The Secret of Johnny Depp’s Success

Johnny Depp on red carpet

Photo by nicogenin

Did you realise you probably know Johnny Depp’s films better than he does?

That’s if we can take this interview at face value, where he claims not to have seen his latest movie Public Enemies.

Incredulous, the interviewer asks him why not. Here’s Johnny’s answer:

I’ve always kind of tried to avoid them as much as possible… I just prefer the experience. I like the experience, I like the process, I like doing the work. But then, you know if I’ve got to see myself – I don’t like to see the thing become the product, I suppose. Once they say “You’re wrapped” on the film, it really is none of your business. The director is going to take that performance or whatever options you gave him and the editor, and they’re going to do with it what they want.

From the outside, this might sound hard to believe. After all, for anyone who has dreamt of being a film star, surely watching the end product of your labours, seeing yourself up there on the big screen, is central to the fantasy?

Not for Johnny.

According to him, the exciting part is doing the work, immersing himself in the character and putting everything into his performance. After that, the film is “none of his business” – it belongs to the director.

Johnny is interested in the process, not the product.

Those of us who are actively involved in creative work will know in our hearts what he’s talking about. The minute you take your eye off the ball, forget the work in front of you and start daydreaming about money, fame and other rewards, you’re risking mediocrity.

And as we saw in my e-book about motivation and creativity, there’s a lot of research evidence to back up Johnny’s position. Harvard Business School Professor Theresa Amabile has demonstrated through her research that intrinsic motivation is strongly linked to creative excellence:

People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily the the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself – not by external pressures.

(Theresa Amabile, ‘How to Kill Creativity’, Harvard Business Review, September – October 1998)

Extrinsic motivations such as money, fame and critical acclaim constitute rewards for creative work. While it’s nice to enjoy these things after the fact, Amabile’s research shows that focusing on them too much is a creativity killer.

Does Johnny Take It Too Far?

Johnny’s solution to the problem of creative motivation is brutally simple – he focuses exclusively on intrinsic motivation, and does his best to ignore the external rewards. I’m sure he remembers to collect his pay cheque, but by avoiding watching the movie, he minimises his investment in his screen persona and the finished artefact.

Now, many people might say this is a bit extreme, and it wouldn’t do Johnny any harm to watch his films at the cinema, and have the DVDs on heavy rotation at home. But then many people haven’t achieved a fraction of what Johnny has, creatively. So it sounds like his approach works just fine for him.

You could also argue that Johnny is in the fortunate position of having someone else to worry about marketing and shipping the ‘product’. I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this who would love to be able to focus on their creative process all day long, and hand over the messy business of business to someone else.

But listening to Johnny’s interview, and watching mesmerising performances such as Joe Pistone in Donnie Brascoe and the debauched Earl of Rochester in The Libertine, it’s hard to escape the thought that his uncompromising attitude has been critical to his success.

While millions dream of being a famous actor, Johnny Depp concentrates on acting.

Is it a coincidence that he’s the one who made it?

What Do You Think?

What do you make of Johnny Depp’s claim that he avoids watching his own films?

When working on a creative project, do you find the potential rewards motivating or a distraction?

Do you think it’s a good idea for an artist to focus on the creative work, to the exclusion of everything else?

Mark McGuinness is a poet, a coach for creative professionals, and the host of The 21st Century Creative Podcast.

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Responses to this Post


  1. I wish I was more like him. It is the one thing I don’t like about myself… being so hung up on what everyone thinks of what I’ve done or said, whether it is important, relevant or creative.
    It must be the most freeing experience in the world to be so passionate about the process and completely disengaged from the product. I am jealous. He is completely unique in his lack of desire for approval.

  2. I think the point is that Depp is totally concerned about the creative process, not the sentimental looking back on the finished product, or the need for admiration from others. He and his director know what the goals were, and if they acheived them, that’s what matters.
    This is refreshing to read. It’s the action taken, the creative movement that is the goal, not the adoration that drives him.
    Creative people are often asked about letting go of their product, as if they were children of ours. It’s validating that another individual connects with the outcome, but it’s the execution of invention that spurs Artists.

  3. In my experience, the more you concentrate on the rewards of the work, the less likely you are to actually DO it. The writer who dreams of winning the Pulitzer prize never actually puts pen to paper. The writer who enjoys the creative process can be prolific and brilliant. Then, he might even win a Pulitzer.

    Enjoying the process is essential to being productive. Because, let’s be honest, you’ll be spending the majority of your time creating, and a minority of it enjoying the rewards. If you don’t enjoy the creating part, it’s probably not worth the rewards part.

  4. Being an Art Therapist I can totally agree with the process being more important then the product in terms of creativity. I work with adults who are ‘stuck in their life/work’. Most heared objections to start art therapy are: I cannot draw/paint/sculpt aka I am not creative. And I assure people: we are not going to produce art, it will not be to display at home – it will be about the process of creating.

    Whilst creating people encounter and overcome obstacles, their creative mind gets stimulated and suddenly they see options again. They will become more aware of small things like: leaves on a tree, flowers, skies filled with clouds. And they start to love what they create – they recognize what a huge part of themselves they put into it.

    I admire Johnny Depp for concentrating on the work, on the process and the results he gets by doing so.

  5. How does he improve? How does one get better if there is nothing to measure?

  6. Agreed wholeheartedly. As a web designer, my best comes out when I’m totally immersed in the process, in the flow as some may say. But besides this focus Depp also exhibits complete detachment from the end result, which is a liberating and powerful strategy. In doing this his best energies are harnessed, and this allows him to truly stand out. That is why he’s one of the few pure artists left in Hollywood.

    I end with a quote that I think holds the essence of the article above:
    “Basically, I no longer work for anything but the sensation I have while working.” – John Gay, English poet & dramatist

  7. Good point, Mark. There’ve been many times where people will ask me where my writing ended up, and I often come up blank. I don’t know. I know who I sold my words to, but what they did with those words or where they ended up being posted… not entirely sure.

    Because for me, it’s all about creating the work. Once it’s created, it’s onto the next project. I take more enjoyment in figuring out how to make my website content do what I’d like it to do and evoke the emotion I want it to evoke than follow it around the world to see where it went.

    Glad to know this makes me successful with my creativity 😉

  8. Thanks for the great comments everyone.

    @Adam – This nails it:

    you’ll be spending the majority of your time creating, and a minority of it enjoying the rewards. If you don’t enjoy the creating part, it’s probably not worth the rewards part.

    @David – Very good question. He must have some kind of feedback loop. I’ll add that to my list of questions if I ever get to interview Mr Depp for Lateral Action! 😉

    @Cristian – You get bonus points for quoting John Gay, the only famous poet to hail from my home town of Barnstaple in North Devon!

  9. I like the line you are taking with this – I think it’s about balancing what you can do and what is out of your hands. If he can’t affect the cut, the marketing etc. he protects himself by only dealing with what he can affect. It’s more about taking responsibility about the things you do.

    On your rewards discussion there is a very good post on Fresh Creation

  10. Hi Mark,

    Great article, as always. As an expressive artist and intuitive painting teacher I am always trying to convince people that the real juice and aliveness and JOY of creativity comes from the creative experience itself. The creative “product” is always old news once it has been completed. It’s like an artifact of the creative journey, so I think that Johnny Depp is definitely on the right track. And like you said, he’s obviously a major creative force and a great role model to follow!

  11. You know what they say, “If it works, don’t fix it.” Whatever Johnny Depp does most definitely works, he’s an actor in his own league – a league most only view from a distance.

    Personally, I subscribe to a pretty similar philosophy. With some of my blogs and websites, I don’t even look at the stats – especially when it comes to blogs where I write a great deal of heart-felt content. I want to write the same for one person that I would for 1,001. I don’t want my vision to be clouded or swayed by numbers.

    Great article – The Depp is pure genius. I think a lot of other actors would do well to follow his lead. Maybe then they’d stop posturing and simply lose themselves in their role the way Johnny does.

  12. Depp’s pursuit of substance over style is in sharp contrast to the latest wave of Hollywood stars and starlets. A love of the craft and obsessive desire to push his own boundaries are what led him to choose roles such as Gilbert Grape (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), Edward Scissorhands (Edward Scissorhands) and Raoul Duke (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas). For every film he does to pay the bills (Pirates of the Caribbean, Nick of Time) there’s a unique character to counteract (Finding Neverland, The Libertine, Ed Wood).

    Nowadays we can clearly see what putting fame before process produces; Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, any of the reality TV shows following “famous people” (Hills, Kardashians, etc). The list goes on and on, littered with bubble heads who wouldn’t know real emotions unless it was on a teleprompter or script note.

    Thankfully there are a few examples in the newer batch that continue the pursuit of being actors as opposed to “stars”. Anne Hathaway paid her dues doing Disney fare and used her newfound “fame” to seize challenging roles (Brokeback Mountain, Rachel Getting Married). Amy Adams could have easily gone the Tara Reid route after debuting as a promiscuous cheerleader in “Drop Dead Gorgeous”, but instead fought through the trenches to earn opportunities such as Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War and Julie & Julia.

    Quality comes from dedication to the process and the joy of creation. The lucky few who live this mantra astound us with their abilities. The vast majority that only see the end result beat us into submission with their mediocrity.

  13. This is interesting, but it’s worth noting that many high profile actors claim not to watch their films. Jessica Alba, Angelina Jolie, among others. It’s often clear – and admitted – on late night talk shows that they haven’t seen the movie they’re promoting.

    I suspect sometimes their interest in ‘the creative process’ is really an emotional inability to handle seeing a poor interpretation of their performance (or their poor performance itself).

    I’m sure it’s also more productive to invest yourself in creating a character and then walk away with the feeling that you nailed it. Ignorance is bliss.

  14. First of all, I love Johnny Depp. I think he is one the rare actors in Hollywood that let’s his work speak for itself. He is not intersted in being a movie star and playing the same roles over and over again. That is what makes him such a great actor. He looks for interesting parts and works with creative directors who know how to bring out his unique talents.

    Perhaps that is why he can concentrate on the process of acting and do what he does best. Looking back on the movies once they are finished may cause his to over analyze his performances and second guess his choices. And as he said, the finished movie the creation of someone else. The Director and editors make those decisions.

    @David-He improves by challenging himself to do different parts. Also, since he tends to work with great directors, like Tim Burton, I am sure they keep him on his toes.

    @Gabriel Novo-excellant comment!

  15. I agree with Maureen: wish I could have Depp’s strength to go with his instincts and not care too much what everyone and their brother thinks.

    Johnny’s said that he’s seen some of his movies and parts of others over time, but I can imagine it’s very frustrating for actors: they give their all to play a part, only to have the final product be whatever the director, editor, studio decide. Daniel Day-Lewis has also said: “after my job is finished, what happens with the movie is none of my business.” I wonder if that’s what the directors and studios say to the actors? Tim Burton has said that when he & Johnny disagree about how a certain scene should be played, he films it Johnny’s way and then Tim’s way. It probably gets in the movie Tim’s way, but at least Johnny feels happy that he had a chance to do it his way. 🙂

    As far as watching himself for ideas to improve, there’s plenty of places he can go to get criticism of his work – warranted or not.

  16. Mark: Have you seen Dan Pink’s talk (author of “A Whole New Mind”)? He talks about the subject of extrinsic v. instrinsic motivation, and how extrinsic motivation–such as bonuses–is great for repetitive, routine tasks, but it acually hurts creativity. The title of the talk is “Daniel Pink on the surprising science of motivation”.

    I can see how Johnny wouldn’t want to become obsessed with how he looks on screen and watch his films ten, fifteen, or twenty times, but I think watching them once could help him see things in his acting he’s not aware of, which would help him improve.

  17. Although quite a revelation it doesn´t actually surprise me.

    Johnny Depp always manages to bring a freshness to his roles which is probably due to the lack of self-consciousness resulting from “never” watching the films in which he stars.

    Bravo Mr. Depp.

  18. @ Sofia @ Marelisa – Thanks I haven’t seen that video, looks really interesting. Looking forward to watching it…

    @ Chris – Yep, you can’t beat the Joy of Work. 🙂

    @ Joi – I wish I had your willpower re web stats. 😉

    @ Gabriel – Excellent summary, reminds me of Hugh MacLeod’s ‘Sex and Cash Theory’:

    @ Ken – You can find a negative interpretation of any behaviour if you look hard enough.

    @ Clarabela – You could be right that the director’s feedback is crucial for Depp in improving his performance.

    @ Maria – Thanks, excellent story about ‘Johnny’s way and Tim’s way’. Reminds me of Brian Clough (legendary British football manager).

    Reporter: Mr Clough, what happens when you have a disagreement with one of your players?

    Clough: Well we sit down together and talk about it, and then we decide I’m right.

    @ Countzeero – Bravo indeed!

  19. i honestly doubt that creativity is the case with johnny depp .

    depp is simply a genius when it comes to what he does . i honestly don’t think that he ever struggled for a role . it just came to him . this is what made him famous … it’s just … the character . there is no acting there .

    i don’t think you can compare depp with the realm of creating , with designers for instance . they do 2 very different things . depp is more on the side of an artist than that of a designer ( and yes , i don’t think designers are artists ) .

    b-grade actors such as jolie , tatum are more in the realm of designers . depp … is simply an artist . much more than a mere actor .

    there is flow and there is creation . flow simply comes … creation needs to be called . and the ladder is not what depp does when he is acting .

    as for his statement … i’m pretty sure that he watches all of his movies . it would defeat the entire purpose of acting , creating , flowing . sure , you gotta love the process … but at the end of the day … are you telling me that you can paint without viewing your painting when it’s finished ?

  20. Hi Emil,

    depp is simply a genius

    I’m afraid I’m a little sceptical about the idea of genius.

    are you telling me that you can paint without viewing your painting when it’s finished ?

    I’m telling you that’s what Johnny Depp is telling us. 😉

  21. are you telling me that you can paint without viewing your painting when it’s finished ?

    I’m telling you that’s what Johnny Depp is telling us

    I must disagree. He is not saying that at all. A painter works alone. A film is made by a multitude of people.

    Depp is controlling his acting – and that’s as far as he can go. He is not trying to control the director for example.

    Similarly in any project – if you advise on a comms strategy you don’t try to fix the company’s finances.

    Just my 2 cents 🙂

  22. @ Sofia – I was responding to Emil’s analogy. Like all analogies, it’s not a perfect fit.

  23. I totally get it. I have performed on professional stages throughout my life. Well meaning, good people take videos of the entire product (the whole show). Of more than 50 different productions, with literally thousands of performances I have never once sat down to see those videos.

    Why? Because I did my thing, I got the payoff, if I was funny the audience laughed, if I was good the audience applauded. I didn’t need to go back later and relive the glory moments.

    That always seemed so … so … so, arrogant. It felt like I was patting myself on the back – especially if I were to be viewing those videos with other people. “Hey, look at what I did, wasn’t I good?”

    Understand that the reward of creation isn’t always the final product as a whole. An actor only does a piece of the whole creation – his characters scenes. They get their joy of creation from their part. They may enjoy watching other people’s creations, but you must understand that their part of the creation is only their part.

    We’re talking about two different things here. One is the particular actor’s scenes and the other is the entire film, or the entire production.

    I would finish my part of the performance and would go back stage and change costumes, read the paper, take a nap, etc., but I would rarely sit in the wings as an audience member and watch the other performers performances.

    You see, one is the position of creator (actor) and the other is the position of spectator (audience member, art gallery patron, book reader) or in other words the one who enjoys the creator’s creation.

    Johnny Depp enjoys creation more than he enjoys being an audience member of his own creations. What is so hard to understand about that?

    Michelangelo painted many ceilings in many different buildings. If he derived more joy from being a patron of his own work he would have probably not painted ceilings in different buildings – he would have painted them in a building in which he had constant access to so he could experience the joy of being a constant patron of his own creations.

    If every creator created to admire and derive the joy of the finished product I suspect that we’d not have many art galleries, museums, concerts, or films made for public consumption, so to speak; because the creators would horde their creations for their own selfish gratification.

    That simply is not the case. Many artists’ paintings hang on walls that the artist never sees. Many performers never see their productions in their entirety. Many creators never see their completed creations as a whole.

    They get their joy by creating. They get their payoff, in the doing. The joy is in the journey and not the destination. Sure they take great pride in creating amazing creations. But they are fulfilled in the doing, not the done.

    There’s a lesson in this. I hope more people can learn it and become great creators. And, let’s not forget that we also need great patrons too. What a wonderfully codependent relationship! Each serves the other, and each receives their joy. I have been both, but rarely have I been both at the same time.

    I wonder how many Bloggers go back and admire their archived posts? And if they do, do they give them the same satisfaction/joy that they felt in the original creation of those posts? I suspect not. Because most of the joy of creation is in the creating of the creation, and not in the creation itself.

    Here’s another thing to think about: I paint watercolors and several of my paintings are on walls that I have never seen. That gives me great satisfaction to know that something I created is giving pleasure to others. I suspect without an audience/patrons I wouldn’t paint, or perform, or write as much as I do.

    I suspect Johnny Depp wouldn’t make as many films as he does if he didn’t have an admiring audience. He is an audience of one. From his own words he doesn’t get much satisfaction in being an audience of one. He derives his pleasure from knowing his performance will be viewed by a huge audience.

    So what I mean by that is sometimes creators also derive their joy from the knowing that their audience/patrons who partake of their creation will enjoy what they have created.

    Those are my thoughts on the subject. Thanks for a great post.

  24. And all this time I thought the secret to Johnny Depp’s success was his hot hot looks.

    I loved this article. I do agree that the process and enjoying the process is better than the end result. He does know what it takes to be a good actor!

  25. @ Michael – Thanks, I like your distinction between creator and spectator. Maybe the director would be more likely to watch the whole performance/film, as s/he would have more of an investment in the whole thing than the actor with his solitary part?

    @ CharleeMary – Well, I guess his looks haven’t exactly been a hindrance. 😉

  26. I doubt he hasnt watched his own films what i think he means is that its not his point of interest.

  27. Maybe we can allow him a little poetic licence. 😉

  28. I like everything Johnny Depp has been in.He is one of my favorite male actors.A lot of his movie characters are believeable,as in the way he portrays them.I can believe he is Captian Jack Sparrow,or Icabod Crane,or any of his other characters.So yea,I can believe that it’s more important to him to put his energy into making the movie,than trying to see the end result.He is just one cool M.F.

  29. I have also read somewhere that he stays in character the whole time,even when he’s not being filmed in a scene.That he is the character until filming is completed.Maybe that’s why he is such a good actor.He becomes the character

  30. hees probably just self conscious. he is human you know

  31. Depp isn’t the only actor to do this. I’m thinking Walken, but I may be wrong. Multiple actors believe in this. It’s apparently common amongst celebrities. Watching your own movies is like a bad luck kinda deal, so whatever reason to not do it is a good enough reason. I also don’t see why this is news worthy.

  32. @ Ichigo 🙂

    @ Games – Look closely and you’ll see this isn’t a news blog.

  33. Too often in this world now a days we have become indulged in our own selves. I for one will take a picture with family and friends, but I try to completely avoid looking at it. Its no where near the scale Johnny Depp deals with, but I can see his point of view. He has chosen Acting as his craft, not movie star, that just happened one day, and so be it, but it’s not him, acting is, that’s why he often chooses roles that are interesting and multi-layered rather that one sided and no story. Good for him, that world thinks he bigger than life, but he’s probably just like us. He hasn’t let his star power go to his head. The world needs more people like him who, which have passion and love to create rather that wait for money and could care less.

  34. I do the same thing in regards to my metal artwork. I never keep my pieces, I always give them away to friends or family. I enjoy the creation process more than actually keeping the product.

  35. i always like Johny.Love his passion and for him,always being one of a kind.Lol.But i don’t get him this time..How can he judge his performance as whether he has been doing up to expectation or not …

  36. This is true, the only thing is that Mr. Depp always wanted to be a musician, not an actor. He got into acting to pay the bills. Isn’t this business? His passion lies in music. That’s where the true creativity remains

  37. I have to try this out because I often find my self living to long in the celebration and losing precious time that could be better spent on other projects.

  38. As a professional musician, I can somewhat relate to Depp. I really enjoy the process of recording, moreso than hearing myself on the final record. Although I have listened to several of the projects after completion, it’s primarily to critique myself so that I can make adjustments in the future. And there are several more recordings of mine out there that I’ve never heard since walking out of the studio.

    Great post, Mark!

  39. can someone answer my question “When johnny depp is working on a creative project, does he find the potential rewarding motivating or a distracting?

    • I think only Mr Depp could answer that! But to judge from the interview, he realises that it could be a distraction and does his best to ignore it. I’m sure he takes it into account before deciding whether to do the project!

  40. I love Johnny Depp–but only because he is a truly fabulous actor. He’s very good at diving into his role and BECOMING that person whereas other actors remain the same character actors regardless of what role they play. With Mr. Depp, you identify who he is in the beginning of the film and then he changes to become that role–with others, you always identify them as Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Agent Smith… 😉

    I’m not sure that being completely detached from the end product is necessarily that great of an idea and I sincerely would doubt that he’s never watched ANY of his movies.

    You can’t NOT have an eye to the finished work because, even if you don’t have any idea of where you’re going, you have to, at least, pay attention to the direction you’re going in.

    Mr. Depp has the advantage of having his roles already created for him as well as the situation to not have to focus on what the end result will look like. The direction is (generally) already decided. It’s for him to be the character he was cast to be. In the end, he’s repeating lines created by someone else–and convincing us that they are solely his. That’s utterly brilliant if done correctly. He also has a multitude of people around him who are determined to make the end result a movie worth seeing.

    I’m writing a book. I can solely focus on the sheer creativity–the actual writing–of the book until the first draft is finished. After that, I have to take on the roles of director and the post-production crew to work that first draft into something that I am pleased with, that I am proud of.

    I think, for us sole creators, we have to pay attention to it all, but at different times. Write the book with the door shut–edit the book with the door wide open. 🙂

  41. Dale E. Taylor says:

    A good, insightful article into the murky world of coming ‘right’ out of left field.
    As a broadcast veteran in both the executional & creative roles of content generation and programming,
    the reality behind the ‘box’ is pretty straight forward. Be it Blink or serendipity, it is a simple as what motivates one – the hunt or the meal.
    Relative to my personal/professional experiences to date, I have found it more fun to make a decision on programming acquisitions or commissioning series based on intrinsic motivation. Sense of the common viewer is half and the other half is common sense. No need to become an obsessive, compulsive, suspicious techno-cratic micro-manager when it comes to garnering great tv ratings.
    Just buy right, schedule well, counter counter programming trends and promote with creative flair!
    Thanks for the post article Mark….albeit my remark/s are a tad late if calendar means anything!?
    I think Mr. Depp had it figured out a long time ago. A love-hate with the craft is a balanced approach to the business at hand. Don’t take it too seriously – leave that to the brand managers & marketing types who need to rationalize and verifiy where they’ve been rather than scout the exciting next step

  42. Nickolay Lamm says:

    I love this post. I can also understand where he’s coming from. I believe that a lot of people do crazy or what we deem “creative” things just for attention. If you look at the work of artists we admire the most, I’m sure none of them were thinking of fame while they were doing their work.

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