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, 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.
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