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?