Johnny is on the cover of another magazine this month. This time we’re talking about GQ Magazine December issue which has a multiple page feature for Johnny. Scans and article are bellow:
At 48, Johnny Depp shouldn’t make any sense. The punk kid turned blockbuster box-office pirate; the heartthrob who longed for (and achieved) indie credibility; Hollywood’s most bankable enigma. This month, with the release of Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary, the actor is on a personal crusade to honour the gonzo legend – and all the insanity he stood for. GQ finds a man unchanged by the weight of global fame: Johnny Depp, just as we like him, straight, no chaser. Buy the ticket, take the ride…
Those terrible 40 seconds would have moved even the most sceptical man to prayer, but Johnny Depp, remembering the trauma, responds with a deep, sonorous laugh.
I mention how film director Bruce Robinson, who was sitting next to Depp when their private jet lost power to all systems over the Pacific, had told me that the actor reacted with similar amusement at the time, contemplating what might have been the last scene in an extraordinary life.
“There was a moment when I thought: Jesus Christ, we’ve had it,” Depp tells me. “We were on a recce for The Rum Diary in Mexico. And the plane just shuts down. Big time. All the lights go out.” He can’t stop himself from laughing again. “Then we go into a strange, uncontrolled descent. I looked at Bruce and said: ‘Is this it?’ And then we both burst out laughing, as we were plunging to what seemed to be our deaths. It felt so f***ing ludicrous it was hysterical. And so we lost it. Laughing our asses off as the plane was going down.”
“Everything kicked back in. We made it through.”
What would we have lost, if that small jet had gone down in the ocean off San Diego? In Depp, the finest cinema actor of his era – or, some of us would argue, any other. In Bruce Robinson, a screenwriter of breathtaking wit and imagination. Best known for his majestically louche comedy Withnail & I and his script for The Killing Fields, Robinson has escaped wider recognition only through his refusal to yield to the rigid and parochial orthodoxies of Hollywood. How amusing would that have been, once Puerta Vallarta, the two men’s airport of departure, had achieved the kind of grotesque but indelible fame conferred on Munich and Lockerbie?
Another immediate casualty would have been The Rum Diary, a project the two men had been collaborating on for several years. The film is based on Hunter S Thompson’s novel of the same name, itself inspired by the American writer’s experiences as a young reporter in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The book, though completed in the early Sixties, wasn’t published until 1998. It was, in fact, Depp himself who found the novel’s original manuscript 15 years ago, staying with Thompson in preparation for his role in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Discarded in an old box, the novel had been all but forgotten by Thompson, buried among the writer’s miscellaneous notes and other unpublished works.
I’d imagined that Depp, having been very close to Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, might be offended when I argue that the film of The Rum Diary is a far more accomplished piece of work than Thompson’s book. In the same way, I suggest, that Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps eclipsed the John Buchan thriller that inspired it.
“No,” says Depp, who’s unwinding in the living room of a rented house in Mayfair, following a night shoot for his next film, Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton. “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve read The Rum Diary, the book, countless times. Hunter understood its flaws. I remember Bruce calling me one day, when he was working on the script. He said, ‘I’ve sussed it. Hunter has split himself between two characters.’ I went, ‘Oh, f*** me, you’re right.’ That is what he did, and it is, undeniably, a great distraction on the page.”
I imagine it’s just possible that there are some readers unfamiliar with the life and work of Dr Hunter S Thompson. He was – as his soul mate and illustrator, the Welsh-born artist Ralph Steadman used to warn strangers – not a medical practitioner.
Thompson had a lifelong attraction to firearms and tear gas, and a history of igniting marine flares in situations of no obvious nautical emergency: he detonated one in a Manhattan pizzeria while he was having lunch with Tom Wolfe. Once he had established his international reputation, Hunter S Thompson brought the hubris of a delinquent rock guitarist to the sedate world of American letters.
Thompson shot himself in the kitchen at Owl Farm, his small ranch in Woody Creek, near Aspen, Colorado, in February 2005. Depp, with typical generosity, funded a lavish memorial event at Aspen’s Jerome Hotel. Later that same year, he organised the detonation of Thompson’s remains. The writer’s ashes were blown into the night sky, in accordance with his wishes, from a 153-feet high column, to the accompaniment of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”.
Through our mutual friend Steadman, I’ve met Depp several times before, at Owl Farm and at the Jerome Hotel in Aspen, though we’ve not previously spoken for publication.
I remember one long afternoon, the day after Thompson’s funeral, spent sitting around a table at the Jerome, over bottles of red wine, with Steadman, Depp, Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Murray and the Kentucky-born artist Joe Petro III. I mention those others not simply for the joy of name-dropping, but because my main memory of Depp was of how quietly attentive he was in that company, and how unusual in his dedication to observing others. Surprisingly for a man with seemingly limitless facial dexterity, that “Yes, that’s right, you know who I am” look is one expression that, off-screen at least, is entirely absent from Johnny Depp’s repertoire.
So much so that – this is nothing to be proud of, I know – the first time I spoke to Depp, in a hallway at the Jerome, I didn’t immediately recognise him. I do recall that I’d already had time to be impressed by his curiosity and intelligence even before somebody came up and addressed him by name.
“I was extremely surprised when we first met him,” Ralph Steadman says. “Because generally when somebody is that famous, and that beautiful – I actually think he is almost too beautiful to draw – I tend to assume that they are going to be a s***. But Johnny is kind, courteous and very bright: a perfect Southern gentleman.”
In The Rum Diary, Depp, 48, quite effortlessly, and with utter conviction, passes for a man of 21.
“It’s all a bit sickening,” I told Steadman.
“I know,” the painter replied. “But there’s no getting away from it.”
Johnny Depp may have one or two assets that most of us don’t: the outstanding talent as a guitarist; the seemingly innate ability to replicate any accent; the 35-acre island in the Bahamas. But you wouldn’t guess it from his manner. Depp has retained certain attributes that, with the onset of great fame, are usually the first to go: I’m thinking of modesty bordering on diffidence, the ability to listen as well as talk and a lack of vanity. (“I suppose,” as Terry Gilliam put it, “when you’re that good-looking, you don’t have to worry about vanity.”) The really irritating thing is the way that, where his appearance is concerned, he doesn’t seem to have to make an effort.
“Nobody,” according to John Waters, who directed him in the 1990 high-school musical parody Cry-Baby, “looks better in rags.”
That said, Johnny Depp inhabits a different world. Sit down for a glass of wine and a plate of tortilla and chips with him in a bar and two large men will discreetly rope you off from the main area. I remind him how, late one evening in Aspen, he’d told me he had to leave for Los Angeles.
“I said: ‘Well, you’d better get a move on – the last flight goes before midnight.’ And you said…” “It’s my plane,” Depp recalls, with no pride.
And then, according to People magazine, Johnny Depp has been the sexiest man in the world for two out of the past nine years.
“Me and Steadman didn’t enter that year,” I tell him. “We thought we’d give you a clear run. We just got weary of it.”
Depp laughs at this for slightly longer than I’d consider polite.
“You do have to laugh at some point,” he says. Imagine – someone votes you the sexiest man in the f***ing world? I feel like saying: ‘What? What does that mean?’”
Johnny Depp first visited Hunter S Thompson at Woody Creek in late 1995. The writer made his entry brandishing two cattle prods that shot jagged blue lines of electricity into the air and the meeting culminated with Thompson inviting Depp to fire at a propane canister primed with nitroglycerine, in the field to the rear of Owl Farm, sending a 75-foot ball of flame into the night sky. “He was not,” the actor observed, “a disappointment.”
Depp was with his then girlfriend Kate Moss and her mother who, as he said at the time, “thought Hunter was a madman and horribly dangerous, and that we should escape as soon as possible”.
In The Rum Diary, the actor gives a bravura performance as Paul Kemp, an incarnation of the young Thompson, who, having lied his way into journalism, is both horrified and entranced by the corruption and debauchery of low life in Puerto Rico. The film marks the culmination of the ten-year friendship that developed between the two men.
“There is more of Hunter’s spirit in The Rum Diary than in any other film I’ve seen,” I tell the actor. “Fiction or documentary. I found it eerie; a bit like looking into a part of his soul. At the same time heisa reporter at that point. And didn’t you once say, ‘I don’t really understand reporters. I don’t understand the animal?’”
“But what Hunter did was a different kind of journalism,” says Depp. “Observation was clearly part of it, but really Hunter was beyond observation. He lived it. And I understood – still understand – him very, very well. I lived with the f***er, as you know.”
Some actors, according to Terry Gilliam (who directed Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing, Lost In La Mancha and The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus) are still fervently bonded to the Lee Strasberg school of Method acting. Depp, as Gilliam perceptively observed, works “through osmosis”. By way of preparation for his role as Raoul Duke in Fear And Loathing – a character inspired by the more aberrant aspects of Thompson’s own psyche – the actor spent weeks sleeping at Owl Farm. Last time I saw the small room he slept in, only a year or two ago, it was still, as then, occupied mainly by spiders. Depp used to extinguish his cigarettes on the makeshift bedside table, an upended gunpowder keg.
“I’d been there for five days,” he remembers, “smoking in bed, before he told me the keg was still full of explosive.”
The offer of a sleepover at Owl Farm is an exercise that few of us who spent any time with Dr Thompson would have rushed to accept. While he was there, Depp didn’t so much observe his subject as assimilate his spirit.
“You’ve talked about how, when you play characters from life – John Dillinger [in Public Enemies, 2009] or Lord Rochester [in The Libertine, five years earlier] they can come almost to inhabit you. As I recall, when you were playing Rochester – atour de forcein which Depp is memorably assisted by Johnny Vegas – you said, ‘I believe that Rochester paid me a couple of visits.’”
“I have felt that very strongly. Especially on that occasion. Rochester was most assuredly…there. That’s the only way I can explain it. That’s what I feel.”
Depp’s body famously commemorates certain life experiences: they include one tattoo dedicated to his mother, another of a native American chief, and scars from self-inflicted knife wounds, a legacy of his troubled youth. Sustained proximity to Hunter S Thompson seems to have marked Depp forever, to the point when a mother might say: “Be careful. Or your face will stick like that.”
Both men were born in Kentucky, but the actor’s voice, especially when he talks about Thompson, sometimes sounds as if he’s channelling the writer, with the brusque, staccato phrasing and pauses of up to five seconds (a very long time in routine conversation – try it) between thoughts.
“When we were filming The Rum Diary,” Depp says, “Hunter was a presence, you know. We had a chair on the set with his name on it. We had [his trademark accessories] a bottle of Chivas Regal, a highball glass filled with ice, his Dunhills and cigarette holder.”
“The pepper grinder?” I ask, referring to the other ever-present possession, which Thompson used for his own, non-culinary requirements.
“No,” Depp laughs. “I figured Hunter would provide that. Otherwise we had the whole deal. It was all there.”
The Rum Diary is, as you might expect from Bruce Robinson, witty, grotesque and eloquently deranged. And, for all that, deeply moving, especially in its final scenes.
“I’m glad you thought that. Because what we see at the end is the young Hunter moving on. He’d discovered all the ingredients that would be a part of his life but were not necessarily in the mix by then. But those were ingredients he retained throughout his life.”
“Rage, honesty and a hatred of bulls***.”
You don’t need to sit through many hours of the insipid, formulaic melodramas that dominate the output of the major Hollywood studios to understand something Budd Schulberg, writer of On The Waterfront, said not long before his death in 2009. “These days,” he remarked, “are very like the Thirties. We live in a time where the money doesn’t trust the talent.”
And it’s remarkable, in such an age of conformity, that one name guaranteed to bring both originality of thought and a mass audience to a production, as much as Hitchcock’s once did, is not a studio boss, a producer, or even (other than occasionally) a director. Whether he’s playing a homicidal accountant in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), an opinionated detective, as in Tim Burton’s splendid horror film Sleepy Hollow (1999), or even battling a mediocre script such as Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003), Depp’s name on the credits, like Lionel Messi’s on a team sheet, is a solid assurance that you will not be wasting your evening.
Right from the start – once he’d escaped from 21 Jump Street, the Fox TV police series that gave him his first break – Johnny Depp boldly announced that he would never make bad films for money. What major actor hasn’t made that public promise? The difference in Depp’s case is that he’s stuck to it.
“Most of the things I want to be involved in,” he declared, many years ago, “aren’t big-budget productions. We’ve all read formula stuff over and over again. I can’t help responding when I read something that really makes me cackle; stays in my memory… makes mefeel.”
“Your instincts regarding which projects to accept or decline have been pretty remarkable,” I say.
“But for years and years, as you well know, I was the guy who was box-office poison.”
“When would you say that ended?”
“With Pirates Of The Caribbean, I suppose. But I was fine with that [earlier reputation]. I didn’t mind it at all.”
“Bruce Robinson told me that you approached him for The Rum Diary; he also said that many Americans have trouble understanding Withnail & I, maybe because there’s a peculiarly British aspect to the humour of self-destruction.”
(Withnail, the dark, inspirational comedy forever doomed to be preceded by the adjective “cult”, appeared in 1986. It follows the alcoholic descent of Withnail, played by Richard E Grant, whose character alternates between drink-fuelled hubris and clinical paranoia; Grant is magnificently supported by his horrified flatmate Paul McGann, who plays a fellow resting actor. Widely cherished in the UK, Withnail & I, with its ironic take on squalor and failure, resonated less powerfully with most North Americans.)
“Oh my God,” Depp says. “Withnail? Oh, my God. For me there are, like, two or three super-top films in my life. One of them is Withnail. Another would be To Have And Have Not.”
Bruce Robinson would not, to put it mildly, have been top of any Hollywood studio’s list of potential writers for The Rum Diary. After his early success as a screenwriter on The Killing Fields, his disillusion with the industry in LA was completed when he lost artistic control of his 1992 film Jennifer 8, the result of which, as he is the first to admit, was a dog of a film.
“I have written 46 screenplays,” said Robinson, who talked to me at his home near Hay-on-Wye. “Hardly any of them have been made. Johnny called me up and said, ‘Do you know Hunter S Thompson’s book, The Rum Diary?’ ‘No.’ ‘Can I send it to you?’ ‘Please do.’ And then, later: ‘Do you want to write the script?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘Do you want to direct it?’ ‘Yes.’ Everything happened like that. I didn’t have any hassle. All because of him. You know that line: what is the definition of a star? Someone who can get a film made. Well, Johnny Depp can.”
Depp’s apprenticeship for stardom was an improbable one. He spent his early years in Owensboro, Kentucky, a city on the Ohio River, close to Thompson’s native Louisville. His father John was a civil engineer; his mother, Betty Sue, a waitress. Christi, one of his two older sisters, is his personal manager; Daniel, his elder brother, is a novelist and screenwriter. Their parents split up when Johnny was in his teens.
“I read that you moved house 30 times as a child; that looks like an exaggeration.”
“If anything,” says Depp , “it was an understatement.”
“Why so often?”
“My mom. She just wouldn’t be -couldn’tbe – satisfied in one spot,” he tells me. “So we’d move to one joint, stay there for a while, then split to another joint.”
When he was seven, they relocated to Miramar, Florida. By contrast with the scenic promise in its name, Miramar is a built-up area, half an hour drive inland from the ocean on the north side of Miami, an area that social workers describe as “challenging”.
“Exactly where did you begin your new life in Florida?”
“Living in a filthy motel. I used to have to go out and steal coffee and doughnuts. It was dire.”
“What’s your main recollection of the place, now?”
“As a sliver of hell. But as kids, we loved it. Because we didn’t know anything different. And then went on to live in… I don’t know how many houses. We were constantly moving, you know?”
“Like a gipsy existence?”
“That’s what it was, really.”
Depp calls himself “kind of a mutt; my great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee”. He also has Irish blood. In Miramar today, whether listed as a white Caucasian, or Caucasian with Native American blood, Depp would be in an ethnic minority.
“When I was growing up there,” he says, “the predominant sect were racists. The kids I went to school with were Cuban, black, Asian, or whatever. There was this craziness – race riots every year. And that [racial conflict] never made any f***ing sense to me. I came from Kentucky. I had no experience of it. In Miramar, a black kid you were friends with might smack you in the face with a helmet and you’d end up in a fight. And I’d just think, what the f***’s going on?”
“Did that environment help you in your ability with accents?” (No American-born actor, ever, has mastered the subtleties of UK English and its regional variations as well as Depp, who – unlike someone like Bette Davis – didn’t have the advantage of coming from New England, where the similarities of pronunciation would give anyone a head start.)
“I was always fascinated by accents as a child. When I was about six or seven, I thought that one day I might become a great impersonator. I became intensely preoccupied with the way people spoke. Also… I do have a musical ear. I taught myself how to play the guitar. I think that was important in terms of learning how to listen.”
He dropped out of school to join a rock band, the Kids. Sufficiently successful to have supported Chuck Berry, REM and Iggy Pop, they never secured a record deal. At 20, he married Lori Anne Allison, a make-up artist. Once the band had moved to LA, they changed their name to Six Gun Method, and Depp, after three years of marriage, was single again.
He says his passion for music and books was encouraged and guided by his older brother Daniel, who introduced him to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Allen Ginsberg’s poems and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
One of the unusual things about Johnny Depp - and there are a few – is the way that, though entirely self-taught, he betrays none of the common symptoms of the autodidact (such as difficulty in evaluating sources of information). It would be no surprise to discover that he had an English degree from Princeton. Depp is that rarest thing: an actor with an acute intellectual sensibility who acts not with his IQ but his instinct.
If there is a secret to the success with which he’s applied his unique talent, that may be it.
But even the most gifted, in any profession, require a modicum of luck. Depp’s break into films has become the stuff of legend. He bumped into his friend Nicolas Cage on the street and told him he needed a job. Cage sent him to his agent, who presented him to director Wes Craven, who gave him a major role in his 1984 film Nightmare On Elm Street.
Depp enrolled with a private drama teacher, and in 1986 appeared as a Vietnamese-speaking recruit in Oliver Stone’sPlatoon. Then followed his four lucrative but uneasy years starring in 21 Jump Street. It was his stunning and improbably poignant performance in Tim Burton’s 1990 classic Edward Scissorhands that established him as a phenomenon.
For a young man of a curious or reckless disposition, whatever his line of work, LA can be a dangerous city. Even before he came to California, Depp had something of a reputation for beating himself up physically.
“When I was a kid,” he told Rolling Stone magazine, “drugs were around. My parents went through a nasty divorce. That was just the direction I went in, for a while. I wouldn’t say it was self-medicating. It never had anything to do with fun for me.”
And as his professional reputation grew in Hollywood, so did his reputation for gregariousness.
John Waters, recalling the making of Cry-Baby, talked about presiding over “the most insane cast. Other than Johnny, there was the ex-porn star Traci Lords, Patti Hearst and Iggy Pop. We partied as a pack. People would come into restaurants, see us, and run away.”
The former companion of actresses Sherilyn Fenn and Jennifer Grey, among others, Depp is reputed to have been drinking heavily when he broke up with Winona Ryder in 1993, around the time he was making Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, in which Depp cares for his troubled younger brother, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
“I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t been self-destructive in some way,” Depp told one reporter. “And who hasn’t gone through some sort of bout of self-loathing. You’ve got to bang yourself around a bit to know yourself.”
Even in his darker moments, his sense of irony never deserted him. Following a reported altercation with Kate Moss at the Mark Hotel, New York in 1994, he was billed for almost $10,000 worth of damage to the Presidential Suite. (“I was trying to catch this bug,” Depp explained, “and a couple of articles of furniture happened to get in the way.”)
“I’m not going to ask you for an inventory of the pharmaceuticals you took,” I say.
“At a certain point in our youth,” Depp replies, “we would put things into our bodies that were unfit to be put into a f***ing automobile. You know what I mean? You wouldn’t put that stuff into a bad car. We treated ourselves like…” The actor pauses. “Anyhow, at a certain point you’ve got to take apart the f***ing motor. Like you open the hood of the car and check over the parts; all the bits and bobs that make it go. Eventually you have to examine yourself in that way.”
He still smokes the occasional hand-rolled cigarette, and drinks red wine, “Because I feel that wine is the elixir of the gods.”
He met singer and actress Vanessa Paradis at the Hotel Costes in Paris, in 1998. (Together since 1999, they have two children, Lily Rose, 12, and Jack, nine.)
“I knew at that moment I was done,” Depp laughs. “It was like – OK – it’s over.”
He’s still in touch with both his parents. “My dad lives in Florida,” he says. “He’s a pretty tough customer. Betty Sue is living in Kentucky. She’s built like a Panzer Division.”
Talking of which, does he have to work hard at looking the way he does?”
“I work out, yes. I train. I run. I do all that s*** that Hunter would be embarrassed by.”
“What made you re-evaluate the way you were living your life? Having children?”
A longer pause than usual.
“It was having children that woke me up. To fall in love, to that degree… to fall in love with… these little angels. Who didn’t ask to arrive, but who arrived anyway. That was just huge for me. It was like the uplifting of a veil. There was something that it gave me, for the very first time in my life.”
“That thing being?”
“I did find a press cutting from the old days where you declare: ‘I am not a bar brawler, or a booze-guzzling drug fiend.’ I don’t recall Julie Andrews ever saying anything like that.”
“You are a bar brawler if you have to be, you know. If you are confronted with some… situation.” Another pause. “Are you sure I said that? I don’t think it sounds like me.”
“Maybe it wasn’t you,” I suggest. “Maybe itwasJulie Andrews. Now I think about it, I have a feeling that Julie might not be a bad person to have at your side in a bar-room fight.”
“You’re right,” says Depp. “And she’s got the umbrella.”
I spoke to the actress Béatrice Dalle recently, I tell the actor, and said how I thought that fame had never done anybody much good.
“And what Dalle said was, ‘Oh, but it has, for me. Fame? It’s great! I love it!’ Not your sentiments, I imagine.”
“Er… no. In fact I always have a problem even associating the word ‘fame’ with my name, you know.”
(“Please,” Depp told a group of British photographers, driving them back with a plank as they tried to photograph a pregnant Vanessa Paradis outside a restaurant in 1999, “tonight I don’t want to be Johnny Depp.”)
“I’ve had that problem for 20 years.”
“Are you saying it’s hard being you?”
“No. It isn’t very hard being me. It’s very easy. It’s the people around me who have to deal with all that. I mean… don’t misunderstand me. I feel lucky. I feel blessed to have experienced this road. The thing about [this level of fame] is that there is great potential for weirdness if you want it. But I don’t want anything to do with that stuff. I can’t bear it.”
I remind him of those assistants roping off sections of restaurants.
“It can’t be much fun,” I suggest, “not to be able to wander around…”
“It’s the letting go that’s bad,” says Depp. “That decisive moment when you recognise that you are letting go of your anonymity in the knowledge that it has gone forever. It’s a strange feeling. Especially for a guy who pumped gas. You know what I mean? I f***ing pumped gas. I worked construction. And letting go of that possibility of just moving around in the worldisstrange. But I suppose that’s what you’d call the bill, right? Here comes your bill, kid. Pay it.”
“The other day, somebody said to me: if he doesn’t want to be recognised, why does he wear those clothes?” (Depp still dresses less like an actor, more like a rock star).
“I would get recognised anyway, anywhere. What’s the alternative? A full-on disguise?”
A fortnight before we meet, Depp drove down to Ralph Steadman’s house, an idyllic and secluded property near Maidstone, Kent. The grounds are large; there’s a pool; the house is not overlooked. (Thompson used to refer to it as Steadman’s “castle”.)
“Hello, Johnny Depp!” shouted Steadman’s grandson Oliver, as the actor arrived.
(“Only my mother,” Depp told the six-year-old, “ever calls me by my full name.”)
“It’s so wonderful,” he says, “to relax quietly with a family. It’s not very often,” he says, softly, “that I get that sort of opportunity. It’s been a while.”
The Rum Diary is highly unusual in that – whereas most Hollywood movies involve the yoking together of disparate super-egos, this film represents a glorious collision between sympathetic, like-minded mavericks, each bringing their own history to the production.
“I feel like this was the right homage to Hunter,” Depp said. “I was just always searching… searching for his voice.”
Director Bruce Robinson met Hunter S Thompson only once, at the Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles. It did not go well.
“We didn’t exchange a single word with each other in two and a half hours. He sat there with the Dunhills, the bag of grass, the cocaine grinder and the Chivas Regal. He didn’t say a thing. Then he got up and left.”
But Robinson has a bond with the extended Thompson family through his friendship with Ralph Steadman – without whose assistance, the writer concedes, Withnail & I might never have been made. The writer, worried about the prospects for his film, showed up at Steadman’s home, hoping the painter might provide some artwork for the proposed movie. He entered the grounds in a state of some exuberance.
“I was completely p***ed,” Robinson recalls. “Ralph said, ‘Take a look at my trees, Bruce.’ And I apparently said, ‘Everyone’s trees, Ralph.’ But he helped to get Withnail & I made, because his phenomenal piece of artwork expressed what those characters were better than anything else could, except possibly the film itself.”
Steadman, says Depp, “is kind of the strange missing link, in The Rum Diary: the connection between Bruce and Hunter. Ralph was shocked when I told him how much Hunter adored him. And he did. He f***ing worshipped Ralph. But of course he wasn’t going to let Ralph know that.”
Depp and Bruce Robinson share an interest in antiquarian books, fine wines and munitions. In a store room below the Englishman’s writing room in Herefordshire is a substantial supply of explosive devices. The two men got on straight away, says Robinson, who, it should be emphasised, doesn’t have the slightest hint of “luvvie” about him.
“I’m sure his advisors must have said, ‘OK, Johnny - the script’s good. But this guy hasn’t made a film in 17 years. And the last one he made was s***.’ The worst possible thing that could have happened would have been if we had disliked each other. He’d have been going back to his trailer every night, thinking, ‘Why did I choose this c***? I could have had any director in Hollywood.’”
But, Robinson continues, “Depp was a joy. He hones in on things with such speed. It was a real pleasure to make that film. The trouble is that it has de-inoculated me against Hollywood. I have a real desire to do it again.”
Marlon Brando, who was actively assisting Johnny Depp with the practicalities involved in purchasing a Bahamian island at the time of his death in 2004, urged the younger actor to review his prolific output: around three films a year, on average. “Because,” Brando told him, “we only have so many faces in our pockets.”
His warning represented an underestimation of Depp, in terms of his energy, versatility and, above all, his ability to judge a script. (“Johnny has a cast-iron bulls*** detector,” says Robinson. “And it’s active.”)
Depp often speaks of his career as a journey down a road; almost a pilgrimage.
“I have been a construction labourer,” he wrote in the introduction to the 1995 book Burton On Burton, “a gas-station attendant, a bad mechanic, a screen printer, a musician, a phone salesman and an actor – but there’s never been a second that went by in which I deviated from the road that Jack Kerouac put me on via my brother. It’s been an interesting ride – emotionally and psychologically taxing – but a motherf***er straight down the pike. And I know that without these great writers’ holy words seared into my brain, I would most likely have ended up chained to a wall in Camarillo State hospital, zapped beyond recognition, or dead by misadventure.”
It can take many decades, with authors, to decide who is going to be remembered forever, as the many tonnes of discarded work by writers such as John Galsworthy could tell you. In the cinema, at the highest level, the identification of genius is comparatively swift and straightforward: especially with an artist like Johnny Depp who, I remark, has somehow managed not to disappear up the rear of his own ego.
“Not yet,” says the actor.
I doubt if there’s anyone who loves everything Depp has done – even himself. 21 Jump Street was a period of transition, rather than a part of his legacy. Some purists are enervated his committing his talents to Disney, for the Pirates series, and the mainstream nature of those films. I struggle with Sweeney Todd, because I can’t get on with the music of Stephen Sondheim. In the context of his life and work, these are trivial and subjective details.
The great film critic David Thomson once wrote about Depp: “I don’t wish to bring down a curse on him, but he is what Marlon Brando might have remained, but for the rage, the disillusionment, the mad hunt for vengeance and the deadly weight.”
My own feeling is that Brando, great artist as he was, is a man whose achievement Johnny Depp has already surpassed. Even now, to find Depp’s equal, you have to go back through the generations: to men like Cary Grant, John Barrymore, Lon Chaney Sr; even his own hero Buster Keaton. The truly remarkable thing about his career is that, given his comparative youth and already prodigious range – what will he be capable of with age? – it has really only just begun. The most exhilarating thing about Johnny Depp is not the past achievement but the promise – and the thought of all those extraordinary experiences that await him, and us, as he travels further on down that road.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of British GQ.