Johnny Depp admits that he might not have been quite the hell-raiser Hunter S. Thompson was, he did try his hand at fire-breathing.
“I did spew a little fire when I was a youth,” chuckles Depp, who also blows some flame in his new film “The Rum Diary,” based on the author’s memoir-istic novel. “In youth I very, very dumbly chugged some gasoline and blew it into a torch. And then my head was on fire. That's true, yeah, my head was on fire – and it's a weird thing when your head is on fire. You tend to panic first. And then when panic kind of sets in and you can't put your face out, you run. Which is the worst thing you can do. And a friend of mine's dad came over and put my face out. Saved my life. But I'll do it again if you like.”
Today Depp’s better known for breathing figurative fire into the characters he plays on film, and like Edward Scissorhands, Willie Wonka and Captain Jack Sparrow, Hunter S. Thompson was already a role he’d already made (more) famous in the 1998 adaptation of the author’s seminal book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Even before the film, Depp had been a longtime admirer and eventual close friend of the iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian writer, who pioneered “Gonzo journalism” – in which writers become involved in the stories to the point that they become central figures – and notoriously ingested any psyche-altering substance that came his way.
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In fact, if it weren’t for Depp, The Rum Diary – a loosely autobiographical but fictionalized account of Thompson’s experiences as a young newspaper reporter amid corruption schemes in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s – the actual book, which went unpublished after Thompson penned it in the early 1960s, might never have seen the light of day.
“Hunter and I were sitting in what he called the War Room, back in about 1997 and going through all the manuscripts,” Depp remembers, “all the bits and bops from 'Fear and Loathing…' which included cherry stems and cocktail napkins and weird photographs and things like that. I happened upon the cardboard box that unearthed 'The Rum Diary.' We started to read it cross-legged on the floor and I said, 'Hunter this is very good, man. You're out of your mind. Why don't you publish this thing?' He said, 'Yes, I will. However, I think we should produce this now. We should become partners on this.' And so, of course, with Hunter you always agree: 'Absolutely, man. Let's do it.' So that was the moment that it started. So that's why we made 'The Rum Diary' as opposed to 'The Curse of Lono' or 'The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved' or 'Hell’s Angels' or whatever else.”
With his health declining, Thompson committed suicide in 2005, so when it ultimately came time to adapt the book to film, as the film’s producer Depp admits collapsing the story into something cinematic wasn’t an easy task. “I mean, I knew the book backwards and forwards, certainly, but It was really beyond my area of expertise, for sure,” he says. He turned to writer-director Bruce Robinson, the screenwriter of “The Killing Fields” and creative force behind the cult classic 1987 “Withnail and I,” luring Robinson out of a long stint away from Hollywood to helm the project.
Because of Thompson’s self-created larger-than-life persona, Depp says that even now his admirers don’t quite have the full picture of the man. “The main thing that no one really understood about Hunter or realized about Hunter was that he had a very sort of strong, very thick sort of moral fiber,” explains the actor. “He was first and foremost a Southern gentleman, chivalrous, and no one ever sort of dared to look at that side of him – or were ever exposed to that side of him. He was a very sensitive, hypersensitive man – hence the self-medication. Yeah, a total moral man. So that's a side that no one ever saw. But then what everyone expected from Hunter Thompson was ‘The circus came to town. What's he gonna do now?’ I witnessed it the first time I met him. He walked into a bar and cleared a path with a huge, giant cattle prod and a taser gun. He did that for about ten minutes. And it worked. So there was that side to him that people expected. But the other side, when you really spent time with him, was this highly intelligent, hypersensitive, beautiful man.”
But then, something of Thompson’s spirit lingers with him still, he reveals. “My first day of shooting on 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' I get this call from Bill Murray,” Depp reveals (Murray also played Thompson in the 1980 film “Where the Buffalo Roam”). “We're halfway through the day, and I had sponged pretty well off of Hunter for many years, for like a long time, and I think I had him down pretty good. And Bill Murray calls me halfway through the day and he says, 'I just want to warn you about something.' 'What? What's the warning, Bill?' And he says 'Be careful when you play Hunter, because he never leaves. Like, he'll never go away.' And nothing has ever been more true. Hunter – yeah, he never goes away. He's still with me. Every day.”