Friday 7 January 2011

Johnny Depp interview

First things first. I didn't write any of the below copy. However, the nice people at The Red Bulletin did and then allowed me to republish it, exclusivity, here.

The full article (and more art, sport and culture content) is available on their website

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

Johnny Depp is at once one of the world’s most alluring, yet impenetrable Hollywood leads. RĂ¼diger Sturm explores the character of this quirkiest of actors and reluctant star

You might expect any number of different reactions to the experience of meeting Johnny Depp: awed respect maybe, nervousness, a frisson of here’s- Hollywood-in-the-flesh excitement. But when yours truly is finally sitting directly opposite the 47-year-old Mr D at the luxury Le Meurice hotel in Paris, I’m struck by quite another emotion altogether. This superstar makes you feel all protective.

The way he looks at you from behind his blue horn-rimmed glasses makes him seem timid. His voice is muffled. You might even say he’s shy. And there’s something feminine about his 5ft 8in frame. Yet at the same time his appearance is immaculately polished. The two-tone action scarf he’s wearing perfectly matches his open-sleeved grey shirt and stylishly ripped jeans. His wrists are covered in leather straps and Buddhist prayer bands. His ears and fingers are covered in rings, including one film memento complete with skull and crossbones, a thick platinum and diamond number and a gold signet ring.

His fragile, artistic appearance means the mild irritation I’d felt at his being half an hour late swiftly disappeared. Especially as he immediately apologises in a rather despondent tone. “I’m afraid this habit of mine is practically automatic. I’m always late.”

Truth be told, he needn’t really have said another word. Because those first impressions alone answer the question as to why Johnny Depp is perhaps the most successful, and definitely the most exciting, star on the planet right now. They betray both coolness and a sense of style and are the outward signs of an individual who lives in his own world: a creature as exotic as he is sensitive and one clearly ill at ease when he comes into contact with the outside world. From this perspective, these impressions are almost more illuminating than his latest film, a thriller, The Tourist – a conventional flick in comparison. Depp stars in this, his latest, as an American maths teacher on a leave-the-heartache-behind trip to Venice, trying to get over a painful break-up. While Passion and deception: Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in The Tourist As Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean “There aren’t many films where everything goes well and you still expect something good to come out of it at the end. The Tourist is one of those exceptional cases. That’s in no small part down to Johnny Depp. We’d never met before because we both like to retreat into our family environments rather than hanging out at parties. And neither of us takes ourselves too seriously. While we were filming, I got to know Johnny for the absolutely adorable person that he is. I knew, like everyone else, that he was an incredibly interesting artist, but he’s also a very natural and unaffected actor. Plus he has an enormous talent for comedy which helps him to be both light-hearted and easygoing in his acting. That’s incredibly important for a film like The Tourist, because you can’t take yourself too seriously, but you want to have some fun too. That’s the only way to get that good mood across to the cinema goers. And we were in a good mood. Basically we just laughed the whole time we were filming.” there, the stunning girlfriend (Angelina Jolie) of a fugitive gangster casts her spell over him. But it’s all part of a plot. As nobody knows what the criminal looks like after plastic surgery, the people pursuing him assume the unsuspecting tourist is their target, which provides for no end of chases and machinations around the Grand Canal.

Depp understands this is a far cry from the eccentricities of his signature Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean – or, even, his Sweeney Todd.

“It was a real challenge to produce a ‘Mister Normal’ after playing roles like that,” he offers.

Except that, as far as he’s concerned, there’s no such thing as banal normality: “The people who society considers average are often the strangest people you can imagine,” he says. He gives as an example an honest accountant who decided to travel the world looking for and photographing signs with his surname on them. Depp worked out his ‘Normal’ ideas within a strictly limited framework. He decided what his character would look like, put on a couple of pounds and adopted a couple of quirks, such as the low-brow American trying to speak to Italians in Spanish. It was also his idea to flee across Venice’s rooftops in pyjamas in one scene. Even in such staid roles as these, he’s still quite the thrillseeker. He wouldn’t dream of appearing with a perfect blond head of hair and a bronzed six-pack, as Brad Pitt might.

Nor would he want to be heralded as some greying heart-throb, like George Clooney. He seeks out his characters from the fringes of society, regardless of their appearance or state of mind, and then interprets them without a hint of vanity, delving deep into his own imagination. “He’s teeming with ideas, almost too many for one person,” his partner Vanessa Paradis opines. “I feel trapped if I’m not allowed to improvise,” he explains. And he “just wants to run away” from directors who try to set him strict guidelines on how to play a role. Which is why he argued with Michael Mann during the making of the gangster epic Public Enemies. Meantime, an adaptation of the bestselling novel Shantaram, has been put on hold because he couldn’t see eye-to-eye with star director Peter Weir of Master and Commander.

It’s because Johnny Depp’s imagination is so rich and dazzling that it needs to be protected. It’s possible that The Tourist might not have come about at all if it hadn’t been for producer Graham King who’s worked with Depp for years and, as such, enjoys the star’s trust. It’s no coincidence that Depp brings King along for the interview, even if the beefy Englishman lets his star do the talking.

It took Depp a long time to find this kind of patron. He can still vividly remember being bullied by one female teacher at school. He could never get on with classmates who dreamed of nothing more than winning the Beauty Queen – or King – crown. “I never wanted to be an insider,” he says.

Even in Hollywood he was ill at ease and this despite his becoming one of the ’80s leading teen idols for his role as a young undercover cop in the TV series 21 Jump Street.

“I was sold like goods. It drove me completely crazy.”

But Depp was never just a pampered genius; he was also a rebel – splendidly mooning the school teacher he hated, for example. During those crisis years in Hollywood, he would sometimes smash up the furniture in his hotel room out of sheer frustration. A flirtation with crime was perhaps no surprise.

“My grandfather sold moonshine during prohibition in the ’30s – that was a real service to the community. Then my stepfather learned about life the hard way for a couple of years in a juvenile penitentiary,” Depp explains with evident pride.

So it was only to be expected that he would break out of any pigeonhole the business wanted to stick him in. A twist of fate introduced him to someone who would help him escape and who remains a loyal supporter.

Director Tim Burton cast Depp as the outcast, monstrously made-up eponymous hero of Edward Scissorhands. The eccentric filmmaker has shaped the image of Johnny Depp the actor more than anyone since. In Ed Wood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, he has always presented his star as an oddball character verging on the ingenious, who’s as sensitive as he is unique.

But even with that support, Johnny Depp might still have got lost down one of the movie industry’s dead-end streets.

“All people ever talked about in Hollywood was making money. It was so frustrating,” he says.

He’d numb these lows with a mix of drink and drugs. “I was close to completely losing my mind,” Depp admits. What stopped him flipping out altogether, however, was an encounter 12 years ago in the lobby of a Paris hotel. “I turned around and I saw this great back.” It belonged to pop singer Vanessa Paradis. “I went up to her, she turned around and when I said hello to her, I knew that was it.” And he wasn’t wrong. Three months later, the French singer – 26 at the time – was pregnant.

The man who used to smash up his hotel rooms found the emotional stability that had been lacking in his life until then. “Anything I’d done before was kind of an illusion. My daughter, the birth of my daughter, gave me life.” In 2002, his son, Jack, was born and Depp’s priorities were changed forever. “My greatest hope is that I’ll be fair to the people I love.”

But whoever thought that this bourgeois idyll might have dulled the thrillseeker spirit was wrong. If anything, it marked the start of probably the most satisfying phase of his career, from teen idol to cult actor to superstar. A year after his son was born, came Depp’s first blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean, which also brought him his first Oscar nomination. But he had to fight to realise his own vision for the character of Captain Jack. Depp wanted his pirate captain to have all the eccentricities of someone like Keith Richards. And Disney Studios weren’t at all impressed by that to start with. “They thought I was crazy.” But the risk paid off. Cinema goers were happy not to see yet another identikit hero. The era of the bland sunshine boy was over and a new era of traumatised superheroes, mutants and freaks had taken its place. And Johnny was one of its icons. The Pirates trilogy had made his personal eccentricity completely socially acceptable. The outsider had come in from the cold.

His sense of being on the fringes, looking at the action, rather then being central to it, hasn’t disappeared, however. “Sometimes I’d love to run away screaming,” he confesses without a hint of irony. What from? “Our technology-obsessed world, the invasive media, the madness of reality TV. We’ve lost touch with the simple things in life. We’re losing our individuality.”

Even if that may sound a little excitable and convoluted, it tells us one thing, namely that Johnny Depp doesn’t feel at home in the modern world. When he’s not getting carried away in a train of thought, his face takes on an astonished expression – a mixture of misgiving and amazement. Like a visitor from another planet who’s not sure whether he’d like to be beamed back up or not.

Luckily, he has the means to organise his own private seclusion zone. One of the family’s homes is in an idyllic village in the South of France, and don’t forget the private island in the Bahamas. “That might sound extravagant to you. But I need somewhere where I can breathe easily or just sit around and chat without someone taking my picture.” It’s as if he’d rather live in the past, maybe in the ’30s, when “…the men were still elegantly dressed, looked like their own men”.

His favourite films seem to tie in with the same pattern. “We like watching the old Hollywood classics,” Vanessa Paradis admits. It Happened One Night, a comedy in which Clark Gable meets an heiress on the run, is one of the couple’s favourite films. Even Depp’s food tips meet the same criteria. For example, he rates the bistro Chez L’Ami Louis in Paris which opened in the ’20s but has long since fallen out of favour with the critics. But that doesn’t bother him. Because, “…you feel like you’re in a time machine”.

And if he goes to a city he doesn’t know, he wanders in the historic footsteps of the great writers. When I ask him what stood out in Venice, where The Tourist was shot, he doesn’t name something standard like St Mark’s Square or the Rialto Bridge, but he does mention with great enthusiasm that he walked past the lodgings of English poet genius Lord Byron.

Yet this special take of his never goes to his head. He has neither an egomaniac’s ponderousness nor a winner’s arrogance. It is precisely because he doesn’t take himself too seriously that he is able to embody the most absurd of roles. Even during a comparatively streamlined production like The Tourist, he and his co-star Angelina Jolie would still see who could raise the biggest laugh. He’s notorious for putting whoopee cushions on his colleagues’ chairs. And he can take a joke too. At press conferences he never evades even the most intimate of questions, be they about his ideal of beauty or the length of his manhood, and he sometimes even makes jokes about his “sex change”.

All of which makes Johnny Depp, with his wonderful eccentricity, meek timidity and rebellious sarcasm, rather unique in the movie industry. He should be placed on the endangered species list forthwith. But the best description of him I’ve ever heard comes straight from the horse’s mouth. He may have been talking about Keith Richards at the time, but it could just as well apply to him. “He is profound, funny and absolutely brilliant. He might well have been wallowing in fame from a young age, but he always managed to stay cool and normal. And he treats everyone the same. And to manage that in this industry is an amazing achievement.”

Johnny Depp is starring in The Tourist, in cinemas now. Watch the trailer here.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is due for release in April

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