Whose Afraid of Johnny Depp?

by Thomas Beller

05/09/2006

290 west 11th street 10014

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad, West Village

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Johnny Depp slips me a twenty when we shake hands.

Do that again, I say.

"It's preparation, it's all preparation," he explains, and we shake hands again, more of a brush of fingers really, the sort of discrete low key maneuver any drug dealer in the park would be proud of. A twenty dollar bill appears in my palm. Johnny looks around the room with a wry satisfied smile, as though he just pulled off a magic trick.

"I'm a compulsive big tipper," he says. "But it's embarrassing if you just hand the money over. You give it to them in a handshake. If they put it in their pocket right away, they feel confidant you've taken care of them. But maybe they start looking at it..." and here he imitates someone holding up a bill as though it smelled bad.

There's a weird physical comedy in the way he moves, and also something pent up and almost furious, as though he is wound on a very tight spring, and could snap at any moment. Moving around like this, he seems happy.

When I first met him just twenty minutes earlier, he did not seem happy. Imagine a kid who hates eating spinach more than anything in the world. Imagine that kid's expression when he is forced to eat spinach.

Magazine interviews are the spinach of Johnny Depp's life.

He disappeared for an entire week before our meeting. He'd been up in Ireland shooting a movie with Marlon Brando, and then - "in mid-thrust" as he put it later on - the movie was called off for lack of funds. Cinema Interuptus. Brando left in a huff. Depp left in a puff. Suddenly there was no trace of him.

On Monday the publicists get worried. On Tuesday the agents. On Wednesday attempts are made to contact his girlfriend, Kate Moss, but she isn't talking. On Thursday the family is called--his sister acts as a sort of personal manager, but she doesn't know where is either. No one is actually worried for his safety. Apparently, he does this all the time.

Then on Friday he resurfaces in London and, like a doctor who makes house calls, I rush over to his hotel to meet him. He's staying at the Halcyon, a plush establishment in Holland Park. Walking in the front door I catch my first glimpse of Johnny's world-- seated on the sidewalk across the street are three men with bulky cameras in hand, squinty eyes trained on the front door, waiting for their shot. They look like pigeons.

I find him in the downstairs bar, where he sits on a cushy sofa, sullenly sinking into its depths. It's as though the couch is devouring him, and he keeps changing positions as though to escape. He's unshaven. His hair is short, tousled, and cut a bit like James Dean. All the colors of his clothes are brown or muddy green. He looks like a hobo whose been riding trains for a week. A cigarette smolders in his hand and a glass of coke sits before him, half empty.

Johnny Depp has been compared to Marlon Brando, and as we start talking the similarity is striking: Johnny is doing The Godfather. He looks at me with heavy lidded eyes. Every now and then he grunts. Then I ask about what his mother did when she was raising him by herself in Southern Florida, and, as most people do when asked about their mother, he perks up.

"My mom was a waitress, and sometimes she'd come home after working ten hours with, like, thirty dollars in tips. So in turn, when I was growing up, I just got in the habit of tipping."

And the next thing I know he's standing up, playing all these parts, bristling with a thousand incredibly evocative gestures and mannerisms, like a mime. The very act of moving brings out a certain warmth in him, and he sits back down in a more relaxed manner.

"There's no bullshit involved with him, he's completely straight," says Sal Jenko, who grew up with Depp in the small town of Miramar, and who now manages Depp's club The Viper Room in Los Angeles and plays drums in his new band, P (It is unclear if the name is meant to suggest the letter or the liquid). "Johnny took the onset of celebrity pretty much the same way he would have taken a four dollar an hour job pumping gas at a gas station," says Jenko.

If that is true, then it's safe to say Johnny would have quite his job at the gas station. Because he certainly shows signs of wanting to quit the life of a celebrity, which began with the television show 21 Jump Street in 1987. "The Devil was really in charge then--for three and a half years I was stuck with this Partridge Family thermos and a Mod Squad lunch box. I finally got out of the contract on a technicality."

And ever since he's been taking unusual, almost defiantly unpredictable roles, starting with John Water's Cry-baby. "I told him," says Waters, "the best way to get rid of the teen idol thing is to parody it, which is what Cry-baby was. And it worked!"

Johnny Depp may be the only major movie star who can claim that he has never played a normal well adjusted character: Any role in a John Waters movie is almost by definition beyond normal and well adjusted; he played a surreal fantasy in Edward Scissors Hands, and a certified head case in Benny and Joon. His role as Gilbert Grape had the external appearance of normalcy, but the emotionally charged and bizarre circumstances gave the character a quietly deranged undertow. In Don Juan deMarco - the only PG-13 movie I know of ostensibly about cunnilingus - he played a schizophrenic who thinks he is capable sleeping with any woman, and bringing her to orgasmic paroxysms. And in Ed Wood he played a deluded hyper-enthusiastic cross dressing B- movie maker. It's an impressive litany of strangeness.»

In his new film, Nick of Time, he takes the exact opposite tack, and plays a super normal accountant who is pressed into service as a political assasin when his daughter is kidnapped. Every one of Depp's Hollywood contemporaries - Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves - has played leading roles in action adventure movies, and at first glance it appears Depp has succumbed to the temptation. But of course this is not quite the case.

Depp is by far the best thing about Nick of Time (though there is some pleasure to had in watching Christopher Walken do his furious mean guy routine). There are plenty of shoot-outs and so forth, but Depp's character can never seem to get it right; he approaches the realm of action hero, but refuses to step over the line.

Oddly enough, Depp also plays an accountant in Jim Jarmusch's new film, "Dead Man," which his Co-star Gary Farmer described as, "sort of a road movie on a horse." Depp's part is demanding, explains Farmer. "He's pretty much half dead when I find him, and he pretty much stays half dead. It takes a lot of patience to be half dead. Especially someone like Johnny."

Jarmusch has been a friend of Depp's for a while. "He's moody and very emotional and very sensitive," he says. "In real life sometimes it's hard for him to decide on where to eat or what to do, but as an actor he's incredibly precise."

Depp rebels when I bring up the subject of acting. "You don't want to talk about my craft," he says saltily. Jarmusch, however, has an interesting anecdote about the way Depp works. "I was staying at his house for a while when he was shooting Ed Wood, and sometimes I would pick him up from the set and we'd get dinner. It would take him three hours to stop being Ed Wood. I just wanted to slap him to get that stupid smile off his face. We'd be in this Thai restaurant and Johnny is going, 'Hey! This Pad Thai is fantastic!'"

Then there are his tattoos. He has a number of them. There's the famous "Winona," a relic of his four year engagement with Winona Ryder. And then there is Betty Sue, his mother's name. And on his ankle is the phrase, "Death is certain."

But what shocks me are the ones on his hands. Several small squares are tattooed onto his right index finger. "I don't know what they are," he says. "I always end up drawing boxes, you know, phone doodles. This is a permanent phone doodle."

Then on the fleshy part of his left hand between thumb and index finger is a 3. Why three? "I like three's," he says. "It's a good little number."

There's something unnerving about tattoos on someone's hands; shoulders and chests and butts you can cover. But you can't cover up a hand, unless it's with make-up, which is what happens in all his movies.

These tattoos seem deeply strange to me, and somewhat ominous. Depp seems actively interested in exploring the dark aspects of human nature.

Next spring he is scheduled to start shooting The Brave, a movie he has been developing for over a year and which he will direct as well as star in. "It's about a young Native American guy who lives out in the desert in the middle of Arizona in this weird little make shift village with his wife and kids. He's a two time loser; one more strike and he's in jail for life. And he can't really face his family, because he's so ashamed that he can't rescue them from poverty.

"But then he gets an opportunity to make a lot of money; he gets involved with these people who make snuff films."

And where's Johnny's character in the snuff film?

"I'm the one who gets killed. But in a way there's a hopefulness to it. O.K., My character made this deal, but the money gives him a certain freedom. He spends some beautiful time with his children, and the movie is about those last few weeks of his life."

And have you seen a snuff film yourself?

"Uhm, no. But I know someone who has. He said it was the most disturbing thing he'd ever seen. Apparently they don't just shoot you. It involves pretty intense torture and so the death is actually sort of a blessing."

Depp describes this in hushed solemn tones. There's an interesting glimmer in his eyes-- not a death wish, but a certain melancholy. It's as though he sees the world as a giant thumb trying to pin him down, and he's retaliating by taking evasive action, bobbing and weaving like a boxer.

"I'll tell you this," says his friend Iggy Pop. "He's not sitting around on his duff pulling his boner and drinking; he's out there trying to meet interesting people and challenge himself as opposed to, I don't know, constant trips to the hair dresser."

Depp walks to the door before I leave. "Some people are fine being on display. But it had the opposite effect on me. It just made me more insecure, if that was possible. I've read things about me in what are reputable publications that were horse shit and I just don't buy it." Suddenly he adds: "All Harper's Bazaar is trying to do is sell a magazine."

We approach the door and the three guys across the street jump to their feet, cameras in hand. Depp pauses and says with some emotion: "I'm not pretending to be anything other than what I am. I'm not trying to be Mr. Sensitive, I'm not trying to be Mr. Hard-ass, I'm not trying to be Mr. Cool. I'm just trying to maintain an existence and, you know, have a good time."

The photographers have their cameras pressed to their faces. Johnny looks at them through the glass door. Then he goes back inside.

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