Johnny Depp| A Pirate’s Life

He wasn’t looking for superstardom, so superstardom came looking for him. Johnny Depp on family, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and how he got a chest of gold without selling his soul.

Fatherhood has a way of changing people, even iconoclasts. “When I became a dad for the first time, it was like a veil being lifted,” Johnny Depp says, as he leans forward, rolling loose tobacco into dark brown paper and using his knee as a table. “I’ve always loved the process of acting, but I didn’t find the occupational hazards particularly rewarding.”

Occupational hazards like being stalked by paparazzi, mauled by strangers, packaged to sell bubble gum and other side effects of fame. “I can’t use the word ‘fame’ with myself, but yeah,” he says. “I just… there was a long period of confusion and dissatisfaction, because I didn’t understand any of it. There was no purpose to it.” He leans back, lights the cigarette, exhales. “I was never horribly self-obsessed or wrapped up in my own weirdness, but when my daughter was born, suddenly there was clarity. I wasn’t angry anymore. It was the first purely selfless moment that I had ever experienced. And it was liberating. In that moment, it’s like you become something else. The real you is revealed.”

The Real Johnny Depp. No one in Hollywood, it’s fair to say, has worked harder at not being a movie star than Depp has, and yet he has evolved into one of the most adored actors of his generation not in spite of that persistence but because of it. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl may have grossed $653 million worldwide, made Depp a $20 million man and earned him an Oscar nomination, but he still seems an unlikely addition to the A-list. Top-tier stars, even those who are great actors, stay on top by being true to their personas. We pay $10 to see Will Smith or Julia Roberts precisely because they don’t surprise us. It’s not that they’re playing themselves. It’s just that the force of their personalities swamps everything else. They’re more than actors. They’re brands.

Depp, 43, is almost pathologically unpredictable. He can be bizarre, hilarious, unsettling even annoying. But he is never the same. He’s the anti-Tom Cruise. “Nothing against Tom, but Johnny may be a bigger star now,” says director John Waters, who cast Depp in 1990’s Cry-Baby. “Nobody is sick of Johnny Depp.”

One huge set piece includes an elaborate three-way sword fight on a massive water wheel that has snapped off its frame and is rolling at top speed through the jungle. (“It’s those moments when you realize how absurd your job is,” Depp says. “It’s great fun, but it was a bastard to shoot.”)

Sitting in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, Depp flashes a bit of Captain Jack every time he opens his mouth. Those gold pirate teeth are bonded onto his own. With the shoot for the third Pirates resuming in August, Depp figured it was just easier to keep them. “They don’t come off until the ride stops,” he says, and smiles. “It’s a horrible process. I didn’t want to go through yanking them off and putting them back on. And it leaves some residue of the character behind.”

Time slows down when you’re with Johnny Depp. He seems like a man who has never rushed to, or from, anywhere in his life. He is chronically late for interviews sometimes four or five hours, sometimes days but this time around just a gentlemanly 50 minutes. And once he’s with you, he never seems in a hurry to leave. His voice is a soft, low mumble. His body is in almost constant motion rolling those cigarettes, rubbing an elbow, reaching for a glass but the rhythm is tranquil and fluid, like a cat licking its paw. He’s a calm, almost hypnotic presence. “He’s always been true to who he is,” says director Tim Burton “He’s never been ruled by money, or by what people think he should or shouldn’t do. Maybe it’s just in America, but it seems that if you’re passionate about something, it freaks people out. You’re considered bizarre or eccentric. To me, it just means you know who you are.”

Depp arrived in Hollywood in the early ’80s. Despite a physical beauty that had studio executives slobbering to make him into a Romantic Leading Man and hordes of teenage girls dreaming of touching his hair just once, Depp escaped from the Hollywood star machine around 1990, and managed to elude capture for almost two decades. He hid out in strange, sometimes beautiful films, playing unforgettable characters in movies that rarely made a dent at the box office. Depp got a reputation for being outre and unbankable. “Oh, yeah,” he says, then rolls off the list of his crimes: “‘That guy can’t open a film. He does all those weird art movies. He works with directors whose names we can’t pronounce.'” He smiles. “But there are worse things they could say.”

When news hit years ago that Depp was going to make the first Pirates, the buzz around town was that he must be broke, and that after years of taking the artistic high road, he had finally sold out. Depp says he never worried about that. “Never, not once, and I don’t know why, because one would think that I would have,” he says. “I suppose it’s because I feel like I have a voice. The idea of commercial success never bothered me necessarily. What bothered me was striving for that, and lying to get that. If I was going to do something, it had to be on my terms not because I’m some hideous control freak but because I don’t want to live a lie. You really don’t want to look back on your life and go, ‘I was a complete fraud.'”

That battle to remain authentic has been long and bloody, and it made Depp an angry young man for most of his 20s. By 16 he had dropped out of school and was doing just that, his group opening for acts like Iggy Pop. “It was wonderful,” he says. “I couldn’t have been happier.” [21 Jump Street] made Depp a teen idol, and made him miserable just as fast. “Everything flips,” he says. “Suddenly, you go into restaurants and people are pointing at you and whispering. You feel spooked by it because that freedom of anonymity is gone. You never get used to that. You’d leave the hotel to go to dinner and there’d be tons of cameras and flashbulbs. “‘Smile, Johnny! Smile!'” He looks annoyed by it, even now. “I thought, ‘I just want to go home.’ But there was no home.”

Depp was locked into a multiyear contract with the Fox network. “They turned me into this product, and I didn’t have a say in it,” he says. “You have no voice, you know? I felt like I was a captive.” So he lashed out, becoming a disruptive force on the Jump Street set in the hope that the network would fire him. “I was the only one who confronted him on what an a*hole he was being,” says costar Holly Robinson Peete. “I totally understood his position, but I was over the moon to be a part of this show, and it’s hard to come to work every day with someone who is p*ing all over it. So I went into his dressing room and told him how I felt, and right after that he trashed his Winnebago.” Peete doesn’t have any hard feelings toward Depp, and chalks it up to youth and inexperience. “He’s got a really great heart, but he was frustrated,” she says. “He just hated the idea of being on a lunch box or some teenage girl’s wall.”

Finally freed from Jump Street, Depp played a succession of iconic loners and dreamers for visionary, unconventional directors. But the anger, which Depp calls his “hillbilly rage,” never quite dissipated. He was famously arrested for trashing a New York City hotel room in 1994, and while Depp says the incident was blown out of proportion “I wasn’t the Wild Man of Borneo” he still believed that his fame and success lacked a point, meaning. “I had these sort of self-destructive periods,” he says. “We all go through times where we poison ourselves a bit. Looking back on it now, it was simply a waste of time, all that self-medicating and boozing.”

Depp was rescued, in part, by Marlon Brando. The two worked together on 1995’s Don Juan DeMarco, and hit it off at the first rehearsal. “Within minutes, Johnny was in Marlon’s lap with, I think, a bottle of gin,” says director Jeremy Leven. “And I think he stayed there the whole time.” It’s easy to imagine the bond between the two men, both actors with unconventional visions, talent to burn and a disdain for art compromised by commerce. “Marlon was a pioneer,” Depp says, quietly. “So I wouldn’t even put myself in the same thought bubble with him, but he understood a lot of things about me, and was incredibly generous and helpful and caring. Very rarely did we talk about movies or acting, so it wasn’t that. He saw me going through stuff that he had been through my weird hillbilly rage so yeah, the connection was strong and deep.”

But it wasn’t until Depp met and fell in love with French actress-singer Vanessa Paradis that everything seemed to fall into place for the actor. After a series of highly public, long-term romances his relationship with Paradis seemed to anchor him. The couple’s daughter, Lily-Rose, was born in 1999; their son, Jack, in 2002. Being a father released him from the pressure of finding meaning and identity exclusively in his work. “I think it softened him on one level, and then invigorated him on an artistic one,” says Burton. “It’s an interesting juxtaposition.” Depp himself puts it more directly: “Now I know where home is.”

It was Depp’s desire to make a movie for his kids that led him to Pirates. In a visit to the Disney lot about five years ago, he mentioned to studio chairman Dick Cook that he’d been watching a lot of Disney movies with his daughter, loved them and was hoping to voice a character in a Pixar movie. Cook mentioned that the studio was developing a movie based on the theme-park ride Pirates of the Caribbean. “And he got very excited,” Cook recalls. “He said, ‘Like a real pirate movie? With swords?’ And I said, ‘Yeah with swords.’ And he said, ‘I’m in’.”

As is now well known to Pirates fans, studio executives were nonplused when they began to see the footage of Depp in character. Whereas Capt. Jack Sparrow was initially conceived as a young Burt Lancaster, Depp had re-imagined him as a debauched, vain, slightly fey rock star, inspired by Rolling Stones icon Keith Richards and cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew. “The studio was, like, ‘Is he drunk? We don’t know what he’s doing!'” says producer Bruckheimer. “It took a little while to calm everybody down.” For his part, Verbinski, the director, loved it. “You know, there’s a lot of conspiring that goes on between actors and directors that I think is very healthy,” he says. “You should be a little concerned as a director if you’re not making the studio nervous.”

Depp’s off-kilter performance, of course, was the very thing that catapulted Pirates into a cultural phenomenon. “First of all, Johnny is a pirate in real life,” says John Waters. “It’s the closest part he’s ever played to his real self, but the fact that he played it kind of nelly was a big risk.” Pause. “If only real pirates were that much fun.”

After decades of being daring and unexpected in daring and unexpected little films, Depp was now staying true to himself in a big summer blockbuster. He didn’t have to be an outsider on the outside. He could be an outsider on the inside. “You feel like you have infiltrated the enemy camp, like you got in there somehow and chiseled your name in the castle wall,” he says. The huge success of the film “made perfect sense to me on the one hand, and at the same time, it made no sense at all, which I kind of enjoyed.” He exhales. “Yeah, it just felt right. Even now, with the dolls and the cereal boxes and snacks and fruit juices, it all just feels fun to me, in a Warholian way. It’s absurd. It doesn’t get more absurd.” Depp’s not ready to let go of Captain Jack just yet. “He’s a blast to play,” he says. “I’ll be in a deep, dark depression saying goodbye to him.” He laughs. “I’ll keep the costume and just prance around the house, entertain the kids.” Or the rest of the world. “Maybe Pirates 4, 5 and 6,” he says. “If they had a good script, why not? I mean, at a certain point, the madness must stop, but for the moment, I can’t say that he’s done.”

These days, Depp and his family divide their time between homes in Los Angeles and France, when they’re not on some movie set or other. He says the media perception of him as an expat and wanna-be Frenchman has been overstated. “But, yeah, I love it there,” he says. “I’ve always loved it there. The phones don’t ring as much. Movies are never brought up in conversation. I’ll take the kids and we’ll go out to the trampoline and the swing set, and we’ll stop by the garden and see how our tomatoes are doing. You know, old-fart stuff. Good stuff.” At last, Depp has learned to quit fighting fate/fame/whatever. “I think everything happened the way it was meant to happen, but I don’t know why,” he says. “I remember every bump in the road, and I still don’t know how I got here. But who am I to ask why? The fact is, this is where I am. So I enjoy it, salute it and keep moving forward.” He smiles, a flash of gold. “None of it makes any sense to me, but then, why should it?”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Newsweek Jun.2006.

June 1, 2006 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links