Title: Cooler Than You
Author: Stephen Dalton
Issue: December 2004
FOR A WHILE back there, we almost lost Johnny Depp. Torn between success and excess, art and commerce, Hollywood’s Lost Boy could easily have coasted into a perpetual twilight of self-loathing like his friend and idol Marlon Brando. More likely still was a slow drift into art house exile in France. There were even moments when the darkness of River Phoenix or Kurt Cobain could have consumed him.
And yet, in 2004, Depp isn’t just back, he’s back on top. After countless flops punctuated by a couple of hits, the uncompromising 41 -year-old is currently basking in the glory of a sustained run of box-office smashes – first his Oscar-nominated turn as buccaneer Jack Sparrow in the theme-park swashbuckler Pirates Of The Caribbean then running away with Robert Rodriguez’s splatterpunk “taco western” Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and now his sensitive portrayal of Peter Pan creator JM Barrie in Finding Neverland, from Monsters Ball director Marc Forster. After years playing emotionally scarred fuck-ups, drug addicts, freaks and outcasts, the Lost Boy has come in from the cold.
GLIDING THROUGH the ballroom of Venice’s Des Bains hotel to meet Uncut, Depp radiates the serenity of a man with nothing left to prove. In his dreamy, faraway voice, he talks about Barrie.
“It’s important to keep in contact with those qualities we had as children,” Depp tells Uncut.” I think that’s what Barrie was talking about, the idea that we grow-up all too fast. The world gets a hold of you pretty quickly in your youth, and there comes a day when you’re just no longer a child. It happens too last – it really happened to me fast,”
Inevitably, parallels will be drawn between Depp and Peter Pan. Of course, he’s already played his own version of Captain Hook in Pirates Of The Caribbean, even the rock’n’roll fan, Depp famously based Sparrow’s louche cockney mannerisms on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, his long-time partner in late-night drinks and jam sessions. Has Keef seen the movie? Was he flattered?
“I think he was.” Depp grins.” He certainly would never say that to me, but I think he felt all right about it. The good news is he didn’t attack me physically…”
MANY ACTORS WOULID KILL to be rock stars, but Depp is the real deal. He was born on the road, a part-Cherokee daydreamer from a nomadic blue-collar family who lived in dozens of motels and short-term apartments across Kentucky and Florida. A lover of Kerouac and Ginsberg, his childhood was closer to classic muso-hobo outlaw myth than all those drama-school bad-boy wannabes.I lost my virginity at 13.” Depp told Rolling Stone’s in 1988, “did every kind of drug there was by 14, swiped a few six-packs, broke into a few classrooms, just to see what was on the other side of that locked door.” Infatuated with KISS, Van Morrison, Aerosmith and The Sex Pistols, Depp had been through a dozen garage bands by the time he turned 20. Relocating to LA with his most serious group, The Kids, he tried his luck as a guitar hero. They were good enough to open for Talking Heads, The Ramones and Iggy Pop, but never broke through to the next level. Depp’s first encounter with Iggy, a lifelong hero, was hardly promising.
Monumentally wasted, he greeted the godfather of junkie-punk by screaming: Fuck you! fuck You! FUCK YOU!” Iggy- squared up to Depp, called him a “little turd”, and turned away. A few years later, they were acting in movies together.
“When I first started doing films, the band was making little money.” Depp told Gavin Martin in the NME in 1994.”I thought of acting as a way to finance my music habit. My whole upbringing was playing in bars and clubs since I was 14; I still feel like I’m a musician. There’s nothing like being on stage with four or five guys with a really loud guitar and all the adrenalin, there’s nothing to compare with it.
“It was my friend Nicolas Cage who suggested I should try acting. For the first two or three years I was in movies, I never thought I’d be doing this as a living. I thought it was a way of making some money and then I can go back and play in the band. I didn’t care if my acting was good, bad or whatever. I just wanted to get a pay cheque.”
Depp drifted into TV teen dramas, was catapulted to overnight pin-up status, and soon had a reputation as a hot-head, notching up several arrests for drunken misconduct. But beneath the bad-boy caricature, there was something of Kurt Cobain about Depp’s disgust with his sex symbol straitjacket. Like Cobain. Depp was a dirty-sweet “white trash loser” with a morbid sense of humour, an inherent distrust of the cult of success and an unhealthy interest in guns and drugs. Director John Waters goes so far as to say that “Johnny invented grunge.”
The first of many father-mentor figures that later included Tim Burton, Marlon Brando and Hunter S Thompson, Waters rescued Depp from teenybopper hell with 1990 comedy Cry-Baby. Part high camp musical, part affectionate Elvis spoof, it starred the 27-ycar-old Depp as a tearful teenage serial killer. Aptly enough, Iggy Pop played his hillbilly trailer-trash dad.
A string of spooked outsider roles followed, most memorably in Tim Burton’s gothic fairy-tale Edward Scissorrhands (1990) and Jim Jarmusch’s ghostly Wild West symphony Dead Man (1995). Depp credits Burton with saving him from being “a loser, an outcast, just another piece of expendable Hollywood meat”. Their solid bond continues to this day with the upcoming remake of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
Following romances with Jennifer Grey and Sherilyn Fenn, Depp became engaged to Scissorhands co-star Winona Ryder. With “WINONA FOREVER” tattooed on his right shoulder, he claimed to have left his wild years behind him. But his 1993 split with Ryder coincided with a period of heavy drink and drug use.
“Mostly alcohol.” he told Playboy in 1997.”There were drugs too, pills, and there was a danger that I would go over the edge”. While filming What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (l993), he admitted, “I was poisoning myself with alcohol and medicating myself.” Rumour had it Depp was on heroin. “I never had a monkey on my back,” he insisted in Playboy”. I just wanted to self-medicate, to numb myself through liquor.” To this day, Depp claims, he still can’t watch Gilbert Grape. An “intervention” by family and friends helped straighten Depp out for a triumphant reunion with Burton on the story of the cross-dressing king of no-budget movie trash Edwood (1994). Depp modeled his performance on Ronald Reagan, the Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz and John Waters. Co-star Martin Landau even likened Depp to his former best friend, James Dean; “I don’t know anybody who’s closer to Jimmy than Johnny.” Meanwhile, the now critically acclaimed Depp gave his Ryder tattoo a witty remix: “Wino Forever”.
But Depp’s bad-boy image continual to plague him, especially after the bar he bought in 1993 with rocker Chuck E. Weiss, The Viper Room, became the most notorious stretch of Sunset Strip sidewalk overnight when Riser Phoenix died of a massive drug overdose on Halloween. Tabloid reports, inevitably, branded the club a den of vice and excess.
“It was fucking wake-up call for everybody,” Depp told Vanity Fair.” I don’t give a fuck what the tabloid press writes. But to drag River’s name through the mud and turn the incident into a fucking circus was such a horrible thing. It was unforgivable.”
Another wake-up call came 11 months later during Depp’s romance I with supermodel Kate Moss, after he smashed up their $1,200-a-night suite at Manhattan’s Mark Hotel. Ironically, it was rocker Roger Daltrey who alerted staff to the fracas. “Keith Moon would have been embarrassed for him,” Depp joked afterwards. In Depp’s account of the incident, he apologised and offered to cover the damage. But hotel staff insisted on calling the police, and he spent 48 hours in three different New York jails.”He looked good under arrest” quipped Waters.”I loved the handcuffs. Criminal Movie Star is a good look for Johnny.”
But Depp’s reputation and eccentric film choices began to hamper his bankability. The situation wasn’t helped by his 1997 foray into directing, The Brave. a left-field fable starring Depp himself as a penniless Native American who sells his life to a snuff film-maker in a bid to protect his family. Tapping into Depp’s Cherokee ancestry, this engrossing indie oddity co-starred Marion Brando, but reviewers were savage. “I think they were just upset that I had the nerve to say that I have some semblance of a brain,” Depp tells Uncut. “Not much, but just a little.”
Depp worked with another Method heavyweight, Al Pacino, on Mike Novell’s gritty 1997 mob thriller Donnie Brasco. It gave the star a rare commercial hit, but Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film of Hunter S Thompson’s counterculture classic Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas bombed with critics and audiences alike.
Before filming began, Depp visited Thompson’s fortified compound in Colorado, and the two Kentucky outlaws bonded by blasting a nickel-plated shotgun at gas canisters topped with nitroglycerine, detonating giant fireballs in the Rocky Mountain night. Thompson later shaved Depp’s head for Gilliam’s film, and even look a brief cameo. Bored during the shoot, the mischievous author phoned a bomb scare through to The Viper Room. “Man, he’s a sickness,” Depp groaned in Rolling Stone. “He is a fucking disease that has penetrated my fucking skin.”
FEAR AND LOATHING was a bad omen for Depp. His third collaboration with Burton, supernatural shocker Sleepy Hollow, followed in 1999 but was a relative flop. A string of subsequent movies including Ted Demme’s slick cocaine saga Blow and Albert and Allen Hughes’ atmospheric comic-book thriller From Hell, also underperformed at the box office.
Despite these setbacks, Depp remains loyal to his friends and collaborators. He will soon be directed by his Fear And Loathing co-star Benicio Del Torn in another Thompson adaptation. The Rum Diary. He also agreed to star in Gilliam’s time-travelling fantasy The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which imploded barely a week into production. It made for a great behind-the-scenes documentary. Lost In La Mancha, but will the real film ever resurface?
“I hope so,” Depp sighs. “Boy, it was one of the most satisfying six days I’ve ever had on a film, but it was one of the most dissatisfying experiences because it was coitus interruptus. It was going to be a great film.”
As the new century dawned, it seemed Depp had succeeded in exiling himself to the arthouse fringes. But then came Pirates Of The Caribbean, a shameless blockbuster made with his kids in mind. After years of turning down lucrative studio vehicles like Speed, Thelma And Louise and Interview With The Vampire, does he ever regret taking the road less travelled?
“No, no, no,” Depp insists, rolling his sixth cigarette of the day. “I think everything’s worked out just perfectly, and I’m certainty amazed I’ve been able to stick with it this long. Because I started about 20 years ago, so it’s amazing to me that I still get jobs. Then when something like Pirates happens – you get the call, and it’s a hit! I was still like: come on, you’ve got to be kidding? But I did it for the right reasons. I never thought about the money”.
Depp’s rock’n’roll ambitions burn less brightly now. In the ’90s he appeared in Tom Petty and Lemonheads videos, guested with The Pogucs on Top Of The Pops and directed a promo for Shane MacGowan. He also played slide guitar for Oasis on Be Here Sow track “Fade In-Out and jammed with Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers and Chili Peppers bassist Flea in the punk group P. He recently composed some soundtrack cuts for Once Upon A Time In Mexico, but concedes rock stardom is no longer a serious option.
“Gibby s gone back to doing stuff with the Butthole Surfers,” Depp reveals to too Uncut. “We haven’t played together in a long time. No, I think that that career option ended a long time ago. It seems to be popular, though. A lot of actors are in bands these days”
Now dividing his time between LA, Paris and Provence – where he lives with girlfriend Vanessa Paradis and their two children – family life has quelled his demons. His last brush with the law was five years ago, outside a swanky London restaurant, when he threatened a gaggle of paparazzi with a plank of wood after they tried to snap pictures of a pregnant Paradis.
“I look at it as a scientific experiment in human behaviour,”he later joked in the Daily Express. “And the unfortunate result that I came up with that night is that violence works. Since then, they’ve been OK and left me alone”
With a Pirates sequel and the much anticipated Charlie And The Chocolate Factory remake on the way, Depp’s commercial stock could hardly be higher – there’s even talk of another Oscar nomination for Finding Neverland. His next film, The Libertine, finds him playing scabrousle rude 17th-century poet and rake the Earl of Rochester.
“He was a pretty wild guy, Rochester,” Depp smiles, a wicked glint in his eyes. “I think he was great, very gifted but just debauched. He died when he was 33 of drink and syphilis, but 1 think he had an absolute ball. Honestly, though, I think he was tragic.”
A great story, but no longer a role model for Johnny Depp. Because somewhere between the twin temptations of success and excess, Hollywood’s original lost Boy has found his way again.