Attend the tale of Johnny Depp: Still Hollywood’s most perverse superstar, he has followed up the family-friendly Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a buckets-of-blood saga of cannibalism that is also — gulp! — a musical. That’s right, Depp sings for the first time ever onscreen, and critics are warbling his praises for tackling the notoriously difficult score from theater legend Stephen Sondheim. This gripping adaptation of the 1979 Broadway hit is the sixth movie Depp has done with director Tim Burton, for whom he’s played misfits from Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood. But a full-out musical is a first for both of them. And the pain-wracked intensity Depp brings to this London barber obsessed with revenge is sparking Oscar talk.
Today Depp meets me in a suite at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. His jeans are ripped, and his black shirt is open at the neck to reveal a gonzo necklace, a tribute to his late friend, Hunter S. Thompson. Depp looks around the tastefully appointed room. “They’ve really done this place up,” he says. “I lived in the Chateau for a while, years ago, and it was dingy but great. It was like they bought the couches from the Ramada I n n that was closed down by the Health Department in 1970.” Depp has come a long way from his childhood in Kentucky, the youngest of four children. His parents — a waitress and a city engineer — moved more than twenty times while he was young, settling in Miramar, Florida, when he was seven, and divorcing when he was fifteen. These days, Depp, 44, and his family (French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis and their two children, Lily-Rose, 8, and Jack, 5) split their time between Los Angeles and the South of France.
Conversation with the quick-witted Depp can careen from whether new popes get their genitals cupped to ensure the leader of the Catholic Church is sufficiently male (“I think an elderly man waddles up to you and reaches under your dress”) to his out-of-control life before he met Paradis (“I’m a dumb-ass, and I poisoned myself for years. Now I understand things better”).
It’s been seventeen years since Depp starred in Cry Baby, the Fifties musical pastiche from John Waters, where his singing voice was dubbed. Since Depp performs his own songs in Sweeney Todd, it seemed like the right time to revisit his musical career and how it improbably led him to become one of the most compelling actors of his generation.
Was your family musical at all?
My mom and my dad weren’t particularly musical, no. But I did have an uncle who was a preacher, and he played hillbilly bluegrass guitar. So Sunday church services, it was like, “Hallelujah, brothers and sisters,” and then he would start picking “Stepping on the Clouds.” That was where I got the bug: watching my uncle play the guitar with his little gospel group, right in front of me.
What was the first record you bought?
I don’t know if I bought it, but the first record I remember listening to nonstop, oddly, was Dean Martin, Everybody Loves Somebody. And then Boots Randolph. And then the record album of Blackbeard’s Ghost, with Peter Ustinov. I’d never seen the film — I didn’t see it until I was in my late thirties. But I knew it verbatim. Slightly ironic. And then I turned that corner into preteen and I remember listening to Frampton Gomes Alive! too much. My brother’s ten years older than me. He grabbed the needle off the album and there was this horrific noise — wrrrraarrrar. He said, “Listen, man, you’re killing me. Try this.” And he put on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. And it stirred me. I’d never heard anything like it. I said, “OK, maybe Frampton Comes Alive! is a little tired.” Then my brother, very pleased with himself, started turning me on to other things, like the soundtrack to Last Tango in Paris.
Did you wonder why they didn’t show the [X-rated] Tango on TV?
I was a little kid and it sounded good enough to me. I remember liking the image on the record album, of Brando and Maria Schneider, although I didn’t quite understand it. It’s a good bit to chew on when you’re a kid. Now, thirty-some years later, it’s still a pretty good bit to chew on. It’s good stuff.
How did listening to music become making music?
When I was twelve, I talked my mom into picking up a Decca electric guitar for me for twenty-five dollars. It had a little blue plush amp. And then, this is horrible, the first thing I did was steal a Mel Bay chord book. I went to this store, stuffed it down my pants and walked out. It had pictures — that’s why I needed it so badly, because it was immediate gratification. If I could match those photographs, then I was golden. I conquered it in days. I locked the bedroom door, didn’t leave, and taught myself how to play chords. I started learning songs by ear.
What was the first song you could play through?
Every kid with a guitar at that time, the first things that came up were almost always “Smoke on the Water,” obviously, and “25 or 6 to 4,” by Chicago. But the first song I played all the way through must have been “Stairway to Heaven.” I remember getting through the finger-picking and just cursing Jimmy Page.
What was your first band?
When I was about thirteen, I got together with some other kids in the neighborhood. This one guy had a bass, we knew a guy who had a PA system, we made our own lights. It was really ramshackle and great. We’d play at people’s backyard parties. Everything from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to Cheap Trick to Devo — and “Johnny B. Goode” was the closer.
You’ve got that wistful look in your eyes.
You’re thirteen years old and you’re playing rock & roll. Loud. Poorly. But somebody’s letting you do it in their back yard. And it was absolute perfection. It was freedom. Right off the bat, there was no question: I had found my future.
What was the name of that group?
You start out with super-innocent names like Flame, and by the time you’re fifteen, you’re the guitarist in a band called Bitch.
Did you ever want to be the singer?
No. I was always pretty shy. I didn’t want to be the guy that everybody looked at.
Yeah, I know. I didn’t want to be that guy at all. Plus, singers had to do stuff that I found mortifying, like jump around. Horror show. I just liked playing very loud and keeping my head down, staying in the dark.
How old were you when you quit school?
About sixteen. I was playing clubs, but suddenly I had made the choice to become an adult. My parents said, “OK, kid, you’ve taken yourself out of school, so you fend for yourself.” So there weren’t many options. I was very close to joining the Marine Corps. I was teetering. But then I had a realization: I’ve only been out of school two weeks. I can go back. So I sat down with the dean and said, “Listen, I made a mistake and I’d like to try again.” And bless him, he said, “Johnny, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. You love your music, that’s the only thing you’ve ever applied yourself to. Go out there and play.” He wasn’t nasty about it — he was giving me good advice. Then I was in a band called — very original — Bad Boys. And when I was seventeen, this band called the Kids needed a guitar player, and I joined them.
In retrospect, were the Kids any good?
Yeah, it was a very solid band. And the opportunities we had were incredible. We played huge shows, opening for the Ramones, the Pretenders, Iggy Pop, Stray Cats. Our main influences were Elvis Costello, the Clash and early Motown stuff, especially the Jackson 5. And U2. They were just coming up when we played “I Will Follow” — people used to think it was our song.
Why did you leave Florida?
We needed a challenge, and the best challenge in the world was “Let’s go to L.A. and see if we can get signed.” In ’83, we packed up these U-Haul trailers and set out for L.A. But suddenly we’re not big fish in a little pond, we’re guppies and we’re nearly destitute. We have to eat, so we end up getting jobs.
How did you pay the rent?
Phone sales. Me and a couple of the other guys in the band sold ink pens over the telephone. You’d guarantee them a grandfather clock or a trip to Greece. Oddly, that’s kind of my first experience with acting. You’re reading a whole spiel. There was a character on the soap opera General Hospital — the name stuck in my head — so I would call people up and say, “How do you do, this is Edward Quartermaine.” The couple of times that I actually got people to buy the pens, they only agreed because they wanted the grandfather clock. And when the supervisor wandered off, I would say, “Listen, don’t buy these pens. The clock is made of corkboard. I’m a thief; we’re ripping you off.”
So I wasn’t good at it. The Kids were struggling. Everybody started getting nervous and weird. I was filling out job applications for video stores on Melrose. Nicolas Cage was with me, and we got along pretty well. And Nic said, “Why don’t you try acting? I think you could probably do it.” I remember saying, “I’ll try anything, man.” I gotta live without calling home and begging for money. So I met his agent, and she sent me to read for a movie [Nightmare on Elm Street], and they hired me. It was scale, $1,200 a week for eight weeks, which was absolutely ludicrous. That’s mad money! So I said to the band, “I’m gonna do this thing, it’s eight weeks, and then I’ll come back.” But it didn’t work that way. Everybody went in their own direction. I never wanted to be an actor. It just seemed like a good way to make easy money. I didn’t care what the movies were. If you’re going to pay me, fine. That was my philosophy.
Looking back now, do you wish you had ended up a guitarist instead of an actor?
Not really. Music will always be my first love. But if I continued to do it for a living, I don’t know that I would feel the same way about it. I’m glad that it worked out this way, because it’s still as fresh as it was back then and I’m not pressured to write hit songs. I pick up the guitar and space out and drool.
Now and then, you knock out a guitar solo for friends like Shane MacGowan or Oasis.
Playing on Shane’s record was . . . there are snippets of memory.
So it was more that you could hold your guitar and not fall over?
[Laughs] The song seemed like it was fine, it didn’t need anything else. And Shane was just like, “Arrrarrah . . . play some more.” So I thought, “Well, if I just start making some random noises. . . .”And then you get a note that sustains and you can feel that it’s gonna hang in there, so like any guitar player, you’ll deal with it for fifteen minutes if somebody will let you. You get this feedback, you’ll bend it and stretch it. So I got these weird, tonal, harmonic kind of spacey things. I think the credit Shane gave me on the record was “weird guitar noises by Johnny Depp.” The Oasis stuff was fun. I liked playing with those guys, and I enjoyed playing slide on — what was it called? — “Fade In-Out.” I was playing a guitar that had some strange tuning, and I didn’t know the chords to the song. So looking back, it was sort of miraculous that I was able to stay on key.
How about P [the Nineties band that included Depp and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers]?
I was a group of friends who were given the opportunity to make a bunch of noise together and document it. For some reason, Capitol Records wanted to do it, and that was the most surreal part. We said, “There will be no photographs, there will be no tour, there will be no videos, there will be no bios, there will be nothing.” And they agreed to it! We didn’t let them in the studio when we were recording the record. There’s a lot of really funny shit on it. Gibby was on fire. He’s a genius. And so after Capitol listened to the record, they just went, “What is this?” and buried it. Which was not even the slightest disappointment.
Had you paid attention to Stephen Sondheim before Tim Burton talked to you about Sweeney Todd?
I was certainly familiar with Sondheim’s work. Jesus, he wrote “Send in the Clowns.” Even Tom Robbins has regard for “Send in the Clowns.” Did you ever read Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates? You’d love it. The main character is constantly referring to “Send in the Clowns.” So I knew of Sondheim’s work, certainly, like West Side Story, but I wasn’t familiar with Sweeney Todd until Tim gave me the CD. I listened to it and thought, “OK, yeah, that’s interesting. But weird, because it’s this big operatic sort of thing.” And then I didn’t think anything else of it. But Tim didn’t address it again with me until five or six years later.
So it had been percolating all that time?
Not in me. I guess he’d been attached to it and then unattached and back and forth. And then suddenly he called. The beauty with Tim is, you’re charged up when he calls you because you know something is going to be fun. So we get together and he says, “Do you remember Sweeney Todd? Do you think you could do it?” I initially said, “I don’t know. I mean, I’d like to do it, but I don’t know if I can.” I started listening to it and familiarizing myself with the notes. And then slowly but surely, I started to sing along with it. I knew that I was musical and could understand the structure and the chords. I knew I could hit certain notes, but I didn’t know if I could hold them. I called Tim and I said, “I think I can do it, but I’m going to go into the studio with a buddy [Bruce Witkin of the Kids] and I’m going to try it out. And I’ll send you a tape and then you tell me.”
Did doing the music first change your approach to the character?
Absolutely. It was a very different process. Because I had no idea who Sweeney was. I mean, I knew the story and I knew what other guys had done with Sweeney. But I didn’t know what my Sweeney was going to look like or sound like. So it was different. I heard him sing before I heard him talk.
Was one song particularly hard to crack?
All of them. The one that I was least looking forward to singing was “Epiphany,” because it’s just all over the joint. Right off the bat it jumps an octave. |Sings] “I had him!” But actually I burned through it pretty quick and had a number of options on that one.
The one that was probably the most challenging was “Johanna.” It’s such an emotional song. And as far as I was concerned, when Stephen Sondheim writes the note and it has to be held for this many beats, you do it. I don’t care if you’re from Miramar or Kentucky or you’re an ass and you don’t sing. It doesn’t matter. Don’t be a pussy, you fuckin’ hold that note. You can’t cheat. You can’t whisper. You can’t do the William Shatner thing. You just gotta belt it out. So I really beat myself up, making svire I could hold those notes. In “Johanna,” some are, like, twelve beats. That was a bugger. At one point, I was very close to passing out — I got dizzy and saw black. But that’s what Sondheim wrote, so that’s what you do.
Did you have a formal meeting with Sondheim?
I did. I flew in to New York to see the Michael Cerveris–Patti LuPone production of Sweeney, which was great. That was the only time I saw the show onstage. The next day I was meeting with Stephen at his house, just to sit down and say hi. He was very gracious. But the weird thing was he didn’t know if I could sing. Nobody knew if I could sing!
So why did he give you his blessing?
I have no idea. I was half-expecting — and this scared the shit out of me — for Stephen to say, “Come over here, kid, let’s go by the piano.” I had this image of him asking me to sing scales or arpeggios. And then you’re faced with the idea of, like, refusing: “No, I won’t be doing that, Mr. Sondheim.” But he was great. He said it was more important to h it the emotional notes than to hit the musical notes. Sondheim has incredibly beautiful melodies, and what goes along with those melodies are sometimes dissonant, super-complex chord arrangements that actually shouldn’t make sense. They shouldn’t go together, but they do somehow, because he’s a genius. Doing that music, it becomes emotional organically. You’re not even searching for anything, and it’s already become emotional. It’s built into Sondheim’s stuff.
My favorite Sondheim story is that his neighbor Katharine Hepburn complained about his noise.
He’s composing some fucking masterpiece and Hepburn’s screaming at Sondheim, going, “You bastard!” I love that.
Has music colored other performances of yours?
Oh, every film. I use music constantly. Music is instant emotion. I can hear a song from the late Sixties, when I was a little kid, and all of a sudden you smell the room, you sense the weather outside, you hear the sound of the car tires on the gravel. Music is the fastest way to your creative source. On Fear and Loathing, when I was doing scenes where I had to be tripping, I used sound effects to spin me out — because there was no way to do the film actually being loaded.
In Sweeney, your face is a rictus of pain. It’s almost like you’re performing from behind a mask.
Yeah, it’s horrible. [Grins] I can’t watch it. Tim and I talked about the torment that this guy would’ve felt, to have his family ripped away from him. The only thing that kept his heart beating was that he could have his revenge. Rut on the set, we laughed like absolute fools, Tim and I, and Helena [Bonham Carter] and Sacha |Baron Cohen]. It was a ball.
You’re the godfather of Tim and Helena’s son, Billy, but this is the first time you and Helena have acted together.
Our paths crossed a couple of times in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and then Corpse Bride, but we never did our stuff together. It certainly didn’t hurt that we’re pals — she and Tim bring Billy down to the South of France and we’ll hang out with all the kids. Also, she’s supertalented. Her level of commitment is really impressive. She could get very scientific about it, and then make fun of herself and laugh about it. It was easier for me. I could wing it a bit more.
Is Tim scientific too?
No, Tim is not scientific. With him, it’s a process of discovery, although he has very solid ideas before he goes in there. As much as Tim was watching me or Helena, I was watching Tim with Dariusz [Wolski], the DP, finding the poetry of the shot. It was very exciting to witness. And I didn’t get fired!
Did you think you were at risk?
No, no. There have been a couple where I thought I was going to get fired. This one I felt like we were OK, because fifty percent of the job was done before we even stepped in front of the camera.
And then you just had to lip-sync?
I had expected that as well, but you can’t lip-sync. You’ve gotta belt it out, which is extra-mortifying. There’s a tiny little speaker over there playing the music and the boom guy has the microphone just inches above your eyebrows and the focus puller and the camera operator are right there. You have to commit yourself to the moment, because of the veins in your neck and your head — lip-syncing would be a lie, and people would spot the fakiness fifty yards away.
Did the awful scare you had during the Sweeney Todd shoot, with your daughter going to the hospital, end up affecting how you play the character?
You can’t broom out your head. You certainly can’t broom out your heart. And there’s a hot wire between them, and everything shows in the eyes. So whatever you’re feeling in your life, trying to avoid it is some kind of weird obstacle course that there’s no way to win. So when it’s there, it’s there. But in any film, nobody else really knows what I was thinking at the time, or what I was going through. One of the bits I like best about acting are the layers underneath. You could be applying anything to a scene, and it could be as random or absurd as a dog turd. To raise a smile, as opposed to a fake smile, something organic needs to happen. It could be the moment you had with your son or your daughter.
So you’re going to take the role of gangster John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s movie Public Enemies. Have you been stuffing your pants for practice? I heard the rumor that his penis is in the Smithsonian.
I’m going to have to check that out. See if I’m up to the task. There’s some very famous photographs of Dillinger on the morgue slab, and there’s one particular angle, with the sheet over him, and it’s, like [gestures expansively around crotch], twenty-five inches, man. So the speculation was that he was in the wrong racket. But you read further, and it was a crank on the other side that the sheet had been draped over, making it look like he was packing, you know, Mr. Ed’s shotgun.
What drew you to Public Enemies?
It was a weird series of events. We were nearly set to go on this film, Shantaram, with Mira Nair directing, and then, bang, the writers’ strike. So we said, “Let’s hit pause until we can get in there and finish it properly.”The same thing basically happened with The Rum Diary. Bruce Robinson wrote the screenplay, based on Hunter’s book, and was going to direct it. The Dillinger thing came up after all that. First of all, Michael Mann has done some really cool, interesting films. And just the fact that John Dillinger was a real rock star.
What does the possibility of winning an Oscar for Sweeney mean to you?
I think it would be unhealthy to have that as your goal. They nominated me for those things a couple of times, you know, the Oscar thing and the Golden Globes. They even gave me a SAG Award.
And they haven’t taken it back.
Yeah. It’s certainly flattering. It makes you feel good that somebody responded to your work. I went and experienced it. I’m not very good in big crowds of people and the whole “look at me, look at me, look at me” situation, I just can’t stand that.
Can you look at yourself in your own movies?
Usually I like to walk away with the experience. If I don’t see it as a product, then it doesn’t exist as a product. I know that’s an ignorant way of looking at it, but it’s helpful. I just did a job, and then I hung out with my family, and then I go and do another job and I’m fine.