Fresh from the release of the box-office 3D blockbuster Alice in Wonderland, Enigma’s Viki Waters caught up with Johnny Depp in London. He told us about his devotion to his family, how he escapes the pressure of fame, and how he put his own stamp on the Mad Hatter…
After making his name in low budget films including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Cry-Baby, it was the 1990 movie Edward Scissorhands which shot Johnny Depp into the public limelight. By playing the troubled Edward, Johnny showcased his talents and it was soon clear he was more than just a pretty face.
However alongside becoming a box office smash, Depp had made himself a target for the paparazzi with his high-profile relationships with Jennifer Grey, Winona Ryder and Kate Moss. His wild lifestyle during his youth also meant his life was played out on the front pages of the media. But despite the attention he received, it was obvious Depp didn’t really feel comfortable with his new level of fame and would rather concentrate on his acting career.
Shunning sure-fire box office smashes in favour of quirky characters that caught his imagination, Depp took on roles in a wide variety of films including, Sleepy Hollow, Chocolat, Finding Neverland and The Libertine. And despite being a household name, both Depp and his long-time collaborator Tim Burton, admit it was always a struggle getting a studio to agree to cast him in anything – until his success as the loveably rogue Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Since finding love with French singer-and actress Vanessa Paradis 11 years ago, the devoted family man seems to have found an inner peace and would forgo any Hollywood party to spend time with his loved ones. Today the family splits their time between Vanessa’s homeland of France, the US and their private island in the Caribbean.
Talking of the stability Vanessa and their children, Lily-Rose, 10, and Jack, eight, bring to his life, Depp has said, “There’s a group of people that keep me balanced. Certainly family are a great support to me. Vanessa and the kiddies keep me grounded. But kiddies will keep you grounded no matter what.”
Notoriously shy, Depp famously hates watching himself on the big screen but has made an exception for his latest role as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland – his seventh collaboration with Burton – and he was clearly delighted by the positive reactions of his own children, who adored his dark, madcap portrayal of the iconic character.
You used to be known for your wild ways but seem much more settled now. What changed you?
Luckily, I went down the rabbit hole early on and now the rabbit hole is a different animal altogether, because my main focus is my kids and my family. I’m much calmer than I was years ago and that has a lot to do with raising a family; so my kids have calmed me 100 per cent.
How do you relax with your family?
We have a great place down in the South of France. It’s a little hamlet – only about 45 acres – and I don’t do anything. I’ve not left the property for three months at a time. I literally just wake up, go out, check the garden and see the vegetables growing. It’s a pristine existence in terms of simplicity. There’s no talk of movies or work and, infinitely more importantly, the phone never rings. We take the kiddies on walks and picnics and it’s the perfect existence. It really is a beautiful, simple life. And it’s been a calming influence just to be able to have that special time with my kids.
You’re one of the biggest stars in the world, how do you get away from it all and escape from the pressures of public life?
I go to my private island in the Caribbean. It provides me with the simplicity I need. It came into my life at the perfect moment. The island gives me somewhere I can go where no one is watching me or pointing a camera at me. When family and I are there, we do absolutely nothing. My children don’t have any toys there but they have the time of their life building little houses out of shells.
How do you cope with fame and all the public adoration?
You can never ever get used to that kind of thing. That’s why I don’t leave my house that often. I don’t go anywhere. I understand what celebrity and fame is about and I appreciate it, but there’s only so much of that sort of thing a person can deal with. If the choice is between being constantly gawked at and sitting in a dark room, I prefer the dark room.
You’re 46 now and yet you are still seen as something of a teen idol – what is your secret?
Clearly someone’s Photoshop is working really well if people are buying posters of me! I just keep doing a bunch of movies. I never really thought about whether they were teen movies or not. You always feel that you cross some sort of boundary that allows a film to be enjoyed by people from the age of five to the age of 85. Although there are films like The Libertine, which I definitely wouldn’t classify as a teen movie.
How do you stay looking so young?
Clean living, most definitely. If I could avoid wine I would do it! And liquor definitely. Most definitely don’t smoke – anything. Stay in your room and watch reality television! That is how I do it!
Alice in Wonderland has many weird and wonderful characters. Did they find their way into your dreams when you were filming?
I had hideous dreams, but I have a tendency to have somewhat dark dreams anyway. I can’t remember any of them specifically that plagued me during filming, but I don’t think it had anything to do with filming at all, it just came by itself. Once I had one where the captain from the TV show Gilligan’s Island chased me through the streets of Hollywood.
Why don’t you like watching your films and have you seen Alice in Wonderland?
If I can avoid the mirror when I brush my teeth in the morning, I will. I find security and safety in the most profound degree of ignorance. If you can stay ignorant of just about anything, you will be OK. Just keep walking forward. It is OK to notice things, but to judge things will drag you down, so I don’t like to watch myself in movies. I don’t like to be aware of the product; I like the process. I can’t stand watching my movies. I just prefer to walk away with the experience of the process and just to have that is plenty. But this one I went to see because it’s Tim at his utmost. He’s really gone far beyond on this one.
Have your children seen the film?
They saw it and loved it; they went crazy, quoting things from it. It was amazing, they loved it and weren’t freaked out by it at all.
Alice in Wonderland is your seventh film with Tim Burton. How has your relationship with him changed over the years?
We met about 20 years ago for Edward Scissorhands and the fact he cast me in that was a miracle. Once you’ve known someone for that length of time you do get close, but in terms of the process and the work, it hasn’t changed since then; there was always kind of a shorthand there. Tim will turn his head or squint an eye a certain way and I know what he wants. One thing that has evolved between both of us – because there’s no way to avoid talking about it – is the topic of kids… when grown men start changing nappies and stuff, you discuss it. One of the things I am proudest of is the fact I was the first person to give Tim the full DVD set of The Wiggles (an Australian musical children’s TV show). He still hasn’t forgiven me for that.
Do you have artistic disagreements?
We only quarrelled when Helena Bonham Carter came into his life!
How much of an input did you have into your portrayal of the Mad Hatter?
I felt very strongly about how he should look, what his behaviour was like – that he shouldn’t be just throwing a ball in a room and then having him go crazy just for laughs. I thought there should be another side to him; some degree of damage or trauma more than anything. I feel so lucky to get away with it – each time I get a gig there’s always someone going “Oh Jesus, what’s he doing now?” In a weird way – and I don’t mean this in a negative way – I’ve sort of infiltrated the enemy camp and made it through the other side.
Why did you make him Scottish – there’s a particular scene where he’s wearing the kilt and a sporran in a sort of Braveheart tribute, what was the thinking behind that?
Every movie deserves a Braveheart sequence! With the Scottish accent, it was something I did mess about with on Finding Neverland, but that was more Aberdeen. Tim and I were talking early on about how he was made up of different people and the extreme sides of these people, so I wanted to go dark and dangerous with the Scots accent, so I hope I arrived there. I like wearing skirts too!
Your character has a very unique look – what was your input?
In terms of the look of the character, some of the early stuff came right out of the book. I also started doing research on hatters and there was this thing called the hatter’s disease – the substance they used to glue hats together which contained a lot of mercury so they would end up heavily poisoned and it would manifest itself in different ways like personality disorders or even darker and weirder things. There was an orange tint to the actual stuff, so that’s where the orange bits came from. My approach to the character was just trying to find those places inside, to go from extreme sides of personality so one minute you’re at full capacity rage and the next minute you’ve dropped into a horrific tailspin of fear and then you go to a great height of levity. I tried to do that in scenes as much as I could when the moment was right.
How did you feel when you first read Lewis Carroll?
I can remember reading the book when I was a kid, a condensed version when I was about five but what I remember more than anything is, because the story is so episodic and abstract and all over the place, is just the characters and how they stick with you. Even people who haven’t read the book know all these characters.
Who’s your favourite mad person?
Tim because he gives me jobs. He is a mad person on some level but it’s a madness that works for him. At the risk of embarrassing him, I have always admired Tim for his commitment to his vision and the impossibility of compromise; for doing exactly what he wanted the way he wanted in his very unique way. As far as I’m concerned he’s one of the only true artists working in cinema.
What’s the secret to your success?
Chance. Just luck, really. I’ve been very lucky over the years, it’s a miracle people still hire me after some of the stuff I’ve gotten away with. There was no way to predict this success. Prior to Pirates of the Caribbean I was labelled ‘Box Office Poison’, which I was kind of OK with; it didn’t bother me. And then Pirates happened and now Tim doesn’t have to fight with studios to get me the part any more.