These inherent contradictions are a key part of his charm: the thoughtful actor who openly discussed his drug habit, whose greatest friends have been Hunter S Thompson and Marlon Brando, a Hollywood sex symbol whose cultural cachet now lies mainly in family films.
High-profile romances with Winona Ryder and Kate Moss helped turn him into a tabloid obsession, and the scandals that have dogged the 53-year-old’s life have played out very publicly in the press, much to his loathing. But few have been quite so ugly and acrimonious as his recent split from Amber Heard, who he started dating in 2012 after splitting from his long-term partner and mother of his children, Vanessa Paradis.
The allegations of domestic violence emerged in May, when Heard claimed Depp had physically abused her, throwing an iPhone at her during a fight, and she sought a restraining order. It prompted Paradis to write a public letter supporting her ex, and in June Heard decided not to press charges. Depp denies the allegations.
But in papers reportedly due to be presented in court on Wednesday, for a hearing on Heard’s restraining order against Depp, she alleged that a month after they were married, while on the phone to one another in different countries, Depp smashed bottles and cut off the tip of his finger after hitting a plastic phone against a wall while drunk and high on ecstasy. He then allegedly dipped his bloody finger in blue paint and wrote on a mirror, accusing Heard of having an affair with the actor Billy Bob Thornton, according to the celebrity news website TMZ. The pair reached a divorce settlement of $7m (£5.3m) on Tuesday, which Heard has donated to two charities, including the American Civil Liberties Union to prevent violence against women.
For an actor whose Hollywood assets are indelibly linked to the family film franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, being at the centre of such an acrimonious rumour mill could ruin a career. His biggest films of the past decade, since his first outing as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003, have all been directed at a young audience – Finding Neverland, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Rango and Into the Woods.
Nick Johnstone, the author of a recent Depp biography, said he believed the respect for Depp’ as an actor would not be tainted by the recent saga.
“Many of his fans felt a sense of concern when he left Vanessa Paradis as his relationship with her and their children and that sense of family and home seemed to anchor Johnny,” Johnstone said. Depp’s “misfit child-heartedness”, exemplified by his numerous Tim Burton collaborations, was central to his continued roles in children’s and family films, and that was unlikely to change in the eyes of Hollywood, Johnstone said.
He drew parallels between Depp and his mentor Brando, who had an often controversial public profile. “Hollywood respects Johnny Depp enormously – look at the length and varying box office success of his career and you see trust and forgiveness and deep belief – so I think his career is still very important to Hollywood, bad press or not.”
The world was not always so forgiving to Depp. He was born in June 1963 in small-town Kentucky. His father was a civil engineer and his mother, Betty Sue, a coffee shop waitress to whom Depp was devoted until her death this year. The youngest of four children, Depp was seven when the family moved to Florida, living in a succession of motels before settling down. He later said that by the time he was 15 the family had lived in about 20 different houses.
“I wouldn’t say my youth was the perfect model in terms of raising a kid,” he told Rolling Stone. “It was a relatively violent upbringing. If you did something wrong, you got hit. If you didn’t do something wrong, you got hit. But my parents, they did the best they could with what they knew.”
He dropped out of school at 16 to pursue a career in music, having played clubs in Miami from the age of 13 to try to help pay the rent, and in 1983 moved to Los Angeles in search of a record deal. Acting was never his intention but after a stint selling pens over the phone, Depp was cast in 21 Jump Street, the role that would catapult him into the hearts of teenagers across the US.
“Music is still my first love as much as it ever was, since I was a little kid and first picked up a guitar and tried to figure out how to make the thing go,” Depp said recently. “Going into acting was an odd deviation from a particular road that I was on in my late teens, early 20s, because I had no desire, no interest, really, in it at all.”
He got his first leading role in the 1990 John Waters juvenile delinquent spoof Cry-Baby, swiftly followed in 1991 by the first of his many collaborations with Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands (which almost never happened because Depp cancelled their first meeting). He went on to turn down roles in some of the biggest films of the decade – Speed, Titanic, Interview With the Vampire and Indecent Proposal – in favour of cult films such as Blow, Arizona Dream and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
It was also here that Depp’s troubled relationship with fame came to the fore, particularly through his relationship with Moss and his ownership of the Viper Room, the club outside which the actor River Phoenix died from an overdose in 1993. Depp admitted turning to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with the prying media. He told the Guardian in 2011: “I mean, all those films [Edward Scissorhands, Blow] didn’t do well at the box office. But I still had paparazzi chasing my tail, so it was the weirdest thing in the world. Everywhere you went you were on display. It was always some kind of strange attack on the senses; I was never able to embrace it. So self-medication (meaning drink and drugs) was just to be able to deal with it.”
In a desperate attempt to escape the intrusions of the press, Depp would camp out at Thompson’s house in Woody Creek, Colorado, and he recalls a time in 1997 when “we were like a couple of roommates. I went on to Hunter’s hours. We’d go to sleep about nine or 10 in the morning and be up for breakfast at about 7pm. He took care of me ... He knew I worshipped him, and I know that he loved me, so he may have been part father figure, part mentor, but I’d say the closest thing is brothers. We were like brothers.”
Things changed for Depp in 1998, when he met the French model Paradis, and the pair had their first child, Lily-Rose, a year later. It was partly what convinced Depp to take the part in Pirates of the Caribbean (“I don’t know why I said yes to that. I didn’t think, ‘I must do a commercial movie’”), which he was convinced would be a flop.
Having children, and playing Jack Sparrow, helped Depp address his anger issues, which he admitted had always been a battle for him as a result of his “conditioning and upbringing”. “I still have a hellish temper,” he said in 2005. “It’s diminished a little, but rage is still never very far away … I still have that stuff in me, the hillbilly rage as it’s been called. I may even break a television set here and there; it just doesn’t get written about because I’m not doing it in a hotel.”
Aside from 2015’s Black Mass, it has been a while since Depp starred in a film with any critical kudos, and for the moment it appears meaty upcoming roles are thin on the ground. His known future film projects are a new Pirates of the Caribbean in 2017, which is in post-production, and voicing Sherlock Gnomes in another Gnomeo & Juliet animation in 2018.
But with a career trajectory like few others, it is hard to say whether retirement or resurgence is on Depp’s horizon – as he said himself in 2013. “I was well on my way to thermos-and-lunchbox antiquity for – I don’t know, a good 18 years.” Retirement, he said, was a daily thought: “I can’t say that I’d want to be doing this for another 10 years.”