I’ve been conducting tributes at the
Santa Barbara International Film Festival for 25 years. Each guest is different
(from Clint Eastwood to Cate Blanchett) but spending two hours with them
onstage, reviewing their career with an array of film clips, has been
rewarding—for me and the audience. My goal is to make the guest feel
comfortable so our “interview” becomes more of a conversation. This
year, I was a bit more nervous than usual, knowing that honoree Johnny Depp
refuses to watch himself on screen and isn’t crazy about doing interviews.
Then Johnny arrived and greeted me warmly,
taking time to kiss my wife and daughter. As we stood backstage he said,
“You know, I tend to be irreverent in this kind of situation.” I smiled and said, “Go for it! Have
fun.” And he did.
This made my job more challenging than
usual—at one point when he drifted off onto a tangent I actually said,
“We’d like to hear the end of that sentence”—but gave us all some
insights into this gifted actor’s way of thinking. A key turning point for him
was working with Marlon Brando for the first time, on Don Juan DeMarco—a casting coup for which Johnny had to campaign.
When production began, he was struck by how Brando constantly joked with the
crew and made the shooting day as much fun as possible. He has never forgotten
that lesson. (And I have never forgotten that film. It remains one of my
He wound up directing Brando in The Brave (his only such venture behind
the camera) which played at the Cannes Film Festival and has never been
released in North America. Depp says he’s proud of the film and especially
Brando’s performance, which he rates alongside Last Tango in Paris. When I asked if and when we could get to see
it, he smiled impishly and offered to text it to everyone in the audience, and
then said yes when I offered him a chance to show it at next year’s Santa
Even in his meanderings, Johnny never
lost the twinkle in his eye. But he refused to watch or listen to the film
clips that Dana Morrow assembled for the evening, so I chatted with him during
those segments in order to keep him occupied and engaged. We talked about all
sorts of things, including our mutual hero Buster Keaton, whom he emulated in
the charming Benny and Joon.
That’s one of the things I admire most
about Johnny Depp: his regard for the giants who came before him, especially
the ones he got to meet and work with, like Brando, Vincent Price, Robert
Mitchum, and more recently Christopher Lee. But I don’t think he sees himself
in their company, despite his thirty years of experience and nearly forty
films. He is a genuinely modest man.
He also has great stories to tell.
When I asked about working with Al Pacino on Donnie Brasco, he said, matter-of-factly, that Pacino is
certifiably insane. He emphasized this more than once so we all understood he
wasn’t being glib. Pacino, he says, wasn’t fazed at all by Johnny’s
assessment… and finally said, “You’re pretty f**king strange
That may be, but he is also daring,
versatile, charming, and unpredictable… The kind of movie star who is so
popular that he is taken for granted somewhat.
Even in discussing his commanding
performance as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, he gave all the credit to his longtime makeup artist.
He said that wearing such makeup, as he has for so many roles, gives him a
“suit of armor” that allows him to disappear into the character. Only
with prodding did he reveal how he approached the task of portraying Bulger
from the inside, never picturing him as a villain.
I had a good time with Johnny Depp and
hope he can reignite his enthusiasm for performing. He has indicated that he
may be looking to get out of the game, but that would be a terrible loss. He’s
more than a much-loved star: he is a huge presence in our moviegoing lives.
One final, revealing note about the
star: he ducked out the back door of the Arlington rather than attend a tony
reception in his honor, but when he was confronted with a crowd of fans he
spent the next hour patiently posing for selfies and signing autographs.
P.S. After hosting this festival’s
Modern Master Award presentation for all these years, executive director Roger
Durling surprised me by renaming it in my honor. Imagine how it felt to look up
at the Arlington marquee and see “Maltin Modern Master” and find my
name etched on a bottle of Dom Perignon alongside Johnny Depp’s. I am flattered