Depp stays the eternal outsider

Pirates star on Tim Burton, French connections and Hollywood

by Richard Mowe

Johnny Depp: 'There is a broken quality to each [of my characters] and there is a broken quality to each of us'
Johnny Depp: 'There is a broken quality to each [of my characters] and there is a broken quality to each of us' Photo: Deauville Film Festival
After being a cool dude for most of his life Johnny Depp, 58, appears to be maturing well. Despite controversy in his private life, he has not faced any criminal charges relating to his ex-wife Amber Heard's allegations of domestic abuse - brought to prominence by a lost libel case with The Sun - and has always strongly denied the claims.

Depp who is in attendance at the Deauville Film Festival, has always had a struggle to be taken at more than face value. The almond brown eyes, the part-Cherokee cheekbones and the sensuous lips made Johnny Depp a gorgeous pouting icon for a generation. But a new generation and even their mothers are still out in force to give him a welcome with cries of “Johnny, Johnny” echoing around the Normandy’s resort’s luxury Royal Hotel where he is lodged.

The French appear to be prepared to forgive any misdemeanours and a previous amour Vanessa Paradis, the actress and singer, and daughter Lily-Rose Depp, 22, also an actress, have been reassuringly supportive.

After the birth of Lily-Rose in 2002 Depp was happy to share polaroid snaps of her and would whip them out at the slightest encouragement. It may be too much information for the faint-hearted but he cut the umbilical cord when she was born.

Depp always was a rebel waiting to be tamed as well as being a self-confessed Francophile. The decision to start a family was “without question the greatest thing I’ve done in my life”.

Johnny Depp: ' I have done films with studios and films on shoestrings. The one thing is this: cinema is definitely a collaborative effort is about this group of people working towards the same goal'
Johnny Depp: ' I have done films with studios and films on shoestrings. The one thing is this: cinema is definitely a collaborative effort is about this group of people working towards the same goal' Photo: Deauville Film Festival
His choices of film have been quirky and off the wall, making a breakthrough with Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. He made cult Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica’s first American film Arizona Dream, and then he embarked on Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, as a small-town boy taking care of his family.

Subsequently he gave one of the performances of his career as an angora-wearing transvestite director in mentor Burton’s Ed Wood and stayed with the same director for Sleepy Hollow.

He retains an ambivalent attitude to Hollywood. He once told me: “I’ll never understand the animal, the machine of Hollywood business. And I don’t want to understand it. It’s like joining a club, a clique just because everyone else is in it. You don’t have any particular interest in it, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a person. You just join it because it’s the thing to do and then find you’re treated as a strange animal in a zoo. The quality of life is so different in France. There is the possibility of living a simple life.”

He admits with a slightly bemused air that he never wanted to be a film star. Like most of his generation his dream was to be in a rock band. The great-grandson of a Cherokee, he was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, which he describes as “the barbecue capital of the world”. He grew up in Miramar, southern Florida, the youngest of four children. He was named after his father John, a civil engineer.

When his parents split up, he stayed with his mother Betty Sue. When he was 12 he got his first guitar, and by 16 he was playing in a band called The Kids who used to support the likes of Iggy Pop and the Ramones when they came to play in Florida in the late Seventies.

In the early Eighties, The Kids went to Los Angeles in search of that elusive record deal. It didn’t happen, but Depp met and married Lori Anne Allison, and spent a couple of years drifting. They divorced a couple of years later, but through his ex-wife he was introduced to Nicolas Cage who, in turn, sent him to his agent.

Depp accepts that he has become rather a specialist in lost souls. “I don’t see it as limiting myself,” he says, “because I am doing things that are true to me. I wouldn’t want to be labelled. I have been confused about what life was about and at one point I was fairly self-destructive.”

Music was one of his saving graces. “When my obsession with the guitar came to me at 12 that was it,” he recalls “I had found everything that I needed. In fact I can remember coming home from school and going directly to my room and playing the guitar for hours. I do not remember puberty at all because I was playing the guitar and drooling.

“I played constantly and we moved to LA and became just another band in LA which generally I what happened. The band kind of just went away abruptly and I needed to make money so I was filling out applications at video stores and book stores or anything. My friend Nic [Cage] said he thought I should meet his agent because he believed I could be an actor. I had no interest in becoming an actor and I am not sure I have decided even yet.”

Ask him to reflect on his career and he responds immediately that “career” is not a word with which he feels comfortable. “I am not comfortable with the word fan either. Fans are the people who go to the cinema to watch the film and pay their hard earned cash. Fan is never a word I like - they, the people, are my boss, and the studio’s boss - you guys are the boss not them. It is time the studios understood that as well,” he says to voluble approval from the crowds gathered for his Festival conversation.

Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker in City Of Lies
Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker in City Of Lies Photo: Deauville Film Festival

Is there a common thread to his litany of screen incarnations? “Some would describe them as outsiders and I would say not necessarily outsiders but most definitely not insiders. There is a broken quality to each and there is a broken quality to each of us. They are related even thought they are different. I had a plan in mind for me. I did not know how I would use it. The early films were a roll of the dice. If they did not make money then the studios were not interested and for about 20 years most of my films did not make money.”

Before cinema beckoned he learned his craft on the TV series 21 Jump Street. “I was asked to go and meet Tim Burton. It was in 1989 and I had just done Cry-Baby for John Waters. The call was for the role of Edward Scissorhands. I was sent the screenplay and it made me cry like a newborn child. It touched me and moved me. And it touched me so much that I called my agent to cancel my meeting with Tim because I was sure there was no way he would cast me in the part.

“At the time everyone in Hollywood and beyond were all dying to play the part of Edward Scissorhands. Michael Jackson wanted the part and Tom Hanks was talked about. Fox thought the best option would have been Tom Cruise and he would have been great in his own way.

“I finally had the meeting with Tim Burton. We were to meet in a coffee shop. We had never met before and I was looking around the joint trying to figure out who he was. Then I spotted this guy with hair sticking up all over the place and he looked very nervous, at a table by himself and I thought it had to be him. We met and instantly hit it off and understood one another. He was one of the first to understand me and who I am. He and spoke for about three and half hours and we drank seven pots of coffee and I was literally chewing on my spoon by the time I left. Tim was very brave to cast me over all those other people. Edward Scissorhands is Tim at the age of 16. When he gave me the role and with the part in Cry Baby just before I thought to myself that even if I never do another film I would be happy with what I had accomplished.”

Depp consolidated his reputation as the legendary Jack Sparrow in the Pirates franchise which wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Disney studio, when it saw the first tests, was far from convinced.

“They kept saying we do not understand a word he is saying. We would have to subtitle the film. Can we fire him? One of the boss’s at Disney, Nina Davidson, asked, ‘What is wrong with him is he insane, is he drunk, is he gay.’ I said to Nina, 'I thought you knew all my characters are gay.’ For the first two months of shooting Disney remained shocked.

"Michael Eisner, the big boss of Disney at the time, kept saying, 'Depp is ruining Disney'. I responded, 'If you want to then please fire me, and pay me'. When they saw the character cut together and attended the test screenings they realised audiences understood what I was doing. Audiences were laughing and enjoying it. It was the people who saved me.”

Depp has experienced filmmaking from all sides. “I have have known it first hand for 30 years or so. I have done films with studios and films on shoestrings. The one thing is this: cinema is definitely a collaborate effort is about this group of people working towards the same goal.”

It doesn’t always work out quite like that. Depp was in Deauville to present Brad Furman’s City Of Lies about the murder investigations surrounding shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (aka The Notorious BIG).

Depp on Tim Burton: 'He was one of the first to understand me and who I am'
Depp on Tim Burton: 'He was one of the first to understand me and who I am' Photo: Deauville Film Festival
The deaths were said to be the culmination of an ongoing feud between rap music artists from the east and west coasts. BIG was the target of a drive-by shooting six months after Tupac had died in the same manner, on 9 March, 1997 outside of a Los Angeles museum.

The film was due to be released in the States but was pulled after Gregg Brooks, the film’s location manager, filed a lawsuit accusing Depp of assault and battery on the set.

Depp’s character is the disgraced LAPD Detective Russell Poole who had spent years trying to solve the crimes, while Forest Whitaker plays a reporter desperate for answers.

The star once claimed that becoming a father “certainly gives you a perspective on the things that really matter”. The rebel, it appears, has found his cause.

Johnny Depp will be honoured at the San Sebastian Film Festival later this month. He has also been given an accolade at Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic.

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