Johnny Depp: The biggest outsider of them all

From Edward Scissorhands to Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp has personified strangeness. Elaine Lipworth finds the actor just as beguiling as the roles he's chosen
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The Independent Culture

Johnny Depp is invariably late for interviews. But of course, Hollywood's most elusive and enigmatic leading man gets away with it every time. Even journalists who are jaded about interviewing famous stars are thrilled at the prospect of meeting him. The most intriguing leading man of his generation, Depp is back as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Disney's hugely anticipated summer blockbuster. And the fact that he doesn't arrive on time only heightens the expectation and general excitement. Who cares if he's an hour or two late? I've waited far longer for less interesting actors.

When he finally saunters into the Beverly Hills hotel suite, Depp is in good spirits, self-effacing and friendly. "Sorry I'm late - yet again," he beams, with a mock sigh and a flash of gold pirate teeth, which do nothing to detract from his mercurial good looks and chiselled features. "It's pathological," he says, with a raised eyebrow and a shrug, looking and sounding quite cheerful, not in the least bit guilty. Once famously moody and antagonistic, these days the actor is calm and playful. There is an air of relaxed contentment and he's more than happy to discuss the metamorphosis from talented art-house actor to mainstream Hollywood heart-throb, and the transformation in his personal life, from troubled hellraiser to secure family man. He talks about a "rebirth", which he says stems from his relationship with the French musician and singer Vanessa Paradis, and their two children, Lily Rose, seven, and Jack, four.

"It took meeting the right girl," he says. "When Vanessa found out she was pregnant with our first child - you start thinking about the future and everything. Then, boom, there's your baby." He swirls his arms around then taps his fist on the table. "The same moment that your child is born, you're born again, you're brand-new. Vanessa and the kids have revealed me to me," says Depp thoughtfully, stroking his goatee, tipping his battered grey fedora over one eye, then taking a swig of coffee from a flask. "It's been liberating having a family, miraculous," says the actor, who is 43. "Everything changed once I held my daughter in my arms. Until that moment, I had been possessed with me; suddenly, there was someone who depended on me. It was like some veil had been lifted, or a layer of fog had been removed and I suddenly had clarity."

Watching his eyes light up and listening to the warmth with which he describes his own feelings as a father, I decide at the outset, to throw in a question from my own 11-year-old daughter. Along with every girl in her class, and presumably pre-teens everywhere, she's completely obsessed with Depp and distraught that she's not allowed to join me for the interview (an autograph has to suffice). Is it true, I ask on her behalf, that you enjoy playing "Barbies" with your daughter, Lily? "Actually I do like playing with Barbies," he smiles. "It's kind of a great thing to do with your kids, its one-on-one time where you're both inventing characters. You're watching your daughter's imagination flower. But the funniest thing for me was that I was actually using that time to explore different characters with the Barbies and she didn't like it. At a certain point she said: 'Dad, please just stop, don't do that, just do your regular voice.' That put me in my place."

Depp's regular voice is soft and gentle, an undulating lilt that sounds oddly Irish at times. There are no Irish film roles on the horizon, though he does say he's planning an Irish holiday. "I've threatened old JP Donleavy that I'm going to show up on his doorstep with both kids and my girl and we'll scratch our way through to get to the Guinness on tap."

Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with thick horn-rimmed glasses, the name of his son tattooed on his arm, he has a heavy silver chain around his neck and a watch set in a wide leather wristband. He looks stylish, but it's his own idiosyncratic brand of rock-star elegance.

Family matters dominate his conversation. He says he's happiest at home playing with the children in the garden, and relishes the peaceful domesticity he's found in the south of France, where the family spend at least half the year. "I love running around on the beach with the children, going swimming." Depp may look like an irreverent rocker, but he sounds more like a sedate married man.

"When you hit 40, it's like - it's OK to go to sleep at 9.30 at night; why not?" He rocks back on his chair. Are there any fears of ageing? "No, not at all. I welcome getting older, it's great. I know at a certain point, your back starts to go out on you every day, you start to walk funny, who knows, your ear lobe falls off. But it doesn't worry me. I remember being 37, 38 years old and thinking: 'This feels a little bit nowhere, a little bit non-specific', and then when 40 came it was like: 'Ah, I'm 40.'" There's a long sigh. "And with that came freedom from certain responsibilities, to be the guy who goes out with all his friends and stays out all night - I never really had any great interest in that anyway."

Somehow it seems incongruous to equate this reflective actor with the notorious firebrand who used to tear up hotel rooms and dated a string of glamorous celebrities from Winona Ryder to Kate Moss. "Vanessa and the children have given me real direction and perspective," he says. "The things that don't matter just don't matter any more, so I can wave them away and keep moving. Actually I was never as wild as they said. But I still have the rage, the rage is built in, it's part of your upbringing, part of your conditioning. I guess it's even genetic, but it's not as prominent these days as it was 10, 12 years ago," says Depp who believes the residual anger (wherever it originated) is dissipated by the intensity of his acting. "Playing characters like Captain Jack certainly gives you the opportunity to relieve yourself of that pent-up stuff."

Born in Kentucky, the youngest of four children, his parents, John, an engineer, and Betty Sue, a waitress, split up when he was 15, after years of fighting. He does confess that his itinerant childhood, spent moving around Florida, was difficult. "By the time I was 16, we had lived in something like 35 houses, we were total nomads, like gypsies, and that's kind of ingrained into my psyche. I can't stand being in one spot for too long." As a teenager, Depp says he felt "different". Some of his best roles, of course, have been outsiders, including Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, the cocaine trafficker George Jung in Blow, the B-movie director Ed Wood, the Hunter S Thompson character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, JM Barrie in Finding Neverland and Willy Wonka.

"It's always been good fun playing all those characters like Wonka, Captain Jack, Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing," he says, " because they're people who can do things I would never dream of doing, or speak to people that I could never bring myself to."

He says the fascination for the unusual side of humanity has its roots in his own unsettled childhood. "Growing up, I always had a sneaking suspicion that it was OK to be different, but it seems to me that there's this fear of being different - nobody wants to be considered crazy or weird," he says, " so they do their best to hide their individuality. It's one of the main things you try to instil in your children and to teach them - that it is OK to maintain your sense of yourself and your integrity. I always had a fairly strong sense of myself." Depp dreamed of being a rock guitarist, not an actor: " Nothing could make me deviate from that road. Music is still a big part of my life."

At 16, he dropped out of school to play guitar and moved to Los Angeles. Briefly married when he was 20, he couldn't make a living as a musician and resorted to a variety of jobs including a stint as a ballpoint pen salesman. A serendipitous meeting with Nicolas Cage led to a suggestion that Depp try his hand at acting. The actor still maintains that his career initially took off only because he couldn't think of anything better to do at the time. There were appearances in Platoon and A Nightmare on Elm Street, which gave him the early catchphrase "Morality sucks". Depp landed the TV role that first made him famous, as a cop on 21 Jump Street. A reluctant teenage idol from the TV show, he found fame unfulfilling. "It was great training, but they kept pushing me in a direction that I didn't want to be involved with," he says. "I really hated the idea of being a product on someone else's terms and I swore to myself back then that I would do the things I wanted to. If I failed, I failed, and if it worked, it worked."

Depp's long-term partnership with the director Tim Burton has been a key to the direction of his unusual career. "Tim's a genius," he says, "and that's not a word you throw around lightly." The two have worked together five times so far. The first, Edward Scissorhands, in 1990 became a cult classic - it was Depp's first original character. Burton calls Depp "a great character actor in a leading man's body". Depp, meanwhile, credits Burton with establishing him as an actor and giving him his most interesting opportunities. "Each time out of the gate with Tim is an education," he says. "Working with him always feels like home, because you can take a risk and not worry that you've gone too far. There is always somebody to rein you back in."

It has always been Depp's chameleon-like quality, his ability to immerse himself in every character that has made him stand out. "I don't know how I do it," he says with a shrug. "I think it's a case of gathering all these little gems from wherever you find them in life and storing them up to use at a later date. I find people and behaviour fascinating, because people really are nuts, so I steal things from all kinds of people and incorporate them into my characters. I think the most important responsibility for an actor is observation."

With no desire to be a mainstream actor, Depp deliberately ignored conventional career advice. The Pirates director, Gore Verbinski, views the actor as "courageous". Depp says it is simply a matter of choosing films that appeal to him. In the 1990s, when contemporaries such as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were angling for bigger and more lucrative movies, it appeared that Depp was trying his best not to be a star. He turned down Brad Pitt's small but memorable role in Thelma and Louise as well as Tom Cruise's part in Interview with the Vampire. His roles were personal and, although he was experiencing a rapid rise to stardom, he took projects that were practically guaranteed to be box-office flops - Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (which was booed at its Cannes premiere) and Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream (the critics loved it but few people saw the film). When movies did make money, such as Donnie Brasco, with Al Pacino in 1997, it was purely coincidence as far as Depp was concerned.

"With all my characters, it has to come from somewhere inside me," he says. "It's weird: when I read a script I get these images and ideas just come to me. Sometimes they are images of other people - like when I was reading Sleepy Hollow it was Angela Lansbury. And when I was first reading Pirates I started thinking of pirates as rock stars of the time, like Keith Richards, because their legends arrived in places long before they did.

"Commercial success never bothered me.You don't want to look back on your life and go: 'I was a complete fraud.'"

In the past three years, Depp has come to terms with fame. The original Pirates of the Caribbean grossed more than £400m worldwide and the sequel will almost certainly exceed that figure. Now, in spite of himself, Depp is courted by studio executives who previously regarded him as a talented maverick. But there are no apologies for making three films based on a Disney theme-park ride. "I don't think I sold out," he says. " I never had any allergy to commercial success and I think I have a relatively sane outlook on it all. I just feel it wasn't like this for a long, long time and chances are it won't stay like this, which is ok, because even when I was box-office poison I was still able to do films I wanted to. There was never a moment when I thought that something was going to be a good career-move, or that I could make a slew of cash and skate for a little while."

Depp adds that the recent change in his fortunes, was not the result of any pragmatic plan. "It's a very strange thing, but I know that doing the Pirates of the Caribbean films is totally consistent with everything I've ever done since Cry-Baby," he says referring to one of his early movies with film-maker John Waters. "I haven't changed any of my processes or beliefs. I'm still dedicated to the same things in my work."

Unintentionally, then, one single, inspired, Oscar-nominated performance as Captain Jack Sparrow has propelled Depp from cult star to cultural icon in three years. He's bought his own Caribbean island and, with $15m pay cheques, can easily afford his luxurious lifestyle, splitting his time between homes in the south of France and Los Angeles. Yet he seems genuinely unaffected.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is another colossally expensive, swashbuckling rollercoaster, heavy on special effects, with a complicated plot. And once again, Depp is luminous as the flamboyant and subversive Captain Jack Sparrow, with thick mascara, long matted hair, gold teeth, plaited beard and hippy jewellery. Still sexually ambiguous, the character continues to be inspired by Depp's friend Keith Richards, who is set to have a cameo in Pirates III as Captain Jack's father. "The amount of fun that I have playing this character is truly borderline criminal," he says with a gleeful, slightly demonic grin as he shakes his head. "There were moments on the first film where you went: 'Man, we're getting paid for this', and it was even better this time. I'd be remiss if I didn't admit to having some sort of pirate inside, but I think we all do. Pirates make us feel like kids again. The idea of that level of freedom and irreverence is very appealing."

The new Pirates has also been liberating for Depp from a creative standpoint. Disney executives, including the former CEO Michael Eisner, were distinctly jumpy about his quirky performance in the first film. Not surprisingly, this time around, everyone, including the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, was more than happy to leave Depp and Gore Verbinski to their own devices. "It probably made it a little bit easier that I wasn't getting the panicked phone calls like: 'What the hell are you doing? You're ruining the movie'," says Depp with a wry smile. "Now here we are finishing up Pirates III in the next couple of months and I'll probably have to start thinking about saying goodbye to the guy, but I would definitely consider playing him again."

Depp is making The Rum Diary, based on Hunter S Thompson's book. Then he's hoping to reunite with Tim Burton on a film version of Stephen Sondheim's musical adaptation of Sweeney Todd. "It's looking very good and I sure hope that it happens, because it'd be nice to work with Tim again. It'd be our sixth movie together which would be very exciting," says Depp.

"Do I sing at home? God, no never," he smiles. "But who knows, I might be a horrible singer and that might work for the character, you never know." His past films with Burton include Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and last year's animated Corpse Bride.

Whatever he does, his main concern will always be authenticity. He says he often remembers the best professional advice he's had over the years, from Marlon Brando. The two actors worked together in the 1995 film Don Juan DeMarco and in the only film Depp has directed, The Brave. They became close friends. "He asked me: 'How many movies do you do a year?' And I said: 'Sometimes two or three.' And he told me: 'You better watch yourself, because we only have so many faces in our pockets.' And I think he was very wise.

"I believe it's so important to challenge yourself, because it's easy to be complacent and stick to a formula and say: 'Well, this is my niche and this works.' There are times when I read a script and I think it's really good, but if I don't think there's anything I can add, or anything that will challenge me, I go on to the next thing. It's important as an actor to keep pushing and learning and trying new things that maybe haven't been done so much - to teeter on the brink of absolute failure and flopdom, I think." He laughs. "I can always pump gas or sell pens again. And if I become that weird guy who does art films again, that's ok with me."

At least he doesn't take himself seriously. "I've always considered myself to be very lucky to be still getting jobs with all the weirdness I've put people through, in terms of having to watch my films. I should retire, shouldn't I? It's over," he grins, just as a team of publicists arrive to whisk him away. He seems in no hurry to leave and continues chatting as he signs the all-important autograph for my daughter. "What do I want for the future? I know exactly what I want, everything: calm, peace, tranquillity, freedom, fun, happiness. If I could make all that one word, I would - a many-syllabled word."

With that, he grabs his flask, takes another swig of coffee and ambles out of the room with another apology for his late arrival. " I'll be early next time," he says and bursts out laughing, knowing perfectly well there's no chance of that happening.

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