Shivering our timbers

‘Do you smoke? Do you want a cigarette?’ When you’re in Camera, and an attractive guy asks you to go outside for a cigarette with him, you know you’re in with a chance. If that attractive guy is Johnny Depp, and you’re in the Oxford Union rather than a nightclub, then perhaps you’re less likely to score.

Depp is famously reticent about the media. He gives interviews only occasionally and finds being photographed invasive. He has even moved to France to avoid the prying eyes of gossip mags and prepubescent girls. For someone so vocal about his privacy, Depp’s never been able to escape his initial image as a teenage heartthrob – we fancied him in Edward Scissorhands, and we fancied him in Pirates of the Caribbean. He’s been voted People Magazine’s sexiest man alive twice in the last ten years, and GQ thinks he’s the coolest man in the world. Depp’s not exactly obscure, however much he may protest.   

It is a pretty heart-racing experience then, especially as student journalists, to be up close and personal with this giant of cult cinema. Johnny Depp is a remarkable actor – he may not be the very best, but there is no doubt he is one of the most charismatic. On film and in person he has an intoxicating effect. If we’d only accepted that cigarette, it might have calmed our nerves.

Depp is beautiful – there is no other way to describe it – and yet he appears to be totally oblivious to it. His clothes are shabby, his blue-painted nails are bitten to the quick, and the infamous fedora most definitely has holes in it. A little bit of Jack Sparrow seems to have permeated his sense of style, or maybe he’s just lazy. His heroes – ‘the Henry Millers, the Jack Kerouacs, the Hunter Thompsons, the James Joyces of the world’ – have left an indelible stamp on him.

Fellow Kentuckian Thompson in particular was a dear friend, although you’d expect Depp to be from somewhere slightly edgier than Kentucky: his image is definitely more Fois Gras than fried chicken. Depp financed Thompson’s funeral after the gonzo master’s suicide in 2005, fulfilling his wish to have his ashes shot out of a 150ft cannon. Depp’s new film The Rum Diary immortalises Thompson’s early career in garish 1960s Puerto Rico, highlighting the hypocrisy and greed of the American Dream: ‘Me and Hunter started this thing when I found this box that had The Rum Diary inside of it. We read it sitting on bended knee. It’s what he asked for.

‘Having known Hunter to the degree that I did – well, he was one of my best friends. After I played him in the Fear and Loathing era, I had to go back and try to take slivers off, take layers away from the man I knew – to try to find him as that young journalist was a challenge. He was trying to find his voice, his avenue for all the anger and the rage. He did the gonzo thing before he was even aware of it. Then he just burst into the stratosphere.’

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Depp knows what he’s talking about: he too burst into stardom after growing up on a diet of counterculture and chaos, moving around the country as a child (possibly desperately trying to escape Kentucky) and drifting into an adult life where he lived out of a car and tried to make it with garage rock bands. Perhaps this is why he’s so disarmingly charming – he had to get by on good luck and good grace. Not that we’ve met many, but Depp doesn’t come across as a Hollywood A-Lister. He speaks so softly you’d almost think he’s shy and he has an almost artificial awkwardness.

‘Everything I’ve ever done in terms of my work, and in terms of the films that I’ve done, I’ve been conscious that I just don’t want to embarrass my heroes. I don’t.’ It’s reassuring to see how earnest he is.

Depp seems to either play characters of pure fantasy – Scissorhands, Willy Wonka – or the exact opposite. Often the real people he portrays are ones he had some kind of personal relationship with.

‘There’s a huge responsibility playing someone who existed or exists’, he explains. ‘Donnie Brasco was an enormous risk.’

Thompson, his friend and hero, asked Depp to come on board for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. ‘He said, “Would you like to play me in a Vegas movie?” and I said that depends, you know, because if I come close to who you are, there’s a very good possibility that you’ll hate me for the rest of your life.’ Depp laughs, but that danger must always be there. If you get a little too close to the bone, the person you’re playing must feel as though you’ve bared the darkest facets of their personality to the world.

Luckily, neither Depp nor Thompson regretted it. ‘[Hunter] said the most beautiful thing in the world, you know. They screened the film for him and when I called him afterwards to find out if he hated me – I said, “Do you hate me? Is it done, do you hate me?” – and he said “No, no, no.”’ Depp pauses for a second.

‘“It was an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield”, that’s what he said. It just spewed out of his beautiful mouth: “an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield.”’

Johnny Depp has a lyrical way with words: everything seems to be considered deeply. He may not look the type, but he has an academic eloquence. He and Bruce Robinson, director and screenwriter of The Rum Diary, are self-confessed bibliophiles. In an attempt to make him stay a bit longer, we share a classically Oxonian tidbit of information: Oxford has the highest density of libraries in the world. To our satisfaction, Depp lies, ‘Well, I probably won’t leave.’ Don’t worry Johnny: you can stay with us.

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Depp has had an unconventional education but he seems to approach acting with a certain intellectualism. He is often criticised by the American press for being a European ‘wannabe’, and he got into trouble a few years ago for supposedly dismissing America, his reluctant homeland, as ‘dumb’.

‘I dropped out of school, organised school, when I was 15. And I began my life after that in terms of academia. It is my entire world.’ He clearly styles himself as a bit of an anarchist: hates the media, hates organised education, hates everything we hold dear. He paid an impromtu visit dressed as Jack Sparrow to a London primary school last year after an appeal from a pupil asking for help with a mutiny: the work of a true rebel.  

His knowledge of literature is therefore mostly self-taught; Depp is evidently self-motivated. However, despite proclaiming himself a James Joyce disciple, Depp has yet to finish his greatest linguistic experiment. Briefly, the questioning is reversed, and he asks us ‘Have you finished Finnegans Wake?’ Ashamed, we  both admit no, and instantly regret it. As Oxford students we have a whole lot of practice lying about stuff we’re supposed to have read.

He smiles: ‘No one has.’ What a relief.

‘It’s the best fucking book in the world but no one’s read it. It’s either the greatest book in literature, or the greatest joke.’ We ask which he thinks it is, and of course, ‘It’s the greatest book.’ Does he think he’ll finish it? ‘One day – doesn’t mean I’ll understand it. I don’t think anyone ever will.’

Do we understand Johnny Depp? Neither of us think so; we don’t think anyone ever will. Unlike so many of his counterparts, he makes a conscious effort to remain a mystery. What is refreshing though is that Depp clearly doesn’t take his own mystery very seriously. He swears, he laughs, and he calls us ‘sweethearts’. He does chicken impressions in the Debate Chamber and claims Javier Bardem is the best ‘leading lady’ he’s ever kissed.

This irreverence is so refreshing, and yet, Depp is reverent when necessary. He evidently treats the people he immortalises in film with great respect, and nowhere is this more apparent than his latest tribute to old friend – and fellow enigma – Hunter S Thompson.

Johnny Depp spoke at the Oxford Union on Saturday