Johnny Depp should come with a warning label: Close encounters are likely to cause extreme nervousness, impaired judgment and embarrassing displays of rapture. Take it from actress Missi Pyle, his costar in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “It was my sister’s birthday, and I said, ‘Would you mind writing a little something for her?'” recalls Pyle. “And he was like, ‘Why don’t you come to my trailer for a picture?'” Decked out in her character’s teased blond wig and Day-Glo makeup, “I remember running back and washing and blow-drying my hair and putting on my real makeup because I looked so frightening,” says Pyle. “I walked in to his trailer and there were candles burning and he’s like, ‘Would you like a glass of wine? A cigarette?’ He rolled his own—I had quit smoking—but I was like, ‘Of course!’ I was nauseous for four hours because they were really strong.” And then there was the awkward issue of remembering to look at his eyes—and not, y’know, other mesmerizing bits—while chatting with him. “I would find myself talking to his mouth,” says Pyle. As for her reaction when director Tim Burton suggested she get closer to Depp during the production, Pyle says: “I felt a party go off inside of me.”
Break out the Bordeaux, the whoopee cushions and the bangin’ Keith Richards guitar solos (all Depp favorites), because the 2009 Sexiest Man Alive party is officially under way—and everyone’s invited. Bringing the fun with him wherever he goes—whether it’s onscreen in fizzy roles like Captain Jack Sparrow or at home with his family on their private Bahamian island—is just one of the many reasons why Depp, who also scored the honor in 2003, has joined an elite club of two-time SMA title-holders (only Brad Pitt and George Clooney have matched the feat). At 46, the father of two—daughter Lily-Rose, 10, and son Jack, 7, with his partner of more than 10 years, French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis, 35—still reigns as Hollywood’s most irresistible iconoclast; as one-of-a-kind as his beloved 15-year-old boots and as smoldering as his favorite Cuban cigars. (He gave up his signature Bali Shag cigarettes a few years ago.) “He really is as sexy as he’s cracked up to be,” says actress Leelee Sobieski, his costar in last summer’s John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies. Exactly what makes him so sexy? “He has a profound elegance about him,” says his friend Bruce Robinson, who directed him in the upcoming Hunter S. Thompson film The Rum Diary. “He knows exactly who he is and doesn’t try to be anything he isn’t. Plus,” adds Robinson, “the fantastic face.”
Ah, the Face. Exactly 25 years after he hit the big screen in his first major role as a doomed teen in Nightmare on Elm Street, Depp’s arresting magnetism remains remarkably unchanged: those famous sword-sharp cheekbones, the dark rum eyes. “I’ve worked with a lot of big actors,” says Pyle, “and he’s by far the most—I can’t think of the right word; only dirty words are coming up!—he’s by far the sexiest.” (He does sweat for that timelessly hot body: On the set of Public Enemies, he put in daily 5 a.m. workouts with a trainer.) A versatile artist who counts oil painting, playing guitar and reading the work of Tolstoy among his talents—oh, and he “can swear in any language,” notes his Public Enemies costar Branka Katic—he’s essentially “an interesting enigma when it all comes down to it,” says Amber Heard, his leading lady in The Rum Diary. “You have to watch him.” And yet the Kentucky native with a proud streak of Cherokee blood wears his sex appeal as effortlessly as his treasury of tattoos and assorted trinkets. Notes Pyle: “I think he’s genuinely flattered by the effect he has on women and yet doesn’t really care. And that’s sexy too.”
As comfortable as he is in his own skin, he’s happiest when he’s with “my girl” and the “kiddies,” as he has affectionately called Paradis and their children. The continent-hopping family—who divide their time between their estates in the Bahamas, California and the south of France—”are like gypsies with a private plane,” says a Paradis pal. And yet the family is rarely apart, with Depp typically flying to join them wherever they are in the world when he is shooting elsewhere. “Whenever he mentions his kids, his entire facial expression changes—his whole spirit just lifts,” recalls Jeff Scalf, the great-nephew of John Dillinger, with whom Depp met in preparation for playing the notorious robber. When Scalf asked about Depp’s most famous role—Pirates of the Caribbean‘s loopy Captain Jack, for which he scored an Oscar nod and helped the trilogy rake in over $2.5 billion worldwide—the actor explained that the part has special meaning for him. “He said, ‘I do Captain Jack because my kids really think Daddy’s a pirate,'” says Scalf. “His face beamed. He says he plays pirate with the kids quite a bit.”
To be sure, behind the gold teeth—Depp even makes those sexy—and devil-may-care insouciance, there is a heart-melting softie. Dropping off Lily-Rose for her first day of preschool in France a while back, “he hid in the bushes to watch her,” recalls an observer. “Lily was crying and she wouldn’t stop. So Johnny took her out of the classroom and she never went back.” When Lily was hospitalized with a serious illness in London in 2007, Depp shut down production on his film Sweeney Todd to be by her bedside until she recovered. “His family comes way before anything else,” says Robinson. “They are the most important thing in his life.”
Renowned for his fan-friendly graciousness, he is “one of the most generous spirits I’ve ever met in my life,” says Robinson. On the Rum Diary set in San Juan, Puerto Rico, notes the director, “he’d be working a long day and it’s hot as hell, but he’d never neglect all the people who’d been waiting outside to see him.” And the man keeps his promises: In Wisconsin last year, local boy Jack Taylor admired Depp’s Dillinger-era fedora from Public Enemies and asked if he could have it. Depp said yes—when the film wrapped. Sure enough, the hat arrived at Jack’s house after the film was finished.
Next up for Hollywood’s nicest rebel—two more full-makeup fantasies: Next month’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in which he helped take over the role of his late friend Heath Ledger, and March’s Alice in Wonderland, his seventh collaboration with director Tim Burton. Sharing his personal philosophy last summer, Depp said, “You’re handed the ball and you go as far as you can until somebody says, ‘All right, kid, you’re done.'” Kid, you’ve only just begun.