Attend the tale of Johnny Depp: still Hollywood's most perverse superstar, he has followed up the family-friendly Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a buckets-of-blood saga of cannibalism that is also — gulp! — a musical. That's right, Depp sings for the first time ever onscreen, and critics are warbling his praises for tackling the notoriously difficult score from theater legend Stephen Sondheim. This gripping adaptation of the 1979 Broadway hit is the sixth movie Depp has done with director Tim Burton, for whom he's played misfits from Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood. But a full-out musical is a first for both of them. And the pain-wracked intensity Depp brings to this London barber obsessed with revenge is sparking Oscar talk.
Today Depp meets me in a suite at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. His jeans are ripped, and his black shirt is open at the neck to reveal a GONZO necklace, a tribute to his late friend, Hunter S. Thompson. Depp looks around the tastefully appointed room. "They've really done this place up," he says. "I lived in the Chateau for a while, years ago, and it was dingy but great. It was like they bought the couches from the Ramada Inn that was closed down by the Health Department in 1970." Depp has come a long way from his childhood in Kentucky, the youngest of four children. His parents — a waitress and a city engineer — moved more than twenty times while he was young, settling in Miramar, Florida, when he was seven, and divorcing when he was fifteen. These days, Depp, 44, and his family (French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis and their two children, Lily-Rose, 8, and Jack, 5) split their time between Los Angeles and the South of France.
Conversation with the quick-witted Depp can careen from whether new popes get their genitals cupped to ensure the leader of the Catholic Church is sufficiently male ("I think an elderly man waddles up to you and reaches under your dress") to his out-of-control life before he met Paradis ("I'm a dumb-ass, and I poisoned myself for years. Now I understand things better").
It's been seventeen years since Depp starred in Cry-Baby, the Fifties musical pastiche from John Waters, where his singing voice was dubbed. Since Depp performs his own songs in Sweeney Todd, it seemed like the right time to revisit his musical career and how it improbably led him to become one of the most compelling actors of his generation.
Was your family musical at all?
My mom and my dad weren't particularly musical, no. But I did have an uncle who was a preacher, and he played hillbilly bluegrass guitar. So Sunday church services, it was like, "Hallelujah, brothers and sisters," and then he would start picking "Stepping on the Clouds." That was where I got the bug: watching my uncle play the guitar with his little gospel group, right in front of me.
What was the first record you bought?
I don't know if I bought it, but the first record I remember listening to nonstop, oddly, was Dean Martin, Everybody Loves Somebody. And then Boots Randolph. And then the record album of Blackbeard's Ghost, with Peter Ustinov. I'd never seen the film — I didn't see it until I was in my late thirties. But I knew it verbatim. Slightly ironic. And then I turned that corner into preteen and I remember listening to Frampton Comes Alive! too much. My brother's ten years older than me. He grabbed the needle off the album and there was this horrific noise — wrrrraarrrar. He said, "Listen, man, you're killing me. Try this." And he put on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. And it stirred me. I'd never heard anything like it. I said, "OK, maybe Frampton Comes Alive! is a little tired." Then my brother, very pleased with himself, started turning me on to other things, like the soundtrack to Last Tango in Paris.
Did you wonder why they didn't show the [X-rated] "Tango" on TV?
I was a little kid and it sounded good enough to me. I remember liking the image on the record album, of Brando and Maria Schneider, although I didn't quite understand it. It's a good bit to chew on when you're a kid. Now, thirty-some years later, it's still a pretty good bit to chew on. It's good stuff.
How did listening to music become making music?
When I was twelve, I talked my mom into picking up a Decca electric guitar for me for twenty-five dollars. It had a little blue plush amp. And then, this is horrible, the first thing I did was steal a Mel Bay chord book. I went to this store, stuffed it down my pants and walked out. It had pictures — that's why I needed it so badly, because it was immediate gratification. If I could match those photographs, then I was golden. I conquered it in days. I locked the bedroom door, didn't leave, and taught myself how to play chords. I started learning songs by ear.
What was the first song you could play through?
Every kid with a guitar at that time, the first things that came up were almost always "Smoke on the Water," obviously, and "25 or 6 to 4," by Chicago. But the first song I played all the way through must have been "Stairway to Heaven." I remember getting through the fingerpicking and just cursing Jimmy Page.
What was your first band?
When I was about thirteen, I got together with some other kids in the neighborhood. This one guy had a bass, we knew a guy who had a PA system, we made our own lights. It was really ramshackle and great. We'd play at people's backyard parties. Everything from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to Cheap Trick to Devo — and "Johnny B. Goode" was the closer.
You've got that wistful look in your eyes.
You're thirteen years old and you're playing rock & roll. Loud. Poorly. But somebody's letting you do it in their back yard. And it was absolute perfection. It was freedom. Right off the bat, there was no question: I had found my future.
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