Johnny be Good
In a rare, candid interview, Shereen Low gets up close and personal with big screen legend Johnny Depp, who reveals why he's doing an old friend proud
For every big budget Pirates Of The Caribbean-style blockbuster, Johnny Depp switches it up with a smaller movie that's close to his heart.
With the fourth swashbuckling instalment, On Stranger Tides, still fresh in minds from its May release, one of Hollywood's finest talents has chosen to follow it up with a role that may not be as instantly recognisable as Captain Jack Sparrow or the Mad Hatter, but still has that power to grab attentions on the big screen.
The Rum Diary, adapted from Hunter S Thompson's debut novel, holds a special place in Depp's heart, because he was close friends with the author and gonzo journalist before his suicide in 2005.
"Johnny probably knew Hunter better than anyone else alive," acknowledges the film's director Bruce Robinson.
His intimate connection to the film is probably the reason why Depp - who stars in and co-produces the film - is giving rare one-to-one interviews today. Dressed casually in an unbuttoned checked shirt, with a polo shirt underneath and black jeans, various chains around his neck, blue nail varnish on his fingernails, while a big woolly hat rests on his head, covering his famous barnet.
"It's been a long road, you know," says the 48-year-old, stroking his goatee.
"This whole thing commenced around 1997 with me and Hunter, and here we are in 2011 and it's actually happening."
Depp has been the driving force behind the film, since his discovery of the book "by accident".
"We were in Hunter's house and there were these endless boxes of stuff. I started pulling things out and stumbled upon The Rum Diary," he recalls.
"We started reading it and I told him to publish it. Within about 20 minutes we were already talking about the movie rights and how we should produce this film together."
Tragically, that wasn't to happen with Thompson's passing - but Depp ensured his posthumous presence was felt constantly on set.
"One of my last efforts to salute the man was to continue in our venture, forcing him - even in death - to be a producer," he says, giving a little chuckle.
A chair with Thompson's name on it was on set each day, along with a script cover, ashtray, cigarettes, empty glass and a bottle of Chivas Regal whisky.
"We had to utilise all these elements to recognise Hunter, to salute him," he explains. "Bruce and I would arrive on set every morning, pour the glass full with Chivas Regal, dunk our fingers in, maybe take a sip and get on with the day - just to make sure Hunter was there. And he was - every day, every second, every moment - for us."
In the film loosely based on Thompson's own experiences as a young journalist, Depp plays itinerant journalist Paul Kemp, who decides to swap the hustle and bustle of New York for Puerto Rico, in the film which also stars Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi and Amber Heard.
It's the second time he's portrayed an incarnation of the writer as a young man, following his portrayal of Raoul Duke in 1998's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
"There's more responsibility, but there's also more comfort in playing someone you know," he says.
"The challenge was trying to find the [version of] Hunter before he found the avenue for the rage. It was like playing the same character, only 15 years before. This guy's got something; there's an energy burning underneath, it's just ready to shoot out."
Depp and Thompson's unlikely bond cemented over the years and the actor soon found himself becoming road manager on one of the writer's last book tours.
"The thing I initially connected with, in regard to Hunter's work, was his honesty," he reveals.
"You read about these amazing experiences and you think, 'That's b******t, it's his imagination' but when you've lived with and really spent time with him, as I have on the road, you realise it's all true. You end up living the books."
Depp's life could also read like a book. Now a father-of-two and happily settled with French actress Vanessa Paradis, he had previously been engaged to Winona Ryder and dated Kate Moss.
Following an early role in TV series 21 Jump Street before making the leap to films like Cry-Baby and Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, he readily admits he was "box office poison" for a decade, before he was offered the life-changing role of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Since then, he's switched to being a box office magnet, drawing crowds with performances of Willy Wonka and murderous barber Sweeney Todd, a part which won him his first Golden Globe award.
For someone who has been in the public eye for more than half his life, Depp, who lives with his family at their four homes around the world, including a French vineyard and an island in the Bahamas, should be somewhat comfortable in the spotlight - but isn't - and says he never will be.
Ever the devoted dad, he still takes his kids to school each day when he can, but says he "prefers to stay in the background" so he isn't too embarrassing.
In a recent interview, he compared being photographed to being "raped", comments he has since apologised for after angering anti-sexual violence groups.
"I used the wrong word, but I meant the violation you feel when you're hit by the paparazzi, and all those cameras and people screaming your name," he explains.
"It's a very strange and surreal moment you never get used to. I've been running that gauntlet for more than 25 years now and it's stranger and worse than it ever was."
The release of The Rum Diary marks the fulfilment of Thompson's final two wishes. One was to shoot his cremated ashes out of a cannon, while the other was to get the film made.
"When Hunter made his exit back in 2005, I had to focus my attention on getting his last wish ready - to load him into a bunch of giant bullets and shoot him into the sky out of a 153ft cannon," says Depp.
"His other wish was to get The Rum Diary made and to get it out there. We've done that now and I feel all my commitments to Hunter are done."
And he reckons his friend would give the film his thumbs up: "I believe Hunter would be very proud, yeah. If he'd seen the finished film, he'd be whooping."
Thompson's influence continues to spur Depp on each day.
"If Hunter was here today, we wouldn't be in this room. Most likely, we'd be in a bar and he would be holding court. It would be on his terms," he quips.
"I still have him with me every day. He's there when I plop my noggin down on the pillow at night. I don't get those phone calls at three in the morning suggesting whatever kind of weirdness we could get up to, but I still have him in my head."
EXTRA TIME - JOHNNY DEPP
- John Christopher Depp II was born in Kentucky on June 9, 1963.
- There was little rum drinking on the set of The Rum Diary: "I wish I could say that there was, but Bruce and I had made a pact to take a couple of months off."
- His 12-year-old daughter Lily-Rose is a big fan of Justin Bieber.
- The Rum Diary is released in cinemas on Friday, November 11