Hollywood Mavericks – The Anti-Leading Man Johnny Depp, 51
At 51, the only thing Depp expects is to challenge convention and himself. The coming year will remind us all of his artistic range and the power of thinking outside the box office.
“As Marlon once so beautifully f**ing said to me, life is a birdsong. That’s stuck with me.” Like his friend, mentor, and fellow outsider Brando, Johnny Depp is poetic about the listen-closely-or-you’ll-miss-it, crushingly beautiful, ephemeral nature of existence — and also a little punk. “For everybody, the clock’s ticking. The main thing is whether you sit there and stare at the clock in fear of your ultimate demise — which is pointless — or you just live.”
If Depp speaks like a man free of fear, it’s because the elusive star recently passed beyond the reach of critics (internal and otherwise) and his obsessive dedication to craft. “What is really satisfying is, like Marlon, getting to that place where he just didn’t give a f**,” Depp says, explaining the evolution of his emancipation. “First, I reached a point where I cared so much and was so diligent in terms of approaching the work. Then you get to where you care so f**ing much that it gets beleaguering, you know? But then a great thing happens. Suddenly you care enough to not give a f**, because not giving a f**, that’s the total liberation. Being game to try anything.”
For evidence of his newfound freedom, consider the wildly varied, whiplash-inducing transformations he’s undertaken over the past year. “It’s been insane,” says Depp, who returned to Los Angeles from London late the night before after wrapping Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass. “From Whitey Bulger to the Mad Hatter, you can imagine the schizophrenia.”
First, Depp’s showmanship will be on display with Into the Woods, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s not-so-happily-ever-after fairy-tale mash-up. Depp sank his teeth into the role of the Wolf, crafting a cunning lupine character with rich comic undertones (the better to make his predatory, seductive ways just family-friendly enough). “I delight in the approach we took with the Big Bad Wolf,” he says. “There’s a wonderful dark humor throughout.” Then in January comes the action comedy Mortdecai, in which he plays an aristocratic art dealer–cum–adventurer who deserves a place alongside the actor’s great rogues.
And in September, we’ll see Depp as the Boston gangster and longtime fugitive Whitey Bulger in Black Mass. Depp delved into the psychology of the legendary mobster, who was an informant for the FBI (often selectively feeding the Feds intel to take down his rivals) before fleeing and ending up as No. 2 on the Most Wanted list, behind Osama bin Laden. “No one who is in fact deemed ‘evil’ ever believes they’re evil,” Depp says of Bulger. Blending moral complexity with a sense of menace, Depp reached back to his days as an angry young man, the headstrong Kentucky-born kid who had moved some 25 times by the time he left home at 17, to capture the crime boss’s hair-trigger temper. “Bulger was incredible in terms of going zero to 90 in a f**ing millisecond. And not just to coldcock a guy—bang-bang, forever. Yeah, that old hillbilly rage came in handy. It’s not all that far from the surface.”
While it’s likely the coming run of films will be hailed as a return to form in most quarters, it signifies something more. It highlights the scope of Depp’s artistic abilities and ambitions as an actor, it demonstrates how determined he is to not give a f**, and it is a reminder of how badly people have misjudged his place in the pop-cultural firmament.
“He’s a character actor in a leading-man body,” says Rob Marshall, who directed the fourth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. “He disappears into these roles and brings such inventiveness to everything that he touches. He’s a great collaborator, and he was excited to work with an ensemble and not carry something himself.” Depp’s sought to escape the star-maker machinery ever since he forced his way off the vehicle that first made him famous, 21 Jump Street. For all his notoriety, the limelight blisters his skin, like sunshine on a vampire. “I’m f**in’ shy, man,” Depp says. “I’m living, in a sense, like a fugitive. I don’t like to be in social situations—it’s fine for me in a weird way, having to run and hide. Less and less, I have the opportunity to observe, because I’m the one being observed.”
Depp has no interest in swooping in to save the day or donning a superhero costume. He has assiduously avoided the mantle of leading man, even in his blockbuster fare. Don’t forget how daring and subversive a character Captain Jack Sparrow was — drawing the ire of Disney suits who thought he was too drunk and prompting Michael Eisner to famously proclaim, “He’s ruining the film!” At this stage, Depp can be forgiven for having a love-hate relationship with his swashbuckling alter ego, whom he plans to reprise again (shooting begins in February). Thanks largely to Sparrow, he receives a reported $20 million a film, yet because of that beloved buccaneer, studio execs look to him for blockbuster box-office returns every time.
“It’s like being a dog at the track,” Depp says. “They expect you to live up to some race you happened to be in and won accidentally. From that first second, you’re nothing more than a commodity. They have expectations of another Pirates. It’s great if something works. Boy, that’s killer. But to have that as your design . . . it’s ugly, I think.”
The iconoclastic Depp hasn’t lost the taste for the chase, even if his race has a field of one and a route he redraws as he goes. He’s happy to indulge (and even revisit) big-budget films if the character speaks to him, yet he’s happier still incubating passion projects with his production company, Infinitum Nihil, including It Only Rains at Night by writer Neal Jimenez. “I stole that off an agent’s desk, I don’t know, man, 25 years ago,” Depp says, laughing. “And I’ve always either wanted to be in it or direct the damn thing. It’s so beautiful and strange.”
“Infinitum Nihil. The name of the production company came to me with a smile because I just thought it’s all infinite nothing. I think it’s good to be aware of the nothingness. You’re able to just f**in’ be and not get twirled up in all the unnecessary horsesh* in life and what we consider this search for whatever the f** we’re searching for. F** searching—it’s here, right now. So I love infinite, endless nothingness. And there’s some sort of arctic underpants called Infinity Zero or something. That also made me happy.”
Depp’s been working at an exhausting clip, which is particularly taxing for a performer who internalizes every character he plays. “Marlon said, ‘Be careful, we only have so many faces in our pockets,'” he says, referring to Brando’s famous caution about actors not squandering creative capital. “I understood what he meant—and he’s right. But I’m not running out, you know?”
What Depp is losing — not that he had much to begin with — is tolerance for playing the game. “The process I love. The other stuff . . . I can deal with being a fugitive for a bit, but I don’t know how much longer a human being really wants to be that. Actors essentially have to peddle their ass to sell the movie. All the by-products or occupational hazards of the thing . . .” Depp lets out a whistling sigh. He’s too busy for all that. “At a certain point, one has to dig deep and go, ‘Man, it is a birdsong.'”