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Living in exile 

Johnny Depp brings his unorthodox approach to Blow

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 the real-life drug trafficker George Jung in Blow (opening April 6).

Sort of a Boogie Nights about dealing drugs instead of making porn, director Ted Demme's sprawling saga features a stellar supporting ensemble -- Penelope Cruz, Franka Potente, Ray Liotta, Rachel Griffiths, Paul Reubens -- but the film ultimately hinges on another of Depp's customarily nuanced performances.

Jung began his life of crime in the late 1960s peddling pot to beach bunnies, and he eventually made a fortune in the '70s and '80s distributing cocaine in the States for the notorious South American drug cartel run by Pablo Escobar. His misguided pursuit of the American Dream ultimately costs him everything he holds dear, ending in a nightmare from which he has yet to awake. (Jung is still serving time in a federal prison.)

Depp says he was drawn to that "human" element of Jung's story. "I didn't really see this as a drug movie, per se. I mean, drugs are certainly a big part of the story, but the movie isn't pointing the finger at anybody or making any statements about the drug situation in general. Basically, I thought of it as the story of one man's life. It would've been easy to point my finger at him or play him as a character you didn't like very much, so my biggest challenge was trying to make him human, to make his story more identifiable," Depp says in a recent interview.

"Like any one of us, he himself is a victim to some extent, of his upbringing, of the times, of the conditioning his parents placed on him," Depp continues. "Clearly, he made some bad decisions, and he's had to pay for them ever since. His entire life has been devastated by the choices he made, and he lives with that every day. I think what happened to George could happen to anybody. Most people presented with the same opportunities he [was] would probably be tempted to take the money and run, too."

Strange logic, perhaps, coming from someone who has so steadfastly refused to take the Hollywood money and run. Rarely subscribing to the conventional wisdom of the industry, Depp's projects tend to generate apart 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 similarly eccentric type, they otherwise allow the 37-year-old actor 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, "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."

He pauses to hand roll a cigarette. "It's difficult for me to judge what's mainstream and what isn't. To me, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood are pictures that should have been mainstream. I mean, you can read 10 pages into most scripts and tell that the inception was in trying to make a box-office hit, but I'm not really interested in that. I like to experiment, to try new things. The idea that you could fail miserably is sort of seductive to me," he says with a smile.

By the same token, Depp is perfectly content to live well outside the usual Hollywood circles. 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, lighting his cigarette. "It was more than that, though. It was like some strange, beautiful destiny, like I was drawn there specifically to meet Vanessa. I went over to do this movie, we met, and I never left.

"It's been an interesting couple of years, having some distance away from this country in general and from Hollywood in particular, because it's given me a pretty interesting perspective on what's going on over here, the differences between the two cultures. I mean, the amount of random violence over here, the craziness of kids going into schools and shooting each other up, it's no longer such a rare occurrence, you know? It's madness, and it happens all the time. I don't want to live with that, and I certainly don't want my daughter growing up watching that kind of stuff on television."

In Blow, Jung realizes too late the tragedy of shirking his parental responsibilities, but Depp won't be making that mistake, either. "Has fatherhood changed me drastically? It's made me drastically," the actor gushes. "The birth of my daughter just woke me up and gave me a reason to live, you know?"

Depp smiles again. "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 mean, I knew I had some degree of luck and success in my chosen field, and that I was lucky to have my family and friends, but having my own child was the first totally selfless experience I'd ever had. It wasn't until she was born that I could finally start getting over myself."

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