Keith Richards and Johnny Depp: Blood Brothers

The actor/musicians tell 'Rolling Stone' why they're pirates onscreen and off

Keith Richards Johnny Depp Rolling Stone
Photo by Matthew Rolston
Keith Richards and Johnny Depp on the cover of Rolling Stone
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Come in, it's a beast out there."

With those words, Johnny Depp swings open the door to his sleek air-conditioned trailer and offers blessed relief from the brutal California heat wave. Here on the Disney lot in Burbank, where production is under way on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Depp's trailer — where reggae and African music are currently blasting — is his personal oasis from the rigors of three-peating his Oscar-nominated turn as pirate king Jack Sparrow in the alleged final chapter in this box-office treasure chest ($1.7 billion to date). For the past few days, Depp has been graciously sharing the digs with another unimpeachable source of cool. That would be Keith Richards, on a break last September from the Rolling Stones' Bigger Bang tour, to film the small but pivotal role of Jack's far from dear old dad, Captain Teague. It's damn near typecasting, since Depp admits he used Richards as a model for the dreadlocked, mascaraed Jack. As Roger Ebert wrote, "Depp seems to be channeling a drunken drag queen, with his eyeliner and the way he minces ashore and slurs his dialogue ever so insouciantly."

Even with the heat, there's no slurring today. Never mind those stories later circulated by Pirates castmate Bill Nighy that Richards was so soused and wobbly on the set that director Gore Verbinski had to hold Richards' shins steady while he filmed his scenes. At this moment, both Depp and Richards are ready for action, dressed in full pirate regalia for the day's shoot. Richards, who's actually been up and working all morning, appears fantastically torn and tattered, with a bandanna and braids, scars and patches, facial hair and a puffy shirt. The joke is he doesn't look that much different onstage as the lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones.

Couples and Collaborators on the Cover of Rolling Stone

Depp's trailer is movie-star expansive and well swabbed with couches and wall tapestries, yet the joint also has the scary vibe of a voodoo lounge. After all, Richards, a certified wild card, recently told a Brit magazine that he was so close to his late dad, Bert, that he snorted his ashes with a bit of blow. He said he was kidding, of course, but with Richards you never know. Days earlier, another reporter earned the wrath of Keith for mistaking Richards' famed skull ring for an Iggy Pop copy. The blunder led the rock icon to threaten the journalist with sodomy by banana.

Richards, 63, and Depp, 43, have been casually friendly for a decade. Depp is downright solicitous of his big-screen father, who today has taken to calling him "Johnny, me boy." Depp even offers to fetch cigarettes, making him the highest-paid gofer in Hollywood. "I could use one, yeah," says Richards. "Thanks, mate."

It's clear that Depp, a longtime musician and guitar freak, is having the time of his life during Richards' solo stop on the Disney lot. For all the rock edge that Richards brings with him anywhere, his affection for Depp is clear even when he calls him an "asshole."

The first question is for you, Keith. Has your career as a rock star all been Method preparation for playing a pirate?
Richards: Actually, you could look at it like that. Both are ways to make a good dishonest living. Pirates are very democratic. Everything's for sale: left leg so much, testicles so much. I mean, they did have a deal going on those boats that was way ahead of the Constitution.

You have some band experience too, Johnny, from your teen years with the Kids. Have you figured out if there are any differences between pirates and rockers?
Depp: I always thought of pirates being the rock stars of the eighteenth century. With both, the myth arrives before them. The word comes around the bend months before they arrive.

Do you remember when you were first aware of the myth of Keith?
Depp: Very, very early. Simply found his music. It was always my first love, even as a small kiddie. I remember when I started fucking around on a guitar for the first time. Keith — he goes to the forefront. Have you gotten a chance to play together?

Richards: Not yet.

And how would you compare yourself as a player to the guitar god over here?
Depp: I wouldn't even, like, begin.

Richards: Johnny's probably better than he thinks. I'm probably not as good as he thinks.

Depp: I was almost afraid to meet him for a long time, because there is always a fear that your heroes are going to be shitheads.

Richards: I met him. At first it was like, "Not another one of my fucking son's friends." Johnny started kind of like that and then he worked his way up with me.

How long ago was that?
Richards: I think around '95, in New York. My son Marlon told me, "You've really got to meet this guy. He is really a fan." And so I got to know Johnny via that. I knew the name, but I didn't know really what he had done. I thought he was some guitar player, and then I thought, "Oh, he's made some movies, too, another one of those blokes." But then over the years we got to know each other rather better. Hence I'm wearing this [laughs at himself in pirate outfit].

Was it hard to convince you to be a part of this Pirates film franchise?
Richards: It was the right place at the right time with the right guys. And, you know, because he's an asshole.

Depp: Truth be told.

I think that you, Keith, gave a great acting performance in the 1987 Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, where you played the mature one as the concert producer while Chuck raised hell.
Richards: It's just me doing what I do in that movie. Hey, Chuck asked for it, he got it. I am one of the biggest Chuck Berry fans in the goddamn world. But not when it comes time to work. He's got a Chuck story as well.

Depp: I was in this band, the Kids. And we opened up for Chuck Berry in Atlanta. I was seventeen. He arrives. He comes into our dressing room. He thinks we're his band. So I was, like, stupefied. And he handed me his guitar and said, "Tune it up." So I plugged it and used the strobe tuner. He was like, "What the fuck is that?" "A strobe tuner, man." He was mesmerized.

Richards: Yeah, Chuck had never seen a tuner before. He thought you'd be trying to fuck with him. He knows what he wanted to play. Bless his old heart.

Chuck's a great pirate, in his way.
Richards: Oh, yeah, are you kidding me? He used to rape, loot and pillage all over the place.

Since you both find no difference between pirates and rock stars, what about between rock stars and actors? The shores are littered with the bones of rock stars who wanted to act.
Richards: I can't really dissect that one. Hey, ever since I bashed me head [falling out of a palm tree in Fiji last year], I've had these doctors actually projecting themselves to be rock stars. Me, I'm just a musician. And if the people like my stuff, thank God. It pushes me on to do more. And I want to do more. That's something that you don't factor in when you start this game.

Johnny, your Captain Jack Sparrow character has put you in a new game: movie icon.
Depp: It doesn't feel any different than anything I've ever done. It's just that more people saw this movie and liked this character. I was shocked and touched by it.

How do you define Captain Jack's appeal?
Depp: I think it's pure irreverence, you know, that he's kind of the trickster.

Richards: He represents potential freedom, to break out of the bounds.

When did Keith figure into your thinking about how to play this character?
Depp: You think, "Who's the greatest rock & roll star? Who's that charismatic and interesting?" And you go, "Oh, fuck, it's Keith, isn't it? It's Keith."

In your opinion, who does the best Keith imitation? Mick did a pretty good Keith on "Saturday Night Live."
Richards: Some time ago, yeah. The only other one is the man sitting right here. There's been loads of wanna-bes. But it's ail posing with a guitar. And not playing right, not looking right, so not being me. It's amazing so many people would try to emulate me. Really, it's just in the bones and in the moves. You don't know what attracts people to what you do.

Growing up, Keith, weren't you a fan of singing cowboy Roy Rogers?
Richards: Oh, yeah, Roy was great. He could shoot, play the guitar and ride a great horse. What more do you want?

When did you turn to the dark side and go toward the pirates?
Richards: That came naturally later. You get an image that is like a ball and chain. You can clean up your act and become like, "Oh, how Christian," but still you drag your whole life behind you.

Johnny, didn't you have a negative reaction early on from studio executives as you started to create the character of Jack Sparrow?
Depp: The first month or so on Pirates 1, they all thought I'd lost my fucking mind.

Richards: No, the opening with you standing on the sinking ship was "I couldn't have done it better meself."

So you have seen the movie, Keith?
Richards: Oh, shit, yeah. How can you not with your grandkids around? I saw it when Pirates 1 came out. Pirates 2 I did fall asleep in, but I'd been up for three days.

Depp: I might have fallen asleep myself.

Keith, did you recognize anything similar right away between you and the character?
Richards: He gave me a call when he started doing promos for Pirates 1: "Before you read this shit, I have got to say that I did base certain parts of my character on you." Well, thanks, Johnny, for letting me know. Otherwise I would have sued your ass [laughs].

And when did you get the thought, Johnny, to ask Keith to be your father onscreen?
Depp: We had dinner in New York, hanging out, right after Pirates. I was never sure that he would even go for it.

Richards: I had a week off, Johnny.

Depp: Time well spent.

Richards: Yeah, the rest of the Stones are kicking their asses back, and I'm a pirate. Just something different to do. I don't know if I can really pull it or not. Either that or it would be one line and out.

How is he doing?
Depp: Fucking great, man. Two-take Richards.

Frank Sinatra supposedly had the patience for only one take when he was acting.
Richards: Yeah, but he was a motherfucker.

Depp: I don't think Sinatra ever stopped to hit his mark. He would walk out of frame — done.

Johnny, has the huge success of the first two Pirates movies surprised you?

Depp: It surprised the shit out of me, because I'm used to about eighteen people seeing my movies.

And what, if anything, can you tell us about the third movie?
Richards: You're looking at it now [points to his costume].

This is as close as you'll ever be, Keith, to being a Disney character.
Richards: I'm the next Mickey Mouse — look out.

Depp: Mickey Mouse with dreads.

Johnny, you never opened for the Stones. Iggy Pop was as close as you got.
Depp: Yeah, yeah, when I was a Kid.

Tell me what Stones records connected with you the most.
Depp: I was a fan of the early stuff.

Richards: I always hate to pick this one or that one. I mean, as opposed to just, like, rumble away in the background. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's what it's about.

Depp: I've always had a tendency toward Keith's tracks: "Before They Make Me Run," "Little T&A." As a guitar player, he was a god. As he still is. Don't tell him.

Do you on any level consider yourself a failed rock star?
Depp: Worse than that, I'm a failed musician. Music was my life, my first love.

Richards: He's got one of the best guitar collections, very eclectic.

Depp: There are some nice old LIs.

Keith, haven't you been wearing a skull ring and other pirate regalia since the "X-pensive Winos" era?
Richards: Since the late Sixties, early Seventies. I have a very good friend who also makes my handcuffs, but I can't show you because they are under this goddamn pirate shirt.

Over the years, some of the best quotes have been attributed to you. One was "I fly under no flag. I'm a musician." Which to me is the pirate ethos.
Richards: Shit, if I didn't have a guitar, I'd have a boat.

Depp: I'd do it in a Maserati.

Do you think you have to be a bit of a pirate to survive in the music business?
Richards: The music business has never been any different. It's a pool of piranhas. You want to get in there? You better not be tasty.

Here's another Richards quote: "I never had a problem with drugs. I had a problem with the police."
Richards: Yeah. I'll stick with that, too [laughs].

There are kids just being born now who may discover Keith through the Pirates movie. How does that grab you?
Richards: Great. Brilliant.

Depp: If that's the way they find Keith, fine. There's forty years of amazing music to discover after that.

Richards: They found Johnny, didn't they? And they might as well find me. It's a different generation, and that's why I am playing his father. Oh, Mom's not here.

Will we see a mom in the movie?
Richards: We cannot reveal [laughs].

How would you compare the brotherhood of a band with the brotherhood of pirates?
Richards: You're a crew, right? It's a teamwork thing. Johnny has been doing this Pirates series for three or four years, off and on. And his crew made me right at home. It is like my own crew on the road It's a family thing. My whole life is operated around that. I was a choirboy, you know. This requires teamwork. I was a Boy Scout, and the patrol leader really required teamwork. They called it Beaver Patrol, believe it or not.

Depp: Beaver Patrol? [Laughs]

Richards: Yeah. I was the leader of Beaver Patrol. Look out, girls. By the time I'd sort of grown up halfway, I got used to operating with other guys. And a band is like the supreme thing of working together. You have no two takes up there. It's got to be one-take Richards up there onstage [laughs]. But in a way it's still acting. This is acting and playing at the same time.

Have you turned down a lot of acting roles?
Richards: Oh, I've been offered a few things, but they were all so ludicrous. I would only do it with friends, and that's the way this one happened. This is why I am wearing this fucking wig, which weighs three fucking pounds.

How many hours of makeup and preparation did you need? Because, I must say, this pirate get-up looks pretty natural on you.
Richards: It takes about an hour and a half. Because they put the scars on. Like I don't have enough scars already.

How is your acting gig going?
Richards: Pretending to be his father has become interesting. I'm not sure of what I'm doing, because it's very short-term, but I'm doing me best. I know that I can look this man in the eyes and we can fuck about without fucking crawling.

Depp: He came in like a fucking pirate, dressed like this. It was the first time I saw this crew, who I've been working with for years, with their mouths wide open. Just checking him out in awe. Like the gunfighter had arrived.

Richards: Ladies and gentlemen, Cary Grant is about to take a piss.

Depp: You draw quite a crowd.

Richards: Watch out, bastard.

Does Jack Sparrow have father issues?
Depp: Oh, it's a tough-love situation.

This movie obviously interrupted the Stones tour. How are the shows going?
Richards: Oh, man, great. We've done ninety-seven shows. I left Denmark to come here to do this. Let's face it, if the Stones shows don't go great, you'd hear all about it. But coming in, I have been thinking, "Oh, God, I'm jet-lagged." In actual fact I've been able to roll with it. Is the old frame still holding?

Depp: The frame is holding.

Did boss-man producer Jerry Bruckheimer come down to watch you two together?
Depp: Yeah, he came down yesterday.

Richards: Big fucking deal. I've seen them come and go, baby [laughs].

Growing up, Johnny, did you get to see the Stones onstage, or was that out of the budget range?
Depp: That was well out of the budget range. I've seen them now a number of times. It just gets better and better. Astonishing to watch them onstage. The energy.

Richards: I demand ransom.

How close did you get to music becoming your whole life, Johnny?
Depp: It was my whole life. I made a living at it before the acting. Acting happened by mistake, and I stuck with it.

Do you still play at all, and write?
Depp: Yeah, yeah, I still play. I play in the house or around town, play on house records, play on pals' records. Sometimes I play with meself.

Richards: There's always that.

Keith, it took you forever to make a solo record. Johnny, would you do a record?
Depp: No. I think it's one thing when musicians take a turn as an actor, do a cameo in a film. But actors doing records . . .

Richards: You can do any fucking thing you want. You shouldn't be chicken.

Keith, did you contribute any music to this movie?
Richards: It is all a bit "yo ho ho and a bottle of rum" for me. Johnny had this beautiful guitar made in a week, which looks like it's 300 years old. And so I just did my little warm-up pieces. And they said they liked that.

But you did play a little in the movie?
Richards: Yeah. A lovely piece of music. You're all going to love it.

You both are like pirates — old salty dogs.
Richards: He's been licking me off for years now.

Has doing this movie been a bonding experience?
Richards: Obviously we got to learn a bit more about each other. I mean, he's just a mate of mine. Like, "Do you want to do this?" "Yeah. Why not? I can only fall flat on me face, right?"

Depp: You didn't. You haven't.

But in rock & roll terms, aren't you setting a new precedent for longevity?
Richards: There are no such thing as rock & roll terms. Who can say how long somebody can go on and do this? Croak around nineteen or twenty, that's when you're fine. Two years on the charts.

Well, is it a point of pride that you now stand as a symbol of . . . 
Richards: It's not a matter of pride. It's that we just kept doing it. And you can keep on doing it if you got a good band. Why not? There's how many millions out there who want to see it? Shit, who am I to argue? I am going to have absolute fun with these people. Rock & roll has got to be fun. Really, I need the adrenaline. There is an exchange of energy.

Has Keith inspired you in your career?
Depp: He's uncompromising.

Richards: Probably thought that before he met me.

Depp: He was one of the people I admired for what he's done and how he's handled it. Forty-whatever years of being this god. And he's just cool.

Keith, from the time you started doing press, you were unusually blunt and honest.
Richards: After what I've been through, fuck it. You want to know what it's like, it's like this. I'm no angel.

But now you're an actor. What have you learned from Johnny?
Richards: Before he has to do a take, his eyes change, and he goes into Jack.

Depp: Really? I'm not aware of the change.

Richards: You put yourself in Jack mode — like that.

Depp: Fuck, I had no idea.

Were you a particularly charismatic musician when you were onstage, Johnny?
Depp: Not at all. I was trying to stay out of the lights.

Richards: Tough shit. Didn't work.

Keith, how do you put yourself in the mode for a Stones concert?
Richards: [Laughs] That's a dangerous question. I get a ten-minute call. You never know with Mick, because if you're late for Mick, hey, the singer is the singer, right? And if he's not prepared, then fine. The band usually hangs in my room. And do what we do [laughs]. It's really a suppressed energy, you know, and you are just waiting for them to open the gates and let's get out there.

In terms of Jack Sparrow, Johnny, what did you get from Keith besides the look?
Richards: The look, yes, elegantly wasted.

Depp: I wasn't trying to do an imitation of Keith, but there was something of his that I thought would fit the character.

Richards: Well, you're back to your original thing of rock stars and pirates. I mean, this rig we're wearing is taken from engravings of pirates looking as they want to be seen. You don't think they stood on the fucking deck wearing this crap, do you? It was like the videos for them. This was postcards. This was the cover of Rolling Stone. This is how they wish to be presented, as they wish to be perceived. In actual day-to-day work, they would be wearing a pair of drawers, and that's about it.

What do you two pirates know about cool that the rest of us don't?
Richards: If you're cool, you don't know nothing about it. It just is, or you ain't.

This story is from the May 31, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1027: May 31, 2007
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