In a rare interview, Shereen Low gets up close and personal with screen legend Johnny Depp, who reveals why he’s doing an old friend proud
For every big budget Pirates of the Caribbean-style blockbuster, Johnny Depp switches to a smaller film that is close to his heart.
So from the fourth swashbuckling instalment, On Stranger Tides, Depp moves to The Rum Diary. Adapted from his close friend Hunter S Thompson’s debut novel, it holds a special place in Depp’s heart.
“It’s been a long road, you know. This whole thing commenced around 1997 with me and Hunter, and here we are in 2011 and it’s actually happening,” says Depp, who has been the driving force behind the film, since his accidental discovery of the book. “We were in Hunter’s house and there were these endless boxes of stuff. I started pulling things out and stumbled upon The Rum Diary.
“We started reading it and I told him to publish it. Within about 20 minutes we were already talking about the movie rights and how we should produce this film together.”
Tragically, that wasn’t to happen. Thompson committed suicide in 2005, but Depp ensured his posthumous presence was felt constantly on set.
“One of my last efforts to salute the man was to continue in our venture, forcing him – even in death – to be a producer,” he says, giving a little chuckle.
A chair with Thompson’s name on it was on set each day, along with a script cover, ashtray, cigarettes, empty glass and a bottle of Chivas Regal whisky.
“We had to use all these elements to recognise Hunter, to salute him. Bruce (director Bruce Robinson) and I would arrive on set every morning, pour the glass full with Chivas Regal, dunk our fingers in, maybe take a sip and get on with the day – just to make sure Hunter was there. And he was – every day, every second, every moment – for us.”
The film, which also stars Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi and Amber Head, is loosely based on Thompson’s own experiences, with Depp playing gonzo journalist Paul Kemp, who decides to swap the hustle and bustle of New York for Puerto Rico.
It’s the second time he’s portrayed an incarnation of the writer as a young man, following his portrayal of Raoul Duke in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
“There’s more responsibility, but there’s also more comfort in playing someone you know,” he says. “The challenge was trying to find the (version of) Hunter before he found the avenue for the rage. It was like playing the same character, only 15 years before. This guy’s got something; there’s an energy burning underneath, it’s just ready to shoot out.”
Depp and Thompson’s unlikely bond cemented over the years and the actor was road manager on one of the writer’s last book tours. “The thing I initially connected to with regards to Hunter’s work was his honesty,” says Depp. “You read about these amazing experiences and you think it’s all in his imagination, but when you’ve really spent time with him, as I have on the road, you realise it’s all true. You end up living the books,”
The release of The Rum Diary marks the fulfilment of Thompson’s final two wishes. One was to have his cremated ashes shot out of a cannon, while the other was to get the film made.
“When Hunter made his exit back in 2005, I had to focus my attention on getting his last wish ready – to load him into a bunch of giant bullets and shoot him into the sky out of a 153ft cannon,” says Depp.
“His other wish was to get The Rum Diary made and to get it out there. We’ve done that now and I feel all my commitments to Hunter are done.”
And he reckons his friend would give the film his thumbs-up: “I believe Hunter would be very proud, yeah. If he’d seen the finished film, he’d be whooping.”
Thompson’s influence continues to spur Depp on.
“If Hunter were here today, we wouldn’t be in this room. Most likely, we’d be in a bar and he would be holding court. It would be on his terms. I still have him with me every day. He’s there when I pop my noggin down on the pillow at night.
“I don’t get those phone calls at three in the morning suggesting whatever kind of weirdness we could get up to, but I still have him in my head.”
The Rum Diary is released in cinemas on Friday, November 11.