SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — It was a rare treat for those who managed tickets to Thursday night’s presentation of the Maltin Modern Master Award to Johnny Depp to kick off the 31st annual Santa Barbara Film Festival’s roll call of fetes this year. After all, the “Black Mass” star never does this kind of thing, a two-hour sit-down chat about his career with plenty of fireside-like anecdotes and even a streak of dead-on impressions of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Donald Trump.
“I’m scared to death,” Depp said at the start of the discussion, moderated by film critic Leonard Maltin, after whom the festival’s highest honor was named last year.
Maltin began by noting that few would have expected the star of television’s “21 Jump Street” to one day immerse himself in the role of ruthless mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. “That’s a journey,” Maltin said of such an unlikely trajectory.
Depp spoke disparagingly about his time on the series, a property that may have seen new, stimulated life at the hands of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in recent years, but was evidence, for Depp, that he was on the wrong path early on.
“Back then you’ve got this idea of this road, and ‘I’m gonna make it mine,'” Depp said. “When you’re confined to a TV series and you have to play one character, it can make you insane. But it didn’t affect me. I got out in time. I didn’t want to be a salesman. I guess is what it was. So I tried to get fired a lot.”
It was when filmmaker John Waters came to him with the script for 1990’s “Cry-Baby” that he finally started to crack the career trajectory he craved. But things really went into high gear when he took a coffee shop meeting with director Tim Burton.
“It was instant,” he said of his connection to the filmmaker, who has directed Depp in films like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” — the latter netting him a best actor Oscar nomination in 2008. “His hair looked like there was an explosion at a hardware store and he was chewing on his spoon. When I walk into a joint, I know that’s the guy I’m talking to — even if it’s not Tim Burton.”
One of the clips presented during the evening was from 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” notable for the on-screen pairing of Depp and another of this year’s awards season staples, Leonardo DiCaprio.
“It was a hard time for me for some reason,” Depp said of working on the film. “It was mostly really miserable. You can’t really tell if the thing you’re feeling at the time is coincidental. Did I have to be that way for the film?”
He continued: “I respect Leo a lot. He worked really hard on that film, researching and showing up ready to work — and I tortured him. I really did. He was always talking about these video games. ‘No, I will not give you a drag from my cigarette while you hide from your mother again, Leo,’ [I would say].”
Much of the conversation progressed that way, Depp methodically, often cheekily making his way through stories with little asides here and there. It made for a unique atmosphere as fans in the crowd often shouted sentiments of solidarity at the stage, a first for the fest. (One female fan even tried to make a “John-ny! John-ny!” chant happen before the show began.)
As the star moved through the early stages of a career that allowed him to invest deeply in his characters, he met an icon who would become a mentor: Marlon Brando. Depp was excited about working with the famed actor in 1994’s “Don Juan DeMarco,” he said, because he “really liked the idea of playing opposite Marlon Brando and being the crazy one.”
Three years later he even directed Brando in a film that played the Cannes Film Festival and opened theatrically overseas but never saw the light of day Stateside because he owns the North American territory rights: 1997’s “The Brave.” What solidified his decision to keep it under lock and key was when, upon hearing of Brando’s death in 2004, he was approached about striking while the iron was hot. “[For him] to be looked upon as a novelty or a freak, I said, ‘No way,” he recalled.
That said, he did strike a handshake covenant with Maltin to screen the film for Santa Barbara Film Festival audiences next year. We’ll see if he makes good on that.
Also in 1997 Depp starred opposite Al Pacino, another in a line of legends with whom he seemed genuinely touched to have had the honor of collaborating, including Vincent Price, Martin Landau, Christopher Lee and many more. He was intimidated to be sharing the screen with another titan, though.
“Marlon just liked to have fun, and so did I, so I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get lucky twice,'” he recalled. “‘This guy’s gonna hand me my ass, because he looks like the kind of guy who’s going to hand someone their ass. Anyone who’s getting their ass handed to them, it’s not Al.'”
“Donnie Brasco” came off without a hitch, though, and left Depp in awe not just of Pacino’s talent, but of his, let’s say, unique disposition. He genuinely thought the “Godfather” icon was certifiably insane, and even took a moment between takes to tell him as much, leading to one of the funnier stories of the evening.
“I told him the certifiable part and, with perfect timing, he said, ‘Oh, yeah. You didn’t know that?'” After a beat, Depp recalled, Pacino delivered another laser-precise nugget. “Hey, you know, so you’re pretty f—cking strange yourself.”
Talk eventually came around to one of Depp’s most iconic performances, as Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. He said it took roughly 37 seconds for him to agree to the role, largely because he had just had a daughter and had spent the better part of three years watching cartoons. He wanted to see if he could translate something of that to a live action performance.
“It had a strong effect on me, how they could get away with stuff and we buy it, where it’s absolutely OK when Wile E. Coyote walks in with a Band-Aid on his head after having a giant rock fall on him,” Depp said. “I don’t know why I said, ‘I’m in,’ but I did. And that really says it all for me.”
From there, he added flourish after flourish to the character. Sparrow was originally written as a swashbuckler who “comes in and saves the day,” Depp said, but he wanted to push the envelope. “‘Come on, folks,'” he remembered saying to the Disney brass. “‘You don’t have to underestimate your audience anymore. Let’s try some stuff.'”
The character’s quirky physicality came to him in the sauna. He decided to depict a seaman who seemed to not quite have his sea legs when on land, suffering something akin to a “heatstroke that didn’t really go away all that quick,” he said. “To be able to keep things like that in my head when I’m going to make a movie for Disney, that’s like infiltrating the enemy camp!”
Sparrow’s reach as an icon continues to astound Depp. He recalled filming Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” at an Illinois prison and walking the block with the warden, only to hear from a far-off cell, “Captain Jack! Get us out of here, man! Kill that bald mother f—cker next to you!”
The role of Captain Jack Sparrow landed him one of his three Oscar nominations to date, but one performance that did not draw recognition from the Academy, however, was his work in “Black Mass.” The film’s director, Scott Cooper, was on hand to present the award, and even he made a passing comment about the omission.
“He loves his fans and I think he does it for his fans,” Cooper said. “He doesn’t do it to win awards. This award is the Modern Master Award, which he surely is, but I think it’s for the most overlooked actor of the year.”