Through a scanner, darkly
Cindy Pearlman
Friday, May 18, 2012

Johnny Depp, who’s made it a habit to play offbeat characters, plays his boyhood anti-hero in dark shadows. Here’s his analysis of his life

Audiences probably 
will flock to Dark Shadows this summer, but one man may never see the film. 
 He skips Johnny Depp movies, as a rule, having avoided Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994) and all those Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

His name is Johnny Depp.

“I do my best to try and avoid my movies at all costs,” the 48-year-old actor says with a laugh. “My kids watch my movies. Obviously there are a select few they can’t watch. I’m not exactly screening The Libertine (2004) for them.”

What would it take to get Johnny Depp into a Johnny Depp movie?

“Bring two bottles of wine and we can talk about it,” he says with a whooping laugh.

Depp is sitting for an interview at a Los Angeles hotel to promote Dark Shadows, and he’s appropriately dressed with silver-skull rings on each finger and black threads around his wrists. His professionally mussed/unwashed hair falls into his face but stops abruptly at his chin, which displays two-day stubble.

Dark Shadows, directed by Depp’s longtime collaborator Tim Burton, is based on the classic television series, a gothic soap opera which starred Jonathan Frid as moody vampire Barnabas Collins. Depp is too young to have watched the show in its original 1966-1971 run, but he remembers sprinting home from school in Miramar, Florida, to catch reruns.

“I just had to watch the show,” he says. “It was tough because it started at 3 in the afternoon, which is when I got out of school. I’d race home, but miss the beginning. In fact, the network moved it to a later time because so many kids wrote in letters.”

Needless to say, Depp wasn’t the show’s only fan. “I wasn’t doing my homework either, when I got home from school,” Burton says in a separate interview. “I was watching this weird TV show about a vampire.”

Dark Shadows, that released in the US on 11 May, begins with the apparent demise of Barnabas Collins (Depp). It’s 1760, and in Liverpool the Collins family is making plans to relocate to the New World — an idea that doesn’t go over well with Barnabas, a young playboy without a serious thought in his head. His plans change, however, when he meets an immortal witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). He rejects her advances, and in revenge she turns him into a vampire and condemns him to an underground grave.

Some 200 years later, however, construction workers unearth him. Collins wakes up in 1972 and, let loose in the modern world, has to come to terms with disco music, lava lamps, pet rocks, microwaves and McDonalds.

He also has to deal with his modern relatives (Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloe Moretz), who are occupying the family’s ancestral mansion, and the fact that Angelique is still peeved with Collins and is prepared to destroy his entire family if she can’t have his love.

“It all began for me with conversations I had with Tim,” Depp says. “He was a big Dark Shadows fan. It’s one of those shows where, if you meet someone who loved it, there is just this instant and deep conversation about it.”

The new film is not a wildly revisionist take, as has been the case with some recent movies adapted from classic television.

“We loved what Jonathan Frid did with the character and his attitude,” Depp says. “We loved his iconic look. We didn’t want to stray very far from that, with a few different elements thrown in there, but nothing major.

“There is something about this vampire coming back after 200 years of being gone,” the actor adds. “He comes back into a modern world he can’t possibly understand, which is where you find the comedy.”

Depp specialises in offbeat characters, whether it be a silent-movie-obsessed youth in Benny & Joon (1994), a transvestite filmmaker in Ed Wood (1994), a fey pirate captain in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), a demented candymaker in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) or a serial-killing barber in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

He also has played his share of normal people, however, in such films as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Donnie Brasco (1997), Finding Neverland (2004) and The Tourist (2010), and he says that these roles are closer to the real Johnny Depp.

“I’m impressed by normalcy,” he says. “I like to hang out with people who are actually down to earth, smart and very funny. Kind and caring are the most important things to me.”

As he tells it, Depp had an undistinguished childhood in small-town Florida. He saw his future in The Wizard of Oz (1939), which during his youth aired annually on television. “It was a touchstone for me,” he recalls, “because it reminded me that you don’t have to stay in one place. You can leave and have an entirely new life.” Initially he hoped that music would be his path to that new life. At 15, he dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles, where he wanted to become a rock star. He played with a few bands, the biggest of which was the Kids, who opened for Iggy Pop, but his rock-star dreams led nowhere. Eventually, flat broke and newly married, he took a job selling pens.

It was his wife, Lori, who got him his first break when she met a hot young actor named Nicolas Cage and introduced him to her husband. Cage was instrumental in Depp’s landing his first film, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). That in turn led to his being cast as Officer Tom Hanson on the hit series 21 Jump Street (1987-1990), which made him a teen heartthrob. In 1990, he made Edward Scissorhands, his first film with Burton, and he’s been a star ever since.

Next up for Depp is The Lone Ranger, in which he’ll be playing sidekick Tonto — and wearing makeup that, to judge by early photos, makes him look a bit like Marilyn Manson.

“I’d seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of the warrior and thought, ‘That’s it,’” Depp says. “The stripes go down the face and across the eyes. It seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.”

Depp’s films swing between blockbusters and small, odder films, but he claims not to see any difference in making them.

“None of the movies seem huge to me,” he says. “I just get in the ring and do the work. Every film feels like an intimate process. Whatever the end product is remains none of my business. I focus on the doing of the thing.”

Lately there have been rumours of trouble between Depp and his longtime partner, French actress Vanessa Paradis, but he says that they continue to live a quiet existence with their two children, 9-year-old Jack and 12-year-old Lily, splitting their time between homes in Paris and Los Angeles. “I try to lead as normal a life as possible. A simple life.”

This is possible, he says, even for a movie star. “For some wonderful reason, the paparazzi have kind of lightened up on me... They calmed down in my case... in some cases, they’ve teetered on respectful.”

Being a movie star, he adds, runs a distant second in his world to being a father. “It made my life,” Depp says. “Even when my kids were babies, I was the one learning from them. Now they’re a little older, and you start to have these profound conversations. They ask me questions that leave my head spinning.

His fan base is remarkably diverse, ranging from children to the elderly, and Depp professes to be equally puzzled by all of them. “I don’t know why people seem to like me,” he says. “I’ve been very blessed in that regard. I’ve been lucky. I’ve stayed on this roller coaster for a lengthy period of time. I’m still able to get jobs. The people have stuck with me and they see the movies, which after all of these years just blows my mind.

“The other day I met a three-year-old fan of Captain Jack,” Depp says, “and an 85-year-old woman in my neighbourhood is obsessed with Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.

“Who can even begin to explain it?”



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