On a backlot at Pinewood Studios, Johnny Depp’s latest playground is stretched out before him – a labyrinth of 18th-century cobbled alleyways, crowded with crumbling houses and taverns so authentic you can almost conjure up the yeasty whiff of stale ale.
Depp is in full pirate mode – a well-worn frock coat, long leather boots, tangled dreadlocks laced with beads and baubles, a scraggy beard, a touch of eyeliner and a faded red bandana wrapped around his head – and clearly enjoying himself.
Depp is the master of the eccentric (Alice in Wonderland), a genius at misfits (Edward Scissorhands), a chameleon who specialises in oddballs (Ed Wood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and the pirate Jack Sparrow is his favourite in that gallery of iconic characters.
On Stranger Tides – the fourth film in the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – is a stand-alone adventure that sees Jack set out on an epic journey – the production filmed in Hawaii, Los Angeles and finally London – to search for the fabled Fountain of Youth.
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Physical comedy is an essential part of the mix on a Pirates film, and Depp loves it. “Oh yeah. All my great heroes were basically silent-film guys who didn’t have the luxury of words – it was all body language.”
Depp worked closely with a stunt double, but filmed many of the action scenes himself. “There’s a physical language to the character that I think is important, and even though the stunt double has got it down to a fine science, there are still times when you have to see Captain Jack’s head in there now and again,” he laughs.
But the physical challenge did take a painful toll. “We were doing a scene inside King George’s palace and I think it had to do with me chucking a chair out of a window. I guess I just did something wrong and suddenly my back was out,” he recalls. “I had sciatica for about a month.”
Depp can, of course, have the pick of the best scripts on offer in Hollywood. He’s one of the biggest stars in the world and, what’s more, he’s got there by doing it in his own, idiosyncratic way. He’s a brilliant character actor wrapped up in a leading man’s body, prepared to distort those dreamboat looks and subvert the expectations of the Hollywood power players.
The parts that interest him are the quirky and the gothic, the surreal and the strange. He frequently works with director Tim Burton, his close friend and creative soul mate, and they are currently making their eighth film together, Dark Shadows, once again filming here in the UK.
It’s a brilliant cinematic double act that has produced films like Sleepy Hollow (an affectionate homage to Hammer horror), Alice in Wonderland (Depp having a ball as the Mad Hatter) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which he proved that he can hold a tune and be menacing at the same time.
“Tim’s like a brother, and I love his approach to film-making. It’s a shared outlook and we kind of have this shorthand with each other. I guess you could say that we know what we’re thinking, how we want something to work. He’s a great man.”
In person, Depp is thoroughly charming. He’s softly spoken, unfailingly polite and has a mischievous sense of humour. It was that sense of fun that, last October, led him to make a surprise visit to Meridian Primary School in Greenwich in south London, dressed in full Jack Sparrow regalia.
One of the pupils at the school, nine-year-old Beatrice Delap, heard that Depp was filming nearby and wrote to “Captain Jack” asking for some advice. “We’re a bunch of budding young pirates,” she wrote. “But we’re having trouble mutinying against the teachers. We’d love it if you could come and help.”
Depp and a group of extras from the film duly did exactly that – surprising Beatrice and her classmates at a hastily arranged school assembly. “That was nice,” he says. “It happened so innocently, and that was the beauty of it. This little letter came from the school, and I read it and thought, ‘We have to do this.’
“The school was about 300 yards away. We gave them a heads up and when it happened, they had ten minutes’ notice. It was just me and a bunch of pals dressed as pirates and we gave them 15, 20 minutes of improv during the lunch break. It was great, and those kids were so sweet.”
More publicity-conscious actors would have had film crews and cameramen on hand to record the moment. But it’s typical of Depp that he didn’t tell the film’s publicity department – or the director and producers – and word of the visit only leaked out via a grainy camera-phone recording made by one of the lucky pupils.
“We walked away and thought, ‘Well, that was cool’ and the kids seemed happy, and we split. And over the next couple of days it was like saturated globally,” he laughs. “And the little girl [Beatrice] was doing interviews and everything, but that was fine. She’s a very sweet kid.”
Depp has two children of his own, Lily Rose, 11, and nine-year-old Jack, with his partner, the French singer and actress Vanessa Paradis, whom he met when he was filming The Ninth Gate for director Roman Polanski in Paris in 1998.
“It was in a hotel where I was staying and Vanessa was there. We’d actually met, briefly, a few years before, and I went over and said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ I knew it was over – I was done,” he laughs. “I was in big trouble from that second on.”
They have homes in France and California and, as much as possible, he keeps his kids away from the limelight, but they are, of course, becoming increasingly aware that Dad’s job is a little unusual. His son, like countless other kids, is a big fan of Captain Jack.
“Oh yeah, he’s still into Captain Jack,” he says with a laugh. “But at the same time he sees me every day, so he’s super used to Papa. And you know, Bob Downey, who is an old friend, comes over to the house for dinner and Jack’s like, ‘Oh my God!’ So then Captain Jack becomes secondary to Iron Man.”
Depp’s home life provides a welcome sense of security. “Having children, being with Vanessa, that’s the most important thing for me. It happened at a time when I was ready and it’s given me so much. It’s everything, really.”
Now 47 – although he looks a good ten years younger – he was born in Kentucky, one of four children, and his father, John, a civil engineer, moved the family around as he sought work. Depp’s first love was music and he dropped out of high school early, heading to Los Angeles to try to secure a record deal for his band, the Kids.
The record deal didn’t materialise, the band split up and he decided to try acting, notably playing one of the leads in the TV series 21 Jump Street in 1987. Then came films and his first, memorable, collaboration with Tim Burton in the excellent Edward Scissorhands in 1990.
He still plays his guitar and remains entranced by the music world. He has become close friends with one of his heroes, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Depp enticed Richards to make his first-ever film appearance, in the third Pirates film, At World’s End, and he’s back again as the same character – Captain Teague, Jack Sparrow’s wayward father – in On Stranger Tides.
“He’s a fascinating man, you know. Read his autobiography, Life. It’s a great book, and he tells it like it is. I’ve known him for a long time. To get periods on set where it’s just him and me hanging out, sitting around and yakking about music, movies, whatever, was a real pleasure.”
At the end of a long day on set, they would retire to his trailer for a drink. “I’m a wine man and I do like a good glass of red. So I would have my glass of wine and Keith would have his usual. I’ve no idea what that is, because it looks like nuclear waste and it’s a combination only he would know.”
Later this year, another of Depp’s recently completed films, The Rum Diary, will be released. It’s based on a novel by Hunter S Thompson about an American journalist, Paul Kemp, who works on a booze-fuelled, run-down newspaper in Puerto Rico.
Depp was close friends with Thompson and before his death, in 2005, promised he would get his screenplay made into a film. He finally did with British director Bruce Robinson, who made the cult classic Withnail and I, taking the reins.
“It was the one promise I made to Hunter, apart from shooting him out of a cannon,” he chuckles, a reference to Thompson’s spectacular sendoff, when Depp organised for his friend’s ashes to be fired into the night sky via a rocket at the end of the wake held in his honour.
“I remember when I unearthed the manuscript out of a box in his basement. He didn’t know where it was and I pulled it out and he was like, ‘Jesus Christ.’ We read it together at three in the morning and it was, ‘We should do this together,’ but Hunter didn’t exactly fill his end of the deal. I guess he had other things to do.
“So as you can imagine, to finally get it made was very special and Bruce has done a great job. He’s just a genius, and I think we pulled it off. And you know, each day on set we had this ritual [to honour Thompson’s memory].
“Hunter would have his own chair right next to Bruce’s and he had a script with his name on it, the whole thing, and we would put a pack of Dunhills on a little table by the side, a bottle of Chivas, his favourite drink, and a tumbler full of ice.
“And each morning we’d dunk our fingers in the tumbler and dab a little Chivas on our necks, like a sort of Hunter cologne, take a sip and then off to work we went. We did that every morning, so Hunter was always there. It was good.”
It was, of course, a wonderfully eccentric gesture that Thompson would doubtless have appreciated. And it was typical of Depp – a man who celebrates eccentricity in grand style.