Actor turns new page as the family man

"I'd like to think I was reborn May 27, 1999," Johnny Depp confides.

Why that date? Well, that's when his daughter, Lily-Rose Melody, was born.

"Everything changed once I held [her] in my arms, and those innocent eyes stared into mine," Depp says. "Until that moment, I had been possessed with 'me' and 'my career.' Suddenly, there was someone who depended on me, who I was responsible for."

Since then, life has changed for the actor. "I'm not so intent on working every day. That's why my new film was appealing."

He was referring to "From Hell," the story of Jack the Ripper, in which he plays inspector Fred Abberline, who tracks down leading suspects in serial-killer crimes (see review on page 15).

Depp has certainly matured as an actor since his days of playing a teenage cop on the hit TV drama "21 Jump Street." His carefully chosen roles range from a gentle man with sharp hands in "Edward Scissorhands;" a boy who must care for his autistic brother in the poignant "Gilbert Grape;" and an FBI undercover agent in the mob drama "Donnie Brasco." His most recent films include "Blow" and the Oscar-nominated "Chocolat."

Since Depp has a home in France, the European location for "From Hell" meant he'd be much closer for weekend visits. Or for mama, French singer Vanessa Paradis, to bring Lily-Rose to Prague, where the movie was made. There, on 20 acres, the film crew had set up a 19th-century replica of the the Whitechapel district in London.

"Ever since I was 9, and saw a TV special on Jack the Ripper," Depp says, "I was fascinated by this unsolved case. By the time I was 15, I had read at least 10 books on the case. All that, plus the fact I'd have the opportunity to work with the twins, Albert and Allen Hughes ["Menace II Society"], who were co-directing the movie, made it most appealing."

Depp owns an apartment in Paris and a home in Los Angeles. Since his daughter's birth, he's bought a farmhouse in the south of France, where he doesn't play the fame game. "I don't live, breathe, and swallow it," he smiles.

"It's a more normal life for Lily-Rose. This summer, I'd sweep her up in my arms, and we'd go to the orchard to pick a juicy peach for breakfast."

Depp has also completed "Once Upon a Time In Mexico" for release sometime next year. Directed by Robert Rodriguez ("Spy Kids"), the modern-day western features Depp in a small cameo role as a dissatisfied CIA agent. "I'm not eager to do a lot of movies," he confides. "Lily-Rose is 2-1/2, and each day is a new discovery for her. I want to be there and live it with her.

"When she was 6 months old, I held a paint brush in her hand. By the time she was 1, I was guiding her hand to paint with acrylics. Also, I showed how to keep her brushes clean. Now, she's intrigued by pastels and going through her 'purple phase.' "

Even though he was in Los Angeles for a week, his daughter wasn't out of his mind. He'd just received a fax of her latest effort: a picture of daddy. "She's developing from abstract into more figurative. See the shape of my head, my hair, my shoulder? An exact likeness," he says smiling.

The thoughtful actor likes this feeling of roots. "I was born in Kentucky, but moved to Florida at age 5. Before I was 15, we moved 30 times, once just from one house to the house next door. I asked my mom why. I never did understand her explanation."

The actor was always interested in music. "My mom gave me $25 to buy my first guitar. I taught myself to play, and formed several garage bands. We weren't too shabby; once we opened for Iggy Pop."

With mom a singer and dad a musician, Lily-Rose has grown up with music. Depp has shown her how to hold a guitar and strum it. But she's much too small to hold it on her own. "If I had my wish, she'd be a painter. That's why I'm keeping her sketches, even this fax. Someday, if she becomes famous, I can take it to the bank," he laughs.

Good friends like Nicolas Cage, Bill Murray, and director Tim Burton see an amazing change in Depp. In earlier times, he was reported to have trashed the furniture in a New York hotel suite and gone after the paparazzi with a plank. Now, he says, that was then; this is now.

Even Depp's appearance has changed. Last time we met, his hair was long, he sported a beard, and he wore a T-shirt, jeans, and industrial boots. This time, he was clean-shaven, hair slicked back, and wearing a charcoal pin-stripped designer suit, maroon shirt, and charcoal necktie.

The change goes deeper than wardrobe. "Even if I tried to avoid the certain emotions that live inside me, I wouldn't be able to do so. I have a family now, and I'll do anything I can to make life good. So if all this should evaporate, and I had to go back to pumping gas, I'd do it. That would be OK, as long as my family was there for me, and I for them.

"There's no stop and start to the career game. It's crazy to take any of it seriously. In 10 or 15 years, who knows, I might go south. Instead of acting, maybe I'd rather sit at home and be daddy and make paintings with my daughter."

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