Exclusive: Johnny Depp – the accidental actor

He admits he doesn’t know much about fashion, which is why Johnny Depp is a surprising choice to front a Dior campaign. The short ad film for the men’s perfume Dior Sauvage, directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, shows Depp tearing it up on an electric guitar, storming into a desert and experiencing all kinds of photogenic urban angst. At least the guitar and the angst are true to life: acting was something Depp did to make rent and he recently moved out of New York because he got tired of being recognised. At 52, he’s one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, has founded a rock band with Alice Cooper called The Hollywood Vampires, and is all set to put on the greasepaint for his most crowd-pleasing roles as the Mad Hatter (Alice Through The Looking Glass, 2016) and Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, 2017). So what is he doing in a perfume ad? “There’s an elegance to Dior, a kind of gravity. The perfume is sort of wild, sauvage, on the edge. A sauvage is someone who doesn’t compromise. A renegade of sorts.” As it turns out, Depp has always had a soft spot for the outsider.

ELLE: Did the film you did for Sauvage remind you a little bit of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man? It’s the same vision quest kind of thing, right?
Johnny Depp: Yeah it did, in the way that Dead Man was Jim’s long cinematic poem. Jim can only do that because he has managed to sort of stay outside himself, you know? There’s only a handful of people who can do that. I’ve found that doing this short film with Jean-Baptiste [Mondino], who is also very poetic, was satisfying in the sense that there was a luxury here of not having dialogue. Working with Jean-Baptiste, with all his imagery, made it even more personal to me. I’d heard that when you work with him, you fall in love instantly. He’s instantly lovable because he’s constantly pure. Shooting with Jean-Baptiste felt like freedom.

ELLE: How did you wind up being an actor instead of a musician?
JD: Pure accident and not having a choice: rent had to be paid and I was a struggling musician. You know that clichéd story: come to Hollywood for the record deal. And so we came out from South Florida and arrived in LA. But record companies weren’t looking for our kind of punk-pop-whatever… it was really all about Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses. A friend said he felt like I was an actor and that I should go meet his agent. She sent me for an audition and I got it. My first film was Nightmare On Elm Street in 1984. So I never really made the decision to become an actor. I couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about movies. I was a musician, a guitar player and that’s what I wanted to pursue. But thirty years later, I’m still here.

ELLE: Which of the characters you’ve played are the most like you in real life?
JD: Weirdly, I would say it’s a combination of Edward Scissorhands and Captain Jack Sparrow. There’s nothing I adore more than irreverence, and that’s the luxury of playing Captain Jack. With Edward, I remember reading the script and connecting so deeply to the purity of the character. It reminded me of the unconditional love of a dog. With these two, it’s a classic case of angel versus devil.

ELLE: Did you know Hunter S Thompson before you acted in films based on his books, like Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas?
JD: Yeah, we were friends before that, and it was a love affair of madness. There’s only a handful of writers who really, really made me laugh out loud and Hunter was one of them. He always called Fear And Loathing his ‘Vegas book’. So he said to me, “Are you interested in doing the Vegas book?” I said, “Wow. Sure. Of course.” There was a moment in New York. He was staying at the Four Seasons and we were in his room and I said, “You know, Hunter, if this goes down and I end up playing you in the film, there is a very good chance that you will hate me for the rest of your life.” And he said, “Well, that’s a chance you’ll have to take, isn’t it. Ha ha.” Evil fucker. So I did it, got his blessing and after the film was edited and all set up, they screened it for Hunter in Aspen. I was flipping. The phone rings, it’s Hunter. I say, “Yeah, do you hate me?” And he said, “Jesus Christ, man, no! It was an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield.” That line just floored me. 

Photograph: Nathaniel Goldberg for Christian Dior Parfums; Compiled by Deepa Menon


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