VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA —Six months after arriving in Hollywood from Miramar, Fla., he ran into actor Nicolas Cage through a mutual girlfriend ("she was going with him; went with me, then went back to him"). Cage introduced him to a theatrical agent, and the agent took him on.
"Nick (Cage) apparently felt that there was something interesting about me and felt I should give acting a try," says Depp, taking a smoke break in the staff lounge of a Vancouver high school serving as a location set for 21 Jump Street. "I told the agent that I had no acting background, not even a drama class in high school—that I had done nothing and knew nothing. She said, 'Fine, I'll take you to meet some producers.'"
He was promptly hustled through the offices of the producers for the scary film Nightmare On Elm Street, given a couple of pages from the script to read overnight and told to come back the following morning. An actor friend went over the lines with him all night. Bleary eyed, he read for the part. Five hours later, the producers called to say that he was cast as the lead. Two days later, he was stumbling around in front of cameras for the first time in his life.
Despite his severely limited acting experience, Elm Street was a box office smash and Depp became fairly hot. It immediately led to another movie, an obscure comedy called Private Resort. "There are about 90 Resort films around, and this one happens to be the worst of them," he frankly admits.
Hardly taxed, he used some of his idle time studying acting with sundry coaches for brief periods of time ("I'm basically self-taught, having read several books on the subject"). It all paid off when he was cast as Lerner, the small-town hick who served as the unit interpreter of Vietnamese in the block-buster film Platoon.
"Though my part in Platoon was relatively small, it was obviously a huge break," Depp says. "We knew that we were doing something that would be critically acclaimed, but nobody could foresee the magnitude of it."
The entire cast went through two weeks of intensive military jungle training, including living in a tent camp for two weeks, before the filming even started, according to Depp. "We went through real field exercises, trained with various types of weapons and went on several 14-kilometer marches. It was hell out there in 115F heat. We were dragging, climbing in and out of gorges."
And, for the first time, Depp experienced genuine panic. "On the final field exercise, where we were split into three groups, we became lost in the jungle for several hours. Just as we joined up again, all hell broke loose. Someone was hitting us with real gunfire, bombs and mines were going off and there was smoke everywhere.
"Scared to death, we hugged the ground with our M-16's loaded with blanks, thinking we were under attack by the New People's Army (Philippine Communist insurgents). It turned out to be a prank by (director/writer) Oliver Stone. Then we got mad."
Born in Owensboro, Ky., and raised in Florida from the age of six, Depp is one of four siblings born to a housewife and a career civil servant, currently the director of public works for the city of Hallendale. A fine guitarist, Depp played professional gigs with various rock bands in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale bars from the age of 14.
He made the cross-country trek to Los Angeles with the Rock City Angels band in 1983, expecting instant recognition and considerable fortune. "Well, it didn't quite turn out that way," Depp says with a laugh. "I found there were a lot of hungry bands out there and not enough jobs for them. The band folded right after I got Elm Street and moved into acting."
Once married for two years and recently divorced, Depp spends most of his spare time commuting between Vancouver and Los Angeles apartments. There is relatively little time for his girlfriend, actress Sherilyn Fenn, who spends a considerable part of her working life on movie locations far from either home. To relax, Depp jams with local bands at every opportunity.
"Right now, I'm trying to pump everything I have into 21 Jump Street, trying to make the most of my biggest break so far," says Depp. "I want to make Tommy Hanson a clean, fresh character who is only slick with the people he deals with."