Johnny Depp has a new film out this week. In the opening scene his character, the real-life photographer W Eugene Smith, says, “I’m done. I’m tired. My body is older than I am. I’m always in goddam pain. I can’t trust my f***ing dick any more. Constantly in a foul mood. Even the drugs bore me.”
I ask Depp if Smith’s despair resonated with him. Depp stops. Rocks back and forth. “That’s interesting,” he replies with painful hesitation.
“I didn’t approach playing Smith in that way . . . Although you bring your toolbox to work and use what is available. Having experienced . . . ” He stops again. Depp takes any questions that might refer to his calamitous libel case last year slowly,in a mumbly, croaking drawl. “A surreal five years . . .”
Depp stars as real-life photographer W Eugene Smith in Minamata
In the film Smith needs to revive his reputation. In real life Depp’s task is even more daunting. Thanks to the judgment, everyone can call him a “wife-beater”. Now he must convince a Hollywood still convulsed by #MeToo that he’s not toxic — and that any attempt to rebuild his career is a risk worth taking.
This is Depp’s first interview since the case. We are speaking over Zoom, Depp in his London home, in front of a gold-framed painting. The 58-year-old is wearing a lot of clothes. Earrings. Floppy hat. Sunglasses. Bandana. Scarf. Checked shirt over a T-shirt with an indiscernible slogan. If you saw him on the Tube, you might think he was off to work at the London Dungeon, to play most of the characters.
Depp resumes, talking in broken sentences about the new film, Minamata, in which Smith, via Life magazine, exposes the brutal mercury poisoning of Japanese villagers in the early 1970s.
“How do we do this?” he asks rhetorically, meaning how to speak about the elephant in the Zoom. “Well, there’s no way one can’t recognise the absurdity of the mathematics.” He grins. “If you know what I mean?” No. “Absurdity of media mathematics.” He talks in riddles. “Whatever I’ve gone through, I’ve gone through. But, ultimately, this particular arena of my life has been so absurd . . . ”
Depp leaving the High Court last year
He trails off again. He is holding a big brown roll-up of some sort. “What the people in Minamata dealt with? People who suffered with Covid? A lot of people lost lives. Children sick . . . Ill. Ultimately, in answer to your question? Yeah, you use what you’ve got. But what I’ve been through? That’s like getting scratched by a kitten. Comparatively.”
Last July, I went to the High Court in London to watch Depp on another screen — a video from the socially distanced court where the Hollywood star was losing a libel action against The Sun after it called him a “wife-beater”. It was the grottiest showbiz trial of the century. There were photos of the actor passed out in a foetal slump, socks on show. One lengthy exchange involved faeces. Another urination, inside or outside a house, after a violent night with his ex-wife Amber Heard.
This had all been going on for a while. In 2016 Heard applied for a temporary restraining order against him. The couple had long endured a narcotic, booze-filled, childish relationship, but that does not matter — 12 incidents levelled against Depp were proved, said the judge, and abuse is abuse, regardless of how badly they both behaved. Depp wanted to appeal, but the court said no. Next April in the US he has a $50 million defamation case against Heard relating to an opinion piece she wrote about being the victim of domestic abuse. It may be his last roll of the dice.
In the 1990s Depp was a sensitive heart-throb. Cooler than DiCaprio, edgier than Pitt. In this past year he has been stripped of his status and dignity. On day three of the trial Sasha Wass QC, representing The Sun, asked Depp about daubing a penis on a painting. He could not remember. “That would be quite a big thing, painting a penis on a picture?” Wass asked. “Quite a big thing?” Depp asked.
It was a well-delivered line, but Depp was on show. Performing. Now he is more timid, less lucid. His people say he cannot talk about the court case given the looming US trial, yet it hangs over everything. The director of Minamata, Andrew Levitas, is also on our call — as a pub trivia aside, Levitas is married to the Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins.
The two men clearly get on. “With regards to journalism, it was important for us to put across in the film the power of truth,” Levitas says. Depp nods. “The responsibility of journalists to look after citizens of the world. [Our film] coincided with the moment important publications had to put Raquel Welch on a cover to get enough eyeballs to sell enough ads in order to put something meaningful inside. A result of that is clickbait — it’s destroying the purpose of journalism,” Levitas continues.
“You said it beautifully,” says Depp, one of the world’s most pinned-up men, who built a career on magazine covers. “I couldn’t say it better than that.”
Last month Levitas wrote to MGM, which bought Minamata for the US market but decided not to release it. He accused MGM of being concerned that “the personal issues of an actor in the film could reflect negatively upon them”. Then the letter got really strong. Levitas accused MGM of failing in its “moral obligation” to release the film and said it needed to explain to the victims “why you think an actor’s personal life is more important than their dead children”. He then attached Smith’s photos of ghastly deformities that shocked the world 50 years ago.
“It’s important that the movie gets seen and supported,” Levitas says. “And if I get an inkling it’s not going to be, it’s my responsibility to say so. Where it goes from there? I don’t know. But we have responsibility to these victims . . .”
You can see why he’s passionate. The film is good. MGM bought the film because it is good. Depp is good too. He disappears into the role, far from his more recent pantomime parts. It’s being released worldwide, just not in the actor’s homeland.
Depp, who also produced the film, interrupts. “We looked these people in the eyeballs and promised we would not be exploitative. That the film would be respectful. I believe that we’ve kept our end of the bargain, but those who came in later should also maintain theirs.”
“Some films touch people,” he adds. “And this affects those in Minamata and people who experience similar things.
And for anything . . .” He pauses, as he does. “For Hollywood’s boycott of, erm, me? One man, one actor in an unpleasant and messy situation, over the last number of years?” He trails off. “But, you know, I’m moving towards where I need to go to make all that . . .” Again, he trails off. “To bring things to light.”
The fact, as I think Depp knows, is that for his career, the court that matters is not one of law, but public opinion. On social media, where a lot of minds are made up, Depp’s good reputation will always outweigh the bad, thanks to his frequently blinkered fans.
Outside the High Court, as Heard arrived, I saw Natasha, 30, yell: “Get hit by a truck, Amber!” She is extreme, but the persistent way his fans demand that others think their idol is a saint shows a career revival will happen. After all, most filmgoers do not follow his private life at all. To them, he is Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands. To them, he is a star — and a star can take an awful lot of heat before it burns out.
“They have always been my employers,” Depp says of his fans. “They are all our employers. They buy tickets, merchandise. They made all of those studios rich, but they forgot that a long time ago. I certainly haven’t. I’m proud of these people, because of what they are trying to say, which is the truth. The truth they’re trying to get out since it doesn’t in more mainstream publications. It’s a long road that sometimes gets clunky. Sometimes just plain stupid. But they stayed on the ride with me and it’s for them I will fight. Always, to the end. Whatever it may be.”
Depp will talk like this for ever — about his “truth”. Minamata is the last film Depp has listed on the industry site IMDb, where actors usually have half a dozen in development. So, yes, fans of the actor can see Depp in a new role now — it is a return, but is it a relaunch? The film was finished in 2019, way before last year’s court case. Is that it? His last film? He thinks and looks off to his bookshelves, at biographies of Betjeman and Olivier.
“Er . . . no,” he says, eventually. “No. No. Actually, I look forward to the next few films I make to be my first films, in a way. Because once you’ve . . . Well, look. The way they wrote it in The Wizard of Oz is that when you see behind the curtain, it’s not him. When you see behind the curtain, there’s a whole lot of motherf***ers squished into one spot. All praying that you don’t look at them. And notice them.”
I would ask him to explain, but I am not sure he is an explainer. Watch this space, I guess, but he is already taking a first step back. After we speak, it is announced Depp is getting the coveted Donostia award at the San Sebastian Film Festival next month. Some people are just too famous to fail.