THERE ARE THOSE WHO MEET THEIR HEROES AND GO, ‘AW, FUCK.’ AND I’VE NEVER HAD THAT, LUCKILY. I WAS NEVER DISAPPOINTED BY THE PEOPLE I’VE ADMIRED. Johnny Depp
Even more than the other superstars of his generation (the Pitts, the Clooneys, the Cruises), Johnny Depp has built a personal mythos as complex and compelling as his career. In a sense, he’s managed to position himself as the beatnik troubadour of American cinema. After his early roles, as the cute boyfriend in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the cute narc on the late-’80s cop show 21 Jump Street, Depp fought against his matinee-idol image. In his first headlining role, in John Waters’s cult greaser comedy Cry-Baby (1990), the actor sent up his own pinup status, playing a high school toughie with his tongue planted firmly in cheek. And, even as he became grist of young-Hollywood tabloid mill (dating the likes of actress Winona Ryder and model Kate Moss), there seemed to be another Depp hiding beyond the spotlight, an inquisitive artist who sought out his creative heroes, including Marlon Brando, the Beats, his good friend Hunter Thompson, and Thompson’s partner-in-crime, the artist Ralph Steadman (with whom Depp appears in this month’s For No Good Reason, a documentary about Steadman’s life and work).
With his star turn in Tim Burton’s eerie fantasy Edward Scissorhands (1990), Depp began putting together the menagerie of oddballs, outcasts, and misfits (Ed Wood , Don Juan DeMarco , Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow , Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ) that would define his reputation as Hollywood’s unpredictable master of disguise. And, for much of the past 15 years, those complicated sideshow characters of Depp’s have been the main attraction in a series of CGI circuses (as Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter in Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  and Alice in Wonderland , respectively, and as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series).
Now, aged 50, Depp may be reinventing himself yet again. Escaping the makeup trailer in this month’s techno-fable Transcendence, the actor plays a present-day artificial intelligence researcher whose mind is incorporated into a computer system—his character, in other words, disappears into a network of his own design.
Or maybe Johnny is just the same old Johnny—the Johnny who, with his band the Kids had a dream come true by opening for Iggy Pop in the early ’80s. The actor and the musician then met again on the set of Cry-Baby and have been friends and collaborators ever since (Pop even scored the lone movie that Depp directed, the 1997 drama The Brave). Last February, Pop, who now lives in Florida, phoned Depp, who was at his home in Los Angeles, to talk about heroes, guitar solos, getting into character, and getting away from it all.
IGGY POP: I’ve got this article that you wrote in 1999 called “Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Beats, and Other Bastards Who Ruined My Life.” In it, you mention being a teenager and daydreaming about drinking Boone’s Farm with the cute cheerleader.
JOHNNY DEPP: Oh, yeah, man, Boone’s Farm was one of the early muses. Boone’s Farm and MD 20/20. [laughs]
POP: I’m glad to hear that. Boone’s Farm was a big favorite for the Stooges, and especially for me. But, of course, now you’re familiar with some of the better Bordeaux—Cheval Blanc and those.
DEPP: It’s a ways from Boone’s Farm, for sure.
POP: You mention Ginsberg flirting with you. He visited me once but he didn’t flirt, so I’m kind of hurt. I think I was a little over-the-hill by that time. He just looked around my apartment and went, “How much did this cost?” [laughs]
DEPP: I met him when we were doing this documentary called The United States of Poetry in 1995—I was reading some Kerouac for the movie. Afterward, I offered to give him a ride home. They’d sent a limousine—back in those days it was a stretch limo—and Ginsberg got in and goes, “Wow, how much do you think this costs per hour?” [laughs]
POP: I think, later on, he was a little obsessed with that stuff. But I understand. Those guys were the quintessential starving artists.
DEPP: Indeed. Being in his New York apartment felt like you’d walked into 1950.
POP: With the little Zen tchotchkes.
DEPP: And books everywhere. He was a relentless flirt. Every time I saw him, he’d want to hold hands. It was sweet. I think he just wanted affection, on whatever level.
POP: I read that you did telemarketing. How was that?
I STILL APPROACH A SCENE AS ONE WOULD APPROACH A GUITAR SOLO. YOU DON’T EXACTLY KNOW HOW YOU’RE GOING TO PHRASE THIS OR THAT. WHICH I THINK IS BEAUTIFUL. THAT IDEA OF CHANCE. Johnny Depp
DEPP: [laughs] I marketed pens—on the phone. But the beauty of the gig was that you had to call these strangers and say, “Hi, how ya doing?” You made up a name, like, “Hey, it’s Edward Quartermaine from California. You’re eligible to receive this grandfather clock or a trip to Tahiti.” You promise them all these things if they buy a gross of pens. It was just awful. But I actually think that was the first experience I had with acting.
POP: I too was a telemarketer. I lasted two days and didn’t sell anything. I guess it’s good I stayed in music.
DEPP: I sold one thing, one gross of pens to one guy. And then he was asking me about the trip to Tahiti and I was riddled with guilt, so I told him, “Hey, man, you don’t want these fucking pens. This is a scam. The grandfather clock is made of pressboard. You’re not going to Tahiti. I’m sorry.” So I talked him out of it.
POP: How many cigarettes are you smoking on a daily basis right now?
DEPP: I’ll bet a thousand.
POP: A thousand a day! [laughs] That’s incredible, but you sound very authentic. I believe that.
DEPP: I’m working my way up to ten thousand.
POP: Mining that same vein, how does your future look?
DEPP: [laughs] It’s questionable at best. You’re way off the smoky treats, aren’t you?
POP: I quit at the end of the century. I had to. I came down here to Florida, which has a really zany, sleazy reputation—which is well deserved—but it’s a good place to heal up if you’re battered from New York City. I did kind of firm up.
DEPP: There’s definitely healing properties to being in proximity to the ocean and that breeze. There’s something about that Caribbean climate and humidity.
POP: You moved from Kentucky to Florida, right?
DEPP: Yeah, I moved from Kentucky to Miramar, Florida, at about 8. I think I was in second grade. I still had my Southern accent, and down there you got to experience a melting pot in full fury. All the kids I hung out with were, like, Sicilian kids from Jersey and New York. There were also the Cuban families, and those with a redneck-y vibe, so it was a bit of everything. I remember an inordinate amount of violence in Florida while I was growing up there.
POP: It’s still like that. We get on the news for it sometimes. Once I was stopped in traffic on the Dixie Highway and two guys got out of their cars and just started having at it, right in the middle of the four-lane traffic. They didn’t bother with guns or anything. It was just flesh-on-knuckle road rage.
I LIKE THAT, EACH TIME, BEFORE I EVEN GO IN FRONT OF THE CAMERAS, THE STUDIO’S REACTION WILL BE FEAR. Johnny Depp
DEPP: You won’t remember this, but I did two shows with you in Gainesville. My band, the Kids, opened for you in the early ’80s. God, you were such a hero and the fucking show was amazing. After the gig you were walking around the club, and I was standing at the bar, all of 17 years old, guzzling as much spirits as I could to get up the nerve to talk to you. And I remember making the horrific decision in my teenage drunken state to go, “Well, I’ll just get his attention.” I started going, “I-I-Iggy Pop, Piggy Slop,” you know? You walked towards me and put your face about a quarter of an inch from mine and just went, “You little turd.” [laughs] And not only was it exactly the reaction that I deserved, but it was the one I wanted. I had a moment with you. Even though it was three words that dressed me down to absolutely nothing, I was so satisfied and happy that I had that experience with you.
POP: I’m glad I didn’t blow it by being too nice a guy there. [laughs] I actually have a scatological gift that I carry from you too. It’s a one-liner of yours. You and I found ourselves in kind of a dodgy situation once. Someone had invited us to a party that may have been more like an orgy, and we got there and found ourselves in the darkened room at the top of what looked like a very empty house. There was very little furniture. No one was there. And you looked to your left and you looked to your right, and you said, “I smell shit.” [laughs] And that was it, out the door. It always comes in my mind when I find myself in a bad place and want to tiptoe in the other direction. I figured people from Kentucky must say that. Actually I met your family, and it’s a really nice group of people. Everybody looks very related. Like a batch of cookies.
DEPP: It might be inbreeding. I don’t know. [laughs]
POP: In the trailer for Transcendence you do the corporate pitchman thing, where you’re basically introducing the new research, à la Steve Jobs. Was there anything that you got curious about as you were researching this role?
DEPP: What fascinated me more than anything is the correlation between technology and power—the idea that a guy who is able to download his sentient being into a machine can become god, or a version of god. Religion is a fascinating black hole to me.
POP: The Church of Scientology ran a very big-budget ad during the Super Bowl, and it put forth the proposition, “What if technology and religion could be combined?” or something along those lines. The visuals looked a lot like the trailer for Transcendence. But a quirky association I had when I heard about this movie was Donovan’s Brain . It’s this cheap, old sci-fi movie that I watched a lot when I was in my twenties, about a pioneering scientist in the West who dies before he can complete his research. They manage to take his brain and put it in a large fish tank, and he becomes more brilliant than ever, but he also becomes really mean. I think the idea is that, without the moderating touch of the animal spirit, the human mind is capable of some very dangerous things.
DEPP: Absolutely. It’s really frightening. And when you see all this stuff that goes on in the commercials—the endless commercials—people yelling down your gob, “Buy this, do this, this will save you, this will fix you …”
I’VE ALWAYS ENJOYED HIDING BEHIND THESE CHARACTERS. I COULD STAND UP IN FRONT OF, IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW MANY PEOPLE, AS A CHARACTER. BUT IF I HAD TO DO IT AS MYSELF AND GIVE A SPEECH, I WOULD BE LIQUID. Johnny Depp
POP: There’s a certain frenzy that’s taken over, this high-pitched, aggressive tone. It’s eaten everything; you can’t compete otherwise.
DEPP: Everything can be a reality show now. Imagine what’s it going to be in 20 fucking years, man.
POP: I think it’s going to continue in that direction, until and unless there’s some sort of horrible conflict or problem that makes it much harder to maintain the electrical grid. A lot of the current vanities rely on some very fancy science.
DEPP: People get famous now for I-don’t-know-what. People have reality shows because they’re a Hollywood socialite, and these things become very successful and they generate a shitload of money for the company. And it’s multiplying, to where you’re literally looking into your next door neighbor’s bathroom with reckless abandon. It is like watching a fire. You can’t take your eyes off of it.
POP: I know. How did Buster Keaton come to become an actor—was he in vaudeville? What would happen to a guy like that now? How would he get a gig?
DEPP: His mom and pop were in vaudeville. I think they put him onstage in their show when he was like 2 or 3. He was able to do these amazing falls. He supposedly got the name Buster from Houdini. Houdini was on the same circuit as the parents, doing the same shows around the turn of the century. Buster Keaton, the story goes, had this really nasty spill down a lengthy set of stairs, and Houdini looked and said, “What a buster.” And that’s where he got the name. But I think Buster Keaton, in this day and age, would be … He would have walked away, probably. He was pretty smart. [laughs]
POP: His look, his gaze was not unlike the gaze of some of the more intelligent and disturbing people that you see living on the street, watching the world that they can’t break back into anymore. There’s something there in that stillness, even if it’s just that they don’t have enough calories to fight back anymore.
DEPP: I think that’s exactly it. It’s that feeling of having been in the racket for such a long time, seeing the changes that have come along over the years within the context of our industries. I think that face, with Buster, is an existential, I can’t believe this is happening sort of look. Befuddled. At a loss for words.
POP: Is it fun dressing up and putting a bunch of goop on your face?
DEPP: I love the idea of changing my look. I think one owes it to the audience, to go out there and give them something different each time, so as not to bore them to death. And I always felt that if you’re not trying something different each time out of the gate, you’re being safe, and you don’t ever want to find that place of safety. I like that, each time, before I even go in front of the cameras, the studio’s reaction will be fear.
POP: [laughs] Fear for the welfare of their money?
DEPP: Ultimately. They have those hideous pangs of fear where they go, “He’s fucking killing the movie.” [laughs] And I can’t argue with them, because I might be. But I just know for the character that this is the right thing to do. And I’ve always enjoyed hiding behind these characters. It’s a strange thing, you’re more comfortable as a character than you are in life. You know what I mean? I could stand up in front of, it doesn’t matter how many people, as a character. But if I had to do it as myself and give a speech, I would be liquid.
POP: I remember you were marveling how Jim Jarmusch came to your nightclub and chatted up somebody, successfully, and you said, “He’s got that gift of gab that I just don’t have!” I haven’t got it either. But Jarmusch’s really got it. What a smooth operator, man.
DEPP: Some people got that ability, and I never had it. And never wanted it.
I love the idea of CHANGING MY LOOK. I THINK ONE OWES IT TO the AUDIENCE, TO GO OUT THERE and GIVE THEM SOMETHING DIFFERENT EACH TIME, SO AS NOT TO BORE THEM to DEATH. Johnny Depp
POP: Nick Tosches, is he still going strong?
DEPP: He’s still moving forward. He’s so brilliant. He’s one of the ballsiest, most poetic, and rage-filled writers, but he attacks with such calm. And wisdom. I always feel really lucky after I’ve read one of Tosches’s books, because it’s like you’ve had this experience with him. And it’s funny because hanging out with him is very much like being in one of his books. In the same way that it was with Hunter [S. Thompson]. When I hung out with Hunter for all those years, and lived in his basement in Woody Creek, Colorado, we were together a lot. I think I even referred to us as deviant bookends at one point. But you were always the other character in the book. He made you his counterpart. So, going to Cuba or being locked in a hotel room in San Francisco with him for five days, it was all true. We did end up with 17 grapefruits and 40 salt and pepper shakers, and club sandwiches packed to the ceiling. I mean—madness. It’s great to have that be real. There are those who meet their heroes and go, “Aw, fuck.” And I’ve never had that, luckily. Starting with you, I was never disappointed by the people I’ve admired. And the choices I made when I was in a position where it was do-or-die were made with my heroes in mind. Like, Cry-Baby was a real important move for me, to get away from being considered just a TV actor. There was no real transition to cinema back then. And then Scissorhands was another step in the direction I wanted to go. Coming at it with the brain of a musician, all I kept thinking about back then is that you don’t want to disappoint those you’ve admired.
POP: Like, what would Marlon Brando say?
DEPP: Exactly. I didn’t want to disappoint the people who had busted down doors before.
POP: There’s something about playing guitar. It helps you. Sometimes you can see truth, I think.
DEPP: I still approach a scene as one would approach a solo. There’s nothing set or pat. I don’t know what the fuck’s going to happen until I get in there. Just like when you’re in the booth and you’re playing a guitar solo, you don’t exactly know how you’re going to phrase this or that. Which I think is beautiful. That idea of chance.
POP: It’s very hard work being an actor on a film set. Grueling, hard work.
DEPP: It is hard work. But certainly I’ve heard of far worse gigs.
POP: I read you were a mechanic in your teens. What did you do, work on your motorcycle?
DEPP: I was working at a gas station, pumping gas, and they put me in the garage and made me a mechanic. I told the dude, “Hey, I know very little about this.” And he said, “Oh, you’ll just do what I tell you to do and it will work out fine.” Well, it didn’t. I changed all the tires on this guy’s car, did the alignment, put the fucking wheels back on, pulled it down, guy got in, and his left rear wheel shot off the fucking vehicle. [laughs] I was asked to leave, needless to say. What about you? Are you off at the moment, writing, recording?
THE CHOICES I MADE when I WAS IN A POSITION WHERE IT WAS DO-OR-DIE WERE MADE WITH MY HEROES in MIND. I DIDN’T WANT TO DISAPPOINT the PEOPLE WHO HAD BUSTED DOWN DOORS BEFORE. Johnny Depp
POP: I’m doing a radio show all year for the BBC 6.
DEPP: That’s great. I’m glad you got some time off the road. I’ve been playing a lot of music lately. It’s a real lifesaver, being able to focus on my first love. It’s freedom.
POP: It’s a much more free gig, being a musician. Less people involved.
DEPP: And immediate—yeah, fuck, we captured it. I suppose that’s it, capturing something.
POP: Are you playing with a bunch of people?
DEPP: I’ve been writing and recording with Ryan Adams a lot lately. Ryan is incredibly prolific and he’s just a pure soul, he’s just this being.
POP: I know his stuff. He’s really fucking talented, really skilled, and a restless sort of artist.
DEPP: Exactly, he’s itching all the time. It’s like it’s burning to come out of him.
POP: He’s in danger. Like I was. I hope I’m not anymore. But he’s got that endangered look. Oh, boy, come on Ryan, hang in there.
DEPP: He’s got a great handle on it. And is taking good care of himself. But what a talent, man. I’m amazed by the fucker. And then, here and there I’m doing some stuff with Alice [Cooper], which is really fun. Also with Marcus Mumford, who’s amazing. But what stays in my head is the couple of times that you and I sat down in the studio and just messed around—doing the TV show in Paris that time [performing their song “Hollywood Affair”], just recording stuff in the studio.
POP: “Hollywood Affair” is very nice; it’s a beautiful piece of music. And I got some really nice cues for your film The Brave, as well. I reused those on Avenue B . People who want their Pop straight don’t like it. But there are a lot of people I can reach out and touch that way. There was feeling in the music. It was supreme for me.
DEPP: Here’s a question for you. The work you and [David] Bowie did that resulted in The Idiot —have you guys ever thought about trying something together again? I’m asking as a fan.
POP: I never say never about anything. I had great times, creatively, with him. Particularly on that first one, The Idiot. Bowie would try anything, and at that point, I would try half of anything. One night I went out and got drunk and he was bored, so he went into my bedroom and he dug under the mattress—I used to write angry poetry and hide it under my mattress—and he found this poem: “I’m on the edge / I feel like I’m about to break / Everything’s too straight and I want a weird sin / I want some weird sin.” So he wrote it up and made a song out of it [“Some Weird Sin” on Pop’s 1977 album Lust for Life]. He also gave me the title idea for “Lust for Life.” I didn’t know it at the time but it had, of course, been a novel and a film starring Kirk Douglas, as van Gogh.
DEPP: Some of those lyrics still stick in my head. I think one of the most beautiful lines ever is “That’s like hypnotizing chickens.”
POP: That’s from Burroughs. “What is this love anyway? / Well, it’s just the same as hypnotizing chickens / You just rub their belly or rub their head, and they go into a trance / That’s love.” [laughs]
DEPP: I listen to Burroughs read “A Thanksgiving Prayer” probably bimonthly. That’s my religion. I think it starts out, “To John Dillinger, in hope he is still alive.” It’s just so beautiful. God, it’s so great to talk to you, man. I miss you. I hope we can hook up sometime.
POP: Absolutely. I’ll get myself some kind of gig out in Hollywood. Or, you know, you can see my blues shack here.
DEPP: I’ve got to get you and your gal to come out to that little place I got in the Bahamas, man. You could leave your house and be on a beach in, fuck, less than two hours. Anonymity is achievable there. And the heart rate slows about 20 beats per minute, within the first 15 minutes of being there. Yeah, we should make a sojourn there.
SINGER-SONGWRITER IGGY POP IS CONSIDERED THE GODFATHER OF PUNK. HE IS CURRENTLY THE HOST OF THE IGGY POP RADIO SHOW ON BBC RADIO 6 MUSIC.