Depths of Depp
The Reporter Interview with Johnny Depp
By Ivor Davis 05/19/2011
Johnny Depp admits he was initially very resistant to playing the flamboyant Capt. Jack Sparrow in Disney’s wildly successful box office cash machine known as the Pirates of the Carribean franchise. When he first strode the decks of the pirate ship as the affable blackguard in 2003, Depp confessed, he decided to play the swashbuckling, suave and comedic Sparrow purely to entertain his own kids — Lily Rose Melody, now 12, and son Jack, 9, whose mother is Depp’s longtime companion, singer/actress Vanessa Paradis. His decision turned out to be a stroke of genius. Now, with the newest film, Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides, about to be unveiled, Depp realizes that his investment in Sparrow was one of the best of his entire career. Royalties from that movie alone have made him a very rich movie star. Since Pirates, his career has rocketed with roles in Alice in Wonderland and this year’s animated smash hit Rango. Along the road to stardom, of course, there have been some missteps, including last year’s expensive flop, The Tourist, which was a box office disaster despite the presence of co-star Angelina Jolie. Still, no star makes every movie a winner, although for Depp, Pirates has given him much treasure. Shortly before his latest Sparrow turn, Depp talked about his fondness for the likable rapscallion and how he has managed to keep his star appeal so strong.
VCReporter: You’ve always said you owe a huge debt of gratitude to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who you based your Sparrow portrayal on. Does that mean you pay him royalties?
Depp: Not quite, although he did agree to appear in the last Pirates, At World’s End . He was my Dad [Capt. Teague], and people called us blood brothers. And Dad’s back in the new one.
This Pirates is directed by Rob Marshall. What can you tell us about it?
Well, Geoffrey Rush returns as my nemesis, Hector Barbossa. Ian McShane is the legendary and fearsome pirate Blackbeard, and the lovely Penelope Cruz, who is a great talent, will surprise you. I worked with her before in the movie Blow, and she’s a real treat. A heavy-hitter and a great friend. I adore her. And our director, Rob, is also a gift. He brings a whole new vision to the movie. This one is about the search for the fountain of youth. You’re never quite sure whether Penelope is the love of my life or she’s trying to con me.
So what was it like for you climbing back into Jack’s skin?
It was a gas. What was really exciting this time is that it was like starting up fresh, really, for Pirates IV. It was like a clean slate in a sense, in that they had tied up all the mathematics of all the subplots and sub-structures and sub-characters. That was all gone so we began anew. I sort of liken it to starting the first one again. It felt like the first one did, that it was character-driven and not convoluted at all, and just straight-to-the-point character stuff and with a lot of fresh faces and a lot of great new material.
Why do you love working with director Tim Burton?
We’ve done seven movies, including the last one, Alice in Wonderland, with me as the Mad Hatter. To be honest, he could have offered me any role in the film and I would have said yes. I would’ve done whatever Tim wanted. The Mad Hatter was a bonus. It was because of the great challenge to try and find this guy and not to just sort of be a rubber ball heaved into an empty room and watch it bounce all over the place. So to find that character with a little more history or gravity to the guy was the challenge.
Was there ever a time in your career when you felt you were Johnny in Wonderland?
My whole ride and experience on the ride since day one has been pretty surreal in this business, and it defies logic [as to] why I’m still here. I’m still completely shocked that I get jobs and still am around. But I guess more than anything, it has been a kind of a Wonderland. I’ve been very lucky.
Did you ever imagine this would all happen when you first started acting?
No, I had no idea where anything was going, but you can’t. It’s almost impossible to predict anything like that. After I’d done Cry Baby with John Waters and Edward Scissorhands with Tim [Burton], I thought that they were going to cut me off right then. I felt at that point that I was on solid ground and I knew where I was going, or where I wanted to go, and I was sure that they would nix me out of the gate. But I’m luckily still here.
When you tackle a new role, or an old one, do you worry about repeating yourself? Doing another Edward Scissorhand or Captain Jack?
At a certain point, and especially because I’ve played English a number of times, and have used an English accent a number of times, it becomes a little bit of an obstacle course, or to go, “Oops, that’s teetering into Captain Jackville,”or, “This one is kind of teetering over into Chocolate or Wonka. So you’ve got to really pay attention to the places that you’ve been. But that’s also the great challenge, that you might get it wrong. There’s a very good possibility that you can fall flat on your face. I think that’s a healthy thing for an actor.
Which character is your children’s favorite?
It’s funny because they’ve seen Edward Scissorhands, but they have a difficult time watching it because it’s their dad and they make that connection. But it’s Edward Scissorhands, by far my kids’ favorite.
Why is that?
They just connect with the character, and also they see something about their dad feeling that isolation, feeling that loneliness. He’s a tragic character and so I think it’s hard for them. They bawl when they see that movie.
What made you want to do The Tourist?
I liked the French version a lot. A friend played the part in that and I liked it and thought, yeah, it might be interesting to explore this kind of character. But I mean you never know what’s going to happen.
How was it working with Angelina?
When we first met, it was sort of surprising that after all the years of being in the racket, we had a lot of mutual acquaintances, mutual friends, but we’d never met. We’d never met until this movie, and I was immediately impressed by her. You can’t help but know that she and Brad [Pitt] are globally sort of hounded and tracked down and stalked and everything else under the sun. What I was most impressed by with Angelina, first and foremost, was her kind of normalcy. She’s very normal throughout it all. She’s very down to earth, funny and very smart and kind and caring. Also she’s a great mommy, which is nice to see.
When you make a film with Angelina, do the paparazzi leave you alone?
I think they’re busy with Brad and Angelina. Angie and I talked about some of that. None of us really go out all that much. Vanessa and I certainly don’t. We stay home a lot and we just try to lead a normal life, just a simple life. I think for some reason they’ve lightened up on us over the years. They’ve calmed down on us. Even at times teetering on respectful.
Did you expect Angelina to be like the characters she plays on screen?
The only thing that sticks out in my mind is the Clint Eastwood film The Changeling. I thought her performance was just magnificent in that. What I couldn’t fathom was how, for that length of time, she had to stay kind of on the edge of a razor blade, an emotional razor blade throughout the entire film. I was really impressed by that. I was impressed by her commitment to the work. So I knew that I was going to be stepping into the ring with someone who was going to be all there and deeply committed to the project. It’s great because her work ethic is very solid, but at the same time she understands the need for humor. The ability to sort of travel a little bit outside of the script sometimes, to surprise one another, to do everything you can to make the other person laugh. She was a real sport in that sense.
Do you ever yearn for the days when you made small movies?
I never see the movies as huge. When you’re in the ring doing the work, it seems like a pretty intimate process to me. Whatever the end product is, that’s nothing to do with me, really. I mean, that’s none of my business, really.
Although just in keeping with things like, lets say, The Libertine or Ed Wood or Gilbert Grape.
You have fans ranging in age from 14 to 90. How is it you appeal to moviegoers across the board?
I think that they probably feel sorry for me. They’re just like, “Poor thing.” I’ve been very blessed in that regard. I’m so lucky to, first of all, have been on the roller coaster for such a lengthy period of time and to still be able to get the jobs and to have people stick with me for all these years, it’s just amazing. It’s very strange. You meet a 3-year-old who’s a fan of Captain Jack or Willy Wonka and then someone in the neighborhood of 80-85, and they love Scissorhands or Ed Wood. It’s pretty wild. I don’t know how to explain it.
Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides opens Friday, May 20.