Johnny Depp: A Man Apart

Ever since Johnny Depp moved to France to be with Vanessa Paradis, the mother of his child, he's been making fascinating career choices, like Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat and, this month, Ted Demme's Blow. Here Depp talks about the pleasure of living in Europe, explains why he was surprised Hallstrom wanted to work with him, and discusses what made him bolt from the Oscars and steal Harrison Ford's limo the one year he went.

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Here's an amazing thing about Johnny Depp: he's a sex symbol and a heartthrob who has seldom played a romantic lead. Since he started out in A Nightmare on Elm Street 17 years ago, Depp has specialized in playing the outsider in films like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Donnie Brasco and Sleepy Hollow. At the same time, his private life has seemed like a torrid soap opera. He has been engaged to the actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder without marrying any of them. He dated model Kate Moss for several years (and will always be famous for trashing a hotel room in New York during a fight with her). And now he's become an expatriate father with French actress and pop star Vanessa Paradis.

Depp's contradictions hardly stop there. He co-owns the Viper Room in L.A. and the restaurant Man Ray in Paris, but says he never goes out. He's a high school dropout who reads voraciously. He's yet another movie actor who's been in a band, but he's actually a good musician. On-screen he's effervescent and effortless, but offscreen he's often described as skittish and uncertain. He decries the violence in America, but he himself once went after some paparazzi with a piece of lumber.

Depp's career makes his personal contradictions look mild. Perhaps because he's basically a character actor trapped in a movie star's body, his choice of roles has been mind-boggling, particularly in the last few years. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate? The Astronaut's Wife? Enough said.

On the other hand, there was Sleepy Hollow, which was not only a hoot to watch, it actually made a lot of money. And now there is Chocolat, in which he gives one of his slyest, most exceptional performances yet, as well as Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel's highly praised film in which Depp does a cameo as a transvestite. And he's got four more films that come out this year, the first of which, Blow, hits screens this month with major buzz on it.

It's impossible not to note that Depp's career upswing dates to his falling for Paradis, whom he met when he was shooting The Ninth Gate in Paris a couple of years ago. He saw her across a bar and had a friend ask her to join them. She admitted that she had been eyeing him, too. They now have a one-year-old daughter together, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, and share an apartment in Paris and a house in the South of France.

At the moment, Depp is back in a hotel room in New York. Wearing jeans, a work shirt and fleece slippers, he's pulled the coffee table up close to his chair so he can hand-roll one of the cigarettes that constantly hangs from his lips. "Please," he deadpans when he sees me watching the process. "People live with the air in New York or L.A. and give me a hard time about smoking?" With that, he finishes off the first of what will be at least seven cups of coffee while we chat. Actual food appears to be of no interest to him.

When Depp flicks open his Viper Room Zippo lighter, I tell him, "That sound is my first memory. " He raises his eyebrows and looks at me in a way that says,

"Well, go on."

"As a child, I loved sitting next to my father when he smoked," I tell him. "He died when I was young. For years I waited for my mother to give me his lighter--you know, my legacy from my dad. When I finally asked her where it was, she looked at me like I was nuts and told me she'd given it to his friend when he died. I was crushed."

Depp stares at me for a long time.

"You were wild about him?" he asks quietly.

"Yes, absolutely."

"That's the way I feel about my daughter," he says. "The whole time Vanessa was pregnant, I thought we were having a boy. I don't know why--it's not like I was wishing for one, it's just what I thought we'd get. And even when she arrived, and you could see what was happening, for the first split second, I thought ... there's my son, oh my God, how beautiful, my baby, my son ... where's his cock? It took me a minute to realize that everything was okey dokey."

The look on Depp's face is almost rapturous.

"I'm used to women talking about their kids like that," I tell him, "but not usually men."

"I'm a little girlie," he says with a smile.

Although he still has a home in L.A., Depp is adamant that Europe is the place for him. Part Cherokee, he rails against the treatment Native Americans got in the United States, and he talks about the more lenient attitude towards "celebrity" in France. But the real deal-breaker in his relationship with his native land is probably smoking.

"In Paris," he says with that killer smile, "they practically encourage you to smoke. What's not to love?"

When I tell Depp that I think he could be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Chocolat, he bursts into laughter.

"I doubt it," he says, wiping away tears of mirth. "I don't think I'm a particular favorite in the eyes of the Academy. I think there are guarantees for getting nominations. You have to take the most tragic Hallmark card, adapt it into a screenplay, bawl your eyes out constantly, do a bunch of clichéd turns and bing, you're in. I don't want to demean anybody. People are out there doing great work, and they get nominated and they win these awards based on the work that they've done and it's great for someone to be recognized for their work. But this whole award thing is really weird, really weird. When I did Donnie Brasco, I thought Pacino was as good or greater than he'd ever been. I was blown away by his performance, his subtleties, and his work in general. And he didn't get an Academy Award nomination. I just couldn't imagine."

"He got an Oscar for a film in which he was mediocre, Scent of a Woman" I note.

"I don't want to put that film down," says Depp, "but I will say that his work wasn't on the level of Donnie Brasco. And then people said that he wasn't nominated because the film came out in March. Like these people only have an attention span of a month or something.

"Have you ever read a script and thought, This could be an Oscar winner?"

"No, because you know what? It's out of my hands. You do your work, but the result may be quite different from what you thought. And to try to predict what people will like, or what the box office will be is impossible. I am always wrong about that stuff anyway."

"What movie did you do that you thought, Nobody will ever see this fucker...?"

"I say that most of the time," cracks Depp, but he's not really kidding.

"Have you ever been to the Academy Awards?"

"Yeah, once. They'd been asking me for a couple of years to come and present. I was really uncomfortable with the idea. I'm not very good at public speaking and I didn't want to make a complete fool of myself. But somehow I agreed because I was going to be introducing Neil Young." Depp sighs and runs his hand through his hair, which is down to his shoulders and has a blond streak on one side. "I went with my agent, and when we were doing the press line they kept asking me things like, 'Who are you wearing, Johnny?' I remember that I said, 'The Italian guy,' so I assume it must have been Armani. It felt like a do-or-die situation, like I was standing on the precipice of something very uncomfortable but I knew the end was over there somewhere and I just had to get through it. And everyone was on a first-name basis. Really, really famous people were coming up and saying, 'Hi, Johnny, how you doing? How've you been?' I'd never met them before. It was so weird. And then they wanted me to read this endless speech about the importance of music in film, and I thought, they don't want to hear this shit from me. They're waiting for Neil Young to sing his song. So I told them, 'I'll do this but I'm not gonna say all that stuff. I can't even read the TelePrompTer; it's too far away. And I may pass out from nerves.' So I just said two sentences, and then I said, 'Please welcome Neil Young.' Then I left immediately."

"You left without even staying around to hear him?" I ask.

"Yeah," remembers Depp. "As soon as I was offstage, I said to my agent, 'I'm having a nicotine seizure. I've gotta get out of here. Then we couldn't find our driver--he was drunk somewhere. So we actually stole Harrison Ford's limousine! We told his driver, 'Listen, there's still another hour and a half left to this thing. Just take us to the hotel and then you can come back. He'll still be here.' All in all, it was an awful experience."

"You've worked with some of the same directors again and again. Like Tim Burton [Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow] and Lasse Hallstrom [What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Chocolat]. Does that make it easier on you?"

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