With 27 years in Hollywood under his belt and the fourth of what was to be only one Pirates of the Caribbean film now in cinemas, the former bad boy Johnny Depp tells John Hiscock that he just wants to be a good dad to his two children and become pals with his astonishing range of characters
Johnny Depp is giving me a rundown of the tattoos that adorn his arms. "Every one has a different meaning and explains a certain point in my life," he says. "My kids are here... Lily-Rose," he says, pointing to her name. "I have Jack here... my grandfather... my mom - she was a waitress at the Holiday Inn in Kentucky so I got her waitress picture tattooed."
There are plenty more because he has been accumulating body art ever since he had the profile of a Native American tattooed on his right bicep when he was 17.
"When I started getting them they were verboten in Hollywood at that time," he says. "They're all just little reminders... pieces of the puzzle. I look at them like little snippets of the journey."
And what a journey it has been for the 47-year-old who began his acting career as a reluctant teenage idol and is now one of Hollywood's highest earners and most respected actors. The young man who trashed hotel rooms, attacked photographers and caused as much trouble as he could on the set of a television series he didn't want to be in has transformed himself into a gentle, erudite and highly intelligent man constantly seeking new challenges and experiences.
Notorious for being hours - sometimes even days - late for interviews and accustomed to apologising, he is exactly on time for our appointment in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, saying with a grin as he enters the room: "Sorry I'm early."
The long hair he grew for his Captain Jack Sparrow role in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has gone and his hair is cut short for his next role as a vampire in the horror film Dark Shadows. He wears thick-rimmed glasses and a neatly trimmed moustache and goatee. Usually an eccentric and flamboyant dresser, today he is almost conservative, in blue jeans, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a grey waistcoat with a blue handkerchief tucked into the top pocket and a blue scarf hanging from his waistband.
"Somebody said something recently that really made me laugh," he recalls. "They said Johnny Depp should not be allowed to dress himself anymore and it made me so happy. I thought: 'Maybe they're right; maybe I ought to get someone in to get me dressed every day.'" He laughs at the thought.
It is rare for Depp to leave the seclusion of his homes or film sets to venture out into the world and run the risk of being mobbed by adoring fans, something he still finds impossible to come to terms with.
"I can't think of myself in terms of celebrity," he says. "It's just too weird and the idea of it is mortifying. I have a pretty simple life and when I'm not working I'm just hanging out with my kiddies and my girl and the only time I experience any sort of celebrity hoopla is when I go to a première or go out to support my film or something like that. It's so far removed from anything that I experience on a day-to-day basis."
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the fourth in the series of Disney blockbusters featuring the adventures of Sparrow, the fey and peculiar sea captain who has won Depp an Oscar nomination and shot him to the top of Hollywood's A-list.
Pirates was conceived as just one film, but after the runaway success of the first one, Disney hurriedly commissioned another, and then another. Now, with the fourth, the producers have introduced new characters and new faces - Penelope Cruz plays the pirate Angelica, Ian McShane is the villainous Blackbeard and the newcomer Sam Claflin and the French actress Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey provide a new romance.
"When I saw the script for the first Pirates of the Caribbean I started getting these waves of ideas about what Captain Jack could be; it's a rare thing and what's even more rare is when you become aware that it's a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Only now it's four in a lifetime," says Depp. "Because it wasn't initially conceived as a trilogy, the second and third films meant the audience had to connect all the dots, which was difficult and confusing. So when we were planning this fourth one, one of the things I said early on was that we owed it to the audience to not go into this with various subplots that are going to take away the thrust of the story."
Depp speaks quietly and intelligently and exudes tranquility, so it's hard to believe that this is a man who, in his younger days, gained a reputation for being "difficult" and something of a hell-raiser.
He began his career as a guitarist and earned his first money in show business as the frontman for a band called The Kids that he formed in the US state of Florida, where he was then living with his mother and stepfather. When Florida became too small for the band's ambitions, they changed their name to Six Gun Method and moved to Los Angeles, where Depp began attending auditions while working at a telemarketing company selling pens to offices. He landed a role as the heroine's doomed boyfriend in 1984, followed by other small parts.
His breakthrough came when he was cast as one of a unit of undercover cops working in schools in the television series 21 Jump Street. He became an overnight sensation and a reluctant teen idol who was so uncomfortable with his unwanted star status that one night he was caught defacing his own image on a billboard. He trashed his trailer, caused trouble on the set and did everything possible to free himself from the show.
"It was out of control," he says. "They created this image, this monster, and they were selling it to the world."
Whenever a star-making role beckoned, he turned it down: Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (it went to Tom Cruise), Jack in Speed (Keanu Reeves) and the Brad Pitt role in Legends of the Fall. His explanation: "I'm not Blockbuster Boy."
But now, after an almost 30-year career and a circuitous route, that's what he is. And no one is more surprised than Depp himself that he has reached a point in life he never thought possible: successful, bankable, a major star and content with his lot.
"I never knew where I was going to go," he muses. "I never really thought about where any of it was going. I only knew that, regardless of success or failure, I always wanted to some day be able to look back and go: 'I did all right. I'm proud of what I did. I didn't sell out.' I've never felt particularly ambitious or driven, that's for sure, although I like to create stuff, whether it's a little doodle, a drawing, a small painting or a movie or a piece of music, so I suppose I'm driven by that.
"Everything I've done has felt very natural and it's happened because it's happened. I've never done anything because I thought it would move my career forward or anything like that."
Once a rebellious drifter, he has a settled family life with his girlfriend of 14 years, the French singer-songwriter Vanessa Paradis, and their two children, Lily-Rose, 11, and Jack, nine, and he credits them with providing him a domesticity had never known before.
"She's really amazing," he says of Paradis, "because she delivered those two beautiful children and she has the most difficult job out of both of us. First of all she puts up with me, which I can imagine is not easy most of the time because I'm a little scattered now and again, but mostly she's inspiring. She's been a real leveller to me. The family is miraculous; the kids are a pure joy and it just couldn't be better. Everything I've wanted out of life, I've got. My kids live a super normal life; they go to school and play with their friends. OK, so they get to go to Disneyland a little more often than other kids, but that's part of the gig."
When he is not on a film set the family spends their time between homes in the south of France, Los Angeles and, when they really want to get away from it all, on a 45-acre island Depp owns in the Caribbean, where he moors his 48-metre motor yacht.
"The island can be perceived as a luxury and it certainly is, but it provides me with simplicity and somewhere I can go where no one is looking at me or pointing a camera or a finger at me," he says. "I can just be: that's the importance of it. When we're there we do absolutely nothing. My kiddies don't have any toys there and they build little houses out of shells. Like everything else in my life, it wasn't planned, it just kind of happened.
"After I had done the first Pirates movie and Secret Window I went on vacation to escape with my kiddies and my girl and someone said that there was an island down the road for sale. I said: 'Oh well, let's go see it.' I looked at it, I walked on it and I was done. It had to be. So I immediately called my business manager and said 'Please', and that was it." He laughs. "It came at the perfect moment for me.
"And the house in the south of France is the first place I've ever had that I can actually call home; a place where I know that in 50 years my kids are going to have their kids there.
"The money I earn is freedom for me in my world. It's the freedom to be able to live my life how I want, to make sure everybody's taken care of, not just in terms of the kids and family, but extended family."
Hard to believe this is the same Johnny Depp who was married in 1983 to a musician, Lori Allison, divorced two years later and then embarked on a series of public romances with the actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder and the supermodel Kate Moss. He was arrested in 1994 when what he simply described as "a bad night" resulted in the destruction of furniture in a New York hotel suite he and Moss were sharing. He was later arrested in London for a scuffle with a photographer he thought had pushed the pregnant Paradis.
While his personal life was turbulent, his acting career was taking hold. His first truly original character was the title role in Edward Scissorhands in 1990, and he built a strong critical following by portraying societal outsiders and real-life characters such as the cross-dressing film director Ed Wood, the drug-addled writer Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Peter Pan author JM Barrie in Finding Neverland (earning him an Oscar nomination) and the drug trafficker George Jung in Blow.
He spent more than a decade on the fringes of Hollywood as the favourite of independent directors such as Tim Burton (they have worked together on seven films) and Lasse Hallström, until his originality and penchant for extreme characterisations found their outlet with Captain Jack (another Oscar nomination), Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd (another Oscar nomination) and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.
Depp's involvement in his roles is so deep that he finds it difficult to be himself.
"You get possessed by the characters you play," he says. "They inhabit your being. All the characters I've played, I've got to know and like and become pals with, and it's a very strange thing because it's hard to say goodbye at the end. You feel you've lost a piece of yourself."
Financially secure, Depp is constantly on the lookout for roles that offer him challenges and allow him free rein to experiment.
"I like the idea of experimenting with all different sorts of genre," he says. "Being comfortable with what you're doing is not good because you get lazy. An actor's main responsibility is never to bore an audience and to give them something new that they don't expect each time out of the gate, so that's always something of a challenge. Marlon Brando said to me all those years ago: "You have to slow down, kid, because we only have so many faces in our pocket,' which I thought was a brilliant thing to say and he was absolutely right."
He has The Rum Diaries awaiting release and after his turn as a vampire in Dark Shadows he will play Tonto, the Lone Ranger's faithful sidekick in a new version of the Western legend. Ironically, he also plans to star in a film version of 21 Jump Street, based on the television series he was so desperate to leave 20 years ago.
Unlike most actors, he has no great ambition to leave a legacy for film historians and future critics to pore over.
"I'm just an actor, and if I can leave something behind that my kids will be proud of, then that's what I want," he says. "I don't want my kids to be embarrassed by anything I've done. What really matters to me is if I can be a good man and a good dad and that's it for me. In the interim, in the little journey of life if I can do some interesting work or something that's kind of outside what others are doing, then boy, I'm blessed."
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opened in UAE cinemas on Thursday.
The Depp file
BORN June 9, 1963, Owensboro, Kentucky
FAMILY Father John, a civil engineer; mother Betty Sue, a waitress
SCHOOLING Miramar High School, Miramar, Florida
FIRST KISS First girlfriend, Meredith
HEROES Vincent van Gogh, John Lennon, Bob Dylan
LISTENING TO Old Mississippi blues
FIRST JOB Telemarketer for pens sold to offices, earning $100 a week
WORST JOB Telemarketer for pens sold to offices, earning $100 a week
BIGGEST REGRET Being misquoted as calling the United States "a dumb puppy"
CAN'T BE WITHOUT A quiet and peaceful place to retreat to
SECRET PLEASURE Playing the guitar