The Rum Diary holds a special place in the heart of Johnny Depp. It was the actor who found the manuscript for what would prove to be one of Hunter S. Thompson's final books. Depp sits down and talks to Movie Fanatic about how full his heart is now that The Rum Diary is set to hit the big screen.
The Rum Diary (don't miss this clip starring Amber Heard and Depp) is an origins story in the legend of Thompson's Gonzo self. His fictional alter ego, Paul Kemp, is an aspiring novelist who lands in Puerto Rico to take a position at a San Juan daily newspaper. To say chaos ensues undermines and minimizes the author's penchant for mayhem. The Rum Diary also stars Giovanni Ribisi and Aaron Eckhart.
Depp also discusses his friendship with Thompson and what the author would make of the promotional circus that is why Movie Fanatic is sitting with the international superstar.
Movie Fanatic: Before you met the man, what was it about the prose of Hunter Thompson that spoke to you most?
Johnny Depp: Individuality, originality, rage, poetic rage, beauty, anger, understanding, and also this incredible gift of identification. Even before you know Hunter, when you read you know you read his words. I mean he picks a person and describes them to the "T" within seconds. I saw Hunter meet people and be very sweet and gentlemanly and the whole bit. Then I saw him meet people who had the wrong sort of approach and I saw him turn them into a mist within seconds -- like just absolutely a fine mist and gone. I think that's what was really amazing about Hunter, his ability to have a bullshit detector. He did not step on fools gladly.
Movie Fanatic: As a man who knew Hunter so well, were there things you wanted audiences to know about him through this film?
Johnny Depp: He was first and foremost a Southern gentleman, chivalrous, and no one ever dared to sort of look at that side of him or were exposed to that side of him. The main thing that no one really understood about Hunter or ever realized about Hunter was that he was a very strong, very thick, sort of moral fiber. He was a very hypersensitive man hence the self-medication.
Movie Fanatic: How did The Rum Diary come about, both cinematically and literarily?
Johnny Depp: Primarily because Hunter and I were sitting in his what he called the War Room back in 1997 and going through all the manuscripts, you know all the bips and bops from Fear and Loathing, which included cherry stems and cocktail napkins and weird photographs and things like that. I happened upon a 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, 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, man. We should become partners on this." And so of course with Hunter you always agreed. "Absolutely, man, let's do it." That was the moment that it started, so that's why The Rum Diary as opposed to The Curse of Lono or Kentucky Derby's Decadent and Depraved or Hell's Angels or whatever else.
Movie Fanatic: Did Bill Murray, who starred as Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam, tell you something about never being able to get Hunter out of your system once you play him?
Johnny Depp: My first day of shooting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I get this call from Bill Murray, we're halfway through the day, and I had sponged off of Hunter for many years. 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.” And I go, “What? What's the warning Bill?” And he says, "Be careful when you're playing Hunter because he never leaves -- like he'll never go away.” And nothing has ever been more true. He never goes away. He's still with me every day.
Movie Fanatic: What does it mean to you as a friend to portray Hunter in two lights: One as a young man in The Rum Diary, and the other as a full-blown Gonzo journalist in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?
Johnny Depp: Luckily I had spent so much time with Hunter, he talked about everything -- his youth, his upbringing. Going from a juvenile delinquent into the Air Force and then from the Air Force into journalism. You know he typed and retyped The Great Gatsby over and over to see what it felt like to write a masterpiece. I knew Hunter so well and having had the opportunity to play him in Fear and Loathing, the character of Raoul Duke, it was sort of just basically make a few trims here and there in terms of personality. Because Hunter really truly knew who he was always from birth. But it was just that moment, what was it like prior to finding his voice, finding Gonzo?
Movie Fanatic: Do you think Rum Diary could be seen as a companion piece to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?
Johnny Depp: I do in a sense. I'm coming from the perspective of Hunter and everything Hunter did to me was absolute brilliance. Fear and Loathing was a pure take on the book. Rum Diary is a pure take on the book in the sense that we also branched out. But do I see it as a companion piece? Yeah. Why not? It's Hunter! It's pure Hunter. He was most definitely there every day. Initially it was the idea of keeping Hunter's spirit alive on the set for us, but I knew that I had Hunter with me. And I had put my pillow on the bed at night like he was there.
Movie Fanatic: Much of the theme of The Rum Diary is the Hunter character, Paul Kemp, finding his voice. Do you feel that you’ve found your voice as an actor?
Johnny Depp: At this point I've got too many voices in my head [laughs]. I don't know that I'll ever have a voice as an actor. But there are a lot of characters in there. Maybe my voice is through them, I don't know. Maybe I'm schizophrenic.
Movie Fanatic: In the film you shoot fire out of your mouth! Did you really do that stunt and have you ever shot fire out of your mouth before? Or, is this a stupid question given your wild past?
Johnny Depp: [Laughs] Yes, I fire-breathed. Do you wanna see it now? [Gestures] Alright where's the gas? Where's the rum? On that particular night filming, at first, I was excited 'cause Michael (Rispoli) had a chicken sitting on top of his head which always excites me. And then there was actually the possibility of spewing fire. I did spew a little fire when I was a youth. In my youth I very dumbly choked a little bit of gasoline and blew it into a torch and my head was on fire. That's the truth [laughs]. Yeah, my head was on fire and it's a weird thing when your head's on fire. You tend to panic first. Then when panic sets in, when you can't get your face out, you run, which is the worst thing you could do. A friend of mine, this guy named Bones, came over and put my face out -- saved my life. But I'll do it again today if you'd like.
Movie Fanatic: No need! If you didn't have Hunter’s blessing to make The Rum Diary, what would've been your choice for a next Hunter project?
Johnny Depp: With Hunter's stuff there's always a project. If I was allowed to, I'd keep playing Hunter. Well there's a great comfort in it for me because I get sort of a great visit with my old friend who I miss dearly.