JOHNNY BE GOOD


Empire
November 2004




Johnny Be Good. He be very, very good. Empire has always loved Johnny Depp, but as he searches for childhood innocence in this month's Finding Neverland, we discover his newfound popularity is eclipsed only by his unmeasurable cool...

Story by Will Lawrence

Hollywood kingpin Harvey Weinstein looks around the table. To his left is a pair of publicists, their shirts as crisp as their smiles. Opposite is Johnny Depp, looking cooler than a penguin's picnic, clad in ripped blue jeans, any number of pendants, and a white shirt so crisp it could have been ironed by a publicist. To Weinstein's right sits Empire, dressed in a battered blue T-shirt emblazoned with a Porn Star logo. We are, putting it mildly, uncrispy.

As Weinstein surveys the disparity of sartorial sophistication before him (and Empire wonders whether some sort of shirt might have been in order), he suddenly turns the table's attention to its least distinguished guest. "Tell them what you told me earlier," he says, giving Empire a gentle nudge with his elbow. Reluctant to refuse a request from the head of Miramax Films, we clear our throat and unravel a rather thin yarn...

When Miramax's most recent movie, Finding Neverland, screened in the UK, a large portion of the assembled press was male. Even so, with Depp, Kate Winslet and a gaggle of children led by the feisty Freddie Highmore wringing every drop of emotion out of a highly charged script, many of the boys in the audience, well, they cried like girls. And with the male psyche rarely acquiescing to public outbursts of sensitivity, by the time the lights had come up, most of those boys had donned their sunglasses. Direct glances were, subsequently, kept to a minimum, and those without shades all seemed to develop some kind of irritation around the eyes that required immediate attention...

"That's wonderful," booms Weinstein as the story fizzles out. "I cried at Neverland too." The two publicists, perfect paradigms of professional charm and courtesy, also smile (whether they are being polite or are genuinely amused by our first-base social commentary, we are genuinely grateful), adding that they too were deeply moved by the movie. Johnny Depp, however, peeping out from behind blue-tinted shades, has a different verdict.

"That's cool," he says softly, gesturing to Empire's T-shirt. "Porn Star. I like that."

It is noon on a September day in Venice when Empire discovers that Johnny Depp likes our T-shirt. Maybe he wasn't listening to the over-ebullient effusions about his performance as Peter Pan author James Matthew Barrie (we could hardly blame him), or perhaps he sensed Empire's embarrassment at relating a frankly feeble tale to such august Hollywood alumni and tactfully changed focus. Whatever, his off-kilter response has only reinforced our prejudice: Johnny Depp is the coolest actor in the world.

As Weinstein and the publicists melt away, talk first turns to Porn Star. Empire wishes it were a job description rather than a fashion label; Depp wishes he had some coffee and calls over a waiter.

"That's very clever," he beams as the waiter returns and places a small cup of coffee in between Empire's two tape recorders. (The coffee delivery was impeccable, but we're unsure why it's so clever.) "Having two of them," he continues, prodding a digit at the nearest Dictaphone. (Oh, right, yes, a back-up machine, that is quite clever.) "But you know what that means?" (Erm, no, not really.) "Soon it's be four, then five," his voice quickens, "then six, until you're surrounded by these things. You'll have them strapped to your chest..." He does an impression of a man infested with small tape machines. It seems pretty good; we may have witnessed, in the fine form of Johnny Depp, an acting first. It not, we've certainly witnessed the world's First Actor on very fine form. In Venice to promote Finding Neverland, Depp is tackling his PR duties with all the youthful verve and sprightliness of J.M. Barrie himself.

Playing the Scottish playwright in Finding Neverland, an adaptation of Allan Knee's stage play The Man Who Was Peter Pan (itself an imaginary series of meetings and conversations between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies kids, the inspiration for the Lost Boys), Depp is immersed in Barrie's ceaseless search for the virtue and wonder of childhood innocence, forever reaching beyond the dour constraints of everyday existence. Barrie is indeed the real Peter Pan, The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. And who better to step into those enchanted shoes...

"Of course," smiles Depp, "the notion is beautiful; the idea of staying a boy or a child forever. But I think you really can. I've known plenty of people in their later years that were like little kids, had the energy of little children, the curiosity and fascination. I think we can keep that. It's important we keep that." This fascination with a playful purity of heart has been the guiding light throughout Depp's career, drawing him towards characters that, while masquerading as the macabre, lurking behind masks, make-up, bald spots and scissorhands, are invariably defined by their innocence.

"That's true," he says quietly, dropping a pinch of Bali Shag into a chocolate cigarette paper. "Innocence and purity are definitely themes that I've plodded about in over the years. They're themes I'm fascinated with, because for me, growing up in America in the '50s and just into the '60s, there was still some kind of innocence. There was hope. People equate the day Kennedy was assassinated with the end of innocence and transition to this very strange and very dark..." His voice trails off as he lights his cigarette.

"I'm interested in innocence and purity because they're things we don't really have in the world anymore," he continues. "With Neverland, well, when I was a kid, I had all the same fascination with Peter Pan as other kids. The first thing I saw was the Disney animated feature, which I loved. But I didn't love it in the way I loved Tod Browning's Dracula, or Frankenstein. That's the stuff that killed me. But later in life, reading the book and the play and doing research on J.M. Barrie, it went to another level. He was a very complicated figure with a very dark past."

Complicated figures dominate Depp's rather dark cellulloid CV, with almost all of his fragile, tender-hearted protagonists sheathed in a morbid, mysterious or just plain screwball veneer. Look at 'Cry-Baby' Walker, Bill Blake, Ed Wood or Raoul Duke... With J.M. Barrie, however, the character's murkier depths bubble away beneath the surface, disguised by the film's joyful celebration of his rampant imagination. Director Marc Forster interweaves Barrie's life with that of the Llewelyn Davies familiy, with the sole purpose of creating the tapestry on which Pan was brought to life. And while he hints at the storm of gossip whipped up by the playwright's relationship with Winslet's Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, his friendship with the boys is presented as nothing but pure. In the cynical 20th century, however, it was regarded with pure suspicion. Today, the film could feature in the case for Michael Jackson's defence.

"Yeah, maybe," Depp chuckles. "But with Barrie, a lot of the criticism is unjust; it goes back to what Brando used to say: "Were you there? No, you weren't." Those kids were interviewed later in life and said in no uncertain terms that there was no molestation, no fiddle-faddle; Barrie was just a great man. He loved those kids and they loved him. That's what it boils down to."

"We all change, except a little something is us which is no larger than a mote in the eye, and that, like it, dances in front of us, beguiling us all our days." As Empire first arrives at Venice's opulent Hotel Cipriani to wait for Johnny Depp, we flick through Barrie's To The Five, a dedication to the Llewelyn Davies family that prefaces our edition of Pan, congratulating ourselves on the discovery of the above passage. Empire will no doubt be able to see the mote in Depp's eye (we've yet to discover that he's wearing shades, blue-tinted or otherwise), that suggestion of the jocular japer who's accompanied Depp throughout his career, trying to get him fired from his first big TV gig, on 21 Jump Street, and still alive years later, parading around the set of Once Upon a Time In Mexico in a false moustache, occasionally barking at dogs. Oh yes, the impish innocent is always fizzing away...

"Hi, my name's Harvey Weinstein." Empire's reverie is broken by a surprise, sizeable and very welcome visitor. "Neverland's screening last night," he says as he crushes our fragile fingers in his vice-like grasp, "it didn't finish until 2am (prompting Weinstein to state publicly that the Venice Film Festival organiser might soon be swimming in the lagoon wearing concrete shoes). "But Johnny was talking to every kid he could, and did it with his back to the cameras. He doesn't care if the press is there. And I'm not just saying that because Johnny's my friend." Weinstein then names someone who is not his friend (Empire's not friends with that someone, either; wouldn't you love to know?). His point, however, is clear: Johnny Depp does what he does for personal reasons. "Johnny can smell bullshit ten miles away," he notes. "The same guys who years ago were saying he's box office poison, now they're kissing his butt."

The 41-year-old rock-movie-star has long played on the heartstrings of the world's waifs and strays - he is the patron saint of the lost and lonely, cinema's very own St. Jude - yet now everybody loves Johnny Depp. The butt-kissers adore him because of Captain Jack Sparrow, that dandified guide to box office gold, but really they owe their adulation to J.M. Barrie (who might yet prove Depp's guide to Oscar gold). For without Barrie, Sparrow may not have been so riotously rambunctious, the most quixotic quipster to hit pirate land since a certain Captain Hook. Finding Neverland was shot before Pirates of the Caribbean, its release delayed so it wouldn't clash with P.J. Hogan's disappointing 2003 interpretation of Pan...

"In coming off Neverland and going into Pirates," explains Depp, "well, there was a controlled quality to Barrie, so stepping out of those shoes and into the boots of Jack Sparrow was like being shot out of a cannon. It was very freeing, and that had an impact on how I approached Jack. Also, it was a happy time for me - having two kiddies gives me endless amounts of pure joy. I was genuinely moved by the success of Pirates." And, presumably, by the Oscar buzz around Neverland?

"Sure, I find it touching, honestly, but awards are not as important to me as when I meet a ten-year-old kid who says, 'I love Captain Jack Sparrow.' They were really affected by this character and took something away with them - that kid will have the memory in his head for a long time. That's real magic for me." And that magic is set to continue, with Depp again taking flight as the sozzled Sparrow in the Pirates sequel, due in 2006.

"Jack's well-established," he continues, "so now it's a case of showing more of where he came from, and there are a couple of things that might be fun to do, but I'm not going to tell you what they are." He laughs, his eyes twinkling behind his sunglasses. "Maybe I can get it like last time, when a few of the Disney executives were less than happy with what was going on. Their unhappiness with what I was doing first time round just fuelled me. It made me feel good: 'If they don't like it, it must be good.'"

As a perennial picador, that motto lies close to Depp's heart, and it crystallizes the philosophy propounded by his next onscreen incarnation, the syphilis-ridden John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, in John Malkovich's pet project The Libertine, which opens shortly after Neverland. As the film begins, the world's most popular actor makes the following entrance: "Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me."

"That opening monologue is like a challenge," beams Depp. "Wilmot is misunderstood in British literature, written off as a debauched psychotic, guzzling spirits and dry-humping the universe. Actually, he was hyper sensitive, a man who at the time of the Restoration was medicating himself, trying to divorce himself from his emotions. But more than anything, he had no tolerance for bullshit. He was able to tell King Charles II, 'Fuck you, you're an asshole.' He medicated himself to death; dead of drink and syphilis by the time he was 32. I loved him." With Depp wearing the Earl's puffed blouses and heavy insouciance so wryly, well, balls to Wilmot's challenge: we're sure to like him. And, as a misunderstood man with no tolerance for bullshit, Depp was sure to like him, too.

Listening to Depp enthuse about exploring Wilmot's mangled reputation - and for scaring the upper echelons of Mickey's magic castle - Empire fancies that just perhaps it has found that mote in his eye, that bright spark still gleaming even during the most contented time of his life.

Johnny Depp wipes something from his eye and asks for a little water in his coffee. His neck is festooned with necklaces and amulets. A chain carrying a replica of Che Guevara's iconic visage nestles next to a pendant engraved with the name of his daughter, Lily-Rose (his son's name, Jack, is tattooed on his right arm), while above them both is a charm of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom and success. It is, Empire notes, an appropriate image.

"I'm interested in all religion," he counters. "When I grew up my uncle was a Baptist minister, a heavy-duty 'Hallelujah praise God' guy. I was exposed to that and didn't quite buy into it. Not so much the belief in something, more my uncle; it was like he went into character to become the preacher, and even as a kid I thought, 'There's something funny here.' We overcomplicate things, if you get down to the real base needs of a human being. We don't wake up every morning and go, 'Thank God, another day.' Yet every time we take in a breath, it's a gift."

Living with girlfriend Vanessa Paradis, and their two children, breathing the rarefied air of southern France, has gifted Depp the opportunity to settle and ponder the more important elements of his life (the pendants represent them all), and he emanates a quiet satisfaction. After a vagabond's upbringing, being dragged from town to town for his first 16 years, followed by an uneasy existence under the glare of the Hollywood spotlight, he finally feels at home.

A typical day for Depp, a rock 'n' roll representation of Gallic gentry, might involve a spot of reading, a little painting, a glass of wine with the locals and an evening with his family; a very restrained lifestyle, yet one that is starting to inform his work. Where once Depp's motivation for a part was primarily the director (Polanski's The Ninth Gate, Jarmusch's Dead Man, to name two) or a script that yearns after innocence (take your pick), now he has other concerns.

"It's not like I'm going after any particular audience," he says, "but Neverland was great because it was much more accessible to my kids than, say, Fear and Loathing (or, presumably, The Libertine). And the same with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - I want my children to see daddy's work."

With daddy currently working alongside the master of the magical, Tim Burton, on a non-musical version of Roald Dahl's great classic, due in cinemas next year, they won't be disappointed. "Tim's version stays truer to the book," he smiles. "It's darker."

As with the likes of Dead Man, Ed Wood and even Pirates, Depp tucked into The Chocolate Factory without even sampling the ingredients, like a script (an idea from Tim Burton is always a golden ticket). Yet, with Freddie Highmore - Neverland's chief Lost Boy, Peter Llewelyn Davies - bringing his unique, almost ethereal qualities to the character of Charlie, the film promises to be rich in charm and mystery, another of Burton's shape-shifting dances amid light and dark, with Depp's wily Wonka drifting in and out of the shadows.

"In The Chocolate Factory, Freddie brings a real sense of the otherworldly," says Depp. "He's a pure being, and that same innocence comes through in Neverland. What I love about him is he's much more interested in playing football." Depp smiles. "Freddie really doesn't think in terms of the long haul; that's impressive, I can empathise with that." A 41-year-old empathising with a 12-year-old? Like James Barrie, Johnny Depp, happy and at ease, really is The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.


SIDEBAR:
Hollywood's Favorite Rock Star
A few career highlights in the rock 'n' roll life of Mr. Johnny Depp

The Kids (1979)
By 16, Depp was playing with The Kids, who opened for the likes of the B-52s and Iggy Pop. While they mainly played ____, Depp describes their own material as "U2 mixed with the Sex Pistols".

Rock City Angels (1990)
After finishing Platoon and before joining TV show 21 Jump Street, Depp linked up with a band he called "a cross between Muddy Waters and the Sex Pistols". Depp left to concentrate on TV and two months into filming, Geflen signed his ex-band for the firm's second biggest deal after Madonna. They were dropped a year later.

Tom Petty (1991)
Depp starred alongside Faye Dunaway in southern rocker Tom Petty's Into the Great Wide Open video. Note: It doesn't sound like the Sex Pistols mixed with anything.

The Pogues (1994)
The Irish rovers invited Depp to play guitar on stage when they did Top of the Pops.

P (1995)
Depp's four-piece, with him on guitar, released a disc in '95. Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea was on bass and the Pistols' Steve Jones shared guitar duties.

Oasis (1997)
Depp played slide guitar on Oasis' Be Here Now album, on Fade In-Out. The Warchild version of Fade Away on the Help album (September 1995) had Noel Gallagher on vocals and Depp on guitar.

Once Upon a Time In Mexico (2003)
He wrote his own theme for Agent Sands. OST Track 9!

Black Sabbath (200?)
Ozzy wants Depp to play him in an upcoming biopic. He's done a soft Scottish brogue for Neverland - is a bollocksed Brummie next?