CHILDREN of the famous attest that the name is both blessing and curse. It opens doors - once - but having stepped over the threshold, you have to work twice as hard to confound people's natural urge to attribute your success to favouritism.
The sameholds truewhen that name-brand recognition comes through the side door, via a sibling. After all, why else would I visit London to meet Daniel Depp, if not for the recognisable surname he shares with his younger brother, the internationally renowned, Oscarnominated actor, Johnny?
I'll give you a great reason why: because Daniel, 55, has written a wickedly funny, hugely entertaining novel entitled Loser's Town. A fast-paced caper set amid the bright lights of the big City of Angels, it's sure to appeal to fans of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. Brimming with seamy details that speak to insiderknowledge, it'll leave you laughing and puzzling over which industry is more unsavoury, organised crime or movie-making.
At first glance, the brothers look nothing alike. Daniel is short, balding, and soft around the edges. But on closer examination they share the same soulful dark eyes, and a similar intensity. Daniel takes it as read that I'll be interested in his family, but seems far more concerned that I acknowledge his intelligence.
Softly spoken and courteous, he peppers our conversation with erudite references as if to drivehome his intellectual credentials. I suspect this is a by-product of being persistently underestimated and taken for a country bumpkin by Hollywood's slick operators.
He'snobumpkin,but the country bit is accurate.
The eldest of four kids in a family constantly on the move, Depp grew up all over the place. "I was born in eastern Kentucky in the mountains - a real Truman Capote Appalachian childhood. Then my mom remarried and we lived in Owensboro for a while, and Lexington. I went to at least five different high schools."
Technically he is Johnny's half brother - same mother, different fathers - but that's not how the family sees it. "It's a little irritating, everybody referring to me as John's halfbrother.
It's never a term we used. It never occurred to us. We grew up very closely. I used to take care of John when he was a little boy."
Daniel was bitten by the movie bug long before his brother stood before a camera. As a teenager in the 1970s, by now living in Coral Gables, Florida, he spent many an hour on a
folding chair in a little cinema that screened 16mmprints of French New Wave cinema.
Nevertheless, he dreamed of becoming an architect. "I loved the combination of art and science and all the architects I knew werewonderful, crazy people." But the training was too expensive, so he majored in classics, and then European History at the University of Kentucky.
Hewas, he confesses, an endless student, dropping in and out while toiling away at a thesis aboutHGWells and Edwardian technology.
"Then I realised I was never going to be a professor and I left. At that point my wife was going to have a baby (he married at 25 and his son isnow19]. She got a lovely job in Maine, so I said the hell with it and we went up there."
He ultimately went on to teach English to middle-school students in his current home town of San Jose, California, but Depp has alwayswrittenin his sparetime.Hebeganpublishingpoetry, inasmallway,whenhewasonly 12. Luckily, he's had the best possible training for a writer, by dint of holding down such a variety of jobs. Wikipedia cites journalist, bookseller, photographer and teacher.
"I have a Wikipedia listing? I'mimpressed," he marvels. "The list goes far beyond that. I've worked digging ditches and as an engineering draftsman. I worked in libraries and bookstores. The job I really liked was managing the art library at night, because I was also studying ceramics and learning how to throw pots with a wonderful guy namedJohnTuska.He was a hard task-master.
You had to make all your own tools in the machine shop and mix your own clays. I got fascinated by Staffordshire low-fire pottery." There you go, trivia lovers – a titbit you won't find online!
In 1994, Johnny rang with the exciting news that they finally had a shot at making a film together. Daniel flew to LA reluctantly, thinking he'd be there for a weekend. Instead he got caught up in revising the script of The Brave, a sombre film about a destitute Indian offered the chance to star in a snuff movie to earn $50,000 for his family.
"I didn't want to go. I knew what was going to happen. I loved the idea of making a film but I knew it would be a headache – there'd be this business of being the star's
brother, and I knew I was walking into a heated political situation, with a lot of people
who were going to consider me a hayseed, anyway.
Back then, despite several screenplaysdoing the rounds, Depp kept his novels locked away, refusing to publish them. "It drove my brother crazy! Inever thought I'd actuallymake a living writing. I've never gotten the sort of thrill out of publishing my work that lots of people do.
For me, it's about a series of challenges to be met. The way I judge what I've done is to see how close I actually got to meeting those challenges."
The challenge he's set himself,which begins with Loser's Town, is creating a three-act drama charting a proper character arc that follows the development of David Spandau, a stuntman turned private investigator. "In a way, the book was a payback to all the writers who influenced me hugely. I can go on for ages about Chandler. Philip Marlowe is a direct descendent of all the Arthurian legends, a knight errant.And itwas funto be able to draw onmyHollywood experience and perhaps tell people things they hadn't seen before."
Didn't he say that the best social criticism comes out of the crime genre? "I said that the two genres with the most freedom to criticise the culture and get away with it are stand-up comics and mystery writers, because people will tolerate it. Stand-up is obvious; with mystery writers, it's because the genre's never quite been considered literary."
What, then, ishekeento tell usaboutAmerican culture? "I hopewhat seeps throughis that awareness of illusion. Ihave a greatdeal ofsympathy for actors. They're absolutely vulnerable and fans don't quite realise that. I don't think we want to let them be life-sized. It's the only mythology that we have." The last thing anyone wants, he contends, is to see their illusions shattered, even though we know they're faked. And yet, I argue, it seems as though we're forever trying to peer behind celebrity faades. He shakes his head. "You're never going to see what reallyhappens.Youdonot.
It's way too controlled. If it seems not to be, that's another veil of illusion. It's no different than going to Vegas and seeing David Copperfield." Loser's Town is not a roman clef, he reminds me, though he accepts our natural inclination to superimpose real-life people on his made-up characters.
None of whom are based on his brother, a fact he was at pains to point out to his family pre-publication.
"Johnny's been incredibly supportive and I don't think the book would have got done without him saying, You've got to finally publish something; you're killing me! Whatever I wanted to do,
he'd be supportive of (it].We're a very close family. All of us. Asked if he'd like Johnny to star in the film, Depp hesitates and seems embarrassed. I don't want to say, because it would sound too obvious Shall I say it? I offer. I think your brother's a brilliant actor. Relieved laughter. I think you're probably right. I would love to be able to do my job nearly as well as he does his. The fact that what we do is so different means we can enjoy it, because there's no envy. We both appreciate what the other does. I've been very lucky. I wish I could say it's sheer brilliance, but it's not. I've been incredibly blessed.