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 and Keith Richards at the premiere of 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' in Anaheim, California on May 7th, 2011.
Eric Charbonneau/WireImage
July 13, 2006

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.

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