Johnny Depp - There's method in his madness

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He's the face of one of cinema's biggest franchises – yet Johnny Depp's enduring outsider cool means that he can still be guest of honour at a distinctly anti-Hollywood film festival

Johnny Depp came to Kustendorf in a helicopter. "Enthusiastic and smiling, Depp chatted with the Festival visitors and photographed with fans, all (the) while modestly denying his glamorous star status," the local press enthused of Depp's descent from the sky, which was seen by some Serbs as akin to the second coming. For most of the rest of the guests, it was a four- hour car journey from Belgrade, high into the mountains.

At first glance, it wasn't apparent what arguably the world's most popular movie star (recently voted "Actor of the Decade" at the People's Choice Awards in Los Angeles) was doing at a tiny event in a picturesque but remote part of the Balkans. Not that Depp seemed out of place. Kustendorf was built on a hill by the Serbian director and double Palme d'Or winner Emir Kusturica (the founder of the festival) when he was making his film Life is a Miracle. It is an idealised version of a traditional Serb village, but with its wooden Hansel and Gretel-style houses, large electric moon (which glows over the valley at night), its pretty church and its street lights, it could pass for the set of one of those many Tim Burton movies that Depp has appeared in. (The latest, Alice in Wonderland, with Depp as the Mad Hatter, is out later this spring.)

In the early 1990s, Depp starred in Kusturica's one American film, Arizona Dream, opposite Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis and Vincent Gallo. He has now agreed to play Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in a big new Spanish-language, spaghetti-Western style epic that Kusturica is cooking up with Salma Hayek as the female lead. The project is in its early stages. Star and director were keen to discuss it – one reason why he was guest of honour.

On the opening night of the festival, a full-sized statue of Depp was unveiled amid fireworks and the music of the Dejan Petrovic Orchestra. The statue, which in truth doesn't look that much like him, stands just along from Che Guevara Street and not far from Maradona Square. Depp conducted a masterclass with the student film-makers whom Kusturica flies into town every year. He also spoke to the press, walked around the village and was photographed with fans.

"My impressions of Kustendorf? I was totally shocked. I couldn't imagine that a place so magical and so beautiful could actually house a film festival," the actor enthused of a film festival which is defined by its anti-movie business ethos. Distributors, financiers and publicists are kept at bay from Kustendorf (although even in this remote part of the Balkans, the presence of Depp attracted plenty of paparazzi). There is a strong culture of drinking and camaraderie. After the nightly concert, many of the organisers and guests stay up until dawn consuming "Serbian death wine" – one reason why Kustendorf is deserted in the mornings and none of the festival events start until after 1pm.

The affable Depp was seemingly oblivious to the cameras thrust in his face or the mini riots that broke out wherever he went as everyone clamoured to get near to him. He was even ready to roll up his shirt to show the tattoos with the names of his children written on them.

There was a certain irony in Depp's presence. One of the traditions at previous Kustendorf festivals was to bury a reel of a Hollywood big-budget movie, preferably one starring Bruce Willis, in a symbolic opening ceremony. The Serbian minister of culture, Nebojsa Bradic, spoke at the festival this week of the way that blockbusters crowd "small folks and their small films" out of the picture. Depp, as star of Pirates of the Caribbean, is the face of one of the biggest Hollywood franchises of all – and yet here he was, Gulliver-like in the world of the small folks and their small films.

Then again, much of Depp's continuing appeal lies in the way he is able to straddle two very different film-making worlds without ever appearing compromised. Even if he does appear in Jerry Bruckheimer movies, his persona is still that of the mischievous rebel we remember from What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Edward Scissorhands. He has credibility with critics because he has always been willing to take difficult roles in films by auteur directors. At the same time, he respects his audiences. His celebrity doesn't faze him. "The only reason that we're here is because of the people out there standing in the cold who want to have a piece of paper signed or to go to the cinema," he pronounces just a little self-righteously.

Depp likes to see himself as part beatnik, part flâneur. "Baudelaire," he declared without hesitation when quizzed about his favourite writers, adding Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. "I am such an addict of books. I'll read two or three at a time. I am like a fiend. I can't get enough."

Asked about his favourites among the directors he has worked with, he nominated Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch and Kusturica, all film-makers with sensibilities as offbeat as his own.

"The three are very, very different in their [film-making] language but they're also very similar. There isn't a bone in any of their bodies that is capable of compromise."

A little to the bemusement of his Serb hosts, Depp also waxed effusive about the British comedy Withnail and I ("one of my favourite films of all time") – a movie he loves so much that he prised its director Bruce Robinson out of semi-retirement to work with him on The Rum Diary, a new comedy adapted from Hunter S. Thompson's autobiographical novel. "I tried for almost 17 years to get Bruce to come out of director's retirement and do something – and I finally got him," Depp says of the film, which he has also produced.

Depp isn't the typical method actor, burying himself in a role with De Niro-like intensity. His approach is more intuitive and playful. "When I read a script, I start to get flashes of imagery. It may be a person I've known in my life. In Edward Scissorhands, it was a dog that I had had as a child," he explains. "These images arrive. That's really the basis. If I am guilty of one thing in my work in any situation, especially the heavier, is that I have a tendency to lean toward humour."

In Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp famously based his bloodthirsty buccaneer Jack Sparrow on Keith Richards. "If you think about the early 18th century, it took the pirates months and months to get across the sea. Meanwhile, their reputation arrived years before they did. Blackbeard was well known infinitely before he arrived in North Carolina... he was feared, he was respected, he had such a reputation. I thought that's exactly the rock'n'roll star's life... the reputation he [Keith Richards] had certainly arrived before his guitar and he did! Also, who better to be a pirate?"

Depp researches his roles assiduously. "But what I have found more important is to be able to throw that all away... and to give yourself up to the possibility of chance because that is the only time magic happens. I can't stand the idea of anything planned. It is great to have something solid beneath you but at the same time, you need to be able to fly a bit."

In Kustendorf, there is a door painted to give the illusion that it is a jail, with George W. Bush behind bars. Depp sidestepped questions as to whether he was an anti-globalist or an anti-capitalist. He was withering about Bush, enthusiastic about President Barack Obama, but would not be drawn further. However, he wasn't shy in voicing his dismay about the arrest of film-maker Roman Polanski on a 30-year-old statutory rape charge. In 1999, Polanski directed him in The Ninth Gate.

"Why now?" Depp asked rhetorically. "Obviously, there is something going on somewhere. Somebody has made a deal with someone. Maybe there was a little money involved, but why now?" Polanski, Depp continued, "is not a predator. He's 75 or 76 years old. He has got two beautiful kids, he has got a wife that he has been with for a long, long time. He is not out on the street."

In Kustendorf, Depp will forever now have the status of a saint. His statue is only a few yards away from the St Sava Church. Kusturica was speaking about him in such reverential fashion that it was easy to forget he was once, at least, a hell-raiser with a big tabloid profile.

"I always wanted to be decent, polite, good – everything that Johnny is by his nature," Kusturica reflected. "I've seen Johnny from time to time freaking out also... but you can be the best actor in the world and if you're a jerk, you're a jerk. Johnny is the one who showed me that you can have decency and goodness together with the fight to stay autonomous."

What is often remarked of the actor is his child-like quality: the Peter Pan in him. Even playing a hardened Depression-era gangster like John Dillinger in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, he retained at least some of that playfulness. There is a soulful quality about him, too, that makes audiences root for him, regardless of the character he is playing, and that had his Serb hosts in raptures.

His own assessment is that he is forever a teenager. "There is a part of me that feels like arrested development at 17," he mused. "At 17, you were a grown man. Everything in life was in front of you but you couldn't get in too much trouble. You could get in trouble but you wouldn't go to jail. I have a feeling that at the age of 17 somehow, I locked off and stayed there."

Alice in Wonderland is released on 5 March

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