Possibly the only person under 30 who doesn’t think Johnny Depp is a star is Johnny Depp. Certainly no one seems more surprised by this happy situation. We saw it ourselves when we interviewed him over breakfast in New York. A big David Letterman fan, Depp was excited to learn from his manager that he would be visiting Letterman’s show that night. “You’ll have to watch the taping from the Green Room rather than from the audience,” his manager explained, “because Dave won’t allow celebrities out front.” Depp, genuinely incredulous, asked, “Celebrity? Who’s a celebrity?”
Just a guy doing a job, that’s what Depp will tell you about himself. Open and friendly about most things, 24-year-old Depp turns uncharacteristically inarticulate when the conversation shifts to his growing fame, shrugging off references to his talent as “no big deal.” Heck, he won’t even admit to being the star of Fox Broadcasting’s top-rated show, 21 Jump Street—a fact most viewers take for granted. “The star? I don't know,” he mumbles, lighting one of many cigarettes. “Last season I guess the producers felt the show needed a strong center. They figured it was me, but this year they are dividing the responsibility, and the other characters will get equal time.”
Fox publicist Sharon Magnuson isn't as modest as her client. “His character, Tom Hanson, was developed to be the lead, and he is unquestionably popular with the audience. But Johnny would never tell you that. He's very cool about it,” she said.
Cool. Johnny Depp is the very definition of cool. The moment he walks into a room, heads turn. It's not just his striking, fine-boned good looks—those cheekbones are a legacy of his Cherokee heritage on both sides of the family—or the funky Billy Idol-meets-James Dean clothes, or the earrings and long white scarf he wraps Indian-style around his head. It's the attitude. Here's one actor who exudes rock 'n' roll's elemental sexuality and ultracool from every pore. Depp looks as if he might have come into the world brandishing an electric guitar—and for many years that's exactly what he did.
Born in Kentucky and brought up in Miramar, Florida, Depp is the youngest of four children, “all very close.” His father is an engineer; his mother (now remarried and living near Depp in Vancouver, Canada, where Jump Street is taped) is a housewife. The itch to pick up a guitar came from an unlikely source: a preacher uncle who led a hard rockin' gospel band. “The Gospel Sunlighters,” Depp recalls. “When I was 12 I thought they were the greatest thing in the world.”
His spirit was sufficiently moved to go out and buy a $25 electric guitar. “I locked myself in a room with a chord book and taught myself how to play.” Depp quickly got into the glitter rock sounds of Kiss and Alice Cooper, eventually joining his first band at 13. “It was called Flame,” he says, and laughs at the memory. “It was terrible.”
Zaphyre followed Flame (“more Kiss-type stuff”) and when he was 17, Depp joined The Kids. "We had a nice following in South Florida. We got to open for big bands like Talking Heads and The Pretenders. But after playing the local club scene to death, we knew we were stagnating and we moved to LA in the hopes of getting a record deal.”
That was in November of ‘83. With Sal Jenco as road manager—Depp's best friend since fifth grade and now starring as Blowfish on 21 Jump Street—the four band members spent the next six months waking up to the realities of the music business—including how to get by on not much to eat. After clearing $2,200 a week back home, Depp and the band were barely scraping by on $100 a gig. “I walked the streets trying to get any work at all,” Depp remembers.
Finally he got lucky, but not the way he had planned. A friend had introduced Depp to actor Nicolas Cage (Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck), who was a fan of the band. “He suggested I see his agent. Even though I wasn't an actor, Nic thought I could get work,” says Depp.
The agent thought so, too, and director Wes Craven proved it. Five hours after his audition for Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street, Depp was told he had the job. “It was wacky. I broke up with the band in June of 1984, and started shooting almost the next day,” he recalls. “After four years together, it was kind of like dissolving a marriage; they couldn’t understand what was happening. I had no intentions of leaving the band prior to that, but if they had been offered a movie, would they have turned it down?”
Breaking into movies wasn't quite the happy ending Depp might have hoped for. Making the successful horror classic Elm Street proved a professional nightmare. “I was scared and lost,” confesses Depp of his first few weeks on camera. “Fortunately Wes was very patient and gentle. He didn't mind when I asked him stupid questions like, ‘What’s action?’ ” he adds, laughing now at the extent of his ignorance.
Despite his inexperience, Depp's acting career moved right along. The second film, a flop called Private Resort, we will mercifully skip, but his third, the Academy Award-winning Platoon, provided the best opportunity of his young career. In preparation for the Vietnam film, the cast spent two weeks in a training camp in the sultry jungles of the Philippines. “They wanted to see if we were snot-nosed kids or guys who had guts.” And after two-and-a-half months of equally rigorous filming “there developed such camaraderie among the actors, we were like brothers,” says Depp, who continues to maintain a close friendship with the film’s star, Charlie Sheen. “I’ll never forget Charlie at the airport when we arrived, surrounded by boxes of supplies—bottled water, toilet paper, canned food. His mother didn’t want him to be without anything.”
Six months after returning to the States, Depp landed the role of Tom Hanson, the baby-faced rookie policeman of 21 Jump Street, who goes undercover in high schools as a tough teenager. “I hadn't really thought about television until then. I was afraid of getting locked in a mold,” Depp explains. “But this series was unusual because it would give me a chance to play a lot of different types, since my character usually impersonates somebody else. And I knew where the show was coming from,” he adds. “I was always getting into trouble in high school.”
A reference to Depp's most memorable disguise on the show so far—a young woman (a very pretty one at that)—elicits a groan. “I don't know how women do it. I would never wear a bra—it is the most uncomfortable thing I have ever put on. It digs into your skin!” winces Depp, adding that pantyhose and makeup would be out as well.
While wishing that Jump Street—and television in general—would take more chances, Depp is grateful that the series addresses important problems teenagers face today. “If it were just a cop show, I'd be really bored,” he admits. “But the fact that we deal with issues like drugs, gay bashing, and sexual abuse, well, maybe people will learn something. The most important thing to me is showing people what's going on without preaching,” continues Depp, who is equally grateful that he gets on well with the cast. “I was talking to a reporter who said, ‘You guys look like you’re really close. How do you do that?’ I said, ‘Maybe because we are.’”
Since Jump Street's debut last year, Depp has been touted as a new teen heart-throb. One critic called him “the sexiest male on TV.” Depp blushes at that. “Really?” He pauses, apparently pleased. “I'm flattered. It's the label of teen idol that I hate. It’s such an old thing, and it really limits an actor.”
What fans seem to like about Tom Hanson are the very things that are likable about Depp himself: The vulnerability and quirky sense of fun he brings to the role make what could have been a cardboard character very appealing. “I see a lot of Johnny in Tom. He’s shy, yet he has that great sensitivity—and he’s very chivalrous with women,” reveals Sharan Magnuson. “People don’t expect someone that good looking to be down-to-earth. I don’t think Johnny’s even aware of how handsome he is. He’s genuinely puzzled by the attention.” Since Jump Street is shot on location at high schools, that attention can be intrusive. “It gets wacky; there’s a lot of screaming,” admits Depp.
Living in Vancouver, however, has proved to be an unexpected pleasure. “Northwest Canada is very hip,” says the self-described slob, who divides his time between “pits” in Vancouver and L.A. “We work very long hours, so when the weekend comes I sleep, listen to music, and rent a lot of videos.” An avid reader, he lists Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac as favorites. “All my friends get on my case because these writers are considered misogynists [men who dislike women].”
In keeping with that point of view, Depp has written and directed a short film with his friend Sam Saker [Editor’s Note: probably a misspelling of Sam Sarkar, now director of development at Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil.] “It’s called Every Cake Neil, and it’s about a wimpy guy who’s nagged to death by his wife,” says Depp. Lest you think he hasn't a romantic bone in his body, the actor reveals a more tender side in his love of art. “I like Picasso, Chagall and Vincent Van Gogh—any guy who would cut off his ear for a woman is okay in my book.”
And what of his music? “Even though I’m not in a band I still piddle around on my guitar. I’m playing a couple of songs on my old band’s first album—they got a record deal,” says Depp, adding that bad feelings caused by his leaving have been resolved.
Any chance he’ll record music of his own? “Even though my roots are in music, I’m known as an actor. I didn’t want to record an album and have people buy it because I’m on TV, a la Bruce Willis,” he says. “Being committed to a series precludes doing a lot of things you want to do.”
What he would like to do is land some challenging character parts. “I want to get away from this leading-man stuff,” he confesses. “I want to shave my head!”