Odd Man In
Once considered an eccentric outsider, Johnny Depp has managed to shoot to the top of Hollywood's A-list—on his own terms.
It’s become cliché to suggest that Hollywood lacks originality.
But in an economy where innovation seems less important than the bottom line, much of today’s marquee makes it seem as though many producers and distributors see creativity as something of a liability. As a result, it’s increasingly rare to find actors and filmmakers who achieve commercial success on their own terms, swimming against the mainstream.
But Johnny Depp has managed to do just that. His last five live-action films (Public Enemies, Sweeney Todd, two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory) have made more than $1 billion at the US box office, and, with his role as the Mad Hatter in this month’s eagerly anticipated Alice In Wonderland, his hot streak appears likely to continue. These non-traditional blockbusters prove that the unconventional actor opts to take the road less traveled more often than not, riding a rebellious reputation and perpetuating an enigmatic image, making his career arc both impossible to predict and fascinating to watch.
Born in Owensboro, KY, in 1963 and raised in Miramar, FL, Depp dropped out of high school at the age of 15 in hopes of becoming a rock star. Inspired by artists such as The Pogues and Iggy Pop, he played in a band called The Kids and moved to LA in search of a record deal. After the band broke up, he worked a series of odd jobs and didn’t even consider acting until his early twenties, when his first wife (makeup artist Lori Allison) introduced him to rising star Nicolas Cage, who encouraged him to give the craft a try. Roles in A Nightmare on Elm Street and the TV show 21 Jump Street positioned the baby-faced actor as a teen heartthrob, but he realized early on in his career that typical leading man roles held no interest for him.
“It’s good fun playing [unusual] characters, who can do things I’d never dream of doing,” the 46-year-old says. “As far as [playing normal leading roles], there would have to be something underneath for me to make that work. Otherwise, there are a bunch of guys who do that kind of thing very well. I don’t think I could. My characters have got to have a bunch of different things going on, with lots of layers.”
It was his breakthrough role as an alienated outcast of boyish beauty and tragic poetic grace in Tim Burton’s 1990 film, Edward Scissorhands, that altered the course of Depp’s career and established a creative bond with the director that remains vibrant to this day.
“Tim was the guy who went out on a limb and took a chance on me,” Depp says. “I know over the years he’s had to butt heads with the studios quite a few times to allow me to be in his films, because I wasn’t particularly popular at the time. He has fought long, hard battles to get me in and won, so there’s a bond of love and respect that will be there forever. But, in my opinion, he also happens to be one of the most interesting filmmakers of all time, so I feel really lucky to have been chosen by him. We have a similar outlook and similar sensibilities.”
Those shared sensibilities between muse and mentor—including a dark sense of humor, flamboyant appearance, a love of gothic imagery and an affinity for outsiders who are misunderstood by society—made Depp and Burton a potent filmmaking team. They collaborated on three films in the ’90s (Edward Scissorhands, 1994’s Ed Wood and 1999’s Sleepy Hollow), earning them a legion of devoted fans among the burgeoning alternative subculture.
But Depp’s rise to the top of Hollywood’s A-list was hardly meteoric. For every critical success (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Donnie Brasco), there was a string of disappointments (Nick of Time, The Ninth Gate and The Astronaut’s Wife), which made his career seem more erratic than eclectic. Tabloid stories of substance abuse, troubled romances with Kate Moss and Winona Ryder and high-profile arrests threatened to overshadow his acting career. Worst of all, the studio system didn’t seem to have a clue about what to do with his idiosyncratic approach.
“For years, there were people saying, ‘You have to do this kind of movie because you’ve got to make money,’” he says. “I always felt like, ‘hopefully the money will come at some point, but if it doesn’t, that’s all right.’ I’ve done the things I felt were right. The only problem I ever had in terms of frustration with Hollywood was that I didn’t think they understood the movies that I did and didn’t know how to sell them properly, because they didn’t know how to label them.”
According to Depp, his issues with being perceived as an industry outsider began to dissipate when he discovered that his girlfriend, French actress-singer Vanessa Paradis, was pregnant with their first child, daughter Lily-Rose. “Knowing I was going to have a kid put a lot of things in perspective,” he acknowledges. “When I found out Vanessa and I were going to have a baby, I figured out what’s important real quick. I finally understood what it was all about for me.”
With the start of a family came a move to France and a resurgent career that began with 2000’s Chocolat and exploded with 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Loosely basing Captain Jack Sparrow on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Depp’s wild choices for the character—the drunken slur, effeminate mannerisms and Rastafarian-influenced appearance—confused Disney executives, who worried that he was ruining the film. But Sparrow, originally envisioned as a Burt Lancaster-style supporting character, captured the imaginations of audiences near and far to the tune of more than $650 million in global box office sales and five Oscar nominations (including a Best Actor nod for Depp). The sequels were even more successful, ranking as the decade’s No. 3 and No. 6 top-grossing films worldwide.
While the studios likely viewed the Pirates films as traditional blockbusters, Depp didn’t see them that way. “They had such a different angle—that hyper kind of realism combined with insane action sequences. It wasn’t something people have seen all that much,” Depp says. “Some could look at it and say, ‘A-ha, Depp sold out!’ But I don’t believe that I did. I think there’s so much more to explore with that character that I’d keep going and do Pirates of the Caribbean 7.”
In the wake of Pirates’ success, Depp has continued to make the sort of offbeat film choices that have defined his career, from singing Stephen Sondheim tunes as a murderous barber in Sweeney Todd to stepping into the late Heath Ledger’s shoes to help director Terry Gilliam finish The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and lending his voice to a 2009 episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. Burton insists that Depp’s willingness to tackle any unusual challenge thrown his way is a major element of his appeal.
“He’ll try anything!” Burton says. “The fact that he’s not a singer but would tackle one of the hardest musicals ever written, that says it all for me. He’s really willing to put himself out there, and, for me, it’s an artistic pleasure to see someone try different things and actually succeed beyond expectations. He’s just completely open to whatever you throw at him, and he doesn’t have any vanity about it. He gets into the spirit of doing it rather than sitting around and analyzing everything.”
Of course, Depp credits much of that spirit to his unconditional trust in Burton, who continuously inspires the actor’s most colorful performances. Producer Scott Rudin once claimed that the actor is basically playing Tim Burton in all of his movies, and Depp acknowledges that he has an almost telepathic sort of emotional connection with the director that drives his performances.
“I think he’s a genius, and that’s not a word that you can throw around very easily,” Depp says. “Tim is so special and unique, and our working relationship is weird. I can have all these motivations and objectives as an actor, but when I get into the scene, it basically all goes out the window and I’m just trying to make Tim laugh.”
It’s a heck of an image: two of Hollywood’s most respected visionary talents on the set of an expensive film adaptation of Alice In Wonderland trying to crack each other up like a couple of school boys having a lark at recess. But it’s also completely consistent with Depp’s character. Like Burton, he has forged a successful Hollywood career out of embracing his left-of-center inner child; always taking the job seriously, but never himself; and maintaining a surprisingly grounded perspective on his good fortune.
“Somebody mentioned me being on some Forbes list [of the highest-paid actors] and it just made me laugh,” Depp says. “I’ve had a great deal of luck in this business, but I know that even if the ride is going smooth this week, it all could evaporate next week. Then I’m back to being that weird guy who does art films, which is okay. I’ve never had any allergy to the idea of commercial success. It was just how I got there that was important.”
Johnny Depp got there by being unconventional and taking creative risks in an industry that tends to reward those who play it safe. And despite the $20 million paydays and the long line of critical accolades, Depp still seems more driven by his creative passions than his ego.
Some may accuse him of being as mad as a hatter, but there are millions of others who would insist that his outside-the-box thinking is exactly what Hollywood needs.