Let me be your fantasy
With roles as the world’s best lover and
world’s worst film-maker, Johnny Depp has finally allowed his acting to take flight. He’s also secured his reputation as Hollywood’s sexiest man
Ina few hours Johnny Depp will squirm beneath a vaulted ceiling in the guise of legendary makeout artist Don Juan surrounded by fountains, silken shrouds and a harem of 250 women. Two hundred and fifty naked women. He will want desperately to take each one aside and ask, “Are you OK with this? Are you comfortable shedding your clothes?”
So for right now, seated in a vinyl booth at the West Hollywood grunge cafe/billiard parlour Barney’s Beanery, he’ll do his darnedest to make life a little easier for a harried, apologetic waitress named Kelly. Kelly with obvious discomfort has just informed the bleary-eyed movie star the only coffee she can offer him is chocolate mint. “Sounds like a girl scout cookie,” he says. “Wild.” Kelly, shifting from foot to foot, has a look on her face that says, “You know Johnny, if it were up to me, I’d run out to the supermarket myself … ” Depp fixes his soulful doe eyes on hers and in his best nicotine voice soothes, “You know what, I’ll have Coca-Cola instead. Jumbo.” Kelly begins breathing again.
After she takes the rest of his order – scrambled eggs, sliced tomatoes, bacon and rye toast, which will remain untouched for the next two hours gathering a fine coating of pool chalk and cigarette ash – he says, “I have large respect for waitresses. My mom was a waitress when I was growing up. Years and years I watched her wait tables. I’d count her change at the end of the night. I used to skip school. She’d feed me, me and my pal…” His voice trails off. Moments like this, he says, bring out the part of him that is still the “17-year-old gas station geek” in Miramar, Florida, who dropped out of high school to pursue dreams of rock’n’roll stardom.
Today he is the epitome of bad boy chic in paint-spattered black T-shirt, black jeans, scruffy industrial boots and tattered Fifties jacket, a trio of heavy silver chains dangling beneath his fragile features. It’s hard to imagine Depp ever envying the ease with which the captain of the football team chatted up the cheerleaders. “I was not the most popular kid in school,” he assures us. “I always felt like an absolute and total freak. That feeling of
wanting to be accepted. But not knowing how to be accepted as you are, honestly. Wanting to hold a girl but thinking I’ll fuck it up.”
What better revenge than getting paid a seven-figure salary to live out the ultimate male adolescent fantasy? His own harem. But instead of revelling in the exposed flesh, the star of Don Juan DeMarco will only feel discomfort and disorientation. “It’s really strange,” he will say afterwards. “The first thing I felt was uncomfortable. When you walk into a room of 250 naked women it’s very strange. It’s impossible to focus on it. It almost doesn’t register in a way. It’s almost in a way wallpaper. Like a painting. Wallpaper is the white trash in me slipping out. The painting is much more, yeah, that describes it better. There’s so many girls and they’re so nude, it’s not … It almost would have been more intense if there were three nude. It would have been more like, uh, shocking. ‘Cause you’re just not able to register the fact that … ”
Depp inhales deeply on a cigarette, and tries again with a quote from his Don Juan co-star Marlon Brando. “Brande once said, ‘Acting is a strange job for a grown man.’ Nobody’s expressed it better.”
And growing up is a helluva act for a strange boy. With his two current movies, Ed Wood and Don Juan, Depp, now 31, tentatively wades into adult waters. Although his own speech remains in suspended adolescence – a staccato of stutters and uncompleted sentences – he’s “done” with the preverbal oddball roles which lofted him from teen idol to respected actor (one of these, the Emir Kustarica-directed Arizona Dream, finally opens in the UK this month four years after filming began). Gone also are the bravura tales of juvenile delinquency. These days getting neo-adult Depp to talk about his nights in jail, his chemical abuse, his tattoos, his scars, paying people to smell rancid sausages, is like squeezing tears from a rock. Depp reinvented himself once before, shrewdly spoofing his image in John Waters’ Cry Baby to escape the bubblegurn straitjacket of 21 Jump Street. Now he’s determined to graduate from boy-man to, well, man-boy at least.
For Ed Wood, this meant throwing himself into the role of the exuberant cross-dressing director of Fifties C-movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen Or Glenda, concocting a “weird soup” whose ingredients include bits of the Tin Man, Ronald Reagan, radio personality Casey “Top 40 Countdown” Kasem and swashbuckler Errol Flynn. Flynn was also an inspiration for Don Juan, along with a pinch of Hispanic actors Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas.
Both characters appealed to Depp’s innate, and slightly anachronistic, sense of chivalry and identification with the underdog. Wood fancied himself the next Orson Welles, but his low-budget films, starring a motley assortment of hasbeens and wannabes, wallow at the bottom of critics’ “worst ten” lists. Whenever reality impinged, Wood retreated to the comfort of angora sweaters and high-heeled pumps. Depp, reteaming with director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), scraped off the tarnish to find
a misunderstood knight in shining armour. “He’s one of those guys from the Forties who were real gentlemen, very charming, loyal to his people. Don Juan was also very chivalrous. Those guys don’t exist any more. Everybody is trying too hard to be hip or be accepted.”
A call comes in on the mobile. It’s Jeremy Leven, the writer-director of Don Juan, in which Depp plays a psychiatric patient whose therapist must determine if he is insane merely because he thinks he’s a fifteenthcentury seducer and walks around in suede pants and knee-high boots. (At Depp’s suggestion, Brando was hauled out of semi-retirement to play the therapist, his first proper role since 1990’s The Freshman.) Johnny has arranged for some buddies to see dailies and Leven wants to know if Depp is planning to attend. “No, uh, it’s just for my friends,” he says.
The one and only time Depp braved dailies, on his first movie, A Nightmare On Elm Street, he nearly puked, and has refused to watch them since. “I’m better off not even seeing the [finished) movie,” he explains. In fact, the one and only professional accomplishment Depp can watch without gagging is a ten-minute short film he directed called Stuff, a dog’s-eye journey through an old addict’s beer bottle and pizzabox encrusted life. “We just examine this guy’s house with a Steadicam,” he says. “It’s completely honest.”
As a kid Depp loved to dig tunnels in a vacant lot near his home, getting off on the fear of a cave-in. A few years back, he swung eight storeys above the ground from the edge of the Beverly Center shopping mall. Now, he looks for that pure adrenaline rush in his roles; the possibility that he might mess up keeps it exciting. To make taking the plunge easier, Depp has surrounded himself with “a little built-in family” who trail him from set to set. They include make-up and wardrobe people as well as elder sister Christy Dembrowski, 33, who he has hired as his personal assistant.
An informal poll of the Don Juan make-up trailer comes close to qualifying Depp for sainthood: sweet, kind and, above all, generous. “He’ll give you the shirt off his back,” says Patty York, Depp’s make-up artist on four of his last five films. Literally. The other day she said she liked the shirt he had on. He took it off and gave it to her. He also regularly treats the crew to champagne at the end of the day.
They return the favours. Depp’s wardrobe guy Ken Smiley has helped him transform his trailer from beige Americana to Oriental opium den, draping walls, ceiling and furniture with gold-embossed Indian fabrics. One end of the living area has been converted into a shrine: a copy of William Saroyan’s The Trouble With Tigers, a purple lava lamp and a pewter heartframed portrait of Depp and girlfriend Kate Moss flicker in the light of a dozen votive candles. Burning incense and Ravi Shankar sitar music complete the effect. “Johnny is so totally different from most actors,” says Smiley. “He really likes who he is and he’s really secure in that. He treats other people the way he wants to be treated. That’s why we stay with him.”
St Johnny is not without his demons: insomnia, a fear of crowds, chain smoking, a natural antagonism toward authority figures that has landed him in jail on at least three occasions (jaywalking in Los Angeles, assaulting a hotel security guard in Vancouver and speeding in Arizona) and an “erratic” personality that makes him a little tough to live with. “I’m 30 different people sometimes,” he says. “One day you wake up and you’re somebody else, nowhere near who you were when you went to sleep.”
one of those wears a dress, he insists, though as a teenager he used to borrow frilled blouses and striped flares from his mother’s wardrobe to augment his rock’n’roll wardrobe. Dressing in drag for Ed Wood, says Depp, “tripled” his respect for the ordeal “women go through when they get ZsaZsaed”. “I was the ugliest woman ever,” he adds. (Co-star Patricia Arquette, who plays his wife, Cathy Wood, disagrees. “He looked great in a dress,” she says. “But we both hated wearing those period stockings; they don’t hold up. I think by the end the angora was getting on his nerves. “)
“Let me show you something,” says Depp, disappearing into the back of his trailer. He returns carrying a box of Ed Wood momentos: a pair of cross-strapped pumps; a two-piece gold and black tasselled brocade number used in a striptease sequence; and, carefully wrapped in tissue, long-sleeved angora gloves specially designed to hide his tattoos. “I keep stuff from movies so I can give it to my grandchildren someday … if I have them.”
There was a time not too long ago when Depp would readily volunteer to interviewers that his only real goal in life was to “get married and have kids”. These days the actor is more circumspect. “I believe in loyalty and commitment, but the idea of marriage is not the end all. I don’t think that’s the ultimate answer to true love, if there is such a thing as true love.” He was married once at 20, but divorced two years later. Depp legend has him popping the question again to Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder. He insists the reports of his engagements are a “complete fabrication”, but refuses to elaborate “because I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings”. He’s also vague on what exactly happened to the famous “Winona Forever” tattoo inked on his right shoulder. “It transformed itself,” he says.
Cultivating an aura of mystery has always been a major component of Depp style. And now, more than ever, he seems compelled to keep secrets. “There’s a huge part of him that’s not within your reach,” says Mary Steenbergen, who played his lover in 1994’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and is now a close friend. “He doesn’t casually let himself over to people and let you know who he is. If you’re his oldest friend or his lover, perhaps that’s not true, but for most people I think he’s both accessible and inaccessible.”
Still jet-lagged and shell-shocked from the paparazzi assault during an extended weekend in Rome with Kate Moss, he is in no mood to discuss his affair with her. If she voiced any objections to his numerous love scenes in Don Juan, he’s not telling. “I’ve got a job. She’s got a job. It’s a job. And movies are make believe.” What does he think of the modelling profession? “It’s an oddball gig,” he shrugs uncomfortably. “I’m nobody to pass judgement. I can only have my opinion. It’s real fucking weird. My
relationship with my girl isn’t something I’m going to discuss with anybody, especially a guy with a tape recorder.” If there was one thing he learned from parading his four-year on-again, off-again relationship with Winona, it’s that no matter how many details you feed the media, or as b likes to call it “the sick pig machine”, it is never satisfied.
“Initially, I tried to be open,” he says of his Hollywood Camelot day “[I thought] I’ll just say what I’m feeling right now, let them swallow that and then they’ll leave me alone. [But] that creates even more of a monster. You’re walking around, you eat a piece of pizza, go visit the Colosseum. next thing you know there’s a guy with a lens about as long as your leg taking pictures. Whether Kate and I are together or not is not going to save anybody’s life. It’s nobody’s fucking business but mine or hers. I’d rather come out in the press and say I’m fucking dogs or goats or rats than attempt to [rely on them to] write anything real about my relationship.”
There is venom in his choice of words, but they are spoken matter-offactly, with an almost eerie absence of malice in the tone. Depp is uncomfortable in the role of the angry man, he’d much rather play the clown. He has an appreciation for the more absurd characters and circumstances of life. He derives fiendish pleasure, for example, from checking into hotels under naughty pseudonyms, forcing friend and stranger alike to participate in the joke. “It’s funny to get a wake-up call at some ludicrous hour, like 5.30am, and the guy has to say, ‘Good morning Mr Donkey Penis. Good morning Mr Drip Noodle, you have to get up now. ‘”
Despite the media frenzy that descended looking for a scapegoat following River Phoenix’s overdose in October 1993, Depp’s Sunset
Boulevard club the Viper Room remains one of the few safe havens he can retreat to. “It’s terrible when anybody dies, especially when somebody’s made a fatal mistake,” he says. “But the tabloid press grabbed ahold of that thing and made a circus out of it. Drugs are the number-one business in this country and they have to come down on one club on the Sunset Strip. River was trying to escape something. He could have been at a supermarket, in a hotel room, driving in a car. Either way, it’s really sad.”
Recently, Depp has begun plotting his own Brande-style escape from Los Angeles, possibly to Paris or the serenity of a twelfth-century monastery in the south of France. “There’s a part of me that would like to have a place with endless land around me,” he says, “a haven in the country, somewhere you could ride a horse, or ride your bike and wouldn’t have to worry about 800 greedy people trying to get somewhere half a second in front of everyone else. ”
For the time being he’ll have to be satisfied with the safe, protected world of the movie set. “Unfortunately, I feel more comfortable in front of the camera now than I do in life,” he admits. “On the set, you feel close to the people; you’re working together. When you’re in a restaurant in real life, you’re having dinner with the girl, drinking wine, you’re looking around and there are all these people looking at you. It’s a little weird.”
Depp pops out of his seat and announces “I have to get the shit taken off my face”, meaning his false goatee and dark foundation make-up. On his way out he tosses a book into my lap. It’s a biography of Joseph Pujol, Le Petomane, a fin de siecle Moulin Rouge curiosity who could fart “Claire de Lune” among other tunes. “That’s courage,” he says. “A guy who says, ‘Here’s my talent. Take it or leave it.’ Blows opera out his ass. That guy was a true artist. I mean that”
Don Juan De Marco is currently shounng in the UK; Ed Wood opens on May 26; the much-delayed Arizona Dream opens on June 30