From his hotel-trashing, womanising early days to his current domestic, financial and career stability, Johnny Depp has played out the past 25 years in the spotlight. Ahead of the release of Public Enemies, John Hiscock meets Hollywood's reluctant 'blockbuster boy.' The squeals and screams start even before the guest of honour begins to descend the stairs to the club floor where the partygoers have been awaiting his arrival for an hour. By the time he reaches the bottom step, the crowd has swollen to a heaving mass, everyone trying to get near him, touch him, take his picture and plead for autographs.
Johnny Depp, courteous and obliging, poses for photographs and graciously attempts to answer the questions and comments thrown at him before beating a retreat behind a phalanx of security guards who clear the way for him. So is this is what it's like to be Johnny Depp: unable to venture out in public without instantly drawing an adoring crowd? "It was really weird, wasn't it?" he muses the following day. "Oh man, you don't ever get used to that kind of thing. You just don't. That's why I hardly ever leave my house. I don't go anywhere. I understand what it's about and I appreciate it on a very profound level but there's only so much of that sort of thing a human being can deal with."
We are talking in a suite at Chicago's Peninsula Hotel the morning after the premiere and party for his latest film Public Enemies. Depp, who has been known to be chronically late for interviews - sometimes even days - was two hours late. He arrived, smiling broadly, wearing a grey vintage trilby hat, a grey Armani waistcoat and baggy dark blue slacks. "I can't think of myself in terms of celebrity," he says when I mention the fan fervour he ignited among Chicago's glitterati. "It's just too weird. The idea of it is mortifying. If the choice is between being constantly gawked at and sitting in a chair in a dark room, I prefer the dark room. I have a pretty simple life and when I'm not working I'm just hanging out with my kiddies and my girl. The only time I experience any sort of celebrity hoopla is when I go to a premiere 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."
He is briefly back in the public eye because of Public Enemies, director Michael Mann's story of the audacious gangster John Dillinger (1903-1934), whose bank-robbing exploits captured the imagination of Depression-era America and turned him into a folk hero. Depp stars as Dillinger, and Christian Bale has the role of Melvin Purvis, the square-jawed FBI agent who tracked him. "John Dillinger was that era's rock and roll star," says Depp. "He was a very charismatic man and he lived the way he wanted to and didn't compromise. I feel he was a kind of a Robin Hood because he truly cared about people. He knew time was short and I believe he had found himself and was at peace with the fact that it wasn't going to be a very long ride, but it was going to be a significant ride."
Depp speaks quietly and intelligently and exudes an air of calm tranquillity, fingering the brim of his hat as he talks. Nothing, it seems, would ever bother him, so it's hard to believe that this is a man who, in his younger days, gained a reputation for wrecking hotel rooms and attacking paparazzi. It has been a strange and unpredictable career ride for the equally strange and unpredictable Depp. One of the few actors in Hollywood who genuinely did not crave stardom, he has, despite himself, become one of its most bankable stars. After all, this is the actor who, when he became a reluctant teenage idol through his role in the television series 21 Jump Street, trashed his trailer, caused trouble on the set and did everything possible to free himself from the show. "It was out of control," he recalls. "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, aged 46 and after a 25-year career, that's exactly what he has become, thanks in large part to his role as the decidedly eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy, which won him awards, an Oscar nomination and catapulted him into the ranks of the leading Hollywood money earners.
He received another Oscar nomination for his singing role in Sweeney Todd, and with Public Enemies he turns in another fine acting performance, although the film itself is overlong. Michael Mann has attempted to stick closely to the historical facts in his retelling of the Dillinger legend, and consequently his film is admirable rather than gripping. Undisputedly atmospheric with some compelling images, it tends to drag between its spasmodic eruptions into violent action. Nevertheless, Public Enemies probably ranks as Mann's most significant movie since Heat. It is rare for any of his films to gross much more than $100 million, although this one probably will because of the subject matter and star power. As with much of his work, starting with Miami Vice and Manhunter in the 1980s, the main protagonists are set up as opposite and yet complementary to each other. Depp's Dillinger is cool, sardonic and immaculately dressed, while Christian Bale is the tightly wound federal agent Melvin Purvis who pursues him. One of the highlights of the film is an attack by Purvis and his team on Dillinger and his gang, who are holed up in a remote country lodge. Oddly, Mann has chosen to largely ignore the Great Depression and the circumstances surrounding Dillinger's emergence as a Robin Hood-style bank robber and begins the story with him organising a mass escape of convicts from the Indiana State Penitentiary.
Since Depp was a boy he has been fascinated by the Dillinger legend, partly because he was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, 160 miles from the Indiana farm where Dillinger lived as a teenager and, more significantly, because Depp's grandfather and stepfather operated on the wrong side of the law. "It has to do with my family and my upbringing," he says. "My grandfather, who I was very close to as a kid, had run moonshine into dry counties, kind of like Robert Mitchum in that movie Thunder Road. My stepfather also had been a bit of a rogue and done burglaries and robberies and had spent some time in Stateville Prison in Illinois, where we ended up shooting part of the film. There was some kind of inherent connection I had."
While researching the role, he discovered a mugshot of his stepfather, who died in 2000, in the files at the maximum security prison. "My stepdad was an inspiration to me. I knew about his past and I remember when I was growing up him referring to it as his 'college years'. When I got older and asked him what college, he said it was Statesville Prison. So for me to be able to get that much closer to him now, especially since he's passed on, was huge for me. He did what he did and I'm proud of him for doing what he had to do to survive. And he and my grandfather were great inspirations for me for Dillinger."
Like his ancestors, Depp too has not always been scrupulously honest. "When I was 12 I wanted to learn how to play the guitar and I found a chord book in a shop and I stuffed it down my trousers," he recalls. "And that's how I learnt to play the guitar." It was his guitar playing that first earned him money in show business as the frontman for a band called The Kids that he formed in Florida, where he was then living with his mother and stepfather. When Florida became too small for their ambitions, they changed their name to Six Gun Method and moved to Los Angeles, where Depp began attending casting auditions. He landed a role as the heroine's doomed boyfriend in A Nightmare On Elm Street 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 an extremely reluctant teen idol who was so uncomfortable with his star status that one night he was caught defacing his own image on a billboard. In 1983 he married a musician, Lori Allison, but they divorced two years later, and Depp embarked on a series of highly public, long-term romances with the actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey, Winona Ryder and the model 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 Kate Moss were sharing.
While his personal life was turbulent, his acting career was taking hold. His first truly original character was Edward Scissorhands in 1990, and after that he veered into art-house territory with roles in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream. Predictable only for being unpredictable, he tried his hand at directing and came up with The Brave, a film about a noble but weird character - played, of course, by Depp - who arranged to have himself killed (by Marlon Brando) to raise money to help his impoverished family. It was booed in Cannes, panned by the critics and Depp responded by refusing to release the film in North America.
Throughout the 1990s he built a strong critical and art-house following portraying 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, JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, in Finding Neverland (his first Oscar nomination) and the drug trafficker George Jung in Blow. Gore Verbinksi, who directed him in the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, says: "Johnny has a love of the awkward and of the flawed design of human beings. In life he's burdened with being too good-looking and he's always had to play against it. He always goes against the grain."
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, so it's hard to say goodbye at the end. For me the most difficult thing in the world is to play myself. If I had to get up in front of people I didn't know and make some sort of speech with nothing to hide behind I would turn liquid in seconds."
He credits his ongoing 12-year relationship with the French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis and their two children - Lily-Rose, 10, and seven-year-old Jack - with providing him with a domesticity he had never previously known. They spend their time between homes in the South of France, Los Angeles and, when he really wants to get away from it all, on a 45-acre island he owns in the Caribbean and where he moors his 156ft 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. "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."
His career, too, has provided him with the stimulation and challenges he is continually seeking. Financially secure and with the knowledge that a fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean is in the works, Depp is now looking to other, totally different roles, tending to veer towards projects that offer him a challenge rather than a big salary. He has just finished filming The Rum Diaries in Puerto Rico and is soon to team up with director Tim Burton again for the seventh time, playing the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland. He is also waiting for a script to be completed for a movie about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, in which he wants to play Tonto.
"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." The notion of playing Hamlet has also been in the back of his mind for 12 years, since Marlon Brando suggested he should do it. "Marlon was one of my heroes and best friends and I live with his spirit and have him with me all the time. I think of him often, in every situation. I remember the things he said to me, like, 'Don't do too many movies because we only have so many faces.' Marlon wanted me to escape movies for a while." Then, dropping into a spot-on Brando impersonation, Depp says: 'Take a year off. Go on. Study Shakespeare.'
"So it's one of the things that keep ricocheting around in my head, hearing his voice say that, because he told me that by the time he had got to the point he could do Hamlet it was too late. So he said, 'Do it now; do it while you can.' I'd like to do it, although it's one of the more frightening ideas I've had. But fear is a necessary ingredient in everything you do. I think you should be afraid as an actor to fail miserably. I think you should take that risk."
Somewhat to his surprise, Johnny Depp has reached a point in life he never thought he would be at: 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.
"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. I don't want my kids to be embarrassed by anything I've done." Then, with a tip of his trilby and a wide grin, he saunters out into the hotel lobby to face the waiting crowds. Public Enemies opens on July 30.