The Depp of his Appeal
At 50, Johnny Depp’s boyish good looks and humble charm are firmly intact, and despite his aversion to the evils of fame, he promises there’s more to look forward to.
HE ROSE TO PROMINENCE WHEN the 1980s television series 21 Jump Street launched him as a teen idol. But that wasn’t what one would call the “start” to his career, because to say it was a start would imply there is an end—and Johnny Depp, regarded by many as one of the world’s biggest movie stars, is one of those leading men whose star you just know is going to be burning brightly until the end of his days.
Nearly 30 years ago, we saw him in a minor supporting role as a translator in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, mostly because many of the scenes he had filmed with the film’s star, Willem Dafoe, were cut from the finished movie. Four years later, he seemed to hit his niche playing quirky characters, like the lead role in Edward Scissorhands. A string of box office successes followed from the late 90s to the present— Sleepy Hollow, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland—with Depp collaborating on eight of those films with his friend, the director Tim Burton; their ninth, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, is scheduled for 2016. Films featuring Depp have grossed over $3.1 billion at the United States box office and over $7.6 billion worldwide (the Pirates of the Caribbean films alone have grossed $3 billion).
All this talent has won him legions of fans the world over; but it also hasn’t gone unrecognized by industry peers. Depp has been nominated for three Best Actor Oscars, and he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. He also has garnered a sex symbol status in American cinema, being twice named as the “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine, in 2003 and 2009. Just before his film The Lone Ranger came out in 2013, Forbes listed him as the seventh-highest paid actor at $30 million per film. As we went to press with this issue, six months had passed since the release of Depp’s sci-fi thriller Transcendence, and he had been engaged for six months to 27-year-old actress Amber Heard (Depp turned 50 this year). In a chat with Savannah Guthrie on the TODAY show, he responded to a question about his fiancée being pregnant with, “What do you think I am, a savage? It’s not a shotgun affair.”
Having to answer those sorts of personal questions is one of the reasons Depp has repeatedly stressed how off-putting he finds fame, which he likens to “a little bit like living like a fugitive. Everything has to be some sort of strategy. To get you into the hotel, to get you out of the hotel, to get you into the restaurant, to get you out of the restaurant.” Not that he doesn’t appreciate what it’s brought him. He’s “honored” to have fans and said he’ll always be there for them, “because those people that buy the tickets are the people that I consider my boss.” But, he admitted, if he could do what he does minus the fame, he would definitely take that option. “Easily,” he said.
Fame seems to have been his destiny, though. Even as a kid, he had “rock star ambitions” tied up in his desire to create art. That’s why he played in a garage band back in the days he was growing up in Miramar, right here in South Florida; at that time, he dreamed of working with the likes of then-superstars Alice Cooper and Willie Nelson. He still plays his guitar, but just because he loves to, just as he enjoys reading books. (He’s also a fan of Honey Boo Boo, along with other reality shows widely considered to be some of the “trashiest television imaginable”, he told Rolling Stone magazine last year). It’s no surprise that some of his best buds include musicians, like Keith Richards and Bob Dylan, and literary types, like the late Hunter S. Thompson. (Depp is actually working on a documentary about the Stones guitarist’s life and music, and Richards played his dad in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.) But today he is an actor, although arguably, he is also a rock star when it comes to his craft.
Despite his leading-man good looks—that mop of dark hair, cheekbones so sharp they look like they could cut glass, heartshaped, full lips that many women pay good money trying to achieve—Depp has always chosen the risky roles, and ones that are among some of the most interesting in Hollywood. For this spring’s Transcendence, it was as a scientist whose brain is uploaded to a computer after he’s injured. There was no crazy makeup or weird prostheses involved, as in so many of his part films. And even though he played a scientist in the film, Depp told the TODAY show that in real life, the advances of technology escape his grasp. “Technologically, I’m a complete and utter oaf,” he said. “A grown man, you know, attempting to send an important message with these thumbs? You know, it’s truly given meaning to the expression, ‘I’m all thumbs.’”
He needn’t concern himself with tech-savviness for his next role, in the crime comedy Mortdecai, set for release on January 23. The film, which is directed by David Koepp and described in Variety as “the story of a hapless art dealer entangled in larceny on a globetrotting scale,” costars Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn and Aubrey Plaza, and sees Depp—who plays the title character, Charlie Mortdecai—back in quirky character again, handlebar mustache and all; he plays an art dealer who must juggle “some angry Russians, the British MI5, his wife and an international terrorist” as he runs around the world trying to recover a stolen painting rumored to contain the code to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold. Sounds zany, natch—that’s Depp’s stock in trade. And the way he plays it, one would think he never tires of it.
Still, he told Rolling Stone, thoughts of retirement pop up every day, though he added, “I think while I’ve got the opportunity and the desire and the creative spark to do the things that I can do right now, I should do them. And then, at a certain point, just take it down to the bare minimum and concentrate on, I guess, living life. Really living life. And going somewhere where you don’t have to be on the run, or sneak in through the kitchen or the underground labyrinth of the hotel. At a certain point, when you get old enough or get a few brain cells back, you realize that, on some level, you lived a life of a fugitive.”