Johnny Depp has made more good movies in the 1990's than any other
actor. I was dubious when I first saw him in John Waters' Cry
Baby (1990), but after Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands
(1990), I was a fan. Depp continued to make daring choices all through
the decade, giving amazing performances. Among them are: Arizona
Dream (1993), Ed Wood (1994), Dead Man (1996), Donnie Brasco
(1997), and last year's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So I was
thrilled to have the chance to meet with Depp who was in town promoting
Tim Burton's Sleepy
I expected Depp to be a bit of a recluse, a bad boy amusing himself
by torturing poor entertainment journalists. But I couldn't have been
more pleased with the Depp I met. He was warm and humble, and had a
calming effect, like a snake charmer perhaps. Fatherhood has done
wonders for him. "My daughter is sublime," he tells me.
"She's the greatest, most amazing thing ever, and that's a
tremendous understatement." His hair was long and greasy, and he
wore skull rings, one on each hand with a large leather bracelet on his
right. He asked if we minded if he smoked. "I'm taking advantage of
the fact that I'm not in Los Angeles at the moment. It's a lost art,
smoking," he says. I began thinking that I'd have to wash my
clothes when I got home, but he proceeded to roll his own cigarette with
some nice-smelling tobacco that I didn't mind at all.
Depp wasn't much interested in talking about Sleepy Hollow, or
more specifically, his own role in it. "I get a little
uncomfortable when I see the movies [I'm in]. I condition myself to
believe that once the movie is done, my job is done, and whatever
happens after that is none of my business." On the other hand, he
spoke of how difficult it was to let go of his characters. "I'm not
sure any of them ever go away. It's nice. I can remember when I finished
Edward Scissorhands, looking in a mirror as the girl was doing my
makeup for the last time, putting on the appliances and the prosthetics,
and thinking, wow. This is it. I'm saying goodbye to this guy. I'm
saying goodbye to Edward Scissorhands. It was funny, I was kind of sad.
But in fact, I think they're all still in there."
Depp reveals that one of his heroes is Lon Chaney, the famous silent
actor who appeared in different makeup in every movie, nearly
indistinguishable from the last. Depp's own career is amazingly similar.
The other side of this kind of career is that the actor never really
establishes a consistently personal side of himself; a persona that an
audience can latch onto and carry from film to film. For example, Jack
Nicholson or Marlon Brando bring parts of themselves to each film role,
and we expect certain things from them. Depp is completely different in
each film, leaving himself free of stigmas and stereotypes, although we
don't perhaps know who he really is.
"The thing is," Depp says, "even if you're playing
sort of a heightened character and playing inside sort of a heightened
reality, you can still apply your own truths to those characters. It's
funny because what happens to me when I read a script, when something
grabs hold of me, I start getting these flashes of people or places or
things or images. Like with Scissorhands, I kept thinking about
dogs I had when I was a child, and newborn babies." With Sleepy
Hollow, Depp based his character on part Basil Rathbone from the
Sherlock Holmes movies, part Angela Lansbury from Death on the
Nile (1978), and part Roddy McDowall. "Roddy was a great friend
of mine. I kept seeing Roddy in the way he had this very ethereal
quality. He had a very odd... He was a great actor. Very original actor.
He was a fascinating actor to watch." Depp inflates himself and
turns on an amazing Roddy McDowall voice to say, "I always liked
the way he sort of, you know...," then comes back again. "And
Angela Lansbury, the energy, the sort of righteousness that she had. I
haven't even seen Death on the Nile since I was very young, but
she was this force, she was this presence. This Ichabod Crane, it's
very, very safe to say he's in touch with his feminine side. I thought
of him as a very fragile young girl. So those are the ingredients and
you just sort of mash then all together and see what you come up with.
And it's always dangerous when you try that stuff. With Ed Wood,
it was this sort of blending of Ronald Reagan, the Tin Man from The
Wizard of Oz and Casey Kasem."
Depp admits that as a child he imagined himself as the first white
Harlem Globetrotter. "I went through various stages in my
childhood, as we all do, various stages of obsessions with people and
things. I would spin the ball on my finger, and I would make it go
through my arms, and I would dribble it very close to the ground like
Curly Neal used to do. I went through that phase. But then I wanted to
be Evel Knieval, but I was going to change my name to Awful Knawful. I
wanted to be Bruce Lee. I've been through it all."
Depp thinks for a moment then pops out with, "Do you remember a
show in the late '60s called Dark Shadows? Barnabas Collins
(played by Jonathan Frid) was a huge obsession of mine. I loved Barnabas
Collins more than I loved the Harlem Globetrotters. I wanted to be
Barnabas Collins so much that I found a ring, it was probably one of my
mother's rings, and I wore it on this finger, and I tried to comb my
hair like Barnabas Collins, and I was trying to figure out how I could
get fangs. It really had a heavy impact on me, a heavy influence on
As much work as Depp put into his Ichabod character, he remains
grounded about himself and his celebrity. "If I walked into the
movie theater and I saw the movie and I left there and went, 'Boy, I
really nailed it!' If I was completely and totally over the moon about
my work and I was satisfied. I would get out of the business
immediately. I would leave this work behind. Because I think, for me as
an actor, if you get to a place where you're satisfied, you're happy
with it, then you're dead. It's over. You're not hungry anymore. You
won't try things anymore."
Depp had originally wanted to play Ichabod specifically as he was
described by Washington Irving in the story. "I was doing Snoopy
dances thinking I was going to get to wear a long nose and big ears.
Irving's description is really beautifully written, and it, in fact, a
long, sliding nose, huge ears, and he talks about his hands being very
far away from his body, and long feet. So, yeah. I did want to do that.
And there was a fairly hefty silence from the upper echelon at
Depp has nothing but praise for director Burton. "I think that,
in fact, my feeling is that Washington Irving, who wrote this story in
the early 18th Century, wrote it for Tim to direct. I really do. When I
got the call about this thing and that Tim was going to be doing it, it
was just so perfect. If Tim wanted to remake The Lonely Lady (the
1983 Pia Zadora film), I would play the Lonely Lady with pleasure. When
I got the call for this one, the reason I said yes was because of Tim.
Obviously the material was great. But it was all about Tim. With a Tim
Burton [film], you're invited into Tim Burton's world, and that's a
great gift for any technician or for an audience member."
My impression is that Depp and Burton seem to belong together,
kindred spirits. With luck, they'll continue making movies together,
like Scorsese and De Niro, Sternberg and Deitrich, Kurosawa and Mifune.
Depp tells the story of first meeting Burton, interviewing with him for
the part of Edward Scissorhands. "There was an instant connection.
It was a kind of understanding, a non-understanding, an appreciation for
life and human behavior, for what is considered normal and what is not
considered normal. There was a connection even in a deeper sense of
(both of us) having felt pretty outside growing up, and freakish, and a
little bit weird. Also, [we were both] obsessed with horror movies,
monster movies and found great sanctuary in those dark places."
Depp's love for monster movies and the "dark places" is
apparent from the way he talks about actor Christopher Lee, who has
appeared in hundreds of films, many of them horror films. He has a cameo
in Sleepy Hollow as the burgomaster who sends Ichabod on his
mission. "Frightening. Honestly frightening. He's an amazing
presence. I don't know how old Christopher is, but if I had to make a
call on it, I'd say he's about 58, but I know he's not. But what a
strong presence! You are looking into the eyes of Dracula! He was
Dracula after Lugosi. You are looking into the peepers of Dracula, and
he's about to jump down your throat. And it's real, and it's scary. He's
Depp also worked with another horror film veteran in his first film
with Tim Burton: Vincent Price. "Vincent was unbelievable. Again,
there's another guy who was in his later years. It was his last film,
yeah. Talk about presence! We would be sitting there talking about art
or mostly we talked about Poe, Edgar Allan Poe, and he would be
(whispers) talking to you at this level. He was very calming, and he had
that beautiful voice. Then when they would roll camera and do the sticks
and everything, I watched this incredible, physical transformation from
this very gentle, man, this gentle, older gentleman - he filled up with
life (puts his shoulders back, puffs his chest), his voice just boomed
across the stage, and I just remember being covered in goosebumps (runs
a hand up the bare part of his arm). He was an incredible, incredible
man. Very, very funny. I remember one of the last times I saw him. I ran
into him in an Italian deli of all places. It was not long before he
passed away. I walked up to him and said, "Hi, Vincent. It's
Johnny." And he said, "Oh, Johnny, my God. How are you?"
We used to stay in touch, he'd send me a birthday cards every year
because he's a Gemini also. He'd send me birthday cards and he'd call
all the time, and I'd go visit him. But I hadn't seen him in months. So
he said, "Johnny, how are you?" And I said, "Fine. How
are you?" And that week they'd lost Lillian Gish, who had passed
away, and he said "Well, we lost Lillian this week." And I
said, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." And he said, "I'm the
only one left," and something to the effect of "I won't be
around much longer." And I said, "Vincent, I have a feeling
you're going to outlive us all." And his eyes got really big, and
he just went (affecting deep English accent), 'Oh, shit.'"
Depp follows up that thought with a confession about the supernatural
world. "I'd like to think that there is another plane, another
place, another life or something else going on around us. It would be
interesting to think that we're all sitting here in the flesh and that
in fact we're surrounded by many, many spirits just whirling around
between us. It's an interesting idea. I've always thought, in fact, that
someone, somewhere, must have been steering the boat that I'm on,
because I've been unbelievably lucky, unbelievably blessed."
November 12, 1999