Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Shirley Karr, author of several Avon historicals including CONFESSIONS OF A VISCOUNT, share a lot of common interests with me. We both love Regencies and love to write them. We have this thing for kids, little and big. And we share a hero, one who is not just a Hollywood babe magnet, but a wonderful actor and in his personal life, a man to be admired.


We've all heard of heroes who are larger than life, whether in TV, movies, or books. How about a living hero who seems to have walked off the pages of your favorite romance novel? Gather 'round and I shall tell you his tale. (An abbreviated version, to be sure, since this is a blog not a biography.)

Once upon a time, there was a boy in Kentucky. The youngest of four, he was close to his Cherokee grandfather. Soon after PawPaw's death, when the boy was seven, Dad's job required relocating to another state. The family moved frequently, down the street, across town, or even to motels. He always felt like an outsider. His parents' marriage crumbled and they divorced. He escaped the chaos at home by teaching himself to play guitar and joined a rock band. At 16 he dropped out of school. The band played better gigs and opened for touring rock bands. At 20, he married the drummer's sister, a lass five years his senior.

Let's go to LA and get a record contract, the band decided, and off they went, to the other side of the continent, away from family. But a lot of other bands had the same idea. Competition was stiff. Gigs were few and paid poorly. Our guy took a telemarketing job he hated, selling pens. He'd amuse himself on sales calls by adopting strange accents.

His marriage collapsed under the stress, though they stayed friends. His ex-wife got a job as a makeup artist in Hollywood and introduced him to some of her new friends, including an actor named Nic. The trio often hung out. One night over beers, Nic told our guy he should try acting – he had the look producers want. Our guy had never acted, other than the funny voices on the phone, but by now the band had broken up and he still hated selling pens. Nic arranged a meeting with his agent.

The agent sent him on an audition. The director wasn't going to hire someone without experience, but it was a movie for teens and his teen daughter said he was "dreamy." He was hired. Things were looking up in his personal life too, with a new girlfriend.

He landed a few other movie roles and TV guest appearances but nothing major happened until a new TV series wanted him. Filming was in Canada, thousands of miles from his girlfriend and family. He turned down the role but eventually they persuaded him to join the cast.

The show was a smash hit. Teen girls screamed for him and overflowed shopping malls when the cast made publicity appearances. Suddenly this boy from Kentucky couldn't walk into a restaurant without people staring or asking for his autograph. Paparazzi followed his every move, documented his personal life. He lived in hotels. He felt different, like an outsider. A freak.

The show's marketing department capitalized on his popularity. Posters, billboards, lunchboxes, all adorned with his face. He hated it. He wanted out, but the successful show wouldn't cancel his contract and his own moral code wouldn't let him break it.

Frustrated, he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol and lived on caffeine and nicotine. One night he was arrested after taking out his frustration on his hotel room. As he was escorted out in handcuffs, paparazzi documenting every grimace, he realized he'd become a Hollywood cliché.

He had an epiphany.

He still hated the marketing machine and felt creatively stifled by the show. But he was done with self-medicating. He was not going to be a Hollywood bad boy. During summer hiatus he made a movie that mocked his heartthrob image. The girls who'd flocked to shopping malls stayed home from the theaters in droves.

He caught a break when the show's producers let him out of the last year of his contract. His conscience clear, he sought creatively challenging roles. An up and coming director, whose work our guy admired, was putting together a new movie whose main character was odd, an outsider. A freak. Our guy wanted this role badly enough to wear black leather from neck to toe while filming in the Florida summer without complaining, even after he passed out from heat exhaustion.

The movie was only moderately successful but it enabled him to get other roles. He chose them based on criteria that did not include box office potential. "I made a decision to do only movies I wanted to do and to play only characters I wanted to play. I thought it was important to have integrity," he said. Some movies did so-so, some tanked. He earned a reputation as a guy who made odd movies for directors with unpronounceable names. Some critics called him box office poison.

He wasn't earning huge bucks per picture but he enjoyed his work. He strove to improve his craft, to become the character. His famous face that once adorned lunchboxes and posters now was often covered in heavy makeup and obscured by wigs. One director described him as "a character actor in a leading man's body."

His personal life was still tabloid fodder. He entered long-term relationships, had four well-documented engagements. But his girlfriends were actresses and models, stalked by the paparazzi as much as he was, and each relationship ended shy of the altar.

While filming in Europe, he met someone different. A popular singer, Vanessa had shot to stardom in France as a teen. She knew what it was like to live in a fishbowl. They played music together. They soon became a devoted couple.

He teamed up again with the director who'd put him in leather, and their third project together broke the $100 million mark. Box office success at last was nice but came a distant second to the joy of becoming a father. Vanessa gave birth to their daughter six months before the movie's premiere. A son followed two years later. "You can't imagine the degree of joy and love that's available until you have a kid," he said. "It brings you into the person that you hoped you could be."

He had his pick of movie roles and was now considered an asset, not a liability, though still "quirky." When his daughter was a couple years old, he met with the head of a studio to express interest in voicing a cartoon character, to make a movie his daughter could watch. The studio had other ideas. "We're going to do a pirate movie." "With swords?" "Yes." "I'm in," our hero said.

The studio envisioned a swashbuckler like Douglas Fairbanks but our guy thought pirates were the rock stars of their day and looked more like Keith Richards. The studio suits got nervous. What's with the eyeliner, the beads, the slurred speech? Is he drunk? Is he gay? The director convinced the suits to let our guy play the role his way. The movie shattered box office records around the world. So did its two sequels.

Success, by any standard.

With Vanessa and their two kids, making the movies he wants to make, Johnny Depp is living happily-ever-after. He spent years looking for his one true love. He's a devoted father and partner. He overcame many obstacles, including his own self-destructive tendencies. Our guy won the girl *and* the job of his dreams and carved out success on his own terms. Isn't that what romance novel heroes do?

Why is this one of my all-time favorite pictures of JD? He's walking through an airport, his family just off-camera, on his way to resume filming the third Pirates movie. Take a closer look: He's carrying his toddler son's jacket and toy, and look, there in his pocket, is a back-up toy. All together now: Awww.

Whether playing a libertine, a corrupt CIA agent, a chocolatier or a louche pirate, he continues to be different in every role. That was Depp? Yup. He inspires me to not give in, to write the kinds of books I want to write. Success will come, or not, but if I have integrity it will be on my terms.

Delle asked why I cast Johnny as the hero in my second novel, and again in my current manuscript. Come to think of it, even the current hero's uncle bears a resemblance to JD. But to borrow from Paul Harvey, now that you know the rest of his story, is it any wonder?


  1. Great information, Shirley! He is, by definition, a hero - someone who's pulled himself up by his bootstraps and created a successful life in and out of the spotlight.


  2. I think it's easy to see only the movie star and call him a hero (or the baseball player or the rock legend or anyone else we call 'hero' these days) instead of looking at the man, himself, and recognizing *these* are the things that make him a hero. Nicely done. And thanks for the reminder of what makes a hero. (and the eye candy, too, because let's face it ~ he *is* very pretty to look at)

  3. I agree, Darla. When I was reading through what Shirley wrote, I realized there was a long period of time in which Johnny might very well have questioned his intention of living by his standard of integrity. Things weren't working out, especially in his career. Imagine being told you're box office poison! Would that make you question whether you'd made the right decision? It sure would me!

    But he stuck with what he believed. It might not have paid off. Not even his great talent could foretell that. I'd glad he found faith in himself and had the guts to stick with it. The world is a better place for it. So are my pirate fantasies.

  4. Good thought, Pauline. We can imagine the man from the image he projects, but the real man often is different. It's good to know when the man we idolize for his screen talents- and gorgeousness- has qualities he had to work to achieve.

    That's the difference, sometimes, isn't it? Did they grow up? Did they keep on maturing after they reached adulthood? Are they continuing to grow and mature? If so, they become the men I admire most. If they're still playing like adolescents and still demanding what adolescents demand, no, they aren't real heroes.

    Thanks again, Johnny. We love you because you're Johnny. Captain Jack, too.

  5. LOL on the pirate fantasies, Delle!

    It is gratifying to know an actor whose work I admire (I've been a fan since the premiere of 21 Jump Street) is also an admirable person. I was worried about him for a few years there but he pulled his act together and grew up. And is maturing nicely. :-)

    Aside from his devotion to family and friends (that could take another 1,000 words) he respects his fans. Calls us his "bosses." I've heard many first-hand accounts of him staying after while filming on location all day, to sign autographs for hours. At red carpet events, his security guys often have to physically move him along because he's trying to acknowledge all the fans who've been waiting hours and hours.

    A couple years ago, a handicapped fan traveled to the Toronto Film Festival and waited with friends near the stage door where JD was expected to exit after a press conference. But the security guys changed plans and they came out a different door. Everyone screamed and ran toward him. The gal had no chance to get through the crowd in her wheelchair and get her copy of The Libertine script signed.

    One of her friends found Jerry (one of JD's bodyguards) and told him what happened. By this time JD was already in the SUV to be whisked away. But he got out of the vehicle and went to her, and even got down on one knee so they could hear each other and chat for a minute. Not only did JD give her an autograph, he gave her a kiss on the cheek, too.

    Now *that* is a movie star for whom I'll pay ten bucks to see in the theater.

  6. I forgot to mention ... I do have one complaint about Johnny. Would it kill him to take more roles where his character gets a happy ending?


    His characters have ended up in jail, blinded, schizo, or taken over by aliens, and at least five I can think of were killed. In his next movie to be released, Public Enemies, he plays John Dillinger, and we all know *his* ending.

  7. J.D. is a phenomenally gifted actor, able to truly become whatever character he is portraying. What a gift. To be a lovely human being on top of that is remarkable in this day and age. Thank heavens we have examples like J.D. to make our heroes believable.

  8. That story conjures up tears, Shirley.

    I think I know what t is about Hollywood and its fascinating for grotesque and tragic endings. Partly it's the drama of it all, I'm sure. But also when the characters actually die, it brings the story to a strong enough resolution that he actor can clearly say to himself that one is gone. Then he gets to go on and lead yet another life without the past one entrapping him.
    Jack Sparrow lives on, however. They wouldn't dare kill him off.

  9. Shirley, thank you so much for Johnny Depp's history--some of it I didn't know. I agree completely with what everyone has said. He has such an interesting bio but then he is such an intriguing individual--graced with intelligence, beauty, and talent. A high school drop out who became a consummate, celebrated, and successful actor--and a wealthy one who is at peace with himself. Johnny conquered his demons (the Hollywood scene--alcohol, drugs, anger, stifled creativity) because he continues to grow and mature as an artist.

    He's driven to succeed his way on his terms. That's why his star shines so bright. I so admire him for using his talent with integrity by defying and not succumbing to Hollywood stereotypes. Johnny is definitely an independent thinker and a rebel as well as a devoted family man.

    Johnny marches to the beat of his own drum, stands up for his principles, and follows his heart which is the key to lasting happiness and a successful career which he created. Johnny is a "real hero" in every sense of the word--genuine, kind, grateful, and true to his craft. He is an excellent role model for writers to emulate. He is also the epitome of the perfect swashbuckling pirate. Sigh....I adore him!

  10. Laurel -- yes, he is gifted and thank heavens uses that gift. It would have been unthinkable to call him "one of the best actors of his generation" after seeing him eaten by the bed in Nightmare On Elm Steet, or scheming to get laid in Private Resort, but that's what many critics call him now. And we've already seen his feet of clay. (And if you sw PR, you saw much more than that. ;-)

    Delle, it chokes me up, too. Six months after it happened, the gal still cried when she shared her experience. Her only regret is that her friends were so stunned while JD was chatting with her, no one took a decent photograph!

    No, Captain Jack is not dead. JD has expressed a willingness to play him again, and the studio is certainly willing to make more money. A story idea and script are supposedly in the works for Pirates IV, sans Elizabeth and Will.

  11. Exactly, Vonnie! Johnny inspires me to write what I want to write, to stay true to my vision, even though that might not be what's in vogue right now.

    Delle, interesting perspective. I hadn't thought of it that way before. JD certainly takes bits of his characters with him, like the boots he's been wearing since Platoon, or the bandana from Don Juan De Marco. And he was ill for two weeks after filming concluded on The Libertine, where Wilmot died a horrible death.

    Sometimes a character needs to die but usually I prefer leaving the door open for possible sequels, or to think the character is going on, living happily-ever-after. Or at least living.

  12. Shirley, as an inspiration for staying true to one's vision as a writer, there is no better one than Johnny. I can see why he continues to inspire your writing. Henceforth, I will also think of him as a role model for my writing career as well. Do you have any quotes from him or about him that inspires your writing? If so, share them with us. I need all the help I can get.

    Nadelle, you mentioned character arc. Johnny is an excellent example of an artist who has a complete character arc because he had the courage to follow his heart and find his path. The more steps you take on your life's path (to self-actualization), the more faith you have in yourself and your character arc grows. Thus, the more confident and successful you become at your craft, as exemplified in Johnny. Walking your path in your own way instills faith in yourself and your abilities. This in turn manifests itself in success--which may or may not be the blockbuster bestselling kind as success is a relative term. You, Nadelle, are an ideal example of success as an author. Your books are well written, get great reviews, and sell.

  13. Vonnie, I went back through my Quotes spreadsheet and found three that meet your criteria:

    “One of the most important gifts we have is imagination. It makes up 95 per cent of our minds, it's our greatest asset, our best friend, and, in some cases, if we're not careful, our worst enemy.” – Johnny Depp

    "Do your work, and if what you're giving is not what they want, you have to be prepared to walk away." ~ Johnny Depp

    "He's a little dangerous, he has a secret, he has great warmth - all those things you can see in his eyes. That's the key to his appeal." - Lasse Hallstrom

    Hallstrom directed JD in What's Eating Gilbert Grape in '93 and Chocolat in 2000. I think this is a great quote to keep in mind when writing my heroes.

  14. You didn't mention Lost in La Mancha. Now THAT'S fortitude. And the scene with the fish is beyond hysterical. I hear there's a sequel in the works.

  15. Now there's a recipe for a great hero! Sounds just like the one I'm working on now. Wonder why?


    "He's a little dangerous, he has a secret, he has great warmth - all those things you can see in his eyes. That's the key to his appeal." - Lasse Hallstrom


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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.