Johnny Depp: The Last Buccaneer

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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.

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