Johnny Depp – Before the Troubles

July 2004 By Philip Berk

July 2004 By PhilipBerk

Generally conceded the best actor of his generation Johnny Depp is certainly the least predictable.

Having completed two back to back Captain Jack Sparrows for Pirates of the Caribbean, he’s free to take a stab at something different.

Last January when I interviewed him he was contemplating a number of off beat movies, including Peter Weir’s Shantaram,  Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diaries, and a Hungarian project called Whisky Robber; at that time he was enthusiastic about doing all of them. 

Six months later (in the interim he’s completed the second Pirate sequel) the Times of India is reporting he’ll play Michael Hutchence in an INXS biopic and even more mind boggling his ex girl friend Kate Moss has been signed to play Hutchence’s girl friend Paula Yates.

As crazy as this sounds, it’s interesting to reflect on his career.

Granted he’s given one or two great performances, including Ed Wood, Captain Jack, Willy Wonka, maybe Benny (and Joon); some might add Donnie Brasco

But for the rest it’s been more his unorthodox path to stardom that’s earned him his reputation.

That is until The Libertine

The film came and went so fast in the U.S. you’d have to wonder if Disney had engineered its disappearance. Was the studio worried that his appearance might adversely affect the Mouse Factory’s billion dollar franchise?

But truth to tell. Libertine is a Weinstein Company release, one of the few properties Harvey took with him when he exited Miramax and Disney.

Harvey happens to love Johnny’s performance but admits the movie is a tough sell. Only those who truly appreciate the art of great acting will be able to sit through it.

I am one.

Hate the movie, I say, but concede that in it Johnny gives a spectacular performance– staggering in every sense –.and had it been judged fairly he would have run off with all the acting awards last year, Philip Seymour Hoffman not withstanding.

So now Australia has a chance to look at the film.

And maybe give it its just reward.

Ironically Disney allowed Johnny time off from filming in the Bahamas to promote the movie. And in fact, he did as much press for Libertine as he’s done for any movie.
But to no avail.

Audiences beware: this is not a film for the squeamish or faint of heart.

As Johnny himself told me, “I’ve told my kids they’re not going to see it until they’re like thirty, if then.”  

So what exactly makes the film so shocking.

Well for one it’s about a libertine.

Let Johnny explain.

In the prologue to the movie Johnny as John Wilmot addresses the audience.

“You’re not going to like me,” he warns us. 

Is that how he felt about the character?  I asked him.  

“I liked him when he delivers that challenge. There’s something intriguing about being challenged. Once you start examining him there are various layers you peel away. I saw that he was a drunk. I saw that he was self destructive. I saw that he was vicious at times. But then you start thinking, what  got him there? And as I read on I discovered that he had been in the war, and as a very young man his battalion had been decimated. That experience plagued him for the rest of his life. ‘Why them and not me?’  So then I started to think of heroes I’ve had in the past, artists I’ve had great admiration for, like Vincent Van Gogh, Jack Kerouac, and Shane McAllen, who I think is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. You start putting these things together, and you realize the guy wasn’t vicious, he wasn’t cold or closed off, he wasn’t a hedonist; he was hypersensitive,. What he was doing was trying to mask his pain, to numb his pain. He was self medicating, and I could feel nothing but pity for him.” 

As an artist, does he share those insecurities?

“I don’t necessarily consider myself an artist, but there was a period of time when I couldn’t stand being looked at or pointed out in a street or restaurant. It took me a long time to get used to that. Not used to it but accepting it as being not such a bad thing. I felt as though I had been turned into a novelty. I could only be myself when I was alone. It made it difficult for me in social situations where I was expected to behave properly. So, to compensate I drunk my guts out. It took me a number of years, maybe too many, to grow up and not take it all so seriously. The thing that gave me real perspective and understanding was getting together with Vanessa (Paradis) and the birth of my first child. “

The film has been in preproduction for a long time. How long has he been involved?

“It was about ten years ago when John Malkovich called me to come and see the play and asked me to play the part in the film. It was clear then that this was not for everybody, and I understand if there are some people who are not going to like it at all. But some will be intrigued,” he digresses. 

Then he continues, “He was playing the role of Rochester (John Wilmot) — we hadn’t met before — and I didn’t know why he had invited me. I watched the play. I was amazed and devastated and thought it was brilliant, and he said. ‘Let’s have dinner.’ So we went to dinner afterwards, and he goes, “I’d like you to play the role in the movie,” and my first reaction was, “Why don’t you do it because you were brilliant onstage. You’d be amazing in the film,’ and he said very simply, ‘Well, because I want you to do it.’ And I went okay, I’m in.”

In the intervening years he and Malkovich became neighbors —  two expatriates living in Paris, France.

Is John as languorous socially as he is at a press conference, hanging onto every word he utters?

“John makes me look like a speed talker,” he jokes. “He’s always like that, except when he’s acting, then his motor gets revved up. I think he’s a brilliant actor, a great guy, a terrific man, very funny, but it takes a long time for him to get to the point. You want to go, ‘John, spit it out.”

The movie (stay for the end credits) is dedicated to Marlon Brando. Obviously at his request.

Can he explain.

“When I arrived in London to start The Libertine, I had spoken to Marlon about the play — we were always in touch — he wasn’t familiar with John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester, but it was something I was excited to do because I thought it would be a film he might want to watch. And then when we finished the film, I got the news that Marlon had passed away, and as you can imagine it was like a direct blow to the skull, and I decided then to send this one out to Marlon because he never got to see it. And it wasn’t long after within the same year that Hunter Thompson made his exit. He was another dear friend and a great hero; so I thought it was right to make that dedication because there was a lot of the artist in Marlon. There was also a lot of the artist in Hunter. There was a lot of the artist in Rochester as tormented as he was. I wanted to give that to them. It’s not very much just a little salute to my friends.”

Does he sees parallels between Hunter (his alter ego Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Rochester?

“There are because what Hunter was doing in the early 1970’s, was inventing a new style of journalism, a new voice, that’s what John Wilmot was doing 400 years earlier. He’s been written off through centuries as a pornographer, a lunatic, a drunk, a hedonist, but I can tell you I went to the British Library, and I was blessed to have his actual letters in front of me, written in his own hand, to his wife, to his mother, to his kids. So what I was reading wasn’t pornography. They were beautifully poetic letters from a concerned father, from a tortured human being to his wife. He was a great artist — it was a waste what he did to himself — but I believe he made a great contribution.”

His self destruction, is that peculiar to artists?

“I think it happens to others as well; we just pay more attention to creative  people. I believe it happens to everyone  When you’re unstable or sensitive, you’re looking for an outlet for your pain or confusion. I found an outlet for my weirdness when I was twelve years old. It was the guitar. That was my whole life until I started acting. I think we are all looking for some outlet. We’re all weird. That we know,” he jokes.

His performance in the film cries out for a proscenium arch. Has he ever thought of doing theatre? 

“I’ve thought about it, but I’m too scared to attempt it, even though I’m aware fear is a necessary ingredient in everything you do. And as an actor you should be afraid of taking risks and be prepared to fail miserably. The audience deserves that. If you do the same thing over and over, they’ll pick up on it. They’ll go, ‘Oh well, he just phoning it in, faxing it in. He’s not doing the work.’ One of the things Marlon  said to me was, ‘You should play Hamlet,’ and I said ‘Come now, go from doing no theatre at all straight to Hamlet?’ and he said, ‘Do it now, while you’re still young enough.’ He said, ‘I never got to do it. I never did,’ so it’s the one thing that’s always spun around in my head, playing the Dane. If I did, I would like to do it in a room that seats maybe forty. I wouldn’t want it to be some big sprawling epic. I’d like to do something small.”


“Less room to fall,” and then jokingly he adds, ‘you hurt yourself when you pass out.’ 

What will his Pirate fans think of the movie?

“I think it’s a good movie, but it’s not for everybody, and it would be irresponsible of me say to the kiddies who watched Pirates and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to come see it.” 

Which is more difficult playing John Wilmot or Captain Jack?

“With both you’re doing your best to serve your character, to serve the author, deliver the director’s vision, the writer’s vision.  But when John (Malkovich) talked to me about doing the film, I had been doing Pirates with its comedic twists and stuff. Suddenly you realize this is a lot to chew on. You have to take yourself to places that are not really fun; so in that sense it was more difficult. With Pirates or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it was all about making Tim (Burton) laugh or the crew laugh. With this it was very intense and emotional and a little ugly; so I guess it was more difficult.”  

Six months later we’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man’s Curse, the first of two sequels intended to repeat the blockbuster business done by the first.

The film is big, bloated, and over plotted, but Johnny’s performance is as inventive as ever and I apologize to him for  suggesting he might have sold out.

Rest assured, he hasn’t!

He arrives at his press conference looking surprisingly healthy (you’d think he’d quit smoking but he hasn’t) he’s calm and serene,  he hasn’t lost any of his unalloyed charm, and his candor for example when talking about his lack of facial hair or his tempestuous on screen kiss (no telling with whom) takes your breath away. And when he chuckles approvingly about something he’s just said, you have to love him. 

My first question to him is about The Libertine (he has no idea the film is just opening in Australia) 

Was he disappointed when it came and went unnoticed in the U.S.?

“I was. The horrible thing is I had been attached to that project for ten years, quite a long time to have really hung onto something, stayed passionate about it, then you get to that miraculous point where you actually get to shoot it. The process was grueling and exhausting, as it is for everyone when they do a labor of love. It’s a film I’m proud of because everyone’s work in it is very good. And then, as you say, it came and went so quickly. I think it was simply a case of mismanagement. It wasn’t a good product for them to sell, and that’s a drag because everyone worked very hard. But even though it was critically and financially a flop, to me it’s a great success  because we got it done. We were able to do what we wanted to do, and I feel good about it, Obviously I was disappointed that it got mismanaged, but I think it will have a long life. People will have a chance to see it on dvd and make their own choices.”

The same fate is not likely for Pirates 2. The film already is being touted as the summer’s top moneymaker.

In recreating the role of Captain Jack, did he check out his performance in the original, and how much of a challenge was playing the role a second time?

“When there was first talk of doing a sequel, I was really happy because I didn’t feel I had explored all the possibilities of Captain Jack. I didn’t want to say goodbye to him. I wanted to spend time with him again, and as far as going back and watching Pirates 1 to get  the essence or the feeling of Captain Jack, the truth is I avoided it. I didn’t watch it. It was very simply just strapping back into the costume and going through that process again, stepping on set and seeing all the familiar faces, the same crew, the same crew members. It felt like we had taken a week’s break.”

This sequel assumes that bigger is better. Was he involved in that decision? 

“The most important decision in making a sequel is to not rely on whatever formula made the first successful. We wanted the second and third to stand on its own as a self contained film yet at the same time make sense in terms of a trilogy. And that was no small feat. But I think the director, the writers, achieved it. I don’t think anyone went in saying, we need to top the first one. The real task was trying to exceed everyone’s expectations and yet leave room for the magic of the first one.”

Would he consider a fourth?

“If the scripts were good enough and they had something to offer, I would keep going. I think there’s still more to explore  For me he’s endlessly entertaining to play. He’s really fun to be.”

Was there any interference from the powers that be regarding his unapologetic “gay” interpretation of the character?

“That was the one advantage I had on this one . We weren’t getting the panicked phone calls, the threats  we had on the first like, ‘You’re ruining the movie!’ which gave me the added confidence I guess to play it as I did.”

Were there physical challenges, and which was the hardest?

“Being strapped into the wheel, literally being strapped into this massive wheel and rolling upside down days on end. I really didn’t mind that, but at some point they struck my foot, and I lost feeling in the upper half of my left foot.  For four months you could put a pin in it and I couldn’t feel it. It was scary.”  

How about the kiss. Apparently when asked who the better kisser was, he or Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley named him.

Without missing a beat he responds, “That’s funny, I thought Orlando was a great kisser.”

After the laughter subsides, he gets serious.

“It’s always awkward, kissing someone that you’re not romantically involved with. But then it’s acting, it’s fake. And the fact that Keira is twenty some years younger than me made it infinitely more awkward. But she was a good sport about it. We just sort of did what we had to do, and then it was over, and we moved onto the next thing.”

Looking back over the three years he’s devoted to Captain Jack, has he any regrets?

“The thing I’ve always wanted regardless of success or failure is to look back on my work and feel I did all right. I’m proud of that. I didn’t sell out. I didn’t make a bad choice for the wrong reason. So really that’s all I care about, looking forward to the time when my kids will be able to say, ‘You did well, pop. you did well.”

No bad apples?

“Not really. I know that’s crazy, but even the ones that could be the worst of the worst, an absolute dog, it happened for a reason, and there was something to be gained, maybe a learning experience.  I don’t regret any of it now.”

Poor Bill Nighy is hidden behind a phantasmagoria of CGI. If he hadn’t told me recently he’s playing Davy Jones in the film, I wouldn’t have recognized him. And neither will anyone else!

What was filming those scenes like?

Before answering he shakes his head in bemusement.

“Bill Nighy is the most patient man alive. He had his little gray outfit on with the black stripes and the ping pong balls (whereby the computer animators took their cues) and his cap. One of the most disconcerting moments I’ve ever had in my work was  knowing he’s going to have those tentacles hanging from his face and being told, ‘Watch out when you step round him. Make sure you don’t step on the tentacles.’ And yet it’s Bill standing there in that weird outfit.”

By now he’s convulsed.

For the past two years even when promoting Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he’s always sporting a Captain Jack beard. How come?

“Oh, that’s a good question. It’s very simple and a little embarrassing because if I shave, it would take me months and months and months, like a half year, to grow it back. What I have is like a full beard for me. (pointing) seven hairs here, three over here, all this kind of patchy stuff, and that’s it. That’s all I get. So if I shaved they’d have to glue something on, and that wouldn’t work. So that’s the answer.”

The one thing he doesn’t talk about is the Island he owns in the Bahamas. In his Newsweek interview there was no mention of it. 

At his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory press conference in the Bahamas however he acknowledged ownership

“I still have trouble,” he apologized. “I refer to it as ‘the’ island. I have difficulty saying ‘my’ before that word.”

Asked this time if it’s his own private Namibia, he’s not amused. “We get there as much as possible. It’s a very special part of the balance. The idea of going to a place where there are no telephones, there are no cars and street lights and noises and anything. There’s just nature and the sea and the wind and the sun. It brings things down to its absolute base level. And for the kids it’s a great education.”

(It does however have electricity and running water. ) 

How do the kids cope with his celebrity?

“My kids have a super normal life. They do their school, they play with their friends. Okay they get to go to Disneyland maybe a little more often than other kids, but that’s part of the gig. I haven’t really noticed any difference. Although I must say my mom was very proud when she saw the cover of Newsweek. I myself was shocked. and still am. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Who’s he kidding! 

So is he doing the INXS movie next?

“I report back to the Bahamas in August to complete Pirates 3 and after that nothing is in place,”

In the meantime his Shantaram project has been delayed (Peter Weir is no longer attached) and because Tim Burton’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not Jim Carrey project has been delayed a year, Paramount is scrambling to find a replacement.

Believe it or not, they‘ve put Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd on the fast track.

How serious is that? I ask him.

“Tim and I have had discussions about it. Everything’s looking very good. For me it’s a great opportunity to be working with Tim which would be our our sixth film together and our first musical.

Would he honor Sondheim’s music? I want to know.

“Of course, I love the score, not that I’m a singer. I would never claim to be one,  but I am willing to give it a shot. I think it might be all right. I‘ve always felt it important to try (different) stuff. And growing up I was a guitar player. I was a musician for most of my life. I am musically inclined. I am not tone deaf at least not yet,” he jokes. ”I would definitely work with a vocal coach at least until they fire me.”

It will be interesting to see who plays Mrs. Lovett!

In all likelihood the movie will be filmed in England as was Sleepy Hollow, From Hell, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland.

Does he own any property there?

“No I don’t, it’s too expensive. I wish I had. If you owned anything In England you could just retire ” he jokes.

As if his $20 million salary doesn’t make him a wealthy man, not to mention his tax sheltered island in the Bahamas!

Is he still enjoying being a daddy?

“Oh yeah, the kids especially at this age, seven years old and four years old, that is a high energy high stakes experience. Never boring, always fun. It’s interesting the way they grow. I mean how quickly, how fast they grow up. My daughter is exiting that Barbie period and moving into fashion accessories, real teenage stuff which is unbelievable to witness. It’s amazing because its no longer about princesses and fairies and all that. Now she wants to watch big girl television. It’s frightening. And Jack, my boy Jack, is still a blessing. He’s discovered superheroes, which is really fun. Now he’s going into the area of comic books, an area I happen to be pretty good in.”

And being the husband?

“Vanessa and I gave been lucky enough to spend much of our time with the kids, but we also take time for ourselves . You’ve got to remain not only lovers but friends as well.”

Do their careers ever collide?

“The good thing about Vanessa is she can pack a bag and split. She can still do her work when I’m filming. In terms of her music she can play, she can write, she can do her demos. She’ll fly to France for a couple of weeks and then come back. She’s working on an  album right now that’s really promising.”

Have there been any tough times?

“The only time I can remember was a couple of years ago when my daughter wasn’t yet two. Vanessa had a concert tour to do, and she had to go on the road . We didn’t have a nanny; so I was the tour daddy. We traveled by bus and watched The Wizard of Oz 7000 times. I was just being poppa, and I had the distinct impression that my daughter wanted to spend more time with her mother. Understandably that was a great challenge entertaining a two year old. That was tough!”

The pirates. particularly in this one, look like they could use a bath. Knowing how hot and steamy it is in the Bahamas, did that ever pose a problem in the set?

Taken aback by the question, he gathers his thoughts.

“I’ve never been asked that question before,” he laughs, ”but I’m determined to answer it. Let’s see. Personal hygiene. I can only speak for myself. Once you get off work, and you had all sorts of makeup, you have to be scoured. You have to take a hot fire hose to yourself. From what I could tell, the majority of the cast and crew were of a similar feeling. You do however hit the odd foul smell, but it’s occasional and you can either get past it or know that the wind will change any second.” 

After the laughter subsides, he adds, “Everybody looks like they stink real bad, but in fact they don’t. It’s the magic of the movies.”

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