Johnny Depp’s new role as an operatic caterer, I have to admit, came as a bit of a shock. Still, there is no denying that his recipe for shepherd’s pie is sublime. Like all great dishes the secret is in the use of fresh ingredients and careful preparation. Apparently you run the meat “three times through the grinder for it to be all juicy and tender. Smoothly. Smoothly”. And use real shepherds.
By Andy Round
The fact that Depp is playing the fabulously macabre Sweeney Todd in his next film shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it is his demonic multi-tasking that really takes my breath away. While cutting throats and converting victims into pie filling, the talented Mr Depp will be singing the songs of the multi-award-winning Stephen Sonheim.
You have got to be joking? Apparently not. He is actually very good if the film’s director Tim Burton is to be believed. “I go over to Johnny’s house and we sing show tunes every night,” he told MTV recently. “It’s a ritual with us.” Really? According to Burton, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street will be a full-blooded horror film. “It’s not going to be a G-rated movie, no. It’s kind of like doing the Sound of Music but with lots of blood, so I don’t know how that’s going to work out.”
The film role is typical of Depp. All his life he has deliberately avoided the obvious. Rather than take the action hero route or romantic lead, those famous cheekbones have chosen their own bloody-minded route. According to the actor, his attitude leaves his agents frustrated. “Every time I take on another strange project, they are going, ‘When does he do a movie where he kisses the girl? When does he get to pull a gun and shoot somebody?’”
The thing is Depp, now 43, would prefer to continuously play losers, outsiders, strangers or obsessives. It’s what he does best. The tormented Edward Scissorhands with his childish fantasies; the world’s worst director in the world in Ed Wood; a psychopathic Hunter S Thomson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; the seriously bizarre Willy Wonka for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the perverse and twisted Earl of Rochester in The Libertine and, let’s not forget, his Oscar-nominated camp performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.
There is not a hope in hell of a Mission Impossible-style film from Mr Depp instead we have a manic Sweeney Todd rather than action hero Tom Cruise. In fact Depp famously turned down the Keanu Reeves part in Speed and the Brad Pitt role in Legends of the Fall.
“Why start mainstream movies now?” Depp asks. “Nothing changes. The challenge for me is still to do something that hasn’t been beaten into the movie-going consciousness. Otherwise what am I in it for? I don’t want to be 85 years old and have my grandkids go ‘Grandpa you did some dumb stuff’, I’d rather have them say ‘Wow, man you’re nuts’.”
In Sweeney Todd Depp will be reunited with co-star Helena Bonham Carter (as the pie-making Mrs Lovett) who he worked with in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish and The Corpse Bride. Todd will be followed by two other planned films (obviously featuring outsiders), the Rum Diary based on the chaotic early 20s writings of maverick journalist Hunter S Thompson and Shantaram following the true story of a career criminal who disappears to Mumbai to become a notorious figure in India’s underworld.
Despite the troubled lives of the roles he plays, these are happy times for Johnny Depp. The root of his contentment is in his relationship with French singer/actress Vanessa Paradis who “ruined” him when she passed him in the lobby of the Hotel Costes in Paris eight years ago.
Since Depp met the actress they spend most of their time on a small farm near to St Tropez with their young children Jake and Lily-Rose. It is a simple life that is divorced completely from Hollywood hedonism. Even when Depp enjoyed his greatest commercial success ever with Pirates of the Caribbean, he avoided the spotlight. “I like not knowing what’s happening there, who is doing what, how they were, what the box office was,” he says. “Even when I’m in the soup of Hollywood, I just play Barbies and hang out with the kids.”
Depp has come a long way to enjoy this idyllic life. In his younger years he “self-medicated” heavily with the help of nights of hard drinking and drug use. He also burned through an astonishing series of deeply troubled girlfriends that included Winona Ryder, Sherilyn Fenn and Kate Moss. He smashed hotel rooms, attacked photographers, spent countless nights in jail and lost himself to excess. “There are times when it was a wonder I survived,” he admits.
Depp’s search for oblivion may have been deliberate, but his entrance into Hollywood was completely unplanned. During a turbulent childhood – brought about by a violent father and constant family travelling – Depp disappeared to his bedroom to learn the guitar. By the time he dropped out of school at the age of 16 he was on tour with his band The Kids and supporting hero Iggy Pop.
Four years later Depp was penniless, crashed out on the floor of actor Nicholas Cage, married to a make-up artist and forced to sell pens to survive. After Cage suggested acting as a career, Depp was propelled into minor roles in Platoon and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Then the break-through, playing the star role in the television series 21 Jump Street. The show brought him US-wide exposure, a huge female fan base and inevitable celebrity misery. “It was very uncomfortable,” he says. “It was a weird thing not to be in control of your own image. I remember saying to myself, ‘When I’m free of this, I’m going to do only the things that I want to do. Go down any road I decide’.”
He escaped his seven-year television contract after four and the madness began. Headline after headline gloated over his manic behaviour – the smashed hotel rooms with Kate Moss, the overdose death of his friend River Phoenix outside the Viper Club they co-owned in Los Angeles and the weekly arrests. Meanwhile his professional life was producing work deliberately designed to sink the ‘pretty boy’ image that had been cultivated for him in 21 Jump Street.
First off was Cry Baby where Depp parodied himself as a teen idol. By the time Edward Scissorhands was released nobody could associate this abandoned monster with cutlery for hands with the former clean-cut TV star. Free from the manufactured trappings of celebrity, Depp immersed himself in bizarre roles from the zero grade film-maker Ed Wood (who loved angora sweaters); Don Juan De Marco as a schizophrenic who escapes reality as a Latin lover and Benny & Joon which found him in the role of an illiterate, speechless mime artist.
Basically Depp did what he wanted, living the pledge he made when left the set of 21 Jump Street for the last time. Director of Cry Baby, John Waters, says: “He’s now got other young actors imitating his career. I actually hear people saying they want to do a Johnny Depp. They love the way he’s real and the way he plays heroes without any sense of corniness.”
Depp’s choices have always been interesting even if they were not necessarily commercial successes. Of course, that all changed with Pirates of the Caribbean and his gold-toothed Captain Jack Sparrow. The second installment this year may have been criticised for unreasonably drowning Depp’s acting talents in a Caribbean Sea of million-dollar effects, but the first film was a treasure chest of box office gold taking more than US$650 million worldwide.
“Disney gave me such a hullabaloo about what I was doing with the character at first, the teeth, the beads, the mannerisms,” he says. “I would get these calls from team Disney and it would be like, ‘What are you doing with your hands? Is he deranged? Drunk? What is he?” The chairman of Disney Michael Eisner allegedly even claimed the actor was ‘ruining the film’ with his Captain Jack character. Depp, naturally, got the last laugh as well as a US$20 million pay cheque for each of the three films being made. Typically, much of that money was wisely invested in a Caribbean island for his family.
That allure of the irresistible simple life is what also constantly drives Depp back to France where he “can take a ride into the village with my girl” drive back home, “walk in the garden with the kids” without any Hollywood hoopla. Ultimately Depp is his own man and in today’s age of disposable celebrity that is a rare. By determinedly investing in his own choices he appears to be happy and continues to defy Hollywood expectations. Good for him. You can be sure when he comes to quote Sweeney Todd’s immortal words there will be more conviction than ever when he sings: “The history of the world, my sweet is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.”