To an impressive gallery of movie characters which already includes the wildly divergent likes of Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood and Donnie Brasco, Johnny Depp now adds a Victorian-era police inspector in the new Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell. And yet it's strangely familiar ground for the 38-year-old Kentucky native, inasmuch as the character of Fred Abberline could pass as an even darker and more depraved twin to Depp's sufficiently moody Ichabod Crane from Tim Burton's similarly stylized Sleepy Hollow a few years back.
What's the world coming to when the star of everything from Cry Baby to Blow starts repeating himself?
This much is sure: Oliver Stone likely would be proud of the any-conspiracy-theory-goes approach taken by brothers and co-directors Allen and Albert Hughes in From Hell, their alternately atmospheric and hallucinatory speculation about the unsolved mystery of the notorious serial killer. Might he have been the deranged, syphilitic crown prince of England? Or maybe a member of an underground cult of freemasons straight out of Eyes Wide Shut?
The Hughes' (Menace II Society) have made no bones about taking "creative liberties" with the facts of the case. For instance, although he's based on a real person, the movie's Abberline is embellished with a lot of tragic signficance. Here, he's a brooding clairvoyant and opium fiend (with occasionally visible tattoos). Heather Graham co-stars as the prostitute Mary Kelly, in actuality the Ripper's fifth and final victim - but then a girl can always dream about living happily-ever-after along the breathtaking Irish seaside (raising the illegitimate granddaughter of Queen Victoria, to boot), can't she?
He pauses to start rolling up one of his own cigarettes. "This guy in From Hell was probably more like playing Ed Wood, in the sense that they're real guys but there isn't a lot of personal information available about either one of them," the actor continues, pooh-poohing that aforementioned Sleepy Hollow comparison just long enough to light his smoke.
"I like that the film goes off in different directions, as opposed to being a straightforward depiction of the story. I thought the vision the Hughes brothers had for the film was exciting, and that some of the theories they wanted to put across were valid, too."
Depp delivers another of his customarily nuanced performances in From Hell, but if the film proves to be something less than a crowd-pleasing hit, it'll be roughly par for the course. Rarely subscribing to the conventional wisdom of the Hollywood industry, Depp's projects tend to deviate from the mainstream. He has yet to find a commercial niche for himself, but he really hasn't been looking for one, either. His career seems to thrive off the beaten path, and it's no coincidence that's where most of his characters exist, too.
While it's true a lot of them are outcasts of a certain eccentric type, they otherwise allow him a veritable gamut to run. He has always prided himself on going from one extreme to the other, even though he realizes that without the box-office clout to back him up, he'll never command the superstar salaries of contemporaries like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves. (Can you imagine any of them playing the roving Irish minstrel Depp played in Chocolat, or tackling his role as a Cuban drag queen in Before Night Falls?)
In any event, Depp acknowledges between puffs, "It's not that I shy away from doing more commercial projects, but sometimes I think being a big movie star or whatever would get in the way of just being an actor, you know? There's an obvious balance you need in order to do the films you want to do, and it's kind of tricky maintaining that. I'm lucky to have agents who support me. They already think I'm pretty weird, so they don't know what else to do when I get my hands on something I feel very strongly about.
By the same token, Depp is perfectly content to live well outside the usual Hollywood circles. (He says he gets back "home" to Kentucky "all the time," to visit his mother and one of his sisters.) Three years ago, while on location in France making Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate, he met and married French actress Vanessa Paradis (The Girl on the Bridge). The couple settled down outside Paris; their daughter, Lily-Rose, was born in 1999.
"I like to tell people I moved to France so I could smoke in peace," he quips, putting out his cigarette. "It was more than that, though. It was like some strange, beautiful destiny, and it's been an interesting couple of years, having some distance away from Hollywood in particular, because it's given me an interesting perspective on some of the cultural differences."
He smiles. "It's like I went through 35 years of a very strange and dark fog, never really quite understanding what the point was to anything in life. I knew I had some degree of luck and success in my chosen field, and I knew I was lucky to have my family and friends. Even so, getting married and having my own child, those were the first totally selfless experiences I'd ever had. It wasn't until that happened that I could finally start getting over myself."