Johnny Depp's Savage Journey Into 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'

Depp goes Gonzo into the psyche of Hunter S. Thompson – and lives to tell about it

June 11, 1998
johnny depp 1998 cover
Johnny Depp on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Dan Winters

Johnny Depp sighs. Hell. Maybe none of this can be explained.

He puts down his pool cue and reaches for his drink. It is now four weeks since he finished playing Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke, in the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but many of Thompson's mannerisms and behavioral tics are still with Depp, and they show no signs of letting go. Inside his head, it may be even worse. Depp considers how this splendidly terrible state of affairs ever came to be. When all other excuses have dribbled dry, try geography. "I think the whole thing stems from being from Kentucky," he says. "The dark and bloody ground of Kentucky."

Hunter S. Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 18th, 1939. Johnny Depp was born nearly twenty-four years later in Owensboro, Kentucky, on June 9th, 1963. They both subsequently left their homeland and traveled around, each enjoying great adventures, many of which are well documented. They would not meet until the Christmas of 1995.

Depp had gone to Aspen, Colorado, with a party that included Kate Moss and her mother. One friend suggested they go to Thompson's local hangout, the Woody Creek Tavern. "In walks Hunter, wielding two cattle prods," Depp recalls. "With serious voltage going up and down. A wand of electricity. You could see it, crackling up." Depp laughs. "He's not a disappointment at all."

Thompson knew little about Depp. He had seen only one of Depp's movies, Cry-Baby. "I never saw the end, of course," Thompson apologizes, "because I had a little acid. It seemed like watching Oklahoma go on for three years."

The writer and the actor hit it off. "I remember laughing constantly," says Depp. "He zeroes in on faults and good points immediately. I was with Kate, and I think he went straight for the romance jugular, shit like whether I beat her enough. I probably told him, 'Yeah, she gets a severe beating.'" As the evening wound on, Depp's party was invited up to the home that's referred to, on the back flap of Thompson's most recent book, as "a fortified compound." Safely inside, Depp admired a beautiful nickel-plated shotgun on the wall. "I'd grown up around guns," he says. "My father was a real gun fanatic; I shot guns when I was eight years old."

It was now two in the morning. "Hunter said, 'Come with me,'" Depp says. "The fatal words." Leading Depp into the kitchen, Thompson suggested they put the gun to use: "He hands me a propane tank – I've got a cigarette hanging out of my mouth – and he hands me this thing about the size of a matchbox and says, 'Tape these on the propane canister.' I was, 'What are these things?' and he says, 'Oh, that's nitroglycerin.' The cigarette immediately went in the sink."

They took the completed bomb into the back yard. "He knew what he was going to do," Depp says. "And, fuck, I trusted him. You know he was not going to get you killed, somehow. He's survived all these years."

Depp hit the target first time. "I shoot this fucker," he says. "A seventy-five-foot explosion, an enormous, huge burst of fire." Though Depp was having fun, this violent late-night behavior made others in his party a little edgy. Moss' mother, for instance. "She just thought Hunter was a madman and horribly dangerous, and that we should escape as soon as possible," says Depp. "Hunter, being a Southern gentleman, went out of his way to try to make her comfortable. By the time we left, after the explosion, and no one had been badly burned and lost any limbs, she was Ok."

ME: [to Thompson] What did you think of him, that first meeting?

THOMPSON: I felt sorry for him.

DEPP: Understandably.

THOMPSON: Well, he was a homeboy from Kentucky who had been spurned by his own people.

DEPP: [Laughing] He said, "You mean you're not in the Kentucky Hall of Fame?" I said, "Fuck no. And I'm sure they would choose Florence Henderson over me."

THOMPSON: I'm very conscious of the blood.

2. "Hunter wrote that as if he was a war correspondent. It just happened that the bombardment was a self-bombardment, with drugs, and his brain was the battleground. And rather than going where real guns were being fired and real people were dying, he goes to the heart of America: Vegas. But he's reporting as if he's a front-line war correspondent."

-Director Terry Gilliam, March 1998, in the matter of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

In 1971, while reporting a story for Rolling Stone about the murder of an East Los Angeles journalist and radio producer named Ruben Salazar, Hunter S. Thompson befriended a Chicano lawyer, Oscar Zeta Acosta. As it was proving hard to get time alone with Acosta, Thompson suggested that the lawyer join him on a weekend car trip to Las Vegas, where Thompson would be covering a motorcycle race. They could get out of L.A., talk on the way, relax a little. Afterward, in hiding and paranoid that his life was in danger because of the Salazar case, Thompson began to write up their escapades for fun.

His current predicament and the drug-crazed circumstances of his trip both set the tone of and folded into his writing. "Pressure. That's what it was," Thompson says. "Extreme pressure. It's like the heat that creates diamonds." Later, he and Acosta (who appeared in Thompson's writings as Dr. Gonzo) returned to Vegas for a district attorneys' conference on drugs; on paper, Thompson would eventually slide the two trips into one.

The first part of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was published in the November 11th, 1971, issue of Rolling Stone. The author's name – and that of the narrator within the story – was Raoul Duke. Thompson had just agreed to cover the 1972 presidential election. "I was concerned about going to Washington, changing my image," he says. "And I thought this was maybe a bad way to introduce myself again to the Secret Service." (The disguise was, however, a fairly flimsy one. In Jann Wenner's editor's letter, Raoul Duke was introduced to readers as a former "weapons consultant to our Sports Editor, Hunter S. Thompson." And when the material was gathered the following year into a book, Thompson decided he wanted to grab any glory going: "Fuck the Secret Service.")

In 1971, Johnny Depp wasn't particularly worried about the weird escapades and brutal disappointments that await you when you load up a convertible with too many drugs and search in vain for the remnants of the American dream. He was eight. His family had just moved to Florida. In those days, Depp's big obsessions were Evel Kneivel and World War II. He couldn't read enough about Nazi Germany. In the Depp back yard, inspired by Hogan's Heroes, he dug a tunnel; he would climb underground and sit there. He was very much a boy in his own world. He used to emit strange noises, which worried his family. He dreamed of being the first white member of the Harlem Globetrotters.

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