Established in 1995, the Modern Master Award, the highest honor presented by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), was created to honor an individual who has enriched our culture through accomplishments in the motion picture industry. It was then renamed the Maltin Modern Master Award in 2015, in honor of long-time SBIFF moderator and renowned film critic Leonard Maltin, and this year, it was presented to actor Johnny Depp for his work as James “Whitey” Bulger in the crime drama Black Mass.
To celebrate, Depp joined Maltin on stage at the Arlington Theatre to discuss the journey his career has taken him on, from television star on 21 Jump Street to acclaimed film icon. During the two-hour presentation, clips from many of Depp’s films were shown while the actor talked in-depth about everything from trying to get fired from TV to working with his heroes to his relationship with Tim Burton to singing the music of Stephen Sondheim to transforming for his characters. The conversation is fascinating, funny and insightful, and definitely worth checking out.
Question: Is it bizarre to watch a reel of all the films that you’ve done?
JOHNNY DEPP: It’s ludicrous! I don’t mean this in a horrible way, but after having been confined to a television series – and it’s a luxury job – where you can’t play anything but one particular character for nine months out of the year, it will make you insane. It didn’t affect me. I got out quick enough.
Early on, you had been mostly doing music and not pursuing acting.
DEPP: Just to pay the rent.
And then, you found yourself on 21 Jump Street and an explosion happened.
DEPP: Yeah, and it was a very uncomfortable moment for me. I literally went from being unable to play my rent to being on a plane the next day, being paid peanuts compared to today, but it was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. And then, I realized that it was great to have a job, but it didn’t have anything remotely to do with what I was striving for, so why was I doing it? If you’re thinking of it like a musician – and I can only think of it like a musician – you hear a song and you respond to it, or you write a song and people respond to it or don’t. It’s like walking into a study with a bunch of really talented musicians who are incredibly creative people and going, “Okay, make a hit. I’ll be back in an hour.” “By the way, it would have been good, if you hadn’t said that.” I was never good at being a salesman, so I tried to get fired, a lot. My agent, Tracey [Jacobs at UTA] of nearly 30 years, poor thing, used to get these calls, “Hi, Tracey, we’ve had to shut the set down for today.” “Why? What’s happened?” “Well, he wouldn’t take that turban off.” And I wouldn’t. The best question for anything is, why?
When you’re on a TV show and are just a cog in the big machine, they don’t want you asking why.
DEPP: No. I had a meeting with Stephen Cannell. Bless him, he was a sweet man. He was a pretty sweet man. They had all figured out that I was trying to get fired. I wore a George Washington wig, and I developed an obsession with peanut butter for my character that I thought might worry audience members, and then they’d fire me. Stephen Cannell said to me, “Let me tell you something: Alfred Hitchcock said there are three things that are most important to succeeding in this business – script, script and script.” I felt like I’d heard that somewhere. I wasn’t into the lunchbox and thermos ski slope, and that’s where I was going. At that time, there was no real great transition from television to film. Michael J. Fox had done it, at that time. My beef was with essentially being a product. I didn’t want to be a product, so I tried to get fired, but they didn’t fire me, which was weird.
Were you and Leonardo DiCaprio well-behaved on the set of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
DEPP: Leo might have been. I wasn’t. It was a hard time for me, that film, for some reason. I don’t know why. It was one of those moments that you have, but an actor shouldn’t have often, where you can’t really tell if the thing you’re living through or feeling, at the time, is coincidental or if somehow you’ve made some prior plans without really knowing anything about it, in terms of deviating. I still don’t know. It was a great time, in a lot of ways, but it was mostly really miserable. Did I have to be that way for the film, and somehow it just happened? Did I step into that to get into a mood, at the time?
Do you run into Leo DiCaprio, at all?
DEPP: I do. He’s grown, a lot. I respect Leo, a lot. He worked really hard on that film and spent a lot of time researching. And then, he came to set and he was ready to work hard. All of his ducks were in a row. And I tortured him. I really did. I actually did. He was always talking about these video games, and I was in a dark period and wasn’t in the mood. “I will not give you a drag of my cigarette while you hide from your mother again, Leo.”
When did you first meet Tim Burton, and did you guys hit it off, right away?
DEPP: That’s a very interesting thing, the Tim thing. When Edward Scissorhands came about, I was still on 21 Jump Street. So, when the offer came up to have a meeting with Tim Burton, my agent, Tracey, I told her that I wasn’t going to have the meeting. I said, “Look, I know everyone in Hollywood is after this role. I know that I’m a TV actor and I’m not going to get it, so I’m not going to go through that mess.” Man, she hit notes that I’ve never heard before. I mean, really. I wish I’d had a decibel meter near me. She just refused and said, “No, you are going to meet Tim Burton.” So, I relented. When I met Tim, it was instant. I looked around this coffee shop and I didn’t know what he looked like, but I knew that when I got to the guy who’s hair had looked like there was an explosion at a hardware store and he was chewing on his coffee spoon, I thought, “I know that’s that guy I’m talking to, for sure. Even if it’s not Tim Burton.” But, it happened to be. We had this great meeting where we spent three hours, yakking and talking about everything. We have similar taste in the great old monster movies and the Hammer films. We understood each other very, very well. When I got the job, I was sure that I wasn’t going to get the job because Tom Cruise almost got the job. You’re going to have to talk to somebody else for that story, but there is some really funny shit to be garnered from that. Ask around. So, I just thought I wasn’t going to do Scissorhands, but I met Tim, it went great, we met for three hours and it was killer. Even after that, I was like, “They’re not gonna do it.” And then, I got a call about a month later that said, “You’re Edward Scissorhands.”
How did meeting John Waters compare?
DEPP: When John Waters came around with Cry-Baby, I knew. I hadn’t done any of the movies they’d wanted me to. One particular agent said, “Here’s what you’ve gotta do. You’ve gotta carry the gun, and you’ve gotta fuck the girl.” I was stupefied like, “But that’s what I do at home. Why would I do that at work? Unless they’re going to pay me at home, this is a different deal, altogether.” [John Waters] is magnificent, as is any man who can make an idea for a film based on a name. He writes the screenplay and shoots the whole thing, but what does he get at the end of the film, no matter how it does at the box office? John Waters wrote a film called Pecker, and what did John want to hear? That voice of the guy going, “John Waters’ Pecker, coming soon.” That’s art.
What was the appeal of Don Juan DeMarco?
DEPP: First of all, I really loved the idea of playing opposite Marlon Brando and being the crazy one. How many times does that job come around? He was so charming – charming on screen, for sure, but off screen, as well. While they’d be setting up shots, suddenly, there were 17 make-up chicks, just listening to Marlon telling these amazing stories that were probably lies. He was a fascinating individual. I learned a lot from him. They asked me who should play the doctor. They had other actors in mind, but I said, “Marlon Brando.” They laughed, and I didn’t. They said, “He’ll never do it. He won’t.” I was in New York, at the time, and I went back to my hotel and was reading the messages. I saw this thing that said, “Marlon Brando called at 9:37,” and he left his number. I was like, “None of this shit is happening. I’m nine months into a deep coma and this is some weird shit. I’d really like it to happen, but it’s not going to happen.” So, I called him and he was great. He was the absolute opposite of everything they told me he was going to be, which is that he was a testy guy who wants to know that he’s in control of everything. But, that’s not who Marlon was. No matter what he did, the most important thing on his mind was justice. I’ve worked with a lot of people, but I’ve never seen anybody step out of their car when they get to work in the morning, in his kimono, of course, because I’m not going to twist this thing around – there were kimonos involved and there will always be kimonos involved – and he would walk through 75 crew members and say hi and tell them jokes, kick them in the nuts, pull their hair and play jokes on them. That was a real eye-opener. They tell you to be careful because maybe you don’t want to meet your heroes. I’ve met pretty much every one, and I’ve never been let down, especially by him. He was solid. I’m very lucky. He was a lot of things to me.
When you worked with Al Pacino on Donnie Brasco, did it bring up your game?
DEPP: You’re looking at each and every potential corner for an air bubble to escape. Absolutely! You’re on the best of your game. I’d worked with Marlon a couple of times, and he was a practical joker. He was far more interested in getting jokes out than getting the words out. We laughed all the time. You should have fun, while you’re doing this thing. If you’re not, what’s the point? Marlon showed me that you could do the work and not have to shut yourself off from people or your family. There are these mythic unicorn-y tales of method acting, but Marlon wanted to have a good time. So, here I was going to work with Pacino thinking, “I’m not going to get lucky twice. There’s no way. This guy is going to hand me my ass.” He looks like the kind of guy who’s going to hand you your ass. It’s Al Pacino. If anybody is getting their ass handed to them, it’s not Al. It’s coming [toward you]. I’m psychotic. I can’t stand not being able to joke around on set, so I have to. So, I started pulling gags on Al. That was the moment I realized that he was absolutely out of his mind. I mean that he’s certifiably insane. I wouldn’t spend a night in a room where he’s at. If we could watch The Godfather II together, I might. We were about three weeks into shooting and we were on the docks in Brooklyn, and he was sitting there, just staring out. I was standing there smoking a cigarette and I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I said, “Here’s the funny thing, Al. The one thing that I never could have expected or imagined is that you’re actually certifiably insane.” I felt good for saying it. He gave probably one of the most perfect, comedic responses. He just looked at me and he went, “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! You didn’t know that?” I said, “No, I didn’t, actually.” And then, with the most perfect execution of timing, he went, “You know something? You’re pretty fucking strange yourself.” When you’re lucky enough to have an experience like that, that’s what you get to have tasered onto your brain.
How did you first learn about Pirates of the Caribbean, how was the character of Jack Sparrow initially described to you, and what was your response?
DEPP: It probably lasted about 37 seconds. My agent, Tracey, and I had a meeting with some of the upper echelon at Disney because there was a film that they offered me, but I didn’t think it was right for me. I had just had a daughter, who was three or three-and-half years old, and I had been watching nothing but cartoons. That’s really it. There was no YouTube. You’re in France and you’re raising a kid, so you break out the Tex Avery. I just watched cartoons for three years, and that had a strong affect on me. Why can they get away with anything and we buy it? From five years old to 85 years old, we accept it, and not only do we accept it, we take it in as facts because we want to see the next scene. It’s absolutely fine when Wile E. Coyote walks in with a band-aid on his head, after a 3,000-pound rock is dropped on him. That is what Ed Wood meant by the suspension of disbelief. So, for me, the question was, how can one take a live-action performance and put it in the parameter of one of those cartoons? How much can you get away with? What is that character? Basically, the 37 seconds was that they talked about making a movie about one of their other rides and I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about it. I’m not going to say who did what, but I didn’t make The Country Bear Jamboree. No matter what happens, I know I didn’t do that. I started hearing songs from The Country Bear Jamboree in my head, which no one should do. And then, suddenly, Dick Cook, who was at Disney at the time, said, “Are you familiar with our ride, Pirates of the Caribbean?” I said, “Yeah, sure, I loved it. When I was a kid, it was that and the Haunted Mansion for me.” That wasn’t the other one they had offered me. I swear, it wasn’t. So anyway, he said, “What do you think about Pirates of the Caribbean?” And I just said, “I’m in!” It just flew out. And then, I felt this energy swat me from afar, and it was my agent, Tracey. She was looking at me with eyes that were bleeding, and there were veins and muscles in her neck, and the first thing she said to me when we left the office was, “What the fuck did you do?!” I don’t know why I said, “I’m in!,” but I did. That really says it all for me. You can go out and try to do the best work that you can do within the context of what that is, but it’s really gotta be about the work and what you’re focusing on.
Jack Sparrow is such a wonderfully vivid and funny character. How did you get to what we see on the screen?
DEPP: This is going to sound very dumb, and I’m used to that, but I had been thinking a lot about the character. Originally, he was written as a swashbuckler who comes in and saves the day. I had watched Mowgli and Baloo in the ‘60s. You don’t have to underestimate your audience anymore. They’d actually like to laugh a little bit. So, the character came to me and once it’s got its grips in you, there’s nowhere to go. That probably sounded dumb, and this will sound even dumber, but the character just came to life in the sauna. There were no grown-up cheerleaders or weird Barbie antics, but I was in the sauna. I decided to go into a very hot place and stay in there as long as I could because it seemed to me that, if the guy was at sea, it was important for him to get his sea legs. Once you get on the ship, everything is fine. Once you get on land, everything is not so fine. I toyed with the idea of what it might be like to live with some species of heatstroke that maybe didn’t go away all that quickly. He’s a pirate, which is about rum, sodomy and the lash, isn’t it? So, to be able to keep things like that in my head, when I’m going to do a film for Disney, I’d been through the ringer. That was like infiltrating the enemy camp. I wasn’t able to stop smiling. So, that’s how the character was born, and that’s how I almost got fired.
You’ve played many roles in your career, but you only directed one time, with The Brave. The film premiered at Cannes, but then was never released in the States. Why is that?
DEPP: I hold onto the North American rights. We showed the film at the Cannes Film Festival and Iggy Pop, one of my all-time heroes, did the soundtrack to the film. It was amazing. We showed the film at Cannes. They were releasing the film in other countries and I had no say over what was going on, so I decided to hold onto it and never release it. You can get copies, here and there, that have strange subtitles, but I never released it. In 2004, I think I was doing The Libertine and I got a call that said, “Marlon [Brando] has passed away.” What do you do? You’ve lost someone who was not only a hero, a father, a mentor, a brother and a friend, but he meant a lot of things to me and he was gone. The next day, my agent, Tracey, got a call and they said, “Are you interested in releasing The Brave now?” And I said, “No. Why?” “Man, if there was ever a good time to do it, it’s now.” Just after Marlon passed away. So, at that point, I went, “You know what, no,” and I locked the door. I think every single person would feel the same way, if someone you cared about was being put in the position, yet again, even after their gone, to be exploited and looked upon as a freak, or as some novelty. So, that was it. I’m not a director, and I knew I wasn’t then, but I felt like I knew what needed to be done to make that film. They said, “You get $2 million to make the film, if you’re not in it. If you are in it, you get $5 million to make the film.” There was no way to make the thing for $2 million, so I made it for $5 million. And then, it turned out there was no way to make the thing for $5 million. That’s when it got weird. I really love the experience of moving things around, in terms of being a director. What I hated was having to be in it. They’re two very opposing things. An actor needs to be not remotely anywhere close to in control, and a filmmaker has to be totally in control. An actor shouldn’t have to leave the set and go home and write a bunch of stuff for a bunch of other people, the next day. I found it very unpleasant. But, I’m very proud of the film. More than anything, I’m very proud of Marlon’s work. I watch the guy deliver a performance as great as anything he did in Last Tango in Paris. I watched him care, I watched him dig down, and I watched him give to me. I was very lucky, in that way.
You met your current wife, Amber Heard, on The Rum Diary, and you married her, which was a good perk.
DEPP: A few things happened between meeting, initially, and getting married. Bruce Robinson, who should do every movie that there is – Withnail & I is one of the most brilliant pieces of cinema – had been in self-imposed exile from Hollywood and I wrenched him out of his comfy life and brought him back into filmmaking, and he hates me for it. Bruce called me one day and said, “I met this one actress and I met this other actress, but I’m thinking of this one. I’m not sure what we should do. Should we test?” And I said, “Why don’t I just meet with her and see how we communicate?” We communicated pretty well and we did the film. She was in my head, so I tracked her down. We tracked each other down, actually accidentally. It was on the first day of press for The Rum Diary. And then, we got married that very day. No. I did marry her. It’s amazing. I have a ring and everything.
You’ve sung in two Stephen Sondheim musicals on film, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. How was it to work with him on Into the Woods?
DEPP: I think he slightly recognized me from Sweeney Todd and thought, “Come on, Tim Burton’s not anywhere near here, is he?” Stephen Sondheim is an absolute perfectionist, but he’s earned the right [to correct you]. I was so lucky to be able to do it and pull it off, just. With Into the Woods, I thought Sondheim would never want to see me again, and I had the audacity to say, “This Big Bad Wolf thing feels like it should be Tex Avery. I think we need a zoot suit. Do you think Sondheim would consider swinging this tune up a bit?” And amazingly, he did. My experience with Sondheim has been nothing but glorious, especially for a guy who doesn’t sing.
Did you have any hesitation about taking on Whitey Bulger for Black Mass?
DEPP: No, not at all. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a make-up artist, Joel Harlow, who you can throw anything at. I said, “Joel, I need to go to the London eye with my children and I want to look like a roadie from Lynyrd Skynyrd.” It was the first time I got to take my kids to the London eye with no one looking at me like I was Johnny Depp. They did look at me like I was some kind of sicko walking around with beautiful kids, but I had a perfect disguise. Joel has done amazing work, over the years. We pushed and tested the make-up five or six times, until we both felt like it was right. So, I had no hesitation, whatsoever. I knew Joel would take me there, and then everything else would fall in. When you take on the idea of playing someone like Jimmy Bulger, it’s a radically different process because you’re going into make-up. The only way you can do it is to come out of make-up looking like the guy. If you don’t look like the guy, it’s going to bug you, all day. I was very lucky to have an incredibly gifted artistic team around me, make-up wise, because once you’re in that and the polyester, flammable fashions, it does become a suit of armor.
When you’re deep in a role, especially a really intense one, can you turn it off at night?
DEPP: Yeah. I’m all for whatever it takes to get wherever you need to get with a character, as long as you don’t wipe it on me. There were so many great teachers that had so much to offer. The idea of being rigid, why would you do that? People have their things, but why be rigid with any education when you can take things from here and take things from there? One of my favorite things I’ve ever heard about, Martin Landau was telling me about this guy in Lee Strasberg’s class who needed to find a way to a very explosive place. Strasberg called, “Action!,” he did the scene and he just crumbled and said, “I can’t do it!” Strasberg said, “Just do it. Just focus and do it.” The guy did it three more times and said, “I can’t do it!” Strasberg said, “Well, then just fucking lie!” That’s always an option. It’s just about getting to where you need to get and trying not to get anything on anybody in the process.