ORLANDO, Fla. — Like everyone who knew him, Johnny Depp collected Hunter S. Thompson stories.
The first one is how the already-famous actor first met his fellow Kentuckian, the notorious hell-raiser, gadfly and popular author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” in the Woody Creek Tavern near Thompson’s adopted hometown of Aspen, Colo., in December 1994. “I was sitting in the back of the place, and I saw the door burst open. I saw sparks! Literally!” Depp recalls. “Then I saw people leaping left and right, getting out of the way. He ‘parted the sea’ with a three-foot cattle prod in his left hand and some sort of Taser in his right!”
Depp laughs. “That was the beginning of the romance.”
Depp’s tales of Thompson, the inspiration for the ever-stoned Uncle Duke in “Doonesbury,” include the occasional near-death experience — usually involving firearms or explosives — all the way through to the funeral Depp ensured Thompson got after his death in 2005. “At a cost of $2.5 million, Depp gave Hunter the send-off he wanted,” Thompson biographer William McKeen wrote of that (literal) final blast: Thompson’s ashes, blown up in a shower of fireworks.
“Hunter was never the guy who was going to slump down in his soup,” Depp says of his friend, who committed suicide with a pistol at 67 as his body began to break down. “That wasn’t going to happen. He was going to make (darned) sure of that.”
But even after having played a version of Thompson on screen in 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and even after the funeral, Depp says he felt a need “for closure.” At 48, at the peak of his fame, Depp still turns into a fanboy when talking about Thompson.
And when you’re a fanboy who is the biggest movie star on the planet, closure can be a film based on Thompson’s novel, “The Rum Diary.” The movie, starring Depp and inspired by Thompson’s early stint as a brilliant but boozy journalist in San Juan, Puerto Rico, opens Friday.
Thompson “was already a hell-raiser” when he arrived in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s, Depp says. “In his youth, he was a ‘drape’ (a term from Depp’s movie ‘Cry-Baby’), a ‘greaser.’ He was a bit of a juvenile delinquent.
“Puerto Rico was maybe the catalyst that melded that man who despised authority into this chivalrous journalist. He began to acquire the voice we would get to know later, the voice of a man who would not stand for injustice, would not stand for ignorance, especially in the upper echelons of society. I think Puerto Rico was Hunter finding Hunter.”
“Rum Diary” puts the journalist, a version of Thompson, in the center of the action, surrounded by bizarrely colorful characters.
“I promise you, NONE of these people were made up,” Depp says with a chuckle. “The scariest things are the details he left out about them. That’s what’s most frightening, because the guy attracted people like that.”
The newspaper’s editor in the film (Richard Jenkins) rails about reporters coming there to feed their alcoholism, but none heed his warning.
“It’s not called ‘The Rum Diary’ for nothing,” Depp cracks. “Hunter’s capacity was most assuredly, uh, impressive. There were substances that he might ingest, now and then, in amounts that would have put other people in a hospital or have ended up dead. To Hunter, those substances were just espresso. So I learned VERY early on with Hunter to not try and keep UP with Hunter. Never try to compete.”
But the affected lunacy, the oddball entourage, the over-the-top indulgence is not what Depp wanted “The Rum Diary” to be about. Behind Thompson’s persona was a great writer. The literary historian Douglas Brinkley compared him to Ernest Hemingway, Thompson’s idol who also committed suicide, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Depp adds “Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Jack London and Nathanael West.”
“For me, he had as great a command of the English language as any of the greatest poets,” Depp says. “He found this gritty, unique, hilarious and sometimes poignant voice. OK, you’ve got the ‘gonzo journalist,’ all that stuff around ‘Fear and Loathing,’ but there’s so much more that he created. I believe him to be one of the most original and greatest writers of the 20th century.”
It was Depp who found Thompson’s “Rum Diary” notes and manuscript during a rummaging session in the writer’s archive and who persuaded him to publish the long-abandoned book back in 1999.
“‘I will. I shall. I must!”‘ Depp says, reviving the dead-on impersonation of Thompson he acquired for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” “But, he said, ‘you and I have to produce this as a movie. We’ll partner up on this thing.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Let’s (bleeping) do this!’”
As “Rum Diary” finishes its “long, strange trip” to cinemas, does Depp finally have his closure? Is he finally done with the man?
“I don’t think so,” Depp says. “I think that voice is going to echo forever. It’s so original and so important that, well, as long as I’m around, I’m not going to let people forget about him or his writing. The one thing that I know is that he’s never going to leave me alone.
“And … as much as I miss him and curse him for taking himself away from us, I understand it and I salute it.”