The Hunter in Johnny Depp

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.

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. 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, s*. 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.

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. 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.

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You see, Johnny works a lot. He keeps to a grueling schedule. I want to ask him about this schedule, as I suspect he may have become 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 mid-afternoon, then sit down for our interview. 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.

Then in walks Johnny. 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.

But the question remains: How can someone who seems to have had his picture on every magazine cover in the world seven times over so an antagonistic to having his picture taken. It turns out that “antagonistic” is to mild a word.

“The whole thing. It feels like 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 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.

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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?

“Basically, if they are 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.”

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.”

“There is a part of me that needs to have this kind of stimulation to the brain. I must have f**ing stimulation.”

And what about all the Hollywood bulls* 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.”

What I wanted to ask 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.”

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What does Johnny do when he comes across a bad line in a script?
“I change it. I just go: ‘You know 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, what’s next.
The Lone Ranger and Tanto.”

Keith (Richards, who played Johnny’s father in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean pictures) 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.

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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, ‘F**, 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?”

Johnny had been wanting to make The Rum Diary, had been making it in his head for a long, long time.

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 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? He doesn’t answer for a moment. You’re getting all serious.
“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. “If they’ll have me.”

How do your siblings feel about the fact that you never seem to physically age?
“They seem O.K.”

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This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair Nov.2011.

November 1, 2011 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links