Johnny Depp: The Last Buccaneer

On the path to Hollywood glory, Johnny Depp veered off course. So how did he tame his wild ways to become one of the wild ways to become one of the world's most bankable leading men?

Johnny Depp Keith Richards Rolling Stone Pirates Caribbean
Eric Charbonneau/WireImage
Johnny Depp and Keith Richards at the premiere of 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' in Anaheim, California on May 7th, 2011.
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On a recent summer afternoon, Johnny Depp walks into a luxury suite at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Oddly, he is dressed like a pirate. A faded paisley do-rag is tied around his head. Smaller strips of cloth are braided into his hair, and he has gold caps on several teeth. His loose white T-shirt, with its blue horizontal stripes, maybe more sailor than pirate, but it's definitely in the nautical family.

We should note that Depp has not come directly from the set of his latest film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, where he will reprise the role of flamboyant pirate captain Jack Sparrow. Nor has he come from the cover shoot for this magazine. When I mention this fact to Gore Verbinski, the director of both Pirates movies and a third installment already in the works, he professes no surprise. "That's the Johnny I know," Verbinski tells me. "He's always half-Jack." Depp says, "With all of my characters, it's just depressing to leave them. With Captain Jack, when we finished shooting the first movie, I had a feeling I'd see him again. I didn't feel like I was saying goodbye. By the end of the third movie, I'm sure that's going to be a different story. But it's always really hard."

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At forty-three, Depp seems little changed by time. His face remains boyish. And he still appears uncomfortable in the spotlight. He speaks in a low voice, and even when he laughs, and his eyes light up in a manner suggesting a love of mischief, his tone remains cautious, his body language reserved.

Depp never wanted to be a movie star. Acting gigs, early on, were just day jobs, taken for rent money, while he tried to get a deal for his band. Depp's looks make his success in Hollywood seem inevitable. Yet there was no obvious predictor for Depp to enjoy the specific type of success he's pulled off. It's a great story: Former teen idol rebels against the Hollywood star system and transforms himself into one of the most daring and eccentric screen actors of his generation.

Early on, it seemed as if Depp had a knack for picking smart, offbeat projects. For his first major starring role, in the 1990 John Waters juvenile-delinquent spoof Cry-Baby, Depp mocked his heartthrob status by playing an over-the-top version of one. Since then, he has generally played outsiders: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Hunter S. Thompson alter ego Raoul Duke.

More recently, Depp has proved that he can pick potentially awful films and, with the sheer oddity of his performances, make them not only watchable but sometimes great. There was Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a cartoonishly violent El Mariachi retread redeemed by Depp's sly, hilarious turn as a corrupt, oft-disguised CIA agent. There was also last year's entirely unnecessary Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, again made sort of awesome by Depp, who played Willy Wonka with a creepy vacancy that recalled another glove-wearing lover of children. ("Michael Jackson never entered my brain," Depp insists. "I was thinking more of Howard Hughes, or Brian Wilson when he installed a sandbox in his house.")

And most impressively there was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a Jerry Bruckheimer summer 2003 blockbuster based on a ride at Disneyland. There was no good reason for this film not to suck. And yet, Depp, giddily channeling Keith Richards, stole the movie from romantic leads Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and conquered all skeptics with a brilliant, swaggering performance. The film went on to gross $653 million, and this summer's follow-up – amazingly, Depp's first-ever sequel – has already been anointed a box-office sure thing. Depp has reportedly earned $20 million apiece for the two Pirates sequels.

"Somebody asked me the other day how this character is different from others Johnny has played," Verbinski says. "He's always played against type – that's been his thing, the way he's escaped being typecast as a good-looking leading man. He's always Bud Cort, never Clint Eastwood. There's always an internalization, where he's standing back and watching things. But with Jack Sparrow, he's a guy who's a braggart, who makes the big speech, who can go with the grain. And so you get this virtuoso performance."

These days, Depp and his family – his longtime companion, the French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis, 33, and their two children, Lily-Rose, 7, and Jack, 4, continue to divide their time between the South of France and Los Angeles, though they've been mainly living in L.A. since February 2005, when filming of the second Pirates movie began. Pirates of the Caribbean III, due out next year, will begin filming in August, with a promised appearance by Richards himself, already nicely recovered, thank you, after falling out of a coconut tree in Fiji and undergoing surgery for a head injury. Says Depp, "I didn't have to talk him into it. I said, 'It's up to you, but I think we could have a ball.'"

Have you been in touch with Keith?
Not directly, but with his camp. He's fine. He's. . .

Indestructible?
Yeah. A piece of machinery.

Have you known him for a while?
We met probably in '94 or '95. Obviously, for anyone who ever touched a guitar, Keith is one of your gods.

Have you played music around him? No. I don't have the kind of hair that would allow me to pick up a guitar and start strumming. I've never been that confident-or drunk. I just couldn't do it. Unless he asked me to. Then maybe.

I'm wondering what you thought when you heard the pitch for Pirates. Because in theory it sounds like a terrible idea.
Theoretically, you're right. It has all the markings of a nightmare.

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So what made you take the chance?
Absolutely nothing, just gut instinct. I was in a meeting with Disney. They had offered me this other film, and I was turning it down. But my daughter, she was about three then, and I'd watched every single animated Disney hoo-ha that existed. I'd gotten quite close to these movies and enjoyed the fact that these cartoon characters were without limits. So I was telling them how much I'd like to do a voice for a kiddie film, and they said, "Are you familiar with the theme park and rides? Well, we're thinking of doing Pirates of the Caribbean as a film." And I said, "I'm in." Just like that, immediately. My agent was sitting there, and she was really shocked. I was a little shocked myself.

It seems like an unusual move for you, because you've chosen such non-mainstream movies over the years.
I don't know why I said yes. I didn't think, "I must do a commercial movie." I've never been the guy who can predict, "This fucker's going to go through the roof" or "This one will take a giant dump." And up until halfway through round nine, everyone, including Disney, was thinking, "This is going to be a huge flop." Later, when they were telling me I had to approve my image on cereal boxes, I still never felt compromised. It wasn't like selling out to me. It was like I had infiltrated the enemy camp and stuck my flag in, and now it's taken root and you're on the ride, so let's see where it goes. Friends of mine were going, "Jesus, man, isn't that a little mortifying?" And I said, "Fuck, no! I think it's great. It's funny to me."

Did you have a special affinity for pirates?
Well, I picked up all kinds of books to prepare. Research is at least half the fun. It's like studying for a history exam. The nutrition onboard those ships, that was a real eye-opener. They'd eat by candlelight, below deck, and be so sickened by the food that they'd blow out the candles so they didn't have to see the maggots. Pirate ships were kind of floating prisons, really. I started getting into that whole era, beyond just pirates.

Did you use specific things you learned in playing Jack Sparrow?
One moment where a bit of my research came in unbelievably handy, we were shooting the last frames of Pirates I, and we were trying to come up with a closing line. None of us were happy with what we had. The line needed to mean a lot to Jack. And I remembered a passage from a book I read by a French sailor, where he talked about the idea of why you keep going as a sailor: It's because the horizon is always there. You want to get to it, but you never will. It's all about the unattainable.

What was the final line?
[Thinks for a moment, then speaks in Captain Jack's voice] "Now bring on that horizon." It said it all for me.

When people talk about your portrayal of Jack Sparrow, they generally mention Keith but also point out a certain gay undercurrent.
Well, there was a great book I read . . . What was it called? Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. A very interesting book. I wasn't exactly going for that with the character. And Keith is not flamboyant in his actions. Keith is pretty stealth. But with Jack, it was more that I liked the idea of being ambiguous, of taking this character and making everything a little bit . . . questionable. Because women were thought to be bad luck on ships. And these pirates would go out for years at a time. So, you know, there is a possibility that one thing might lead to another.

Could happen.
You're lonely. You have an extra ration of rum. [Shrugs] "Cabin boy!"

Two weeks later, I meet producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Pirates editor Stephen Rivkin on the Disney lot in Burbank to view an hour's worth of scenes from the movie.

No one but Bruckheimer and the editors have seen the completed film yet, not even Depp, who, when I ask, says, "No way!" and then adds, "I hem and haw and am adamant about not seeing the films I make. And sometimes you get away with it. With Pirates, I don't know that there's any escape route. But it'll be OK." Then he adds, "Or it won't."

Bruckheimer, though often derided as a producer of vacuous blockbusters, seems genuinely passionate about this film. Every time Rivkin clicks a button on his computer to skip ahead to another scene, Bruckheimer patiently turns to me and explains what I'm missing, saying things like, "Now, Bootstrap Bill is Orlando's father." For fans of the first Pirates movie – which, based on my own polling, seems to include just about everyone who has seen it – the sequel promises more of the same. A ship is destroyed by giant tentacles. Depp is hogtied by primitive islanders and hung, rotisserie' style, over a bonfire. An elaborate three-way sword fight moves from beach to graveyard to the top of a spinning-mill wheel. Depp shoots an un-dead monkey and says, "Top that." An unburied treasure chest contains a still-beating heart, and the owner of the heart, a hideous squid-faced monster, wants it back.

At the Chateau, Depp picks at some fruit but otherwise does not touch the spread of food laid out for our interview. Prior to our meeting, my friends made various predictions as to what Depp would be like. People guess that he will drink copious amounts of wine (he does not, but it is three in the afternoon), or that he will be quite short in person (again, sorry, no), or that he will chain-smoke (true, this one: uneven hand-rolled cigarettes the color of dark chocolate).

Depp moved to Los Angeles from Florida, where he spent most of his childhood, when he was twenty. At the time, he had a wife (Lori Anne Allison; they divorced in 1985) and a band, and his only dream was to play rock & roll-as a guitarist, not a frontman. "I never wanted to be the lead singer," he says. "Never wanted that kind of attention." Depp pauses to consider this.

"Weird," he finally adds.

I'd imagine you get to meet a lot of your musical heroes. Is it usually backstage at a show?
The circumstances are always a little different. Like, I met Iggy Pop for the first time when I was seventeen years old and my band opened up for him in Gainesville, Florida. I wanted to meet him, but I didn't want to meet him. I didn't want to be one of those guys that just went up and said, "I really like your music." And I was slightly inebriated at that point, so I started yelling obscenities in his direction. And he walked over to me and got about an eighth of an inch from my face and just looked at me and said, "You little turd." That was it. And I was happy.

That's a great encounter.
I was satisfied. Because I'd had an interesting moment with him. I met him again when we did Cry-Baby.

Did you tell him you'd met before?
Yeah, I asked him if he remembered, and he said, "No, man, I was probably in worse shape than you at the time."

How serious were you about music when you were that age?
I was convinced that was it. I was still convinced after I'd done a few movies.

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How old were you when you got a guitar?
Twelve. I had an uncle who was a preacher, and he played. I used to watch him. He was a real preacher-preacher – hellfire, damnation, that kind of thing. Then I started listening to the Doors, the Stones, the Beatles, Aerosmith. Then the Clash hit, and it was like, "OK." My first guitar was a real cheap little electric thing my mom bought me for twenty-five bucks. From then on I don't remember puberty, I was just playing guitar.

What was the first song you learned?
Well, at that point you're working with one string, so like everybody else's first song, mine was either "25 or 6 to 4," by Chicago, or "Smoke on the Water." I worked my way up to "Stairway to Heaven." At sixteen or seventeen we were on the road.

Your mom was cool with that?
She was OK with it. I had dropped out of school . . . like a dumbass. The music was so important to me, I felt a sanctuary in it, a real safety, and in school, I didn't.

Is there a show that stands out?
We opened for Chuck Berry once, in Atlanta. Back then, the majority of the time, he didn't have a regular touring band. He'd just show up in a town and there would be a band there, local guys. I think he assumed that we were his band, so he walked into our dressing room, put his guitar down – I was dumbstruck. I was seventeen. He plops back, looks at me and says, "What's the matter, young blood?" I said, "Nothing, nothing." I didn't have the heart to tell him his dressing room was upstairs. Then he asked if we'd tune his guitar. So we got that fuckin' red 335 and tuned it up. A bunch of kids.

How would you describe your sound?
It was sort of punkish, poppy, I guess. The sound was somewhere between the Clash and U2. We played with the Pretenders, the Ramones, R.E.M.

Did you come close to getting a record deal?
We were kind of close when we finally moved out here, when I was twenty. But it was just lean times. We tried doing these straight gigs – like selling ink pens over the telephone. The whole band worked at that place. Then the movies thing came up.

Just purely to make some money.
Yeah. Nic Cage was an acquaintance. He'd done Valley Girl, things like that. I was filling out job applications – video stores, whatever. Nic said, "I think you should meet my agent." She sent me to read for a casting director for Wes Craven, and they hired me to do Nightmare on Elm Street.

Did your music friends give you shit?
Oh, yeah. But then while I was doing the movie, the band broke up. So I continued going to auditions. It was really just a way to pay the bills until the band and I got back together, or I got another band. Then there was a point, maybe a couple of years in, when I said, "You know what? It seems like acting is the avenue I'm going down, so I should probably investigate what it's all about." I wasn't a movie buff by any stretch of the imagination. I never took acting seriously – I still don't – but I started to consider ways to do it, to develop a process.

Did the acting scene seem kind of square, coming from the music scene?
Oh, yeah. Ambition was rampant. The fucked-up thing for me is that you'd come into a room for an audition, and it was wall-to-wall ass. You'd see a guy in the corner going, "Oh, fuck you, you son of a bitch," rehearsing. And I felt like an absolute dick.

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Being one of those people?
Being one of them. I just hated it.

Although maybe your not giving a fuck made you seem far more confident.
It was very helpful. I don't know if I was ever confident. I was more uncomfortable than anything else.

Did you ever make any rock & roll guy faux pas in the acting world?
No, but I remember when I did Nightmare on Elm Street, there was a scene where I had to take off my shirt and they saw my Indian tattoo – it was 1984, and they were like, "He's got a tattoo! This kid's got a tattoo!" They were really freaked out by it. They said, "Could you lie on your other side?" It's funny now, thinking back on that, how it was a real shock to them. Now, everybody and their mother and their goldfish is inked.

The second time we meet, Depp is not dressed like a pirate. This afternoon, he is wearing a white undershirt tucked into gray tweed slacks hiked a tad too high (in the style of certain retirement-age Italian gentlemen), a gray fedora clamped over his stringy dark hair. The gold teeth remain; Depp tired of removing them and so had them bonded onto his own teeth for the duration of the shoot.

We're back at the Chateau, but this time in a bungalow, sitting near a sliding door that opens into our own private yard. It's a gorgeous summer day, and the bungalow looks magnificent, as if it hasn't been architecturally modified since the Fifties. Depp suspects it might be the very bungalow where John Belushi died. He loves the history and lore of LA. "There are places in old Hollywood that are just amazing," he says, gazing outside with a longing expression.

Before meeting the stunning Paradis in 1998, Depp dated a string of starlets and models (including Sherilyn Fenn, Winona Ryder and Kate Moss). Back when he co-owned the West Hollywood club the Viper Room, his drinking buddies included famously dissolute rock stars (Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan). And he's always sought out older, similarly unconventional mentor figures, befriending the likes of Richards, Allen Ginsberg, Marlon Brando and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson, whom Depp will portray once again in the upcoming film The Rum Diary. It's an adaptation of Thompson's first novel, detailing his stint as a reporter in Puerto Rico in the late Fifties. The film has been fast-tracked now that another Depp production, Shantaram, has stalled. Based on an autobiographical novel by Gregory David Roberts that Depp fell in love with, the film will chronicle a junkie's odyssey from prison to the slums of Bombay. Australian director Peter Weir had been attached to the project, but Depp was unhappy with Weir's vision, which, in Depp's opinion, strayed too far from the book. Weir is out; the search is on for a new director.

For The Rum Diary, have you thought much about how you'll approach the role, since you've played Hunter before, but during a much different period of his life?
Hunter was always Hunter. I don't think I need to cover the territory I covered in Fear and Loathing, but this character is definitely related to that guy.

I was surprised to hear that an early possible cast for Fear and Loathing – way early, in the Seventies – was Jack Nicholson in the Hunter role and Marlon Brando as Dr. Gonzo.
Oh, really? I tell you what, I'd have watched that movie. I'd still be watching it. Nonstop. God, that would have been amazing. You know, it's always funny coming here to the Chateau. This is where Hunter would stay, every time he came to town. Room 59. He was about the best friend you could have, really. He was a great friend.

Toward the end, were you aware of his depression and what he was going through?
I was only aware that he had moments, like all of us. He'd call and he'd sound kind of shitty and then you'd talk, and he'd say, "Fuck, we have things to do now, this is going to be good." We'd end on a positive note.

Were you surprised by his suicide?
I was and I wasn't. I was horrified, but the way he went about it was absolutely consistent. He was never going to be the guy that collapsed in his soup bowl. That's not Hunter's legacy. In that way, there was a kind of symmetry. It somehow made sense for him. I went along on his book tour for The Proud Highway. He had dubbed me his road manager and head of security. He'd introduce me to people as "Ray." And they would be like, "It's Johnny Depp." And he would say, "No, his name is Ray."

Did you try and disguise the way you looked?
No, it seemed pointless. But during that tour, in San Francisco his back went out on him. He was just a mess, really in such physical pain. You could see how hard it was for him to cope with that. We were in that hotel room for five days, just me and him.

What was that like?
It was great in a lot of ways. It was like living in one of his books. You were a character. But it was hard seeing him in pain, because he was like a Robert Mitchum type – a big, tough, masculine Southern gentleman. But even then, as low as he was feeling, we had a ball. He'd make fun of it, and then work through it. But I guess at a certain point… I don't know what happens. He hit that moment. I still think about him every single day – at least two or three times a day.

People who hear about you and Hunter hanging out in a hotel room for five days will assume you were doing lots of drugs.
It wasn't the case at all. I never made the mistake that a lot of people used to make around Hunter, which was "Let's get high with Hunter Thompson!" Hunter would tell them, "Hey, don't do this because I do it. You're gonna fuck up." And they did. When I was with him, I never ventured into that arena. Number one, I didn't like it. I'd just drink my wine, or whatever.

You've talked about doing drugs as a teenager. What has your relationship with drugs been over the course of your life?
When I was a kid in South Florida, drugs were around. My parents went through a nasty divorce, and that was just the direction I went in for a while. I wouldn't say it was excessive, I'd say that it was self-medicating. It never had anything to do with fun for me. Neither did drinking, back then.

Do you miss France when you're here?
The only thing about France that's very different for me is that the phone rings less. I don't ever have to think about movies. Where we live, our little place, it's very simple, so you think about matters at hand.

Dinner?
Dinner, playing with the kids. What's the weather like. Check the garden. Go wander.

People seemed to make a big deal about you moving to France. It was portrayed as this kind of fuck you to America.
Purely because it's better copy than just saying, "He has a place there, his kids were born there, he hangs out there." It's much better copy to say, "He's abandoned the United States! He's an expatriate!" The truth was less interesting.

Did meeting Vanessa make you think about living there?
Even before I met Vanessa, I always loved Europe. It's a very agreeable culture, the quality of life. Not so uptight.

When you're in L.A., do you get nostalgic for your wilder days?
I didn't go out as much as people think. When I do get a sliver of melancholy, it always brings me back to the early days, living in a tiny studio apartment off Hollywood Boulevard and not having a dime. And just wandering. There was so much more time. I'd spend hours in old bookstores. I get nostalgic for those days. Maybe it's the anonymity. Or innocence. Because they weren't exactly great days.

Do you and Vanessa ever give each other advice on performances?
We rarely talk about work or movies. She's always so supportive, so kind about my work. And she's incapable of bullshitting me. Which is kind of great.

What do you do after you finish a movie?
I used to just get on the train.

Like an Amtrak train?
Yeah. If I was in L.A., I'd just go north to San Francisco or Seattle. Just to get through that period. It can be depressing, at times.

Marlon Brando was a mentor to you. Would you guys ever talk about acting?
Once, he said to me, "How many movies do you do a year?" I said, "Last year, I think I did three." And he said, "Don't do too many." I said, "Why is that?" He said, "Because we only have so many faces in our pockets."

Toward the end, when Brando spoke about his craft, he was very dismissive.
He just didn't see the big deal, really. Here's a guy who had been called a genius since 1947. And I think he was just infinitely more interested in truth.

Could you ever see yourself becoming disillusioned about acting in that way?
No. I mean, I was a little bitter, coming up the ranks. It just didn't make sense to me. I was in an arena that I hadn't really made a choice to be in. And they turned me into this product and everything snowballed, and I couldn't do anything about it. And the natural reaction, for me, was to rail against it. So I was a bit angry for a period of time. But now, no. It's a great job. I've had really bad jobs in my life. And this is a good one.

This story is from the July 13th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1004: July 13, 2006