As the star of Black Mass and the face of Dior’s newest scent for men, Johnny Depp is as intense and mysterious as the characters he plays in the movies.
Never mind that he’s one of the most bankable movie stars alive. Johnny Depp, the 52-year-old Kentucky-born actor with the prominent cheekbones, has always lived a little on the edge, on the periphery of the Hollywood A-list, most comfortable in the company of out-of-the-box thinkers and doers. Even in his biggest blockbuster roles, he exhibits an outsider’s spirit. Among the rebels and outlaws on his mile-long résumé are real-life bizarre director Ed Wood (Ed Wood, 1994), gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998) and Depression-era gangster John Dillinger (Public Enemies, 2009); as well as fictional swashbuckler Captain Jack Sparrow (the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), eccentric man-child Edward Scissorhands (Edward Scissorhands, 1990), razor-wielding murderer Sweeney Todd (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007), and mildly insane Tonto (The Lone Ranger, 2013).
This month, fans can see him on screen starring as Irish-American mobster and FBI informant Whitey Bulger in Black Mass as well as in his first endorsement deal ever—he’s the face of Dior’s new men’s fragrance, Sauvage. The unexpected move comes more than 30 years into a robust acting career without a single previous product deal, but Depp is nonplussed. The name and the craft behind the men’s fragrance perfectly suited him, he says. “I’ve never really done anything like this, but I think certain arts are in danger of being lost. Certain kinds of experts and craftsmen are dying out because the digital age is upon us. There are certain arts that must be done by hand. Having the knowledge to put various scents together to create a unique scent—that, to me, is an amazing, almost scientific art.”
As an actor who’s devoted his life to giving viewers transporting stories, Depp treasures the olfactory journeys a scent can evoke. “In the very same way that music can take you back to a very specific time or a place or a moment, a scent is just as immediate,” he says. “I can smell, for example, some old-school very inexpensive drugstore cologne... and really, truly appreciate those smells because it takes me back to my grandfather.”
The legacy of Dior’s heritage appealed to him too, as did the name of the spicy, masculine scent. “I don’t know much about fashion, but I know a kind of feel or aesthetic of something. And with a scent, which is a very personal thing for people, Dior has done something that’s singular,” he explains. “Also, there’s an elegance to Dior. There’s a kind of gravity to Dior. The name ‘Sauvage,’ it’s something that means a lot to me. It makes you think of the humanity, or the humanness of someone. It’s sort of wild or on the edge a bit... someone who doesn’t compromise their way.”
In French, the word “is not negative,” he notes. “‘Renegade’ probably would connect more with the French idea of sauvage.” He’s right: In French, the word is more akin to the term noble savage invented by John Dryden, who was the big competitor in Restoration poetry to John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (whom Depp played in The Libertine, 2004). It expresses the concept of an idealized indigenous person who has not been corrupted by civilization and who symbolizes humanity. As noted, Depp’s played a few of those characters, of course. “All my outsiders, it’s a funny thing, that. Uncorrupted—that’s the key,” he says.
His iconic characters always leave their mark on him. “The scary thing is, they’re all still in there. I don’t think that it’s normal to have so many different personalities in there,” he declares. The ones most like him, though, are Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow. “That’s probably the combo platter that is closest to me. There’s nothing I adore more than irreverence, and that’s the luxury of playing that character, Jack Sparrow: You can be as irreverent as you want, and people will laugh. With Edward, I remember reading that script and I connected so deeply to the purity of the character. It reminded me of a dog that I had, that unconditional love of a dog. There was real safety in that purity... it’s not even kindness because he’s unaware of the concept of kindness. He’s just pure. So there’s the classic case of angel versus devil.”
Depp also connected with the purity he found in photographer and director Jean-Baptiste Mondino, with whom he worked on the short silent film that kicks off the Dior Sauvage campaign. “We talked a bit about doing a movie a million years ago, and he’s also very close with Vanessa [Paradis, Depp’s former partner], so I had heard when you work with him, you’re going to fall in love with him instantly.” And that’s just what happened, he continues. “I had fallen in love with him weeks before we rolled the cameras. He’s instantly lovable because he’s so pure.”
Depp had input in the making of the short too, which unfolds as a sort of vision quest, taking him from L.A. to the desert. “I told him that we should do a silent film, where the sound becomes possibly the most important thing,” he recalls. “I trusted the narrative, and I trusted his vision. From the kind of madness and cacophony of L.A. and its sounds, then to the desert to the cacophony of silence, he made that journey work. Doing this film was liberating. I felt a connection to it. It was almost more musical than strict cinema. There was nothing strict about it. It was just joyfully free.”
Today, Depp is a free spirit himself. He manages to be of the zeitgeist, and apart from it. He keeps a low profile, retreating to homes dotted around the world and living largely out of the spotlight when not promoting films. He and his former longtime partner, French actress and singer Paradis, had lived in a small town in the French countryside with their two children, daughter Lily-Rose, 16, and son Jack, 13. But after 14 years, the couple, who never married, split in 2012. In February 2015, Depp legally tied the knot with Amber Heard, 29, at his Los Angeles home, followed by a proper wedding on his private island in the Bahamas, where family and close friends helped celebrate their nuptials on the sandy shores of Little Hall’s Pond Cay. It was a private affair: No wedding pictures surfaced beyond paparazzi shots from the sky.
The actor, who once lived in New York, had to leave, to escape the experience of constantly being recognized. “As [Jean] Cocteau said, ‘The more you look at me, the more I disappear,’” says Depp, who maintains that he never aspired to have a life on the big screen, let alone mega-fame. His first love was, and remains, music. “When I was a kid, I so desperately wanted to play the guitar that, at the age of 12, I got a $25 guitar and basically locked myself in my room for a year, learning, looking at photographs of chords, listening to records. I guess I just developed a musical ear. I never really made the decision to become an actor,” he confides. “It was really, especially the first four or five gigs, just to pay the rent. I couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about movies. I was a musician—I was a guitar player—and that’s what I wanted to pursue. But this business stuff happened, and 30 years later, somehow, I’m still here. ... I’m still not sure what I want to be.”
As a young, aspiring musician, Depp and his rock bandmates moved to Hollywood, hoping to land a record deal. “When we arrived in L.A., we knew we were in the wrong spot,” he recalls. “There were all these big-hair bands. Record companies weren’t looking for our kind of punk-pop; it was really all about Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses. Most of them had the same hairdressers, I think.” Depp’s band played music more in line with Elvis Costello or The Clash. “Nobody was interested. We’d get a gig here, a gig there. It was pretty lowdown days.” Then, in 1984, a friend introduced him to a talent agent, and the rest is history. “She sent me for an audition, and I got it.” His first film: A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Even as a movie star, Depp has always made music a major part of his life. He’s played guitar alongside some of the greats, from Paul McCartney to Ryan Adams, but don’t expect a Johnny Depp album in this lifetime. “I couldn’t,” he says. “I’ve always preferred the role of a sideman. I have friends that I get the chance to write with and record with—stuff you can’t put your head around, like playing opposite McCartney. What is nice for me is, I have this weird second life, where there is no character, there is no talking, there’s no nothing. It’s just direct from the brain or heart or through the veins down to the fingers, and stuff happens—music happens. Nothing is ever the same twice—a solo or a riff. It’s a direct shot from the center of your being, from your feelings straight to the fingers.”
The spontaneity of being a musician, he continues, makes him a better actor. “I think my approach to my current work is pretty much the same as the way I approach playing. Never do anything twice. Challenge yourself each time to go further. Make weird noises,” he says, laughing. Spoken like a true outsider.
Bold, powerful and enduring, Dior’s first new men’s franchise in a decade, appropriately named Dior Sauvage, bursts forth with invigorating top notes of Reggio bergamot and Ambroxan (derived from ambergris); middle notes of sunny geranium and lavender, earthy vetiver and double-distilled patchouli; and base notes of woody frankincense, spicy Sichuan and pink peppers. The wearer leaves behind a trail of sensuous, undiluted masculinity. The Dior Sauvage Collection includes eau de toilette ($72-$89, shown here), after-shave lotion ($55) and deodorant spray ($27).
Photography by Nathaniel Goldberg for Christian Dior Parfums