In an exclusive with Men’s Folio, Johnny Depp — the face of Dior Sauvage Elixir – talks about how he brings the fragrance to life.
There are wolves with you in this campaign, what can you tell us about that? How do you feel about wolves?
Wolves are such isolated and mysterious creatures. Most importantly, they are isolated by choice. It’s a very powerful and rare opportunity to be in their presence – to observe them. Survival is a way of life and, therefore, part of their daily responsibilities. They will be confronted, and they MUST survive, for it is absolutely essential that they protect the pack at any cost!!! I have total admiration and respect for the wolf and am also fascinated by what they represent, both in our conscious and subconscious mind.
Beautiful. Evil. Dangerous. Frightening. Hypnotic. Feral. Pure instinct. Brilliant. Poetic yet dangerous when provoked. Above all they are extremely loyal to their pack.
Can you tell us about your collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Mondino?
He is unbelievable. I mean unbelievable! I will say this: I met him far too late in both our worlds, lives and careers – I wish I met him 30 years ago. I adore working with him because he surprises me every time. He surprises me at every take. It’s very rare.
Because, though there is a narrative, he’s not going to hand it to you like candy. There’s a suspension of disbelief that you’re almost forced to use to understand his imagery. And it speaks volumes.
I think Jean-Baptiste did something brilliant by simply saying, “I’m really not interested in making a bunch of movies. I’d rather film these clips or take photographs of this”. He’s doing everything he loves with all the intention of a proper and true artist, which he certainly is. He does it without any compromise because he can’t change himself. He’s that special. Whereas Jean-Baptiste has made a career of doing commercials, videos, clips, photographs and was very successful in all commercial stuff, he slipped art in which is almost impossible. So, ironically, he stayed in the commercial world to remain an artist. He has very, very original ideas, he’s totally unique.
The way that he works, as a director with an actor, is perfect. He has the bedside manner of your best friend. He’s totally open, totally honest. He’s funny, man! He’s special. I adore him. If phone books existed still, I would shoot the phone book with him, however long it took.
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How would you describe the influence of music in your life?
Music is everything to me. It’s a constant. I’m sure that even when I’m asleep it’s constantly there. Because songs, in a way, and music…certain music, certain pieces of music, certain songs…music is a direct line to certain memories, it’s a direct line to your emotions. If I had not discovered music at the age of 12 or whatever, there’s no telling where I’d be. Thankfully I fell deeply, deeply in love with it at the age of 12. I didn’t take guitar lessons or anything, I just stole a guitar chord book from a local store and I taught myself how to play the thing. And that was at the age of 12, so I don’t think my passion for music will ever go away.
Music is everything. Strangely everyone sort of lives with a soundtrack to their life. It can create…as I said, it’s a memory, it’s a scent, it’s an emotional memory. Just like perfume, cologne, parfum… in the very same way that a scent can make you travel inside…it’s a sense memory and it takes you right back. A certain smell, a certain scent takes you directly back to a person, a place or a thing. You know, if you were standing in a jasmine field as a child, [smells] you’re right back there. It’s very much the same with music. I use music all the time. I think everybody is very understanding of the idea that, you know, that if you put on a Marvin Gaye song from the seventies – boom – you’re transported…if you hear a Gainsbourg song from the sixties, you’re transported.
We are essentially receivers, with regard to everything we experience in life. And scent has very much to do with it. All that can instigate emotions and they’ll take you right back to the moment, which is essentially what acting is about: using things like that, applying things to the work.
And talking about memories, what would be your first memories of scent?
I think that my earliest memories of scent, because I was born in Kentucky which is known as the blue grass state, are linked to that. Even today, if I am out in the countryside and smell a certain flower it can take me right back to a childhood memory. Also, I can remember very well, I could identify people by their scent when I was a kid.
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What do you love about perfume, perfume in general and then Sauvage?
I can remember when I was a kid, you know, you’re sixteen-seventeen, you start wearing cologne, you know. ‘Cause I was playing guitar in clubs so it was part of the gig. Bang bang bang, spray yourself with something, you had no idea what it was. And there are certain scents, I close my eyes, I’m in the dressing room, you know, before we play our sixth set, and I’m seventeen years old, it’s still there you know?
So, scent is essential, especially, like I said, with what Sauvage has become, with what Sauvage is, to me… Though it wasn’t tailormade for me specifically, it is exactly the scent for me, it’s exactly the scent. As I said it feels like something that was tailormade for me because it’s exactly the perfect amount of every piece, every particular of its construction. So, yeah… It’s quite funny because I just… I never thought of things in that way before.
How important is music in your work?
Music is everything, even in my work. I approach my work as an actor in the same way I approach my work as a musician. You study, you learn, you listen. Having taught myself how to play guitar by listening to records, I had a pretty good head start in terms of training the ear for different tones in people’s voices, the timbre, the accent, the attack. I used to mimic people as a kid and I guess having developed that ear helped me a lot. I use it in my work every day.
I think we all have a soundtrack going in our heads at all times. I use music for certain scenes. If you need to travel somewhere in your head or you need to feel something or show something, a song will take you back to that place in seconds. Certain songs will take you right back to a memory. You select your memory by music. So I use music a lot.
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Would you have ever wanted to only do music?
I started when I was 12, playing backyard parties, and at the wise age of 13 I started playing in nasty punk rock clubs in Miami Beach. I would play a set and then wait in the back as I was way too young to be in there. I left school at 15 as I was playing clubs all night. I would get out of clubs at 4 in the morning and go straight to school. That didn’t work. I was always a musician my whole childhood; it’s is all I wanted to be, a guitar player. I had no interest in becoming an actor at all. I started acting purely out of necessity.
Someone gave me an opportunity to do this film, I said “sure,” and then I could pay the rent for a while. As I saw where the road was going, I started on that road. I did not give up the dream of being a musician, just the dream of working as a musician. I was wary of the idea of finding I had a degree of success in one field and taking advantage of that. I did not want to say: “Oh, now I can do music because people know who I am.” I had to let go of that dream for a while.
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So, let’s talk about “Wild Thing”. You’re playing the famous track “Wild Thing” in the new campaign, made famous by Jimi Hendrix, could you tell us the story of this song?
“Wild Thing” is a kind of a golden standard, and it’s been reproduced many many times by many many different people, different groups or whatever. My particular joy with regard to using “Wild Thing” or having “Wild Thing” in this Dior film is… it was, for me, the perfect opportunity to blend the vision of Dior and Jean-Baptiste. “Wild Thing” was a song by a band called The Troggs, but Jimi Hendrix brought it to life really, with his layers and his composition. So “Wild Thing”, especially Hendrix’s take on “Wild Thing”, for me, there’s only one human being you could go to, to get even remotely close to Jimi Hendrix: the closest that anyone will ever ever get to Jimi Hendrix is Jeff Beck.
Jeff himself has, of course, an emotional connection to the track because Jimi Hendrix and Jeff became friends. Hendrix moved from the States to London and all he wanted to see was Jeff Beck play, you know, he wanted to watch or learn from Jeff Beck and they became very good friends. And in turn, the things that Hendrix got, he took from Jeff, he learned from Jeff, Jeff learned from Hendrix as well, they were very close. So as soon as the idea of “Wild Thing” came up, the only way that anyone could record this without Jimi Hendrix, it would be with Jeff Beck. Because, well, because he’s a part of Jimi’s ingredients to his approach, so exactly like François, you know with his invisible notes, Jeff was a great influence on Jimi’s version of “Wild Thing”.
It’s beautiful for me to be able to bring Jeff Beck back into that world, which is another emotional memory for him, you know.
You made your own interpretation of the song with your friend Jeff Beck, can you tell us more about your intention, your creative process, what you had in mind now that you wanted to adapt?
Well, of course, absolutely. Jean-Baptiste had the idea that what he wanted to feel was Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix, you know, that wilderness, that unpredictable kind of, you just don’t know what’s gonna happen next. And for me it was just so simple, I understood very well as a musician for most of my life, that the only person to play “Wild Thing”, in a way for his friend Jimi Hendrix, was Jeff Beck. Because Jeff and Hendrix were very close as I said, Hendrix saw that combination of, let’s say, ingredients.
You don’t need anything more than Jeff, in a way, expressing his love, expressing his respect for Jimi Hendrix but also taking it to a level where it’s just the guitar, where it’s just raw, it’s recorded simply, there’s no over dubs, there’s no drums, there’s no bass, there’s just Jeff and that feel that Jeff has, that gravity that he has, I would be willing to bet that no one could come closer and salute Hendrix in that way.
How did you work together, what was the creative process, working you and Jeff?
It starts out very sloppy [laughs]. More like anything, because as we spoke with François, there’s a blank piece of paper, really. Even if you have the Hendrix’s version to listen to, Jeff is not going to learn all the exact notes of the Hendrix’s track so it was far more organic than that. It was just… It’s “Wild Thing”, and it’s an interpretation. And so, essentially, all I had to do was to be there just to capture, and I think that’s the key, it’s to capture something. When you capture something that wild, that “Sauvage” in fact, you know, it’s like you’ve taken the greatest photograph that you’ll remember forever. It’s like capturing something that otherwise existed for a moment and no one ever got to experience.
So, I knew that Jeff would make the experience far beyond just playing… he has no need to capture Jimi Hendrix but he does have a need to salute and give his love to his friend. And when I told him it was for “Sauvage”, he just thought “Oh man that’s perfect! Oh man, that is perfect!”. So it was just a matter of capturing just as it is which is why I adore making these films with Dior…because the mathematics and the formulas leave the room. It’s organic, it’s thought, it’s emotion, it’s sense, it’s a profound experience for me to hit “record” while Jeff Beck is playing next to me. It’s beyond a dream, it’s almost ridiculous, but somehow we end up wherever we are. And in a way, in a lot of ways, I will always connect it with the most honest, organic…it’s not fake, it’s the notes that are chosen and then, if you will, the manipulation of those notes to create an emotion. When Jeff plays his guitar, he’s speaking, he’s singing, he’s crying.
It’s just kind of strangely scientific but strangely the base of where you should be to locate the truth. And like François, le nez, searching because only he knows, right? Only he knows “ah, no, there’s too much of that”, we would never know, but he knows.
Great. So, let’s talk a little bit about the guitar.
Ah Trussart yeah!
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You play with a guitar handmade and designed by James Trussart. Did you know him before Sauvage?
I certainly did, yes. From many many years ago. Iggy Pop was my hero, of course, but he’s been a dear friend for thirty years or something. I remember Iggy was with me in Los Angeles, we were together and he showed me this guitar and he goes “Man check this! Man, you got to check this out!”, he’s left-handed. He told me “yeah this guy Trussart” and all that, and he had made this amazing guitar for Iggy, I was quite jealous. [laughs] And that’s the first time I had heard of Trussart. And everything that I’ve seen or played since, each one is unique in the binding, in the frets, in the electronic… Again, he came from a place that was organic.
It wasn’t an ambition, it wasn’t because he wanted to make a billion dollars on guitars, it wasn’t because he thought he was the best or whatever… he knew what he had, what he’d create, he was well aware that it was unique but there was no great hubris about it. In fact, I remember Iggy showing me the guitar, the Trussart guitar for the first time, and then I don’t think I saw one for another two years, you know, somebody else had one. I thought “I gotta get one of those Trussart!”. Each one is truly unique, you know, and that I think is the rub… if you’re trying to do something, why would you attempt to copy anyone? Why would you waste your own time? The idea of spending time is truly spending time, so you choose how you choose to spend time, because, well, time is far more important than money.
These people who I admire so greatly spent their time developing something that was outside of what otherp eople were doing. They were taking a different road, a risky road, you know, they took chances. All of it is related because really, at the very base of it, it’s all about the feeling it gives you.
Talking about acting, playing a character or playing a song, what do you get out of each?
Because I grew up playing music since I was about 12, 13 years old – at 13 I started playing in bars as a little kid – it’s been my first love ever since. What you get from music is immediacy. You have an instant, an organic relationship to it… If it starts from here [head] and it goes here [heart] and then it goes down your arms into the guitar, it’s all a natural flow, you won’t do the same thing twice so the experience is different for me. Also from what I am trying to give to the people and then their interpretation of it, so it’s an immediate relationship, and especially with live music.
With acting, with finding a character, it’s exactly the same because what I’m searching for are really ingredients for this character, I’m looking for ingredients to make him, well, to build the foundation for that character to stand on. Push the parameters… push, try, stretch them out, you know? Which I think is exactly what François has done with the Elixir, you know, the new Elixir. He has pushed the boundaries and, most important, he made a bold choice, he made a very bold choice and that’s a risk. But because he knows, he feels, he knows what’s right and what’s wrong or what’s the truth and what’s a little bit of a lie, he wouldn’t stand for a lie so he just gave it directly without question, exactly what he wanted, what he felt.
Well, it’s like watching Picasso paint, invisibly.
A word goodbye maybe?
Sauvage is unique and certainly stands alone, and for me it’s the best and the most intoxicating fragrance out there. I’m glad that we’re together for this latest chapter in the story. I’m happy to be here. Thanks Dior for bringing me back. Sauvage knows no boundaries so who knows where we could take it next.
Photos Jean-Baptiste Mondino for Parfums Christian Dior.