The highest paid actor in Hollywood and the star of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise didn’t have acting ambitions when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1983. Johnny Depp, who had played the guitar from the age of 12, wanted to be a rock star. Up to this day, the superstar feels more comfortable among musicians than actors. So comfortable that he based his Pirate of the Caribbean Jack Sparrow on rock star Keith Richards.
“There’s much less ego with musicians,” he exclaims. “I grew up as a musician my whole life. It was always my first love. Over the years, I even approached my work like a musician. You think of it in terms of a kind of a form of jazz, you know what the notes are but can you play outside the notes now and again.”
I met Johnny Depp at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills . Exuding an air of tranquillity, he smiles broadly as he walks into the room. Having just wrapped the shooting of the fourth instalment of “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” his teeth are still capped with gold. Unlike other superstars, who don the latest fashions, Depp arrives in jeans and an old brown jacket. “I’ve had it for a very long time. It’s ancient,” he jokes.
The son of a waitress and a civil servant, Depp was on the move from an early age, first from Kentucky to Florida when he was six years old and from house to motel to apartment endlessly thereafter. By the age of 15, his father had gone, and he had been in trouble with his school and the law over the use of alcohol and drugs.
Eventually, Depp dropped out of Miramar High School at the age of 16 to become a guitar player. He formed a band, The Kids, which, after recording a demo, scored success, landing prestigious opening slots for bands like Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and The Ramones. Soon Florida became too small for The Kids, and they headed to Los Angeles.
Although the band had managed to land a few gigs, it was not enough to pull Depp out of poverty. But his life took a momentous turn when his first wife, Lori Anne Alison, introduced him to her former boyfriend, Nicolas Cage, who urged him to pursue acting.
Following casting leads, Depp landed a lead role in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1984, followed by another in “Private Resort” in 1985. He even got a small role in Oliver Stone‘s Oscar-winning “Platoon.”
In the late 80’s, the accidental actor became a teen idol for playing a cop in the TV hit series, “21 Jump Street.” But the young star was uncomfortable with his new fame and unfulfilled by his TV role. After the expiration of his contract for three seasons, he sought to play fresh and challenging characters.
“To stay as fresh as possible is the actor’s main responsibility,” Depp says. “The challenge for me is to never bore the audience and try to give them something new, different, fresh and something they don’t necessarily expect from me each time out of the gate. Each time the pressure or the challenge for me is to do something that hopefully could entertain.”
Depp researches his roles assiduously, imagining them as he reads a script and then basing them on real life characters. Over the years, he has delivered some of the most outrageous characters in cinema, winning him critical acclaim, 3 Oscar nominations and phenomenal box office success.
Depp has portrayed a wide gamut of societal outsiders and real-life characters: a boy with scissor-hands, the eponymous eccentric B-movie director in Ed Wood, Peter Pan scribe J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, a drug trafficker in Blow and bank robber John Dillinger in Public Enemies. But regardless of these characters’ vocations, they are all coloured with the child-like playfulness and the witty humour of Depp’s own personality.
“Any character you play, there is a whole lot of yourself that goes into it. Especially when you are a bit of a sucker like I am to try to milk every moment for some sort of absurdity or humour,” he says.
In his latest animation film Rango, Depp plays a family-pet chameleon, who ventures out in the wild and ends up in a gritty, gun-slinging town of Dirt, populated by whimsical creatures, and becomes their Sheriff. Having been deprived of water for too long, the town’s inhabitants rest their hopes on Rango to quench their thirst.
Initially Depp thought the film’s idea was strange when his 3-time collaborator, the director of the Pirates of the Carribean, Gore Verbinski, told him about it.
“He said ‘I have an idea for a lizard who is on a kind of an existential, spiritual sojourn and it going to take place in the Wild West, like an epic.’ It made so little sense to me that I thought I wanted to see it.”
Like with other projects, Depp lent his weight to the project, working with the director on the script, solidifying the storyline, deepening the character’s motivation and injecting it with humour.
Verbinski broke with tradition by recording the vocal performances not separately in the isolation of studio booths but with the actors working together on a prop-laden and partly dressed stage, enabling the animators to capture their facial expressions and bodily gestures.
“For a month, we actually acted everything out. We had about 3 or 4 cameras going all the time. We – the actors – felt really stupid, trying to sort of interact with one another,” he laughs.
Unlike Rango, the 47-year-old star is not facing an existential crisis in his life. The bad boy reputation that followed him for years and the stress of celebrity status are long gone thanks to his loving French wife, Vanessa, and his two young kids, who provide him with a domesticity he had never previously known.
“The two things that really matter to me is to be a good man and a good dad – that’s really it for me. In the interim, I can do some good, interesting work or something outside of what others are doing, so I am blessed,” he says.
He is also blessed with a lot of money. “Money is the universal language of the world. It’s freedom to be able to live your life how you need to live it and make sure everybody’s taken care of in terms of kids and family and extended family.”
Money has afforded him not only to own homes in south of France and Los Angeles, a jet and a yacht, but also an island, but these things, he says, are not as extravagant as they sound.
“Basically, the island represents simplicity, because unfortunately when you’re wandering around Hollywood or New York or various places, anonymity is gone and simplicity is gone. So you search for these places where you can get it. That’s pretty much what I’ve done with that,” he laughs.
Depp has just wrapped shooting The Pirate of the Caribbean 4, which, he says, was a gift for the fans of Pirate 2 and 3.
“I know that 1 had a sort of place, 2 and 3 became kind of mathematically entwined because they had to relate 1 to 3, so I think the story got a little bit complicated for people but they kept going back 2 and 3 times and I thought let’s give them something now a little more to the point, a lot more fun. That was really the main inspiration for Pirates 4,” he smiles.