« I’m going to say it right now—I’ve never been good at interviews,” Lily-Rose Depp announces a few minutes after we meet. “I’m shy in these situations, and I just get really nervous and stuff.”
We’re at a café near her mother’s apartment in Paris, and Depp is sipping an espresso while gamely facing a series of questions from a stranger with a tape recorder. The advance word on the 20-year-old actress is that, shyness aside, she’s unfailingly well-mannered and likable—a reputation that she substantiates even before we meet when she calls my cell to ask if we can postpone our interview by a whopping half hour. (“I’m really sorry!”) Surely when your father is Johnny Depp and your mother is Vanessa Paradis, you’re aware that being 30 minutes late for an interview is not the end of the world. But she thanks me for being flexible and apologizes again.
As for the nervousness thing, any interviewer meeting Depp might wonder why she’s chosen to work in a field that sets her up for a lifetime of public scrutiny. As she sits on a banquette wearing scuffed white Reeboks and a plain cotton dress that only accentuates the pouty-lipped splendor of her face, Depp maintains a poised, friendly bearing and a direct gaze. But the handful of interviews she’s given so far have revealed basically nothing, aside from her belief in the importance of maintaining her privacy. When I begin with an innocuous question about where in L.A. she celebrated her recent birthday, her evasive answer (“At, like, my friend’s place or something”) makes her limits clear. After she relaxes a bit, Depp acknowledges that fame in general is something that gives her “a ton of anxiety.” So what led her to pick a career that invites even more of it? Since getting her first taste of acting a few years ago, she replies, she’s had no choice but to make it her life’s work. The only place where she’s truly free of self-consciousness is, in fact, a movie set, where she can be fully immersed in a character. “When I’m acting, I’m not thinking about myself,” she says. “Because I’m not there. You know?”
Whatever her strategy, it seems to be working. After starting out with a couple of minor roles in smallish films, she’s now showing an impressive capacity for both depth and range. In Louis Garrel’s love-triangle drama A Faithful Man, released in the U.S. this summer, she takes what could have been a crazed-stalker character and delivers a complex portrait of a young woman discovering her emotional and sexual power. Next year, in Nicholas Jarecki’s gritty drug-cartel thriller Dreamland, she plays a ravaged addict whose brother (Armie Hammer) traffics in opioids. And in Netflix’s big-ticket historical drama The King, due out later this year, she stars alongside Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, playing the strong-willed princess Catherine de Valois.
Although Depp went to school in L.A. and fills her conversation with breezy California slang (her favorite activity when not working: “rolling super-deep with my friends”), she’s still something of a mystery to American audiences, a silent sphinx known mainly as a model. For that she credits her paparazzi-magnet parents, who split in 2012 but remained determined “to keep my brother and me as much out of the spotlight as they could,” Depp says. “Now, I’m choosing to do this job, and I know what comes with it. But when you’re younger, you don’t get to choose.” Even when she discusses her fashion gigs—she launched her career with a Chanel eyewear campaign at age 16—Depp can still sound like a starstruck newcomer. Recalling her first day on the set of her shoot for the fragrance N°5 L’Eau campaign, she says, “That whole day is like a blur of dreaminess.”