Before Johnny Depp entered the ballroom at the Sutton Place hotel this weekend, the room was abuzz with anticipation. Would he be shorter or taller than imagined? Would he be sporting his goatee and one of his frumpy hats? Would his deep-brown, usually unkempt locks, be long, short or pulled back in a pony tail?
Well, damned if any of us, sitting in the seats behind a sea of flash-bulb-frenzied paparazzi, had a clue. Practically frothing at the actor's arrival, they screamed Depp's name -- "Turn left Johnny! Turn right Johnny!" -- virtually ignoring the not-exactly lightweight company Depp was in, namely director Tim Burton (with whom the actor has made five films) and Burton's feisty partner, Helena Bonham Carter, all here to talk about their new film, the stop-motion romance Corpse Bride.
When the moderator finally managed to get the mob in front to take their seats, Depp looked relieved but kind of stunned. He grimaced at Burton and Carter, and for the first 10 minutes of the press conference could not quite meet the gaze of anyone in the crowd.
There is celebrity elite, and then there is Hollywood royalty. And despite years of trying to shun stardom -- and stridently searching for roles that were distinctly non-mainstream -- Depp has still somehow landed himself in the surreal realm of the latter category. His stature clearly makes him squirm.
It took a while for Depp to unwind, but once he did, the man who came through was a mature, serious actor who loves his craft, feels honoured by the roles he's been able to escape into for the past 20 years, and usually can't wait to go home to France to his partner, Vanessa Paradis, and their two kids, Lily-Rose, 6, and three-year-old Jack.
Unlike many actors, who are loath to mention their family -- especially their kids -- Depp brought them up when speaking, usually without prompting. Asked if his kids are scared of some of the weird characters he's portrayed on screen, Depp said no. "They're scared of me when I wake up in the morning and see me before coffee," he added.
His daughter, he went on, has been pretty good at differentiating his on- and off-screen personas -- and is never unnerved by his freakier types. "My daughter watched Edward Scissorhands a couple of years ago . . . and she loved it. She loved the film," he said. "She was amazed but then at a certain point, they told me -- because I wasn't there -- that she started weeping. [But] she wasn't scared of me. She was scared for me. So she understands the separation that papa is playing a character."
Then Depp -- once a bad-boy actor who trashed a hotel room in his Kate Moss days -- added it'll be a good 20 years, though, before he lets Lily-Rose watch him in the Hunter S. Thompson-inspired Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
"When they came on the set for Charlie [and the Chocolate Factory], they walked into the trailer and there I was decked out as Willy Wonka, with the Prince Valiant [hair], the cha-cha heels, the teeth, the eyes and the white makeup. And they just kind of sat there, staring at me, for about two and a half minutes," Depp chuckled. "And then they got used to it."
It was obvious from the camaraderie on the stage between Burton and Depp that they serve, for each other, as mentor and muse.
Burton, with his trademark black bug sunglasses and spider's nest of unruly hair, said "ever since Edward Scissorhands, Johnny is somebody who just loves change and to become different characters.
"It's a very exciting, creative process to work with him. Each time, it's better because it's something really different. And that's the true joy of making a movie, that organic, creative process."
Depp said working with Burton, with whom he's collaborated on five films, is always an education. First, Depp said he was in awe watching Burton juggle the two films that were released this summer, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and now Corpse Bride.
"What's most inspiring is his drive and his inability to compromise his vision," said Depp. "It really gives you strength. The atmosphere that he creates for actors, or puppets, is so incredible for me. It's like getting home. It's a place like home where you can take a risk and not worry that you've gone too far because there's always someone to reign you back in."
When the two friends were asked what it was like working with the gaggle of child actors on Charlie, Depp started off on a politically correct bent, until Bonham Carter started to titter uncontrollably. "I enjoyed working with the kiddies," Depp began. But then Bonham Carter snorted. "The sets were fantastic," Depp continued, trying to change the subject in order to avoid saying anything negative about the experience. Then Burton started to laugh. "Freddie Highmore really is an actual treat to work with, in Charlie and in [Finding] Neverland. Tim?" Depp flung out, hoping Burton would help.
"Oh, yes, they were all very good kids." And the two of them smirked.
Depp, 42, is a chameleon who loses himself in each character, from Captain Jack Sparrow in the 2003 smash Pirates of the Caribbean, his portrayal of his deranged pal Thompson in Leaving Las Vegas (Depp helped arrange for his friend's ashes to be shot from a cannon, the journalist's last request), and Burton-concocted misfits such as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Ichabod Crane (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), Willy Wonka, and now the hollow-eyed Victor in Corpse Bride.
Depp, his face the trademark patches of stubble -- plus moustache and goatee -- says he's "always searching for new guys or new characters" in his head.
"I'll be playing with Barbies and dolls with my kids and suddenly I'll assume a character voice and my daughter will stop me and say, 'Dad, will you just use your normal voice please,' " says Depp, whose deep baritone is a balm for scattered nerves. "So that puts you back in your place."
Born in Kentucky, he dropped out of school at age 15. A trouble maker with a penchant for rock bands (he's fronted many), he finally got lucky in the early eighties after a chance meeting with Nicolas Cage, another nobody then who persuaded Depp to try to make it as an actor.
Depp's first big break was Burton's 1990 Scissorhands, which set the track Depp has followed of seeking out unique and quirky characters.
The actor said he finds it hard to say goodbye to each role, and move on. "You get to know this character and you fall in love with this character. And then you know that the clock is ticking and you have to say goodbye to them at a certain point. And even though they're still in there somewhere, the experience is sad, and the separation. For me to play the same character a couple of times is a real gift." (Depp is resurrecting Jack Sparrow for Pirates II and III.)
As the press conference came to a close, and the photographers prepared to swarm Depp once again, one journalist asked if he ever finds himself forgetting who the real Johnny Depp is -- what does he do to regain equilibrium?
The actor met the guy in the eye and retorted, with a smile: "I'm looking forward to that one day."