“My god, that was entertaining.” Those were the final words written in my notebook last night after Johnny Depp was presented with the SBIFF Maltin Modern Masters Award. As big a star as the world currently knows, Depp, in all his bizarre, nonsequitor spewing glory, did not disappoint during night number two of the Santa Barbara film festival. An adoring, sold-out crowd packed the Arlington Theatre to its gills and learned first hand exactly what Uggs Australia CEO Angel Martinez meant when he said of Johnny at the start of the ceremony, “He is way cooler in person.” Indeed, my cheeks hurt when I awoke this morning from laughing so hard.
A veteran of nearly 40 films, Depp was refreshingly real in his almost two-hour conversation with film critic and award namesake Leonard Maltin. Arriving fashionably late — and, in the process, creating the Festival’s first big rumor moment as people buzzed with speculation that the star was going to be a no show — Depp, who is not known for giving intimate interviews, was an animated and awkward mix of insight, humor, humility, and mildly unhinged madness as he and Maltin examined his career arch from his teenage heartthrob days on 21 Jump Street to his most recent role as the infamous organized crime boss Whitey Bulger in last year’s Black Mass.
The tightly edited montages of Depp’s many roles, which were shown in-between conversation, featured, among others, Benny (from Benny & Joon), Gilbert Grape, Hunter S. Thompson, Donnie Brasco, Edward Scissorhands, Willie Wonka, and, of course, Captain Jack Sparrow. They were worth the price of admission alone. Watching Depp squirm in his seat as the clips rolled — he explained that he rarely, if ever, can bring himself to watch one of his own performances — was a certain kind of telling reveal. Fidgeting with his hands and shifting in his seat so as to keep the screen out of his line of vision, it was clear that Depp’s artistry is a bit of a scary mystery even to the man himself. For instance, while talking story about his time on set with Leonardo Di Caprio during the filming of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Depp offered in between laugh out loud anecdotes about young Leo, “It was a hard time for me for some reason [working on the film]. It was mostly really miserable…You can’t tell if the thing you’re feeling at the time is coincidental. Did I have to be that way for the film?” Such was the nature of the night — a rollicking seesaw between telling self-reflection and just pure and often hilarious short stories and asides.
Sporting a collection of eclectic tattoos on his hands, dangling earrings from both ears and at least two gold teeth, Depp was a perfect real life blend of some of his more celebrated roles. Hints of Captain Jack and Hunter and even Donnie Brasco were oozing out of him. He talked about working with Marlon Brando and how it has shaped his career ever since. “Marlon taught me how to have fun and still take the work seriously,” he said. And he delivered a perfectly timed recollection of his first time working with Al Pacino and telling him he was “certifiably insane” before Al fired back at Johnny, “Hey, so you know, you’re pretty fucking strange yourself.”
Other highlights included Depp explaining his motivation to take on the Captain Jack role: He had recently had a daughter and had spent years “just watching cartoons” and wanted to try and bring that type of energy to the role. He waxed poetic about what it’s like to get to meet and work with “most of my heroes.” He explained that even with all his acting accolades he still approaches his art with the eyes and ears and mindset of a struggling musician. “I can only think as a musician,” he said. “That’s just what I am.” And then there was his description of his first meeting with director Tim Burton at a coffee house: “His hair looked like there was an explosion at a hardware store and he was chewing on his spoon. When I walk into a joint, I knew that’s the guy I’m talking to, even if it’s not Tim Burton.”
All in all, the night was a fantastic reminder that, no matter how high a pedestal pop culture may put our favorite actors and actresses on, they all, at the end of the day, are people just like us. And, when it comes to Johnny Depp, he just happens to be one heck of an entertaining and perfectly weird guy who happens to make movies for a living.