Meeting Johnny Depp is never dull. I’ve spent time with him on various film sets, in a penthouse suite overlooking the strip in Las Vegas, in Cannes and Venice, during the film festivals there, and once, surreally, on the Isle of Man where an eight-foot tall, bright orange phallus was propped precariously outside his Winnebago.
Well, he was playing the Earl of Rochester, a 17th century sexual adventurer, wit, poet, war hero and legendary exponent of debauchery in The Libertine. Depp welcomed me into his trailer, offered a glass of wine and asked if I’d noticed the – for want of a better phrase – giant prop. It was impossible to miss it.
“It’s impressive, don’t you think?’ he smiled. “I think they should keep it here, like a tourist attraction.”
Depp is softly spoken, intense, unfailingly polite, other worldly and very funny. He loves the Brits and our sense of humour – he popped up on The Vicar of Dibley and The Fast Show, don’t forget – and he’s lived here, happily, for months at a stretch whilst filming.
Many famous actors, when you meet them, are disappointingly dull. Spending an hour trying to get some of them to say anything interesting can be as much fun as filling in a tax return.
Depp carries with him the characters he has played – the loners and outsiders, the freaks and oddballs, like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood (the cult film director) and yes, the hedonistic Earl of Rochester. There’s a sense of vulnerability coupled with dangerous excess.
He was adorned with tattoos long before they became as ubiquitous as denim jeans, dressed like the rock ‘n roll star one suspects he always wanted to be, and relentlessly undermined the heartthrob label that Hollywood desperately tried to pin on him. It’s telling that his major mainstream role – Captain Jack Sparrow, from the Pirates of the Caribbean multi-billion dollar franchise, inspired by his friend Keith Richards – is yet another celebration of a misfit. Depp was never going to play the action hero, no matter how much they offered him. [He turned down the roles in Speed, Legends of the Fall and Interview with a Vampire that did so well for Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, respectively.]
Our early encounters were over-shadowed with tales of excess; an interview postponed in Cannes after rumours of a late night with his then-girlfriend Kate Moss. When he did show up, a day later, he was monosyllabic and withdrawn.
Later, when he was married to Vanessa Paradis, he was more at ease. One extraordinary night comes to mind – it always will – when I think of Depp.
He had made The Rum Diary, a tribute to two of his heroes – based on the book written by his close friend, the late gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson and directed by Brit, Bruce Robinson, who had created one of Depp’s favourite films, the bittersweet, comic ode to friendship and the excesses of youth, Withnail & I.
Negotiations for the interview had gone on for months. Finally, I was told to head to a posh London hotel early on a Saturday evening and wait in the bar. There I found Robinson but neither of us had a clue what would happen next. Another phone call told us that a car was waiting outside.
We were whisked across London, down a tiny Mayfair street and, finally, into the gated courtyard of Depp’s £50million rented house. Inside, he welcomed us with a bottle of Château Haut-Brion (1996, £364 a bottle at the time), three glasses and a plate of mozzarella and tomato sandwiches.
The spoils of wealth were all around us: modern furniture, abstract paintings, several guitars and a newly acquired Banksy (called How Do You Like Your Eggs?). Robinson showed me a rare, signed first edition of Baudelaire’s Les paradis artificiels that Depp had given him.
Five hours and five bottles – at least – later, I was still there, rather the worse for wear having been regaled with tales of the isolation he felt as a kid growing up constantly on the move, a near death experience when the engines failed on a private jet, shooting a propane-filled gas canister with a 12 gauge shotgun on the first night he met Thompson and the revealing admission that he had become increasingly withdrawn into his own world and that he only really felt comfortable when he was on set filming.
“Outside in life people are looking at you and staring at you,” he said. “You see them taking your picture all the time with their iPhones. You become a kind of novelty in the world.”
Now, of course, Depp’s world is under the most relentless scrutiny of all.