HOLLYWOOD — From a balcony on the top floor of a Hollywood hotel, Los Angeles is defined in a vast scrim of lights, winking in the distance. The actor who once called himself Oprah Noodlemantra gazes at the twitching city.
"I've always thought the term 'serious actor' was an oxymoron," says Johnny Depp. "An actor pretends for a living, tells lies for a living. I guess you could be a serious liar, but comic actor makes more sense. Most comedy is based on tragedy: it's only funny because something horrible happens."
In his 20-odd movies Depp has swung and swerved from the serious to the comic without losing credibility, and "odd" may be too mild a description for some of them. His preference for challenging, offbeat roles and his fierce resistance to playing conventional romantic leads, have established him, at 37, as the most venturesome actor of his generation.
Depp's feathery, nervy portrayal of the 1970s cocaine kingpin George Jung in "Blow" is yet another validation of his considerable serio-comic talent.
"Johnny is one of the few fine actors who is also a movie star," says John Waters, who directed him in the 1990 retro-schlock romp "Cry-Baby." "Everyone in film respects him, no one can predict what weird role he'll show up in next. His career will last forever because he has a complete disdain for movie stardom and commercial success. He'll be 80 and still surprising audiences."
There is a tangible aura of calmness about Depp, almost a stillness. He leans against the balcony railing with a kind of deadpan cool, his dharma-bum denims tucked into muddy black work boots, his lank brown hair fastened in a pony tail.
Once known as a one-man orgy of abandon and excess (assaulting paparazzi, assaulting hotel rooms, getting affianced to half of Hollywood), he speaks tenderly and with raw joy about his life as an expatriate with the French pop star Vanessa Paradis and their 22-month-old daughter, Lily-Rose.
"I've been on a cushion of air ever since my little girl was born," he says in a voice as smooth and seductive as chocolate pudding. "She's my reason to wake up in the morning, my reason to live."
The face of this onetime schoolgirls' heartthrob has a delicate beauty that's startling, perhaps more so for being intermittent. He can look almost plain, and then, with a tilt of the head, impossibly handsome.
To Depp, his looks are as much an impediment as an asset: They sometimes overshadow his talent. "Appearance is temporary," he says. "It's nothing you can rely on. In the end, gravity always wins."