Johnny Depp has pondered death
and doesn’t believe
in an afterlife.
To be eccentric and truly get away with it, you usually have to be very rich, very beautiful or very talented.
Many would agree Johnny Depp is at least two of the above, which might account for how the Edward Scissorhands and Pirates Of The Caribbean actor has pulled off that rarest of tricks: making kooky look cool.
This idiosyncratic persona has been a winning formula both on screen and off, with Depp finding indie as well as mainstream success by playing a string of offbeat characters, then becoming a virtual recluse mid-career, all the while maintaining a sort of reluctant sex symbol status.
All this makes for great copy, of course, so the media is fully complicit. On the few occasions where he voluntarily meets the press, reporters have come to expect and accept a certain level of kookiness, leading to all manner of surreal yet matter-of-fact interviews with the star.
This is how the international media ended up listening to the 50-year-old hold forth on everything from religion to afterlife at a recent Los Angeles press conference for his latest film, the science-fiction thriller Transcendence.
At close quarters with him, another defining characteristic of his long career jumps out at you: that preternatural youthfulness that was first unveiled in the 1980s TV series 21 Jump Street, in which Depp played an undercover narcotics officer posing as a high school student.
Even after a lifetime of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the actor and sometime musician still passes for a man decades younger today, his slightly fey masculinity still able to conjure both innocence and impishness at the drop of a hat.
The fact that he has, latterly, become a self-declared hermit, studiously avoiding the Hollywood scene and limelight and spending much of his time in Europe instead, simply adds to his unicorn-like aura.
There is palpable excitement when he comes out of hiding to stump for Transcendence, in which he plays a dying scientist who has his consciousness uploaded into a computer.
Before the interview, everyone has been warned repeatedly not to ask personal questions – probably because of his upcoming marriage to 27-year-old model and actress Amber Heard, whom he announced a relationship with in 2012 after splitting from longtime partner Vanessa Paradis, the 41-year-old French actress and singer who is mother to his children, Lily-Rose, 14, and Jack, 12.
With his minders standing close and threatening to snatch away the microphone if questions veer the wrong way, the event instead turns into a pseudointellectual, slightly ponderous exchange – the sort where a movie star is quizzed about weighty topics simply because they are glancingly referenced by his film.
For all his apparent youthfulness, the two-time holder of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive title (2003 and 2009) admits he does think about his own death.
“I think about it occasionally, you know, with regard to where I am today in my life and if I were to be taken away, do I feel complete, is there anything haranguing me that I must do before then?” he says.
“And no, you know? I have two amazing kids and a very privileged life, so if the time came, toodaloo.
“Obviously, I’m not so concerned with it, only in the sense that I think it would be wrong to live in fear of it every day, because then, you’re not living.”
Depp certainly seemed to live pretty fearlessly in his 20s and 30s, with the tabloids documenting the obligatory succession of model and actress girlfriends, including Winona Ryder and Kate Moss; drunken brawls with the paparazzi; and other tales of assorted debauchery.
But after winning over critics with his indie performances – many of them directed by frequent collaborator Tim Burton, whose eccentricity matches his own (Edward Scissorhands, the 1994 biopic Ed Wood and the 2007 horror musical Sweeney Tood: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, which won Depp a Golden Globe) – he stumbled into respectability with several blockbuster hits, among them Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (2010) and the Pirates Of The Caribbean films.
He did not appreciate the never-ending attention of paparazzi snappers, though, and retreated into the home he shared with Paradis and their two children in a small village in the south of France.
In recent years, he has openly toyed with early retirement, even before his previous film, The Lone Ranger, became one of last year’s biggest flops, racking up losses of more than US$200mil, and earned him a Worst Actor nomination at this year’s Razzies.
After that action-packed Western, Transcendence is a bit of a departure, a weighty sci-fi flick that explores the possibility of a superior artificial intelligence, or “singularity”, being created and unleashed online.
It raises existential questions about consciousness, identity, technology and life after death that Depp seems more than happy to wade into. Hence, his ruminations on mortality and what would prove to be a slightly charged back-and-forth with one reporter on the subject of religion.
Asked if he believes there is existence after death, he replies, gently but firmly: “I do not.”
Is he an atheist, then? “I mean, I’m a pedestrian,” he says obscurely. “I believe in where we are right now – just.
“There are all kinds of angles, right? Is there a god? I don’t know? Have you seen him? I haven’t seen him.”
But it is possible to believe in something you cannot see, the reporter counters.
Depp then says: “Okay, there’s an aardvark hanging over my head – you can’t see him but I can. I’m not saying that to be facetious – I’m saying that everyone has their own kind of thing. And it’s not that I don’t have what might be construed as spirituality. I have a great many beliefs, but I don’t hang my hat on one particular thing.
“I don’t look negatively upon organised religion or anything – people believe whatever they want and I think that’s wonderful.
“Look, I’d love to be pleasantly surprised if, when my eyes close, I end up in some killer place with loud music. I’d certainly welcome it and I’d prefer that to dirt and worms, definitely.”
He reveals that he has imparted this world view to his children. “When they were little and asked me, ‘What is God?’, I told them to look at the grass, take a deep breath, look up at the sky and clouds, and that all that was god. And to look in the mirror and that was god too.
“And I don’t think that’s very far off the mark.”
Transcendence is showing in