Site menu:

2 0 1 1

The Hunter in Johnny Depp

by Nick Tosches
photos by Terry Richardson
Vanity Fair
November 2011

For every Pirates of the Caribbean blockbuster he makes, Johnny Depp has a project with deep personal meaning, such as this month’s The Rum Diary, an adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson novel that Depp himself discovered. In London, Nick Tosches finds the 48-year-old actor (and Tosches’ longtime friend) unchanged by fame or fortune or time, and ready to drink, gamble, and ponder the mysteries of his life—anything but have his photo taken.

It is Johnny Depp’s The Rum Diary as much as it is the late Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. For one thing, The Rum Diary, Hunter’s only published novel, likely never would have seen the light of day if Johnny hadn’t discovered it in the writer’s basement while staying with him 15 years ago, preparing to make Hunter’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into a movie with the director Terry Gilliam. Hunter himself had forgotten about The Rum Diary, which he had begun writing in 1959, at the age of 22, and had not been able to get published. Johnny found it when he was rummaging through some old boxes of Hunter’s works and notes.

“These perfect boxes,” Johnny says. “I pulled it out. I was like, ‘What is this?’ Hunter was like, ‘Oh shit. The Rum Diary. Oh yeah.’ It was hidden. Hunter didn’t know it was there.” Soon after Johnny found the book, it was finally published, in 1998, the year the movie of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came out.

Thirteen years later, another adaptation, this one as much Johnny’s vision as Hunter’s. It’s an enhancement and a furthering of the novel, and brings to it the rich maturity that the voice of the young aspiring writer had not yet achieved. It is The Rum Diary seen as Hunter might have written it in his later prime.

I knew that Johnny, who was very close to and fond of Hunter, and very admiring of his work, would have some enlightening things to say about the movie, and I wanted to hear them. I also wanted to spend some time with him, as we hadn’t seen each other in years. As it turned out, this wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Several years ago, when I had arranged a dream date (disguised as an interview) with Charlotte Rampling, for whom I had lusted since seeing The Night Porter but had never even met, it took only a telephone call and a few minutes to set things up. But arranging time for a get-together with Johnny, whom I’ve known for years and whose son, Jack, is my godson, took more than a week of back-and-forth hurdlings.

You see, Johnny works a lot. He keeps to a grueling schedule. (Yes, that’s right: grueling schedule. This is supposed to be journalism, isn’t it? Don’t be surprised if shocking display or phenomenal or even pausing pensively before answering, as if turning a coin in his mind lurks around the corner. But I wouldn’t do that. To you maybe. But not to Revelatin’ John.) I want to ask him about this schedule, as I suspect he may have become, to use a bit of New Age psychobabble, a workaholic.

First, however, I want to ask him something I didn’t plan on asking him. We are both in London, where he is shooting yet another movie, Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton. Our strategy for the day has been for him to get the photo shoot for this story out of the way by midafternoon, then sit down for our interview, so as to leave us free to go drinking and gambling into the night, even though he does have to be on the Dark Shadows set very early the next morning. As it turns out, he has decided against doing the photo shoot, postponing it for another day. But it takes him four hours to resolve the situation. Which has left me in my room, nice as it is, at Brown’s Hotel, hanging around for those four hours waiting for a call, and I am sort of pissed off. But as the car finally passes through the gates to pull up to the imposing red-brick Mayfair manor that Johnny is occupying while working in London, I am no longer at all pissed off. I am merely looking forward to seeing Johnny.

I slouch into a big, deep, comfortable couch in a big, opulent room that is vaguely evocative of a royal Arabian majlis, or luxuriously welcoming lounging room. (The manor was indeed owned by a fabulously wealthy Arabian eminence.) Dominating the room, in an ornate gilt frame on the far wall, directly across from where I sit, is Banksy’s How Do You Like Your Eggs? The painting shows a woman in full black Muslim garb and veil and a cheap sex-novelty kitchen apron, a spatula in one hand, a skillet containing an egg in the other, her eyes narrowly visible, her eyebrows arched slightly, cryptically, defiantly. After negotiations with the artist and his representatives, Johnny acquired the painting in May of this year. It is one of the most bizarrely captivating images I’ve ever seen.

Then in walks Johnny. He sits down beside me with a big grin, lights a smoke, and out comes the Château L’Évangile 2002. The same old Johnny. The Johnny Depp who long ago pumped gas at a Shell station in Miramar, Florida, was pulled by the owner from the easier job of working the pump to the harder labor in the garage, and drifted west with members of his band, The Kids. In Los Angeles, he continued to pursue music—which he does to this day, having become a formidable guitarist—but he got along by attending the city’s many Scientology study groups, which paid attendees, even nonbelievers like Johnny, $3 each to sit through them.  (“I went to a bunch, man. It was so great, it was so fantastic.”) Turning 20, he ended up in pictures, and today, at 48, he is regarded as the biggest movie star around. And yet he is the same old Johnny, his circumstances changed, but not his nature. I’ve never found it hard to imagine him still pumping gas with a cigarette dangling from his lips. And I’ve never ceased to wonder at the rare range and depth of his reading, intelligence, knowledge, and interests: from Baudelaire to Beckett to Burroughs; from insights into Ch’an Buddhism that pick up where The Transmission of the Lamp leaves off to observations on the nature of things that pick up where Lucretius left off to a connoisseurship of both wine and Mountain Dew—a range and depth even more rare among actors, most of whom lead hollow scripted lives, most of whose humanity is an awkwardly assumed pretense, a role playacted mawkishly.

But the question remains: How can someone who seems to have had his picture on every magazine cover in the world seven times over be so antagonistic to having his picture taken?

It turns out that “antagonistic” is too mild a word.

“Well, you just feel like you’re being raped somehow.” Strong words from an easygoing, down-to-earth man not given to drama in his everyday life. “Raped. The whole thing. It feels a kind of weird—just weird, man. Weird. Like you meet people and they say, ‘Can I have a picture with you?’ and that’s great. That’s fine. That’s not a problem. But whenever you have a photo shoot or something like that, it’s like—you just feel dumb. It’s just so stupid.”

He says this antipathy is nothing new. He’s always hated to have his picture taken. Even a quarter of a century ago and more, back in the days of A Nightmare on Elm Street, when he needed all the publicity he could get, photo shoots creeped him out.

I move on to the workaholic angle. About five or six years ago, at a restaurant in Paris, La Closerie des Lilas, I asked him why he kept working, why he didn’t just wave it all away and live. He said then that it was because they might not want him in five years.

He was already rich and famous when I had first met him, maybe a dozen years ago. Then one day at a pizza place in London a few years later, in the early spring of 2002, he withdrew a script from his satchel, asked me to open it anywhere, look at it, and tell him what I thought. If you want to do it, I said, do it. It was Pirates of the Caribbean. So by the time I asked him that question at that restaurant in Paris, a few more years after that, he was really, really rich and really, really famous. And now those five years after which they might not want him anymore have passed, too, and he is really, really, really rich and really, really, really famous. What is his excuse now for continuing to work so hard?

“Bascally, if they’re going to pay me the stupid money right now, I’m going to take it. I have to. I mean, it’s not for me. Do you know what I mean? At this point, it’s for my kids. It’s ridiculous, yeah, yeah. But ultimately is it for me? No. No. It’s for the kids.”

Though “workaholism” is an ungainly neologism (and the more sinister Japanese karoshi, meaning death from overwork, an even newer, if less ungainly, one), there is no escaping the impression that Johnny certainly seems to be working too hard. At least to me, who would like nothing more than to live out my days in quiet serenity in a hammock strung between two big old shady trees.

So I persist. I know him to be a traditional family man, in the best, truest sense of that phrase; Vanessa Paradis, his French better half, their two children, Lily-Rose, now 12, and Jack, now 9, are the center of his world. But—

“And, come on, it’s for you, too.”

“Not really, because I keep working—I’m constantly fucking like—I’m slamming the fucking—you know, every day is like fucking . . .” He takes a breath, takes a drag, takes a sip, and starts again. “There is a part of me that needs to have this kind of stimulation to the brain. I must have fucking stimulation.”

And what about all the Hollywood bullshit that comes with it? Is adulation addictive?

“it is what it is.”

What it all comes down to is irrefutable.

“I’m happy,” he continues. “I’m happy. It’s fine.”

The wine is going down good.

“Yeah,” Johnny says with a smile, “we have to go gamble.”

“What I wanted to ask you—“

“Oh, my brother, I’m so fucking happy to see you.”

“What do you get sick of being asked?”



“No. Really. No.”

“Is there something you wish somebody would ask you?”

“No.” This brings on a good deal of laughter. “No.”

I want to go gambling, too. I have my blue Ritz Club membership card in my wallet and fond memories of our last long night there at the blackjack tables and the bar; the night when a gambler of unknown ethnic origin at our table, asked by a cocktail waitress if he should like something to drink, said, “I like bean soup,” and Johnny and I, looking at each other, couldn’t suppress our laughter; the night we won a bundle. But I want to talk about The Rum Diary too.

Those who can recall back a number of column inches ago might remember my saying that The Rum Diary as brought to the screen is as much Johnny’s vision as Hunter’s, and that it is an enhancement and a furthering, rather than a faithful visualization, of the novel. The time and setting have been changed only slightly. The novel opens in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1958; the movie in San Juan, 1960. (The reasons for the change of year were to allow for television images of Richard Nixon as a presidential candidate and for a bit of surfing drum music that hadn’t existed in 1958. It also seems that in 1960 civilians would more easily have been able to obtain military eyedroppers of LSD, as the characters in the film do, than in 1958.)

The film’s three main confederates—Paul Kemp (Johnny), Sala (Michael Rispoli), and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), all workers at an English-language San Juan rag—are consolidations and mergings of attributes drawn from these and other characters in the novel. Though the essence of the tale remains true to the book—Hunter was at heart a moralist in the tradition of Thomas Paine, and this is at heart a story of down-and-out good against respectable evil, as well as the story of a writer finding both the truth of himself and his own true voice—aspects of the movie’s plot are often more inspired by than based on the novel. Several of the picture’s most impressive and imaginative scenes are not to be found, or even suggested, in the novel, and certain minor elements of the novel take on greater significance in the movie.

Bruce Robinson, the British writer and director of the picture, told me that “there are only three lines of Hunter’s in the entire screenplay.” (“Have some fun with a fucking Luger” is one of them.) But at the same time, he insisted, “I’d say the movie is faithful to him in context of vernacular.”

Johnny has spoken of making this movie for more than a decade, and his desire to do so never wavered.

“It’ been there for so long,” he says. “So, yeah, I made this film before I made it.”

Robinson, best known as the screenwriter of The Killing Fields and the writer-director of Withnail and I, was cooling his heels in 2005, having not made a film since 1999, when Johnny, who long had been very enamored of Withnail and I, sent him a copy of Hunter’s novel and asked if he should like to “kick it into a screenplay.”

Johnny knew that Hunter had also admired Withnail and I. So, as Johnny says, “I pulled the fucker out of retirement.”

Speaking from his farmhouse four hours west of London, Robinson tells me he “suffered incredible problems trying to get a grip on” The Rum Diary. He read the book twice, then threw it away. The main problem, as he saw it, was that Hunter had split himself into two characters, Kemp and another named Yeamon, and Hunter’s spirit needed to be embodied in the character of Kemp alone.

Johnny agreed. “Bruce handled it brilliantly, amazingly. You’ve got Kemp and Yeamon, who represent Hunter. With Kemp there’s no way to follow these two characters. So Bruce just went”—Johnny pantomimes tossing aside an imaginary book—“which was actually Hunter’s kind of thinking, you know?”

“I wrote it entirely in isolation,” says Robinson of the script, the final version of which was finished in February 2009. “Fortunately Johnny liked it.”

Robinson was well aware that the character of Kemp as he had written him was a nuanced, complex, and difficult one. Johnny had played Hunter before, for Gilliam. But this was a different Hunter.

“Hey,” Johnny told Robinson as shooting was about to begin, “just trust me.”

As for his approach to directing the picture, Robinson was firmly convinced that the strength of the acting and the take should have dominance over any self-indulgent arty camerawork. It was his preferred way of directing:

“I don’t want the camera to be a participant. I want it to be a privileged observer.”

Johnny says that the most arduous part of making the movie was “just every day sort of policing it, being the police of what Hunter would or would not have wanted, and really kind of going, All right, here’s the scene. That’s great. Here’s a scene, but we have to police this scene.” Some things work in books that just don’t work in movies, Johnny points out. “And Hunter understood that. He understood it. He understood.”

Me, I think Hunter would have gotten a bigger kick out of the movie than he did out of the novel he had stashed and forgotten.

I tell Johnny that, to my eye, the movie is timeless, the way great old-fashioned pictures—and I mean that in the best way—used to be. Most movies these days are short-lived, soon outdated and forgotten, relying on special effects that become quickly superseded, or on numerous cellphone calls from handheld devices that become just as quickly outmoded. But here is a movie that will hold up, that will be as exceptionally fine and enjoyable as it is today for many years to come.

Johnny doesn’t mention it until I say what I do, but he agrees to having similar feelings: “It’s kind of Casablanca in a way, isn’t it?”

Cockfighting figures in Hunter’s book, but it is more central to the plot of the picture. In this day of animal-rights lunatics and political-correction camps, this is wonderfully refreshing and far more daring than the sex-scene one-upmanship of other movies.

The cockfighting scenes were, of course, done in accordance with the American Humane Association rules, but they look real.

“They harnessed the cocks with pieces of invisible monofilament,” Johnny tells me.

“Oh, that kept them from going the whole distance and getting at each other for the kill?”

“Yeah, we did hold them back. We did. I think it was stupid.”

(Johnny’s sister Christi, who runs their Infinitum Nihil production company, was of a gentler nature when it came to the cocks, which now live comfortably in her big backyard, outside of L.A. “All good,” Christi reports.)

Even more difficult to film than the cockfighting scenes was the film’s LSD sequence, which is as unnervingly realistic as the goings-on in the gamecock pits. Except for a sole hallucination involving a character’s tongue in one of the LSD scenes, there are no other special effects in the movie. Yet, through words and acting alone, this is the best, truest-to-life LSD stuff I’ve ever seen conveyed on film. The sequence also contains what to me is the essential line in the film, the revelation given to Kemp by a lobster in a filthy tank in the dark of night on a filthy pier: “Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a god and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn’t got one.”

In the original script, the encounter with the mystical lobster led to lines from Coleridge’s  “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: The very deep did rot: O Christ! / That ever this should be! / Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea.

But from alcohol, as much as things most wretched, come wonders sublime.

Robinson recalls that the words of the lobster’s revelation “occurred to me five years ago and, somewhat oiled, I wrote them in one of Johnny’s notebooks on his plane, not thinking I’d use them in the flick. Then, when I came to write the acid scene, this line seemed appropriate (and true), so I incorporated it and gave it to the lobster. I got the idea of the lippy lobster from an ad I’d seen in some 1940s magazine where such a dime-in-the-slot ‘fishing machine’ was featured. Hence the religious lobster.”

The revelation of the lobster was a great line. What does Johnny do when he comes across a bad line in a script?

“I change it. I just go: “You now what? It ain’t right. It’s not right.’ I change it. I do. I re-write.”

Years ago Johnny directed his friend Marlon Brando in a movie called The Brave. He spoke of editing it, of re-editing it, but it never came out in the U.S. I ask him about that one. How does he feel about that picture today?

“I’m proud. You know?”

Now that his production company is becoming a powerful presence in the movie business, will he finally release it?

“No, no, no. The idea of releasing that, like—no, no. I feel like it’s for, like, a few, you know? It’s like the idea of saying, ‘Here’s my middle finger, but in that middle finger, I’m trying to say, you know, I love you.’ It’s very complicated.”

With the Tim Burton movie about to finish shooting, I ask him what’s next.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto.” In that one, if it gets made—Disney was reportedly balking at its budget in August—Johnny will be playing Tonto. (Armie Hammer had been scheduled to play the Ranger.)

Johnny is also thinking of remaking The Thin Man, which he’s wanted to do for quite a while. He would step into William Powell’s shoes as Nick Charles. I ask him, “Do you think you could be William Powell? I mean, that guy was fucking singular. There was only one of him.”

“I could do it. I think.”

“You probably could, because you’ve got that fine line between humor and seriousness.”

“That’s the whole point. What he had, William Powell, was so fucking beautiful.”

Johnny too. As Bruce Robinson later points out, the association of Johnny in the public brainpan with the hugely successful star-driven hits of his recent years has sometimes obscured the true versatility and abilities that are his. It is films as The Rum Diary that remind us of that versatility and those abilities. But still, William Powell . . . ?

“He’s a hard guy to beat if you’re going into the ring with him,” I point out.

“That’s the thing,” Johnny says. “You can’t beat him. Just embrace him. Embrace the fucker. Embrace him.”

Talk of William Powell leads to talk of Keith Richards, who played Johnny’s father in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean pictures. Keith has been a friend of Johnny’s for some years now. I ask Johnny if he found himself emulating Keith’s mannerisms and persona somewhat with the passing of those years.

“I sucked him dry,” he says without hesitation.

When I mention that Keith, who I know and who is certainly not one for musicals, had been full of praise a few years back for Johnny’s singing in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and recommended that I see it, Johnny is visibly pleased.

“Keith always has the most beautiful things to say about you,” I say, “but when he brought up Sweeney Todd, he was like, ‘Oh, and to hear Johnny sing.’”

“He never told me that,” Johnny says with a smile of deep satisfaction.

It was while making Sweeney Todd with Tim Burton that the movie he’s now finishing with Burton was conceived. “We were on Sweeney Todd, and I said to him, ‘Man, we should do a vampire movie.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, we should.’ And then I went, ‘Fuck, man, Dark Shadows.’ ‘Yeah, good idea. Good idea.’ And then, boom.”

“Is there a movie that you always wanted to make but have never been able to?”


“Tonto,” I reflect. “Nick Charles,” I reflect.

Then he raises his glass of wine, looks straight at me, and says, “There’s also In the Hand of Dante.”

As I mentioned, Johnny had been wanting to make The Rum Diary, had been making it in his head for a long, long time. Hunter S. Thompson, to whose memory the film is dedicated, never lived to see it. He blew out his brains, at the age of 67, in 2005, just before the real making of the picture got under way.

I mention to Johnny, as a lighthearted joke but with a hidden degree of truth on my part, that it scared me to see that dedication to Hunter at the close of the movie. He knows immediately what I mean.

When it was still in typescript pages, Johnny had been the third person, after my agent and publisher, to read my novel In the Hand of Dante. He called me—it was early morning where he was, at his hameau in France; it was late night where I was, in New York. “I’m reading this,” he said, “and it’s not a book; it’s a living thing.” In Paris, one afternoon almost a year later, when the book was about to be published, we shook hands to seal a deal that my novel would become his movie. A lot of time went by, as handshake deals mean nothing to the lawyers, executives, gonifs, and golems of Hollywood. Finally—years, years—we had our legal arrangement, settled on a screenwriter, and brought in Johnny’s old pal Julian Schnabel to get things going as a director. That’s why the loving memorial to Hunter at the end of The Rum Diary gave me the willies.

“So,” I say, “the way I see it, In the Hand of Dante will come out two years after I croak. I’ve got it figured out. I’m going to beat Hunter by three years.”

“Cocksucker.” He laughs. “You prick.”

“No, really.” I laugh. “It falls in line with everything else.”

“Should we plan that now?”

“No. I don’t want to do that, no.”

More wine, more smoke. “No, my brother,” he says, “I’ll tell you now: the film will be made.”

Some of Johnny’s finest work remains far less known than the big picture that brought him his fame and fortune. Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, of 1995, is one of these. (It was also Robert Mitchum’s last notable film. Johnny still laughs when he tells of Mitchum’s practice of stashing his marijuana in a Baggie taped to his crotch, on the theory: Who’s gonna go down my pants? Who’s gonna touch Robert Mitchum’s balls?)

Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine, of 2004, in which Johnny played the dissolute 17th-century poet John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, is another.

It was perhaps the most strenuous role he has played, and both his performance and the film were magnificent. Based on the play by Stephen Jeffreys, who also wrote the screenplay, the movie paired Johnny with John Malkovich, who is probably one of the only other actors whose imagination, literacy, and skills are commensurate with Johnny’s, and who had played Johnny’s role on the stage and taken the role of Charles II in the film. I remember being blown away by The Libertine. But it was given only very brief and limited distribution. It came and it went, so quickly withdrawn that by the time I recommended it to people it was gone, killed off by the then new Weinstein Company, which produced and distributed the film as its second release.

“Are you still pissed at Harvey Weinstein for that?”

“We’ve come to a sort of agreement.”

“Did he have a reason why that movie was so ill-circulated?”

“Yeah, he basically said he fucked it.”

“Meaning he made a mistake?”

“No, He made a choice. He made a choice to kill it. Which was understandable. I mean, understandable if you look at it from his kind of point of view.” Meaning, I assume, a monetary point of view. “But, yeah,” Johnny continues, “Harvey killed a great film.”

The Libertine was brought to mind by The Rum Diary, another superb picture in an age of hundred-million-dollar junk movies full of gimmickry and idiotic sound and fury instead of any enduring quality or substance. The new movie is being handled in the U.S. by FilmDistrict, the producer Graham King’s distribution company. But surely, I suggest, with Johnny’s own production company behind The Rum Diary, it will be far less vulnerable to an unjustified fate.

“Can I do better? Maybe not. I’m not sure.”

“You’re not going to kill off your own movie?”

“I’m not sure. You know what I mean? I worked like a cocksucker on it, but—“

Anything can happen.

So we’ll see. Can this Lowlifes of the Caribbean attract, as it so deserves, just some of the attention and gelt that the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean got?

Who knows? Our talk drifts, carried along by the tow of the wine and the night.

When I first met Johnny, I think he believed he was part Cherokee and part Irish. Years later, through genealogical research, French blood entered into the picture. I remember Vanessa Paradis announcing it to me, “Johnny’s French!” Depp from Dieppe, a Cherokee with French blood. The French blood was supposed to have come through his mother, Betty Sue. It made sense.

“What are you now?” I ask him. He doesn’t answer for a moment. “You’re getting all serious,” I say.

“Doesn’t bother me.”

“Do you ever think of yourself as anything?”

“I mean, it makes more sense, the Dieppe.”

“There were a lot of American Indians that had French names. Is that something you would prefer to be?”

“Indian?” he suggests. Another taste of that good red wine. “If they’ll have me.”

“How do your siblings”—besides Christi, there’s a brother and another sister—“feel about the fact that you never seem to physically age?”

“They seem O.K.”

It’s getting late. Not many hours remain until Johnny has to be back on the set. Even I’m getting slightly drowsy. But the Ritz Club, the blackjack tables, more wine await us. Johnny slowly rises, goes to put some cold water on his face and fetch a necktie. I light a smoke, sit with my wine, and rest my eyes. Eventually it occurs to me that Johnny has been gone for a while. I push myself up off the couch and call his name. No answer. I look around for him.

He is dead-out asleep in the toilet, the perfect picture of the wages of exhaustion. I don’t want to wake him. I just stand for a moment wondering. He has a beautiful château and secluded grounds in France. He has an estate in Los Angeles. He has an idyllic island of his own. But does he have a hammock?

-- donated by In-too-Depp

-- additional photo added by Zone editors