Johnny Depp is firmly at the top of Hollywood’s A-list. After surviving what he calls his ‘dumb’ years — filled with public fights, trashed hotel rooms and failed relationships with Winona Ryder, Jennifer Grey and Kate Moss — at the age of 48 he has transformed his image from bad boy into one of devoted family man, with French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis and their two children, and his reputation as offbeat arthouse maverick into bona fide movie star.
In 2003, mega-blockbusting film producer Jerry Bruckheimer took a wild gamble and cast Johnny (he says he ‘had made a grand total of $3.75 at the box office’ at that stage) in the role of flamboyant Captain Jack Sparrow, swaggering anti-hero of the Pirates Of The Caribbean.
And so a cinema icon was born and Johnny ascended from nicely-rubbing-along actor to multi-millionaire Hollywood player.
The Pirates Of The Caribbean movies changed his life, turning him from someone known for edgy roles to one beloved of children. Never more so than when his daughter Lily-Rose was hospitalised during a visit to London in February 2007 and the family kept vigil at her bedside for nine days.
Depp later returned to Great Ormond Street Hospital to thank the staff in person and, dressed as Captain Jack, read stories to the children.
Today, he is dressed in his trademark hippie-gipsy jumble of blue striped waistcoat over a short-sleeved white shirt, jeans and silver jewellery.
He is slightly built, softly spoken and, endearingly, still retains about him something of the questioning air of the student.
He clearly enjoys using the wealth engendered by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to fund his pet projects, such as his latest film, The Rum Diary, based on the book by notorious U.S. journalist and hellraiser Hunter S. Thompson.
You sense his attraction to wild characters stems from his own difficult upbringing when he struggled to make it as a musician. He never set out to be an actor at all.
Born in Kentucky and brought up all over the U.S., he is one of four children of John Christopher Depp Sr, an itinerant civil engineer, and his wife Betty Sue. The Depp marriage was not a happy one.
‘I recall hearing my parents argue and thinking: “Come on, this is torture. Just split!” They stuck it out until I was 15, but I’d seen it coming for years. When they finally did divorce, I thought: “OK, this is the right thing.”
‘My mum got ill after my father left, so my attention was taken up in making sure she was OK. I didn’t have the time until later to mourn that loss of a sense of family, however unhappy.’Family man: Johnny, Vanessa and their children split their time between LA and France
Increasingly, he disappeared into a world of his own. ‘I was 12 when I discovered the guitar, and I don’t remember anything else for years afterwards,’ he says.
‘I talked my mum into buying me a Decca electric guitar for $25, I stole a chord book from a store — I slipped it down my trousers — and then I locked myself in my room, played the guitar and didn’t come out for years. I don’t recall puberty or anything else. Just playing the guitar.’
When he was 16 and living in Florida, he dropped out of school to join a local band, with whom he moved to LA.
He then went into acting — on the advice of Nicolas Cage, who introduced him to his agent. Johnny later returned the favour when he offered to bail out the cash-strapped actor when he was having tax problems.
Fame came quickly when, in 1987, he was cast as a baby-faced police officer posing as a teenager to investigate crimes in high schools and colleges in the TV crime series 21 Jump Street.
The series was a smash hit and, at 24, Johnny found himself a teen idol. But this was not a happy state of affairs for him. ‘If the choice is to be gawked at constantly or to sit in a dark room, I’d choose the dark room,’ he once said.
‘I felt as if I had been turned into a novelty, and it was mortifying.
‘When I was in a social situation, I was nervous and uncomfortable. The only way I could get through it was to drink my guts out! I wasted a lot of years.’
He got the wild days out of his system by 1998 when he accepted an invitation to go to France to make a film with Roman Polanski, The Ninth Gate. The film was less than memorable, but the effect on Johnny was profound.
‘It was the Hotel Costes,’ he says, going all dreamy at the memory. ‘She was wearing a dress with an exposed back and I saw that back and that neck, and then she turned around and I saw those eyes, and — boom!’ He claps his hands dramatically. ‘My life as a single man was done.
‘You have this feeling — I can’t really explain what it was, but I had it when I met her. I saw her across a room and thought: “What’s happening to me?” ’Tribute: Depp has already played a character based on his late friend Hunter S. Thompson in the 1998 movie Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. In The Rum Diary (pictured), the part he takes is based on Thompson's younger days
The woman was Vanessa Paradis, a French singer, model and actress, and a friend of a friend he had arranged to meet for a drink.
For 13 years she has been Johnny’s beloved ‘girl’ and mother to their two adored ‘kiddies’, Lily-Rose, 12, and Jack, nine.
It was Vanessa who insisted he clean up his act, cutting down on the drinking and smoking, taking up exercise and healthy eating. The arrival of children put his life into perspective and required him, at last, to grow up.
‘Though growing up doesn’t mean you have to get serious,’ he says. ‘I’ve known quite a few guys who were in their 70s or 80s, who had an amazing sense of humour and were like children in that way.
‘Marlon Brando was like a teenager, we’d laugh like infants. Vincent Price, too, was like a little kid, one of the funniest people I’ve known.’
His life as a family man is split between homes in Los Angeles, two houses in France, a yacht and a private island in the Caribbean.
He says his home life is filled with joy. ‘I don’t know how it works, but it does all work beautifully. Our family is not conventional — it’s sort of symmetrical and asymmetrical and poetic and funny.
‘I see that the children are happy, healthy and seem to be on the right path in life. And then I look at Vanessa, who’s incredibly supportive, loving and talented in all sorts of ways.
‘She and I have been together for nearly 14 years, and, well, I can hardly believe it. It only seems like yesterday that we met.
‘A glass or two of wine before dinner is my favourite thing, watching the sunset and the kiddies playing nearby. It’s perfection.’
Depp is a much more relaxed character now, enjoying his life and refusing to take himself too seriously.
He can be seen sending himself up next month in an episode of Life’s Too Short with Ricky Gervais and Warwick Davis, the 3ft 6in actor from the Harry Potter films, who he holds upside down over a loo.
Depp was one of the targets of Gervais’s merciless wit when he presented this year’s Golden Globe Awards, joking that some judges were bribed to nominate The Tourist, the film set in Venice in which Depp starred with Angelina Jolie.
‘I thought the joke he made about The Tourist was funny. I thought it was the only joke he made that was funny that night,’ says Depp.
‘I won’t say it was my favourite Golden Globes moment ever. I like the guy and I had a lot of fun appearing on his show.’
Depp has already played a character based on his late friend Hunter S. Thompson in the 1998 movie Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. In The Rum Diary, the part he takes is based on Thompson’s younger days, a reporter chasing women, rum and mischief under the Puerto Rican sun.
Depp is a loyal friend. After Thompson shot himself dead in 2005, Depp funded a suitably over-the-top funeral. He admits this film is his personal tribute to someone he considers ‘a great artist’.
It is said with more than a little sadness. Thompson was a controversial figure. His fans claimed he invented a new form of journalism called Gonzo, where the writer became part of the story, in his case a drug-fuelled, drunken womaniser.
‘What Hunter was doing in the early Seventies was inventing a whole new style of journalism, a whole new voice, and that’s a big, big thing.’
But it’s for the Pirates Of The Caribbean that Depp will be most remembered. He makes no bones about the fact he has the time of his life playing Captain Jack, whom he based on another louche hero, Rolling Stone Keith Richards.
‘It’s fun to have people such as Keith Richards come to the set to play my father,’ he says. ‘On the last film, Stranger Tides, he and I shared a trailer. We just hung around for a few days and talked and had a blast.
‘I actually got up the nerve to ask him about a chord in a song of his that I could never work out. I have a pretty good ear and in the song Make No Mistake there’s one chord I just could not find for years and years.
‘At last I built up the courage to say to Keith: “Let me ask you about that chord in Make No Mistake.” He said: “The fourth chord?” I said: “Yep, exactly.” And he picked up his guitar and showed me the chord.
‘It was one of those moments that will be seared on to my brain for the rest of my life. Keith Richards, you know, showing me a chord. It’ll be a dying image for me.’