At Claridge’s Hotel in London, squirreled away at a table in the bar, over a relaxing glass of red wine, Johnny Depp lighted one of his hand-rolled cigarettes, grinned, leaned back, exhaled a plume and said, “Fuck it,” quite happily. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Earlier, he’d thought to go to the Dorchester Hotel, one of his other usual haunts, but was put off by all the paparazzi and professional autograph hounds milling around, so he ended up here, talking about the movie he’d just finished shooting, the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his fourth film in fifteen years with director Tim Burton. “I have no idea what I did,” he said, which is what he basically says about all his performances. “And I have no idea if it’s anywhere near where it needs to be. I can only go by what I feel, and I feel good.”
He smiled his slightly fractured, slightly raffish, entirely vulnerable smile and said that he was looking forward to a few months off before relocating himself and his family — his girlfriend of seven years, French pop singer and actress Vanessa Paradis, and their two children, Jack, 2, and Lily-Rose Melody, 5 — to Los Angeles to begin making the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, the 2003 blockbuster that got him his first Oscar nomination, in the Best Actor category, for his swishy rendering of Capt. Jack Sparrow. “Between now and then, what I’m going to do, I guess, is slobber and drool, space out, play Barbies with my daughter and sword-fight with my son,” he said. As well, he let it be known that if anything like Lily-Rose’s Barbie train set was in his immediate future, he might just go nuts. “I mean, those things are a real bastard to put together,” he muttered, still smoking and obviously trying to remain calm. “So frustrating that they will send you onto the verge of a nervous breakdown.”
Depp, 41, was silent for a moment, then added that if the gods really wanted to smile on him, they would also help him avoid one other thing: an Oscar nomination for his steadfast, low-key portrayal of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, in Finding Neverland, because that would mean he’d actually have to attend the Oscars, and while such a thing could not, of course, match the nerve-shivering hell of constructing a Barbie train set, it could, nonetheless, lead to some discomfort, just as it did when he and Paradis went to the Oscars after the Pirates nod. “All Vanessa and I could think of was “When and where can we go smoke?’ ” he said, frowning. “And, Where can we get a drink?’ And, ‘When is it over?’ And, ‘Please, don’t let me win.’ It was such a shock, to get the news that I’d been nominated. My first reaction was “Why?” On one level I was flattered; but it’s not what I’m working for. And when I didn’t win the Thing — oh, I was ecstatic. Absolutely ecstatic. I applauded the lucky winner [Sean Penn] and said, ‘Thank God!'”
On the other hand, had he won, he probably would have said, “Fuck it,” and then manfully gotten up, given his little speech, taken the Thing home and pawned it off on his kids to play with. But that’s Depp for you and has been for a very long time. He has a number of words he tries to live by. From the poem Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann: “In the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.” From the preface to The Time of Tour Life, by William Saroyan: “Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption.” And from Depp himself, from deep within himself, when faced with his fears, doubts, anxieties, uncertainties and ambivalences, which are legion: “Fuck it!”
“I’ve ended up saying it in life a lot and in the work a lot, and I’ve always found it very helpful,” he said. “Yes,” he went on, between sips of red wine, “‘Fuck it,’ over the years, has always been pretty soothing.”
Not so very long ago, the Depp name in marquee lights wasn’t exactly a heart-thumping box-office draw. Burned by his first big experience in Hollywood, in the late Eighties, when the Fox network turned him into a David Cassidy-type teen idol on the TV show 21 Jump Street, he decided right then to never again be part of anyone’s machine but his own, and his own machine is anything but conventional; it’s positively, infernally Rube Goldberg-ian, which has left him swerving hither and yon though roles that call for great big bunches of silence (Secret Window), the wearing of swell, pink angora sweaters (Ed Wood), hands that can prune hedges (Edward Scissorhands), a way with women that he may in fact possess (Don Juan DeMarco) and that have him strutting through the L.A. airport, in a sweet white suit, fat shades covering his eyes, to the tune of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” (Blow), one of the greatest moments in all of cinema, bama lam bama lam. Critics love him, magazine writers fawn over him, and he’s developed a fan base like no other (with many a pubic hair winding up in his daily mail), largely because his performances are most often off-kilter, angled and light, full of soul, tenderness, toughness, sincerity and grace, expressed through the liquid cadences of his voice and his diction, his beautiful man-boy face, the unerring and particular use of limbs to amplify and enhance, the whole shebang centrifically whipped together, and so forth. One could go on.
If most of his movies haven’t struck a chord with the mainstream, however, he’s never seemed to care and has, in fact, whistled right past roles in flicks such as Speed, Legends of the Fall and Interview With the Vampire. He does what he does, and yet, of late, strangely and surprisingly, this has begun to work out for him, gross-dollar-wise: Pirates, for one, made $652 million worldwide and turned him into a $20 million-a-picture actor. Because he is Depp, though, this acceptance does not sit upon him easily. While making Pirates, he was delighted when studio executives supervising the picture expressed high anxiety over his foppish characterization of Capt. Jack Sparrow, famously based on Keith Richards (and a whiff of Pepe Le Pew). And if they didn’t like what he was doing, they could fire him, but never could they change him. “I can’t change it,” he likes to say, helplessly. “There’s nothing I can do.” During the making of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, however, no such early studio concerns were voiced, forcing Depp to think long and hard about what this might mean.
“Frankly, I got worried,” he said over his glass of red wine. “It’s like something’s wrong, because they’re not flipping out. I’m not doing my fucking job! But then months into it, Alan Horn, the president of Warner Bros., finally admitted to having felt a little tinge of fear over the initial dailies, and I thought, ‘OK, I’m all right.'”
But enough of this Hollywood talk, because there’s so much more to life than that. The smell of Lagavulin single-malt Scotch whisky, for example. “You’ve got to smell it,” Depp said, flagging down a waitress. “Can we get a snifter of Lagavulin?” he said. “Just straight.” He continued, “I don’t drink hard liquor anymore, but I sometimes order Lagavulin just for the smell. It’s so good. It’s unbelievable.”
A moment later, Depp lifted the snifter to his nose and breathed deeply.
His face lit up. “Peat,” he said, chocolate eyes swirling with appreciation. “It’s so peaty!”
This is an interesting time in the life of Depp, many changes afoot, largely precipitated by a vision he saw seven years ago, in Paris, in the lobby of the Hotel Costes. It was of a woman. Her dress revealed her back, and her back greeted her neck in such away that Depp’s insides buckled and he suddenly experienced one of life’s greater miracles. “Whammo, man, across the room, amazing, incredible, awesome,” he said, working himself into a lather. “The Back, the Back, I saw the Back, and I was reduced to” — and here he made a blubbering, love-struck kind of noise. The woman was Paradis, and the feeling was mutual. Within a few months, she was good and pregnant, and shortly thereafter, Depp quickly evolved into the family man he is today, with a $2 million villa in the South of France, near the Riviera, where he and Paradis spend much of their free time. He likes it there. When he goes shopping in a nearby town, he’s just another guy shopping in a nearby town. He’s calm there. He spends his hours wandering around his vegetable garden or playing with the kids, instead of doing what he used to do back in Hollywood, drinking himself into a stupor, etc. He’s a good man there. A better man.
He is evolving in other ways, too.
A well-known and resolute chain-smoker, he recently made up his mind to cut back. “Yes,” he said, with considerable chesty pride, “I’ve weaned myself down to about, on a great day, on a really great day, three cigarettes. For a nicotine junkie the essential cigs are three: the first-of-the-day cigarette smoked after lunch, then the after-dinner cigarette and then the one taken whenever you want — the luxury wild-card smoke. It used to be quite a bit more. It used to be, I’d smoke these tables. I’d smoke the patch. I’d smoke the gum. So I feel good about it.”
Another thing: He has sold his share in the Viper Room, his club in Los Angeles. It was once synonymous with cool. You could go there, see Beat poet Allen Ginsberg hanging around with the rest of the slitty-eyed crowd, ask him for an autograph and have the request politely refused; but he would wet-kiss you. It was that kind of place. It was, as well, where River Phoenix died of a drug overdose, on the front sidewalk, which has cast a kind of sad shadow over the place ever since. But now it is gone from Depp’s life. The only part of it that remains with him is a Viper Room-branded Zippo lighter, which he uses to light his diminishing number of smokes with.
Another thing: He recently, for the first time since he was three, started sometimes wearing pajamas to bed and has, he says, “found them a very agreeable thing.”
Another thing: Several months ago, more or less on a whim, he bought a thirty-five-acre island in the Bahamas for around $3 million. The purchase fulfilled a childhood dream of his, based on the whole Robinson Crusoe thing, but when he first told Paradis about it, she did not immediately share his enthusiasm.
She said, “Why do we need an island?”
He said, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. It’s an island!”
Absolutely done consulting with his girl, he turned to his friend, the late Marlon Brando, himself a famous island owner.
Depp said, “Hey, man, I found this thing, this island!”
Brando said, “Well, what’s the elevation? Do you have a water system there? What about the electricity?”
Depp said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Brando said, “Well, get me the paperwork and we’ll go through it.”
“He was all for it,” Depp said now, “but before he could go over it with me, he, you know, went away.”
He went away in July, and when Depp got the news, he cried. “One of the last times we spoke, he was so giving, so affectionate, to the point where somewhere in your mind, you went, ‘Oh, I hope everything is OK.’ It triggered something. But it was still a shock.” He went on, fondly, “We first met in ’94, when we did Don Juan DeMarco, and when we got together we were like children. We just laughed, over completely just stupid and vile stuff: pee-pee, caca, fart stuff. And then sometimes there were great silences. He once told me he couldn’t stand people that were afraid of silences. And he practiced what he preached. We had great moments where we’d just sit and say nothing for an hour or two hours. Or there’d be a grunt or ‘Look at that!’ But nothing more.”
Actually, the island idea, Depp probably got it from thinking about Brando. In 1996, he said, “Maybe I should do what Brando did thirty years ago: buy an island. Maybe take my girl . . . and just go there and sleep. And read and swim and think clear thoughts. Because you really can’t do that [in Los Angeles]. You can’t be normal, not with people hitting you up at any given moment with bizarre requests. You can’t just hang out and have a cup of coffee and pick your nose or adjust your package, you know?” The official name of Depp’s island is Little Hall’s Pond Cay, but if Depp had his way, it might go by a few other names as well, like Keep Away Island, Stay Away Island or Fuck Off Island. You can only get to it by boat, seaplane or helicopter. It has six beaches, its own harbor, lots of palm trees, a lagoon. He plans to kick back in a tiki hut there and let the days ease by. “Some people aren’t cut out for that kind of life,” he said. But he is. And he’s looking forward to it and, no doubt, to countless hours of nose picking and package adjustment in perfect, blessed peace. What, for a fellow like Depp, could be better?
He was born John Christopher Depp II, in Owensboro, Kentucky, to a waitress mom, his beloved Betty Sue, and a city-engineer dad, John; was moved to Miramar, Florida, at the age of seven; lived the next seven years in more than a dozen different homes; was a huge fan of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Sixties goth-vampire TV show Dark Shadows; was beset by fear of the dark and What Is Under the Bed, so much so that he could only get onto his sheets by leaping from a distance (“I leapt. Oh, I leapt!”); was plagued by nightmares featuring the Skipper, from Gilligan’s Island; developed a phobia of the pop singer John Davidson; took up smoking at age twelve, then drugs and drink; lost his virginity at age thirteen; played the guitar; wanted to be a rock star; suffered through his parents’ divorce at age fifteen; mooned a teacher at school and was suspended; booted down a locked school door “just to see what was on the other side”; dropped out.
Years later the press would use these things as evidence that Depp was a bad boy and a rebel. But Depp never saw himself that way; plus, he hates labels of that kind, buzzwords meant to interpret, encapsulate and reduce him to a single misguided thought. “To me it was much more [about] curiosity,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was some malicious kid who wanted to kick an old lady in the shin and run, you know? I just wanted to find out what was out there.”
Indeed, in 1983, at the age of twenty, he got married and ditched Florida for California to find out what might be out there for him in terms of his rock & roll dreams. Once there, he got divorced, held many an odd job (hawking T-shirts, telemarketing pens), ultimately failed as a musician but ultimately succeeded as an actor, aided by introductions provided by his pal Nicolas Cage.
Depp’s first role found him gobbled up by a bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then came a few minutes in Platoon and then came 21 Jump Street, the Fox TV show that turned him into a totally miserable teen idol. “The earth was saturated with these horrific images of me as Tom Hanson,” he said. “They’d invented this product, and this product somehow looked like me, and I had no control over it. And I was forced to work maybe 290 days out of 365 days a year, and you end up saying some guy’s words more than you say your own, and they aren’t particularly good words, with a lot of histrionics and bad plot points, and that feels bad. It feels really bad. It was horrible.”
He managed to escape this particular hell four years into his seven-year contract and found himself happily released into the world of major motion pictures with his first starring role, as a screwball greaser with really high hair in John Waters’ CryBaby.
Already, legends had begun to surround him. Legend has it, for instance, that on one plane flight he became so unnerved that he started yelling, to no one in particular, “I fuck animals!” causing his seatmate, an accountant, to lean over and ask, “What kind?” And so it made a certain kind of sense that in 1988, Depp’s hungover-sounding voice on his telephone answering machine related the news that he was “out out out out out out out out.”
Much of the time, of course, he was out with some of the hottest babes in town, including, in his customary serial-monogamist fashion, Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks), Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing) and Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands). Also, he was drinking heavily, to ease various kinds of pain, so that was another kind of out for him. “There are guys, the weekenders, who can go and get loaded and they’re having fun and partying — which is a term I deplore, partying — and it’s all recreational and they’re having a ball. I never had that. It was never about recreation. Not. Ever. That was never my motivation. Not once!”
He got into brawls. Sometimes he was vaguely suicidal. Sometimes he cut his arm with a knife. One time he got a tattoo on his right arm to signify his love for Ryder — Winona Forever, it read — and when they broke up he could take the pain of only so much tattoo removal; it now reads Wino Forever. He wasn’t having much fun. The same imagination that served him so well in the movies fucked him up big’ time in his personal life. He was jealous beyond words. “Oh, boy. Oh, fuck. I was a professional at it. Oh, the scenarios I dreamed up. Oh, fuck. Oh. I mean, world-class. I was. I could see ink pens on the desk, and hairbrushes, and oh, fuck. . . .”
He drank more — bourbon, neat — and became more volatile and began to decay. In September 1994, he reportedly got into a pretty loud and violent fight with then-girlfriend Kate Moss in the $1,2oo-a-night Presidential Suite at New York’s Mark Hotel, which led next-door guest Roger Daltrey, of all people, to complain to management, which led to Depp’s forced eviction, a few hours in the pokey, much lurid press and, in the aftermath, vastly increased bookings for the Mark. Depp later claimed he was simply out to squash a cockroach: “I was trying to catch this bug, and a couple of articles of furniture just happened to get in the way.”
“That was kind of a nasty, darker period for me,” he said today. “I can’t say I was completely unhappy, but I couldn’t get a grasp on it, so I spent years poisoning myself. I was very, very good at it. But finally I was faced with a critical decision: Do I want to continue to be a dumbass or do I want to not be a dumbass? It was best to stop. Now I look back and say, ‘Why? Why did I do that?’ And since the viewing of the Back, from that great distance, I’ve been another animal altogether. I can’t even compare it to anything else.” His imagination can still get the better of him, but these days it mainly revolves around his kids, whenever one of them sneezes and the what-ifs begin to suggest dire consequences. “There’s been many times when I’ve teetered on the brink of absolute madness,” he said, “and unfortunately, once I go, I go, so I count on Vanessa to talk me down. And it does take some serious fucking reeling in to bring me back to three-dimensional reality. But it’s not anywhere near as disturbing as it used to be. With age, you do mellow in certain areas. And it’s fucking happiness.”
He sighed and splashed a little more wine into his glass, as if to once again celebrate that most elusive thing for him, that happiness.
This morning, he opened his eyes at around 7:30, after his son Jack jumped on his chest and said, “Papa?” and Depp said, “Yeah,” and Jack said, “Let’s talk,” and Depp said, groggily, “OK, man, what do you want to talk about?” And then he got up, rushing around and eventually leaving the house wearing a black vest over a well-worn but still grand spread-collar white shirt, French cuffs flopping open, but without his usual jewelry: the tiger’s-tooth necklace, the Che Guevara necklace, the Ganesh necklace; his skull rings (given to him and also worn by Iggy Pop); the bead bracelet made for him by Lily-Rose; and all the rest of it by which he is so well known. In a sense, then, he arrived at Claridge’s half-naked and soon enough went on to bare other parts of himself.
He said that he tries to avoid mirrors (“I try to avoid mirrors”) and is particular about public restrooms (“I avoid the doorknob afterward, because why’d I wash my hands if I’ve got to touch the fucking doorknob?”) and, being a former bar owner, has some advice about bar treats (“Don’t ever go for the peanuts. They’ve got twenty-seven different kinds of urine on them, scientifically tested”).
He let it be known that he leans toward self-effacement. He said, for instance, that Paradis has no pet name for him, nor does he have one for himself; but if he did it would be “Fuckhead, probably, ha-ha, no, not really.” He then said that the worst thing he’s ever done to another person is force that person to watch his movies, “ha-ha.”
He said that any talk of J.M. Barrie being a pedophile is “horseshit.”
He said that he’s not overly fussy about his hair, though he once was, during his early rock years. “I was a coiffeur back then, so now I guess I’m a reformed coiffeur.”
He said that public functions cause him extreme anxiety — “anything like that, where you are expected to act in a certain way. I can’t go out and do that. I can’t do it. It’s not in me. It feels awful to even try.”
He said that the best song ever written is “La Mer,” by Charles Trenet, and that Bobby Darin’s version of it, titled “Beyond the Sea,” is “a killer too.”
He said that as a youth he probably masturbated about as often as the next guy. “I don’t think it ever got out of hand. But isn’t everybody a frequent masturbator? You’re not going to ask for a stool sample, are you?”
He said that he’s already worrying about Lily-Rose becoming a teenager and “all the greasy little boys that’ll be coming over with homemade tattoos.”
He said that when he used to get in fights, he was “a dirty fighter. Oh, yeah. The dirtiest there ever was. Stop at nothing. It doesn’t matter. Balls, sucker punch, bite the ear, pull the ear, gouge an eye out. I have done damage, and damage has been done to me. I’ve been hit with everything in the world: ashtrays, bottles, the worst being a pointy-toed Tony Lama boot to the face.” He went on: “I still have a hellish temper. I mean, it’s diminished a little, but rage is still never very far away.” He’s thinking about the paparazzi and what he might do to them if they ever step into what he calls “a sacred kind of circle,” the one that surrounds him when he’s with his family. “Once again, there’s nothing I would stop at. It’s a hideous place to go but sometimes a necessary place. Yeah, yeah, shit — biting their noses off, chewing it in front of them would be the least of their problems. Unfortunately. But, fuck ’em.”
He said that he misses eating at Arby’s.
He said that he would like a cup of black coffee.
What all this says about Depp is open to interpretation; but, of course, interpretation only leads to labels of the kind that Depp so strenuously dislikes. So, it’s best to resist and just enjoy pondering Depp in all his wonder and glory.
He said that he named his production company Infinitum Nihil for a reason. He said, “The beauty of it is, when someone asks you what it means, you can say, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ Because in Latin that’s what it essentially means: absolutely nothing.”
He chuckled about this briefly, because it seemed to say so much and absolutely nothing, both at the same time, and then it was time for him to leave, to go have dinner with his girl and the kiddies. His assistant showed up. Depp followed him to a side exit. “I’m going to hit the head real quickly,” he said and disappeared down a flight of stairs. Upon his return, he stood at the exit, looking out at the idling car waiting for him. Finally, his assistant gave him the coast-is-clear, no-paparazzi-here high sign, and Depp eased himself into the early-evening darkness, no leaping necessary, no leaping at all.