Johnny Depp has fond memories of his first machine gun.
He was just a bitty kid growing up in Owensboro, Ky., but somewhere around age 5 or 6, he began shooting .22s, then moved on to .38s, .44s and .45s. And then he got his hands on a relative's Thompson machine gun.
"I butted it up against the tree 'cause it tends to ride up on you," says the 46-year-old actor, who relives the moment, complete with shooting sounds. He begins clapping his hand on the top of his imaginary gun. "My pop came in and grabbed it, so it didn't go anywhere." He laughs.
Guns are certainly a topic of conversation today for Depp, given that the superstar is talking about his new film, "Public Enemies" (opening Friday), the Michael Mann gangster epic in which he plays famed 1930s bank robber John Dillinger. But firearms crop up in other ways too, like in the story about the first time Depp met his longtime friend, the late Hunter Thompson. Depp -- who played the author in the 1998 film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and recently finished work on an adaptation of "The Rum Diary" -- went to Thompson's house in Colorado, where he complimented the writer on a beautiful 12-gauge shotgun hanging on the wall.
"He said, 'Oh, yeah, wanna fire it?' " recalls Depp, relishing the memory. Then Thompson told him to hold on to a couple of small propane tanks. "I got a cigarette hanging in my mouth and he starts handing me these little matchbox-shaped square bits and told me to tape them to the sides of the tanks. I said 'What is this we are taping to the side of this propane tank?' And he said, 'Nitroglycerin.' "
Depp opens his black eyes wide and wears a look of horror. "I chucked my cigarette in the sink!"
Later, he shot the tanks in Thompson's back yard and "there was an 80-foot fireball. I think that was my test," he says, laughing.
It's hard to imagine that Depp wouldn't ace any sort of exam that tests the limits of the free spirit. He's perhaps the most eccentric of all the major male movie stars. Ironically enough -- given his actual background with guns -- he's practically the only one who didn't ascend to Hollywood superstardom with shoot-'em-up roles in action movies. Depp's certainly done more than almost any other actor in Hollywood to expand the on-screen concept of masculinity, bringing "guyliner" to mainstream America well before Adam Lambert ever appeared on "American Idol" as well as a vision of male heterosexuality that still maintains an element of the feminine and tons of real rebelliousness.
He certainly seems his sui-generis self at all times. He arrives for the interview dressed with addled panache in a fitted blue pinstripe vest, with a pressed green bandanna hanging just so out of his jeans pocket. His hair flops to the side like a '20s-style banker who neglected to slick back his locks, and he sports facial scruff where a more traditional beard might have grown. He comes across both courtly and fey, immediately apologizing for his slightly dazed, jet-lagged state.
After finishing "Rum Diary" in Puerto Rico, he flew to L.A. to pick up his "kiddies" (7-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter with longtime love Vanessa Paradis), accompanied them to France where they have a second home, then flew to Chicago for the first "Public Enemies" premiere, and then back to California for a second red-carpet screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room, he recalls this itinerary with a voice that seems almost unrecognizable at first. He both drawls and plucks his words precisely, and it sounds as if the tenor was slightly aerated. It's strange to hear, because in the last decade or so, he's rarely used his actual speaking voice on film.
Depp has appeared in almost 50 movies, but for much of his early career -- the "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" portion -- he seemed like a bohemian artist, intensely wary of the major stardom that could easily be his given his natural on-screen charisma. More recently, he seems to have made peace with his mantle by embracing the medium's mythic and myth-making potential.
Depp hasn't played many ordinary citizens of late, jobbing in suburbia, grinding through everyday existence. He seems to prefer portraying an androgynous eye-lined pirate ("The Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy), the slightly creepy candy impresario with the Prince Valiant haircut ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), the dreamy, gentle creator of Peter Pan ("Finding Neverland"), and the Mad Hatter from the upcoming Tim Burton version of "Alice in Wonderland," a creature with tangerine orange eyebrows, hair that seems to jet propulsively out of his head, spooky lime-green eyes, and a hat that appears constructed out of feathers and lace.
Much of the vivid look of his alter-egos sprouts from Depp's own fertile imagination. "You get these strong images in your head and you can't shake them," he explains. One of the first things he does when preparing for a role is to sketch out the character, or paint him in watercolor, like he did for Willy Wonka, and the Mad Hatter, and even Dillinger, allowing his brain to bounce along its own idiosyncratic metaphorical path. Jack Sparrow's famed coal-rimmed eyes weren't inspired by glam-rock but by Berber nomads who lined their orbs to protect them from the sun.
"I always do [sketches)" says Depp. "Don't know why. Just to kind of get an eyeball on the guy first."
Disney recently released early images from "Alice in Wonderland," and Depp's Hatter, of course, looks more than a little mad (some believe that hatters frequently suffered from mercury poisoning as mercury was once used to cure felt). "The orange-hair thing was very important. I think he was poisoned, very, very poisoned, and it was coming out through his hair, through his fingernails and eyes," says Depp, who later discovered happily that director Burton had done strikingly similar drawings of the character.
Dillinger fits perfectly into Depp's personal canon of larger-than-life rebels and outsiders. The outlaw also holds almost sentimental appeal for the star, whose Kentucky hometown is but three hours from the famed gangster's birthplace in Mooresville, Ind. Dillinger was just a wisecracking punk when he was sentenced to nine years in the penitentiary for his part in a drunken mugging (he didn't have a lawyer); he emerged as a hardened criminal, led a gang on a dozen bank robberies (hauling away $300,000, the equivalent of $4.8 million today), escaped from prison a couple of times, had a vicious shootout with the FBI, and finally went down in a hail of bullets outside a Chicago movie theater.
While researching his role, Depp searched madly for a voice recording of the outlaw but couldn't find one, although a recording of Dillinger's father turned out to be unexpectedly revelatory. "Hearing Dillinger's pop . . . These are guys I know. I knew him then," says Depp, "I wanted to salute my grandfather through Dillinger and salute Dillinger through my grandfather. You know, my grandfather drove a bus by day back in the '30s and ran moonshine by night."
Feeling a bond
Depp says he felt an instant connection to Dillinger, the bold-yet-humble bank robber who lived in old films that Depp watched for hours on his family's black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV.
That was in Florida, where his parents ultimately moved and split up. Young Depp was enthralled with Dillinger as well as such silent-film stars as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Even today, contemporary movies can put him to sleep by the title sequence, but when he sees the old Warner Bros. logos, his heart soars. "I guess the era got me, the '30s, '40s and even the '20s. I was fascinated with the old Bogey movies, with Cagney movies, or even Fred Astaire."
Undeniably, Dillinger the myth remains bigger than Dillinger the man, even though "Public Enemies" is based on Bryan Burrough's nonfiction book about the gangster.
"The title of the film is 'Public Enemies,' but I don't see John Dillinger as an enemy of the public," adds Depp. He points out that Dillinger's prime antagonist, J. Edgar Hoover, wreaked more havoc and misery during his 40-year tenure atop the FBI than Dillinger did during his 18-month crime spree. "I mean, who's the real criminal?" Depp asks. The movie is "bloody and brutal," but it takes place during the height of the Depression, during a wave of foreclosures and bank failures. "People at certain points just had to take up arms, did they not?"
Still, even in these troubled economic times, it's hard to imagine the public romanticizing the illegal activities of a similar outlaw figure. Most people today are craving stability and order, not more chaos. But for Depp, the real difference is the corrosive media attention.
"Today, if there was a Robin Hood-type guy out there -- we are in an age where we sell our privacy to television. Everyone out there has a camera, and a cellphone, and a BlackBerry, and in less then 10 seconds it's on the Internet. So he would have been sold out just like that today," he says, snapping his fingers.
Depp, like most actors, has his issues with the media; reports of purported friction between Mann, known for his maniacal attention to detail, and Depp have been well publicized over the past months. Today, Depp says it was all part of the process.
"He's intense, and as long as you sort of walk into the ring ready for that, it's all fine," Depp explains, noting that Mann "is painting the picture, and that's the one thing that takes a bit of getting used to. I'm definitely not good at just being a color on the palette, you know."
And then, as if he can't quite restrain himself, he adds: "I need a brush in my hand sometimes."
"I will tell you there were scenes and moments it was complete and total rapport, and other times I'm seeing it one way and we're butting heads a little bit," says Mann in a separate interview, but "Johnny said to me the other night, 'When things are wonderful and blissful on set, it's usually not a good movie.' I want actors to have an interpretation."
At some point toward the end of the interview, Depp's publicist arrives to whisk him away.
Depp pauses when asked if there's anything he wants to add, thinks for a moment and offers, "I hope it's good." He's referring to "Public Enemies." He begins to laugh again. "I hear it's good."
The actor hasn't actually seen "Public Enemies." In fact, he hasn't seen most of his recent films -- the last two "Pirate" films, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Sweeney Todd."
"I try not to," he says. "Once you see it, maybe you have to admit it is product or something." He doesn't like the idea of a monetary tag being placed either on himself or the artistic process.
"Having done it, lived it . . . I like the idea of just walking away with the experience."