The Unprocessed Johnny Depp

Captain Jack was so piratically liberated, he made [people] question their entire lives. How had they become so cautious, so boring, so utterly middle-of-the-road? What the hell had happened to them?

Oddly Enough, Johnny Depp had the exact same experience himself, which he described five years ago in a lovely little article he wrote called “Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Beats and Other Bastards Who Ruined My Life.” The story begins with the day his older brother ripped Frampton Comes Alive! off the turntable, put on Astral Weeks, and handed him a copy of On the Road:

“And so began my ascension (or descension) into the mysteries of all things considered Outside. . . . I wanted my education to come from living life, getting out there in the world, seeing and doing and moving among the other vagabonds who had had the same sneaking suspicion that I did, that there would be no great need for high-end mathematics, nope . . . I was not going to be doing other people’s taxes and going home at 5:37 P.M. to pat my dog’s head and sit down to my one-meat-and-two-vegetable table waiting for Jeopardy to pop on . . .”

So it makes perfect sense that when I finally do get my Johnny moment, it’s like a drug deal: Check into the Chateau Marmont and we’ll call you when we call you. It’s perfect because he’s a rock ‘n’ roll dude who started out in bands (and got this close to a record deal with an eighties glam band called Rock City Angels). Finally the phone rings and a voice comes on and says, Johnny’s running a little late. Hang tight.

Like I said, it makes perfect sense. What movie star has enacted the paradigm of celebrity evasion more perfectly than Johnny Depp?

Another half hour, then the phone rings again. Down the hall, knock knock, and there he is, sitting in a chair. He smiles sweetly, asks about my room, opens a window, and pretends to be alarmed that maybe he broke it, making a joke about the days when he trashed a hotel room or two.

When the room-service waiter comes in, Johnny starts talking to him about antiques and even walks him to the door. The kid leaves beaming.

Every so often, he asks me if I want some more coffee. He adds a little water to his coffee.

You have spent some time in France, right? Don’t they do that in France?
No, this is me just growing up on diner coffee. I’m a Maxwell House guy. This is way too highfalutin stuff for me.

[Did you have] to ignore a lot of expensive professional advice to make so many oddball movies.
Well, I took their advice. It was Cocteau, I think–Cocteau said advice is a great thing to listen to and disregard. [He laughs.] And at times it is, you know? Because nobody really knows what you’re feeling, what you’re really going for, what you’re really trying to do. Hell, I didn’t even know what I was going for. I just knew that I didn’t want to be assembly line.

There were agents, upper-echelon agents over the years who said, Listen, here’s the deal: You have to do this because you can make this much money and you can do this and you can do that, success and power and all that. I listened to them and they were right, you know, but I was right. I couldn’t go where they wanted me to go.

‘Cause for a lot of years I was really freaked out. Maybe I took it all too seriously, you know? I was freaked out about being turned into a product. That really used to bug me. Now, more and more, I enjoy the process. Creating a character, working that character into a scene, into the movie. I mean, the last couple of things have been just a ball.

You seemed to be having fun on Pirates.
I really had a ball every single day. It was just a gas. It’s probably the most centered and content I’ve ever been, starting a little bit before that point, because everything comes from home and emotion and what you’re living in. We started Pirates and my girl was three and a half, a great relationship. My little boy was just in the throes of the caveman period and hilarious.

He seems pretty happy talking about his own movies, which gives him a chance to praise the directors and the other actors. The surprise is that he often agrees to make them even if he doesn’t much care for the script. If he’s a fan of Roman Polanski, that’s reason enough to say yes to The Ninth Gate.

“I think Polanski is one of the few filmmakers who nearly did a perfect film, a couple of them. Chinatown is almost perfect. And I was really excited about the prospect of going to work with him. The screenplay was sort of like, all right, you know. Maybe when we get in there, we can float around a little bit and find some stuff and change it. But he doesn’t want to do that so much.”

He laughs again, happy to be talking about the quirks of someone he admires–that’s Roman, and he’s the filmmaker, so what are you going to do? Hell, sometimes Johnny makes movies without even seeing a script.

Dead Man, there was no script.”

Just ’cause you like Jim Jarmusch?
‘Cause I love him, and, you know, he’s another guy who’s made a perfect film. Probably a couple of times.

Same with Ed Wood. No screenplay there, just an idea by Tim Burton. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which he’s going to shoot with Burton this summer in London. And same with Pirates.

“I was sitting in a meeting with Dick Cook over at Disney, a kind of a general meeting, and he said, ‘What kind of stuff are you looking to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’d kind of like to do some kiddie stuff. Something a bit more accessible for mine, you know.’ He said, ‘We’re thinking of doing this thing, Pirates of the Caribbean,’ and I just said, ”m in.'”

That’s the last thing I would have expected you to do, a movie based on a theme park.
I can’t explain it, you know. I just had a feeling. I don’t know why. And there was every chance in the world for it to be something horribly embarrassing. I just had a good feeling, and then all the elements came together and it worked fine. Interesting.

There were a number of people, you know, when those first dailies came in, it was like, What’s that? What’s he doing? I just kind of ended up having a few conference calls and meetings and stuff, and basically, again, I really had a feeling that I had my hooks into this guy so deeply. I just had a feeling that kiddies would like him and that it wouldn’t just be like a kiddie character; the average Joe could like him and the heaviest of intellectuals could like him. What’s amazing to me is I didn’t do anything different than any other character, you know what I mean? I mean, I just did the same job that I always do. But somehow the film hit, and now I meet these little kids who go, “Man, you’re Captain Jack!” And you can see in their eyes that it’s not Johnny Depp or any of that bulls*–they’re meeting Captain Jack. what a high that is. That you’ve somehow pierced that curtain and have made an effect to some degree. That little kid’ll have that memory of watching that movie when he’s a grown man or a grown woman. And that, to me, that means so much.

Ten years ago, when you were in your thirties or late twenties or something, could you imagine yourself saying that?
No. I was just a dumbass.

At a certain point you get one of those moments where you just go, okay, apparently this is the path you’re on now. Just go a little farther and see what happens. I always figured I could go back and play music if I needed to.

Then he brings up the TV-heartthrob thing, something he spontaneously returns to several times, how he got the part on 21 Jump Street that changed his life so fast. Suddenly he was living in a nice hotel and getting paid big money and people were staring at him in restaurants.

“I was playing a cop who looked young enough to go undercover in high school.”

Which is kind of funny considering that he was the opposite of that slick young cop who could get over with the kids because he was so down and studly and in control.

“I’ve always been drawn to those fringe types. There was a book called Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others. I always loved that title. Not so much freaks, but we who are not as others. I always thought that was great.”

That’s why it’s strange you’re in Hollywood, ’cause it’s basically such a mainstream place.
Maybe I was just too dumb to sell out.

There’s purity to all those characters you play. They’re trying to be sincerely themselves and not fake it.
Yeah. [Hunter Thompson’s] just himself. That’s rare. You know, like Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, a band out of Texas. They were basically the first psychedelic-rock band. 1965. And if you listen to old 13th Floor Elevators stuff–Roky Erickson especially, his voice–and then go back and listen to early Led Zeppelin, you know that Robert Plant absolutely copped everything from Roky Erickson. And it’s amazing. And Roky Erickson is sitting in Austin, Texas; he’s just there. And Robert Plant had a huge hit. It always goes back to those guys, you know? I love those f**ing guys.

The interesting thing is, like, for the most part, I’ve kind of been able to glide through this weird little thing they call a career in terms of the business world and in terms of the industry in many movies that were considered absolute failures, flops. So I’ve kind of made a career of–


That’s the thing, a pirate could do whatever he wants. He’s a pirate. Anything. He’s a pirate. There’s no limit. That’s what’s so fun.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Esquire May.2004.

May 1, 2004 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links