Johnny Depp has fond memories of his first machine gun.
He was just a bitty kid growing up in Owensboro, Ky., but somewhere around age 5 or 6, he began shooting .22s, then moved on to .38s, .44s and .45s. And then he got his hands on a relative's Thompson machine gun.
"I butted it up against the tree 'cause it tends to ride up on you," says the 46-year-old actor, who relives the moment, complete with shooting sounds. He begins clapping his hand on the top of his imaginary gun. "My pop came in and grabbed it, so it didn't go anywhere." He laughs.
Guns are certainly a topic of conversation today for Depp, given that the superstar is talking about his new film, "Public Enemies" (opening Friday), the Michael Mann gangster epic in which he plays famed 1930s bank robber John Dillinger. But firearms crop up in other ways too, like in the story about the first time Depp met his longtime friend, the late Hunter Thompson. Depp -- who played the author in the 1998 film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and recently finished work on an adaptation of "The Rum Diary" -- went to Thompson's house in Colorado, where he complimented the writer on a beautiful 12-gauge shotgun hanging on the wall.
"He said, 'Oh, yeah, wanna fire it?' " recalls Depp, relishing the memory. Then Thompson told him to hold on to a couple of small propane tanks. "I got a cigarette hanging in my mouth and he starts handing me these little matchbox-shaped square bits and told me to tape them to the sides of the tanks. I said 'What is this we are taping to the side of this propane tank?' And he said, 'Nitroglycerin.' "
Depp opens his black eyes wide and wears a look of horror. "I chucked my cigarette in the sink!"
Later, he shot the tanks in Thompson's back yard and "there was an 80-foot fireball. I think that was my test," he says, laughing.
It's hard to imagine that Depp wouldn't ace any sort of exam that tests the limits of the free spirit. He's perhaps the most eccentric of all the major male movie stars. Ironically enough -- given his actual background with guns -- he's practically the only one who didn't ascend to Hollywood superstardom with shoot-'em-up roles in action movies. Depp's certainly done more than almost any other actor in Hollywood to expand the on-screen concept of masculinity, bringing "guyliner" to mainstream America well before Adam Lambert ever appeared on "American Idol" as well as a vision of male heterosexuality that still maintains an element of the feminine and tons of real rebelliousness.
He certainly seems his sui-generis self at all times. He arrives for the interview dressed with addled panache in a fitted blue pinstripe vest, with a pressed green bandanna hanging just so out of his jeans pocket. His hair flops to the side like a '20s-style banker who neglected to slick back his locks, and he sports facial scruff where a more traditional beard might have grown. He comes across both courtly and fey, immediately apologizing for his slightly dazed, jet-lagged state.
After finishing "Rum Diary" in Puerto Rico, he flew to L.A. to pick up his "kiddies" (7-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter with longtime love Vanessa Paradis), accompanied them to France where they have a second home, then flew to Chicago for the first "Public Enemies" premiere, and then back to California for a second red-carpet screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room, he recalls this itinerary with a voice that seems almost unrecognizable at first. He both drawls and plucks his words precisely, and it sounds as if the tenor was slightly aerated. It's strange to hear, because in the last decade or so, he's rarely used his actual speaking voice on film.
Depp has appeared in almost 50 movies, but for much of his early career -- the "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" portion -- he seemed like a bohemian artist, intensely wary of the major stardom that could easily be his given his natural on-screen charisma. More recently, he seems to have made peace with his mantle by embracing the medium's mythic and myth-making potential.
Depp hasn't played many ordinary citizens of late, jobbing in suburbia, grinding through everyday existence. He seems to prefer portraying an androgynous eye-lined pirate ("The Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy), the slightly creepy candy impresario with the Prince Valiant haircut ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), the dreamy, gentle creator of Peter Pan ("Finding Neverland"), and the Mad Hatter from the upcoming Tim Burton version of "Alice in Wonderland," a creature with tangerine orange eyebrows, hair that seems to jet propulsively out of his head, spooky lime-green eyes, and a hat that appears constructed out of feathers and lace.