Johnny Depp said goodbye to his dear friend Hunter S. Thompson back in 2005 — the actor is the one who paid the bill for the gonzo journalist’s outlandish and elaborate funeral — but sometimes it feels as though the late writer is still around. “Hunter? He never leaves,” Depp said with a wistful chuckle, “he’s just always going to be there.”
Depp is certainly helping to make sure the iconoclastic author doesn’t fade from memory. The actor portrayed Raoul Duke, Thompson’s ever-slippery narrator and tripped-out alter ego, in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998) and now he’s returned to voice that role again for a desert-highway cameo in the animated adventure “Rango.” Depp has the title role in “Rango,” too, as a quirky little lizard on a spiritual journey through an Old West-style adventure, and he says that Thompson’s mad Duke also contributed to the personality of the reptile in the Hawaiian shirt.
This fall, Depp will be on the hunt for the Hunter spirit again when he stars in writer-director Bruce Robinson’s “The Rum Diary,” which also features Amber Heard, Aaron Eckhart and Giovanni Ribisi. The movie, filmed back in 2009, is based on the Thompson novel of the same title that was written in the early 1960s but not published until 1998. Depp plays a besotted freelance journalist named Paul Kemp who ends up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at a newspaper where the writers are fueled by booze, lust, disappointment, ego and adventure. Thompson wrote the book at age 22 and it was intensely informed by his own escapades in Puerto Rico, an island he traveled to in 1960 for a gig at an ill-fated sports publication.
The names may change — and, with Rango, even the species — but Depp will have brought Thompson to the screen in spirit four times with the release of “The Rum Diary.” It’s not lost on Depp that Thompson will be almost as persistent a presence in his career as Jack Sparrow, the fey and decadent swashbuckler from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.
“It’s been a gas to do,” Depp said. “He’s part of me, you know? You know Hunter was one of my best friends and one of my favorite people that ever lived.”
Thompson died at age 67 in a gunshot suicide — his relatives said he was weary of the pain and prognosis associated with his assorted medical maladies — and his ashes were fired out of a cannon at his funeral, which also featured fireworks and about 250 guests, including George McGovern, Jack Nicholson, Ed Bradley and Sean Penn as well as Bill Murray, who also portrayed Thompson on screen (“Where the Buffalo Roam,” 1980) . At the time, Depp explained the event to the Associated Press as a loving farewell: “All I’m doing is trying to make sure his last wish comes true. I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out.” [Update: An earlier version of this post used the word “shotgun” instead of “gunshot” to describe the Thompson suicide. The former is incorrect, the latter is accurate.]
Thompson’s legacy is his larger-than-life persona — gun-toting, drug-gobbling master of the absurd and ferocious foe of the hypocritical — as well as gonzo journalism, where the writer steps to the center of the story he or she chronicles with a fire-breathing gusto. His best-remembered work appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone and in books such as “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.”
It was “Rango” director Gore Verbinski who hatched the idea of inserting the Thompson look-alike at the wheel of a convertible that collides with the title chameleon in the animated film. “The beauty of that is here’s Gore, who is just fearless, and he goes and he puts that in the movie based on a riff,” Depp said. “We were talking about the lizard and the Lizard Lounge [hallucination scene] in ‘Fear and Loathing’ and then, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be funny‘ if this and then, pop-pop-pop, it’s in there. I recorded the Raoul Duke character’s voice and then of course Rango’s voice as well. And when we did it, I was back in the Hunter gear, you know? It’s an interesting thing, let me tell you. And to have two characters that I’ve played on screen meet, that was sort of interesting. I’d like to have that happen more often.”
So perhaps we might see Depp’s version of Thompson step aboard the Black Pearl someday and exchange pirate grins with Sparrow? “I’d do it,” Depp said without hesitation. “Time travel is always an option.”
— Geoff Boucher
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