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How Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas Changed Johnny Depp For Good

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, despite being a financial failure and earning mixed reviews from critics, found a persistent cult following on home video and claimed a footnote in American film history. Based on the 1972 novel by Hunter S. Thompson, the film starred Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro on an outrageous psychedelic road trip that satirized the American dream. 

Depp's character, Raoul Duke, was actually loosely based on Thompson and his misadventures as a Gonzo journalist during a trip to Vegas in 1971 with Chicano activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. During filming, Johnny Depp, who was already friends with Thompson at the time, took his role so seriously that he actually lived with the writer for several months. Over this time, the two developed a powerful bond and shared experiences that would stay with the actor forever and go on to influence him for the rest of his life.

He became lifelong friends with Thompson

Thompson and Depp hit it off the moment they first met around the Christmas of 1995, at a Tavern that the author often frequented in Aspen. Although Thompson had only seen one of Depp's movies, and admitted to missing the ending because he'd "had a little acid," the two of them clicked so well that Thompson invited Depp back to his house to continue the night. The writer and actor bonded over firearms quickly, as Depp admired a nickel-plated shotgun on Thompson's wall. Depp reminisced about his experiences growing up with a gun fanatic father, apparently shooting guns as early as eight years old. 

Their friendship continued to grow organically over the next year, but the two became much closer when Depp was chosen to play Thompson's alter ego in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Even though Thompson had already given Depp his blessing, the actor approached Thompson insisting: "If I even remotely do an accurate portrayal, you'll probably hate me for the rest of your life."  Thompson reassured him they would still be friends, and was more right than he knew. In order to research the role, Depp took their relationship to the next level, and moved into the basement of Thompson's Aspen house for several months. Living together like a pair of college roommates bonded the two for life, which Depp later proved by bankrolling the author's $3 million funereal ceremony in 2005.

Depp got some career advice from Bill Murray

One of the most unexpected ways that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas affected Depp's life was when it earned him some career advice from the great Bill Murray. Murray, who previously portrayed Thompson in the 1980 film Where the Buffalo Roam, called Depp during the filming of Fear and Loathing to offer some guidance to the young actor. Murray warned him, "Make your next role drastically different from Hunter. Otherwise you'll find yourself ten years from now still doing him." 

Although the next role Depp took involved him playing a drastically different type of character as a rare book dealer in the supernatural film The Ninth Gate, Murray's uncanny prediction came true in 2011, when Depp once again portrayed one of Thompson's alter-egos, Paul Kemp, in The Rum Diary. Murray was yet another famous face at Thompson's funereal, having befriended the author in an eerily similar situation to Depp while preparing for his role in Where the Buffalo Roam. Murray and Thompson spent weeks on a drug-fueled bender together in order to get into character. Murray claims it worked too well and he actually went too deep into the role, causing him to pick up a number of mannerisms and bad habits from the author for a while.

The role overtook him

Following in Murray's footsteps, Depp also found himself becoming far too immersed in the role. Many of the behavioral tics that Depp adopted from Thompson while researching the role stuck with him, and were still apparent in his demeanor during an interview with Rolling Stone four weeks after wrapping Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In that very same interview, Depp elaborated on his experiences preparing for the film with Thompson, saying, "Man, he's a sickness... I can't shake it."

Just like Murray in the late '70s, Depp was diving a bit too deep into the role. The Rolling Stone interview went on to document how this transformation occurred: "Slowly, Depp would find himself becoming more like Thompson. 'Kind of a sponge,' Depps says, 'which is a horrible way to approach a human being.'" Terry Gilliam, the director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, had a front row seat to Johnny Depp's metamorphosis during filming.

He got to work with Terry Gilliam

Gilliam, despite his experience directing films such as Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys, was actually not Universal Studios' first choice to direct Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Instead, Alex Cox, director of successful '80s flicks such as Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, was originally chosen to direct the film. However, Cox's first meeting with Thompson to discuss the script was a disaster. 

The two got off on the wrong foot from the start. Thompson first became enraged when the vegetarian director refused to eat the prized sausage Thompson had prepared for him. When they finally got around to discussing the script, their disputes only became more heated. Thompson described the encounter in detail with Rolling Stone: "Here in my house comes this adder, this asp. And he just persisted to insult and soil the best parts of the book." 

Cox was off the project shortly after this failed meeting with Thompson, and Terry Gilliam's name made the short list for new director. This was fantastic news for Depp, as Rolling Stone reported that "Depp and Gilliam were keen to work with each other." Before beginning to rewrite the screenplay, Gilliam traveled to L.A. to meet Thompson, Depp, and co-star Benicio del Toro. Although Thompson was still his usual outrageous self, he and Gilliam got along well enough to work together.

He borrowed props from Hunter S. Thompson

When Depp was living with Thompson in order to prepare for the role, he took every opportunity to delve deeper into author's personality. Thompson, despite his paranoid reputation, put a surprising amount of trust in the actor, allowing Depp to tape their conversations and examine his private notebooks. 

When the time to begin filming came around, Thompson let the actor pick some outfits out of his wardrobe in order to dress the part. Depp took quite a few articles of clothing from Thompson's closet that later ended up in the film, such as a patchwork blazer, a bucket hat, and several different Hawaiian shirts. Thompson's own 1971 Chevrolet Impala "Red Shark" convertible also appeared onscreen, as the author let Depp drive the car all the way to Los Angeles to start filming. Thompson even packed "some flashlights and a cooler packed with essential supplies" for the young actor's trip. During the drive back to L.A., Depp got into character by listening to songs mentioned in the book on a portable tape recorder, just as Thompson and Acosta had back in 1971.

Depp learned what really happened in Vegas

During his time living with Thompson, Depp gained a deeper insight into the writer's life and developed a strong bond with him. The two became so close that Depp was granted access to several boxes labeled "the Vegas Book," which contained paraphernalia, notes, and mementos from Thompson's trip to Vegas in 1971 with Acosta that actually inspired the novel. 

Rolling Stone went into more detail about the Vegas Book boxes with Depp. "It had all been saved: the literature from the drug convention, napkins with notes on them, the purloined bars of Neutrogena soup" and "the three beat-up, stained spiral notebooks in which Thompson had scribbled his observations." Through these scraps and scribbles from the past, Depp was able to glean an idea of what really happened during Thompson's trip with Acosta. 

Although most authors who craft a roman à clef novel like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas tend to exaggerate or embellish in their writing, Depp found that much of the story was true. According to the notes Depp saw, the story was actually played down if anything. "Yeah. It's toned down," he said. "It was provably more outrageous, and more insane, than he can write. I think the book is a calmer version of what actually happened."

Depp got a haircut from the prolific author

When Depp visited Thompson, the writer was very underwhelmed with the haircut Depp had been given in preparation for the movie. In fact, when they met at the Aspen airport, Thompson was a bit thrown off when he first saw it and asked Depp to not remove his hat quite yet. Once he finally inspected Depp's haircut, the author insisted that the Hollywood shave had not gone far enough, but was adamant that he could fix it.

Although most people would be nervous to have someone as unhinged as Thompson poking around their scalp with a razor blade, Depp had no qualms. "I trusted him, I really did," he explained. "He was very gentle. No cuts. No weirdness. He wore a mining light, so he could see." The author carefully crafted the balding look that Depp sported onscreen by shaving the actor in the privacy of his own kitchen.

He developed a fondness for explosives

During his friendship with Thompson, Depp saw his fair share of fiery explosions. This comes as no surprise, considering one of Thompson's favorite pastimes was blowing things up. In fact, when the two met in that Aspen Tavern back in 1995, they ended the night by shooting a makeshift bomb in Thompson's backyard. Years later, while preparing for the release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp reminisced on the experience with Rolling Stone writer Chris Heath: "He hands me a propane tank — I've got a cigarette hanging out of my mouth — and he hands me this thing about the size of a matchbox and says, 'Tape these on the propane canister.' I was, 'What are these things?' and he says, 'Oh, that's nitroglycerin.' The cigarette immediately went in the sink." After completing the bomb, Thompson had Depp shoot it in the backyard. Depp hit it on his very first try, resulting in what Depp recounted as "a seventy-five-foot explosion, an enormous, huge burst of fire."

While staying with Thompson, Depp almost sent the whole house up in flames himself. When putting his cigarette onto an ashtray on top of what he thought was a beside table, Depp realized it was actually a crate of live dynamite. 

He got lessons on literary readings

One of the perks Depp experienced while living with Hunter S. Thompson was free literary reading lessons from one of the greats. While preparing for the film, the author dug up some of his older pieces of writing and asked Depp to preform readings for him. He would then staunchly critique every aspect of Depp's performance, commenting, "Punctuate that! You've really got to hit that!"

Depp also gained some formal experience performing a literary reading at Louisville, Kentucky, when he read a speech from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at a Hunter S. Thompson tribute in 1996. Depp, apparently nervous about doing the reading, indulged in some red wine to prepare himself. However, he ended up forgetting that he was chewing gum until after he had already started reading. Although the gum did not affect his verbal performance, it was a considered an etiquette faux pas that Thompson never let him forget.

Depp became more outgoing

Although nowadays Depp often plays charismatic roles, such as the magnetic Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the actor's behavior during interviews tends to paint him in more of an introverted light. This was especially true in his youth, as there are rumors that he never even went out to parties during his 20s.

However, as he spent more time with Thompson preparing for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp found himself becoming more and more extroverted. He went into more detail about how his reserved side handled the transformative role during the interview with Rolling Stone: "It's a curse for a part of me, which is kind of comfortable being slightly shy and away from people. But on the other side, it's nice to have that sort of thrust. It's like a drug, I guess, like some horrible addictive drug — once you've felt it in the bone marrow, you don't want to let it go, because it's a great tool." It seems that while Depp studied Thompson and picked up some of his mannerisms and habits, he also soaked up some of the author's outgoing personality.