place called the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado. I was sitting in the back of the joint when the doors flew open and I literally saw electricity dancing in the air.

“It was Hunter waving this cattle prod, screaming, ‘Get out of my way!’ He had a zapper as well, one of those horrible cop things (a taser). As you can imagine, a sea of bodies parted before him. He came over, said, ‘Hey, how are you doing? I’m Hunter.’ As soon as he found out I was from Kentucky, where he was born, that was it—no holds barred.”

Thompson had a lifelong fascination with guns and explosives.

“We went back to his house after the bar and built a bomb out of a propane tank and nitroglycerine,” says Depp. “I shot it with a 12-gauge shotgun. That was the first night we met.”

Depp would visit Thompson and his wife Anita at their unorthodox home—Owl Farm in Woody Creek.

“One time I was using the ashtray next to the bed and discovered my night-stand was a keg of gunpowder. It would have blown us to the Moon! After having used it for some time, I figured out what it was and brought Hunter down and said, “Do you realize what that is?” And do you know what he said? “Oh, that’s where it is!”

“The same night I found a brown recluse spider in the corner. It eats your skin away and causes horrible necrosis.”

Later that same night Depp unearthed the unpublished manuscript.

“It was about 3am. I was staying with Hunter preparing for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, looking at stuff in boxes in the War Room, which was in his basement next to the room where I slept. There was all sorts of stuff in there—cocktail napkins, toothpicks, old hotel bills, God knows what else—and I found this folder with a rubber band around it, and it just said The Rum Diary.

“I started reading it and said to Hunter, ‘What’s the matter with you? Publish the thing—it’s great.’ It was that night that he said, ‘Maybe we should make this into a movie together . . . ’“

The Rum Diary was published in 1998 and Depp and Thompson began the process of securing backers to finance the film. Then, on February 20, 2005, came the news that Thompson, 67, had shot himself.

“My sister, Christie, turned up at the house in a pouring rainstorm,” says Depp.

“She’d received a phone call two hours after it had happened and didn’t want me to see it on CNN. She told me Hunter had gone. But as much of a shock as it was, as much horror as I felt when you receive such blunt, bad news, I also knew Hunter was never going to be the guy who was going to collapse into a bowl of soup.

“Hunter was ink and rage: his power was his opinion directed at whatever he felt was unjust.

“When he went, it was going to be on his terms. So in a sense, I knew that one day it was coming. Not to get moody or weird about it, but I feel he’s still with me.

“There are certain people in your life who have gone away, people you love, and you think about them every day. I knew how Hunter thought; I knew his next move before he made it. I believe he’s with me in some sense.”

The clock is inching towards midnight, some four hours since we began sampling the delights of Johnny Depp’s fine wine cellar. As the empties stack up and the ashtrays fill, the conversation becomes unpredictable, ranging from smoking (Depp blames Robinson for starting him smoking “horrible little cigars” again after two years’ abstinence) to drinking (Robinson blames Depp, or more specifically writing the script for The Rum Diary, for causing him to fall off the wagon after six years of being teetotal) to ghosts (Robinson has had the Dean of Hereford Cathedral perform two exorcisms on his 16th-century manor house).

Depp also talks of the joys of British humor.

“It recognizes absurdity and is as irreverent as you can possibly be, which is why I like it. It’s somehow built into me. I detest jokes—when somebody tells me one I feel my IQ dropping; the brain cells start to disappear.

“But something is funny when the person delivering the line doesn’t know it’s funny or doesn’t treat it as a joke. Maybe it comes from a place of truth, or it’s a sort of rage against society.”

Depp is an avid collector: he owns Jack Kerouac’s typewriter, and a recent addition to his art collection is a Banksy called How Do You Like Your Eggs?, depicting a woman wearing a burka but also a novelty apron.

“I don’t know him, but we correspond via email,” he says. “And I’ve bought some of his paintings. The guy’s a genius.”

He also owns the original manuscript of Withnail and I—a gift from Robinson before they began filming. He has reciprocated by giving the director a signed copy of Les Paradis Artificiels by French poet Baudelaire.

Robinson, clearly delighted, insists on showing me.

“It’s the rarest book I’ve ever seen. It’s beyond belief . . .”

I finally leave the pair as they begin wrangling about a mission to a nearby tapas restaurant. Depp wants to go; Robinson is less keen. The gates open and I re-emerge into Mayfair from Depp’s cloistered world.

Soon, his promise to Thompson honored, Depp will be “decompressing,” his term for spending time between films with his long-term partner Vanessa Paradis and their two children, Lily-Rose, 12, and Jack, nine, at their homes on the Côte d’Azur, in the Paris suburbs, in Los Angeles and on a 45-acre Caribbean island, Little Hall’s Pond Cay. He escapes there on his boat, the 156 ft. steam-powered Vajoliroja.

“Having children with Vanessa is the most important thing to me. I prefer to just walk away, to let everything go. Give me my boat and I’m under way,” he says.

“There’s the wind and the sea, and you’re thinking about nothing. On the island I can be at base level. A little wine and maybe a guitar. It’s the best place.”

Respite from rage and the real world, with a glass of Haut-Brion.

The Rum Diary is released on November 11

-- donated by Emma