Depp Perception Fatherhood Has Given Johnny Depp A Whole New Perspective On Life. As An Actor, Though, The Onetime Wild Man Still Likes A Challenge. Case In Point: "Sleepy Hollow."

Posted: November 21, 1999

NEW YORK — Here comes Johnny Depp, a little buzzed, a little starstruck.

"I just had an unbelievable lunch," enthuses the actor, entering a prairie-wide hotel suite, apologetically tardy for his interview.

"It was an interesting group - well, two other people. You'd consider that a group, right? A gaggle. I had lunch with Jon Voight and Michael Gambon. . . . Voight's certainly one of the greats. One of the most gifted, subtle, emotional actors - he's a master. And Gambon, too. So imagine the three of us sitting around, exchanging war stories about various directors. Fun."

Depp stars as Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton's rollicking, off-with-their-heads horror take on Washington Irving's classic legend. Gambon, the Brit best known here for his starring role in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, also appears in the film, which opened everywhere on Friday. Who knows what Voight's doing.

It should come as no surprise that actors in non-working mode - without costumes, makeup and lights shining off their faces - look different than they appear on screen. But the Depp who walks into this room really looks different from Ichabod, who, in Burton's version of the tale, is a bumbling New York detective with a dandy-ish manner, a dapper suit, and a boyish - maybe even girlish - gawkiness.

Here he is, in a gray work shirt, a pouch of tobacco and rolling papers jutting from a breast pocket; blue jeans; paint-splattered work boots; his hair long and messy; a three-day goatee deal happening; his smile - and it's a killer one - illuminated by a couple of gold teeth. Tattoos are visible on his forearms and wrists, though not the famous "Wino Forever," the laser-abridged variant of the "Winona Forever" he had etched onto his arm when he was deeply dating Winona Ryder.

This is Depp's third movie with the giddy, gothically inclined Burton. There was the title role in Edward Scissorhands. (Depp kept the strappy leather suit, the shears: "That was a big event in my life - a huge turning point for me," he says of the 1990 fantasy.) And there was the title role in Ed Wood, Burton's 1994 valentine to the late, anything-but-great Hollywood schlockmeister. Sleepy Hollow marks the first time the Depp-Burton collaboration doesn't involve a guy named Ed.

"He's somebody who likes to transform himself and become different things," the director says about his star. "Also, he doesn't care how he looks. In fact, he wants to look probably worse than you want. He wanted to wear these big prosthetic ears and a big nose to play Ichabod. . . . He has this desire to just really go for it . . . and he's good at finding the right tone, because this [movie has] a tough tone."

Indeed, Sleepy Hollow - a dark, dazzling $70-something-million interpretation of the tale about a Westchester County, N.Y., town terrorized by a headless horseman - mixes old-style horror melodrama with borderline camp; it mixes gruesome decapitations (an R-rated raft of them) with drawing-room drollery; it mixes trippy dreamscapes with quaint village settings.

That weird juxtaposition is part of what Depp finds challenging, and appealing, about working with Burton. "For me," says the actor, "if Tim called up and said, 'Hey, I want to dissect an armchair and film it, would you like to be involved?,' of course, I'm there."

Depp, who is 36 and has 25 films to his credit (his first: a small part in the original Nightmare on Elm Street), was not Paramount Pictures' top choice to play Ichabod. The industry rap on Depp - one he readily acknowledges - is that he's chosen the offbeat and artsy (last year's odious Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, say) over the mainstream and commercially viable. Which means Depp, despite his celebrity, is not a marquee draw. Which means that Sleepy Hollow producer Scott Rudin had to go into Paramount's executive wing and vigorously lobby for his star.

"Maybe I'm a good choice in terms of Tim's world or Scott's world," says Depp, "but for the studio I wouldn't say that I was probably the first choice . . . which makes sense. But they stuck together and got me in there."

It's been widely reported that he turned down the Keanu Reeves role in Speed, the Tom Cruise part in Interview With the Vampire.

"It's hard for me to admit to what [the films] are because I think it would be a little bit unfair to the other actors," demurs Depp. "But it's safe to say there were a number of movies that I shied away from, that I didn't feel were right for me, that went on to achieve monumental, enormous amounts of money and made careers for other actors.

"Which is good for them, you know. They just weren't right for me."

Depp doesn't regret those decisions. "I'm not a businessman," he observes. "What the movie does, the financial outcome of the film, the results of the box office and all that stuff, it's really nothing to do with anything that I do. I mean, I'm not a salesman and I'm not a business guy. I'm just an actor.

"I hope that people go see my movies, and people do, but appealing to the masses - that's not up to me."

These days - and for the rest of his days - Depp is more than "just an actor." He and his girlfriend, French pop singer and film star Vanessa Paradis, are the parents of one Lily-Rose Melody Depp, born in May. He knows it's cliched, but Depp - whose hotel-trashing, Kate Moss-dating exploits were the stuff of dreams for the tabloids and infotainment TV - has found meaning in his life.

"My daughter . . . made me understand, helped me understand, why there is life and why I should live, and why I wake up in the morning and why I want to continue this funny road I'm on," he explains. "I almost feel like I didn't really have a life before. That I didn't really live. There was certainly no reason. I didn't understand why, but now I understand a lot."

Depp and Paradis, who got together last year when he was in Paris working on Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (about a rare-book dealer who falls in with Satan-worshipers, it's due in March), plan to raise their daughter in France.

"Because my business is pretty transient - I'm on the move all the time, it's kind of a gypsy life - she'll end up coming with me a lot, with my girl a lot, and hopefully we'll all be together," he says. "But at the moment it feels best to spend the majority of her upbringing in Europe. I think it's better for her.

"I mean, I do love America," says the Owensboro, Ky., native who got his start in 1987 on the Fox high school police series 21 Jump Street. "But we're at a very dangerous place in this country. Turn on the television and see the news and see that some freak has gone into a Jewish community center in Los Angeles and started gunning down children. That's too much. . . .

"And the news in general: crime crime crime, murder and disaster, heinousness everywhere, Columbine, things like this. No, I don't want that for my daughter. I want her to have a better world, and obviously bad things happen in France, in Europe, but not on this level."

The allocated interview time is winding down. Depp is rolling another cigarette. He's asked about music, whether he's playing much these days. A guitarist since his teen days in Florida, he's toured with bands, and recorded with Oasis.

Depp's eyes - brown and beautiful - light up. A couple of years ago, when he was working on his directorial bow, The Brave (the picture was savaged at Cannes, and is still without a U.S. distributor), he hired Iggy Pop - raging punk icon of the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s - to compose the score.

"We recorded a song together," reports Depp, "and I was just really flattered to hear that it was released. It's the B-side to one of his new releases. I have a songwriting credit with Iggy!"

And so Depp grins, flashing those gold incisors again. "That's something I can say to my grandkids and be really proud of."

Steven Rea's e-mail address is

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