HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA—Johnny Depp, TV’s most reluctant sex symbol, sits incognito in a boardwalk café. He’s trying hard not to be recognized, and judging from the reaction of the other patrons, he’s doing a good job. Depp, who is best known as Tom Hanson in the Fox series 21 Jump Street, is wearing a goatee and a mustache so modest they almost look improvised. And he has further hidden his face behind tortoiseshell shades and a shapeless felt hat sporting what appears to be a large bullet hole through the crown. Add jeans and a flannel shirt and he could be almost anybody but Johnny Depp. Only the heavy black motorcycle boots, a trademark, give him away.
Jump Street is on hiatus, and when he’s not working Johnny Depp tends to go to ground, returning to the South Florida town of Miramar, where he grew up. Dressed as he is he’s completely anonymous, and that’s just the way he wants it. In addition to Jump Street, Johnny has appeared in A Nightmare on Elm Street and Platoon. But fame is still not a perfect fit.
“I don’t know about other people, but I’m a little uncomfortable with it,” Johnny says of his relatively new celebrity. “I don’t dislike it. It’s very flattering. It’s very nice. But it’s still a little strange, you know what I mean?”
And the disguise?
“Rather than go out and go, ‘Hey, everybody! It’s me!’ and flaunt it or something like that, I just grow a little stuff,” he says, stroking the wispy beard. “But I do like [fame]. It hasn’t gone anywhere I haven’t wanted it to go yet.”
Where it has gone, in a very short time, is from struggling rock musician to flat-out star. As Hanson, a member of a special squad of baby-faced cops who work undercover in high schools, Johnny Depp is a young man who has a way with troubled teens. And in an irony that chroniclers of his saga can’t resist pointing out, Johnny is only a few years past his own troubled teens. While he recently turned twenty-five, he first experimented with drugs when he was eleven and with sex at thirteen. Then came the inevitable scrapes with the law, and by sixteen he was a high-school dropout. At nineteen all he had was a construction job and the slim hope that his Hollywood-based band, the Kids, would hit it big.
They didn’t, even after Depp and the band immigrated to Los Angeles in pursuit of a record deal. But then something weird happened: the classic Hollywood bolt from the blue. In 1984 Johnny met actor Nicolas Cage, who was a fan of the Kids. How about acting? Cage asked. Johnny had never acted before. Don’t let that stop you, Cage answered.
“It was all very quick,” Depp says. “I met Nic and I was looking for a job. At the time I was selling pens over the telephone. The majority of us [from the band] were working at this place and I wasn’t making any money at all.
“We had talked and Nic felt that I should try acting, that I should give it a shot. He said, ‘I’ll set up a meeting with my agent, just so you can meet her and talk things out. Maybe she’ll want you to do a scene for her or something.’ So I went and met his agent. And she sent me to read for A Nightmare on Elm Street. I went there and I met [director] Wes Craven. They gave me a script and told me to come back in two days. When I did, they called back five hours after I read and hired me. I was devastated.”
A role in Private Resort, a dud, followed. But Platoon, which won an Oscar for Best Picture, was next. Then came 21 Jump Street, and life as a sex symbol. As Johnny says, it all happened very quickly. And that’s a big reason that he remains reluctant. Not really unhappy, mind you. Just somewhat shy.
“I’ve always been claustrophobic. I don’t like being in the center of big crowds. I get the feeling they’re sort of closing in on me.
“But if it happens, if people recognize you, it’s no big deal. They just say, ‘Are you him?’ And you say, ‘Yes, I am,’ and then you talk and you sign something. Nobody’s out to hurt you. They’re just out to see what you’re all about, see whether you’re a nice person, or see whether you’re an idiot.”
And people do recognize Johnny, at least when he lets them. He’s cute, he’s cool. He makes them scream.
“I’ve done a couple of personal appearances, and that was strange. To hear people screaming your name is pretty weird. I remember the first time somebody came up and they didn’t say, ‘Aren’t you the guy from 21 Jump Street?’ or ‘Aren’t you the guy from Platoon?’ They came up to me and they said, ‘Aren’t you Johnny Depp?’
“It floored me. It was weird, to have them know your name.”
But does Johnny feel like a sex symbol?
“I don’t know. When I was on the cover of US with the ten sexiest bachelors, it was very flattering. It was exciting, it was neat to see your picture there. I’m still having a little bit of trouble dealing with it.
“It’s hard to explain. There’s plenty of great actors: there’s John Malkovich, there’s Jack Nicholson. Of course I look up to them and their work. But to me great people are people like Martin Luther King, Vincent van Gogh, Bobby Kennedy. Those people deserve awe. They deserve that kind of recognition. I’m not saying that actors don’t—everybody deserves recognition for something that they do. But I don’t see myself in that light. I see myself as the same guy who six years ago was working construction in the daytime and played guitar at night.
“You do project a certain image. But the most important thing to me is, you gotta be yourself. If you’re not yourself, then you’re just fake, you’re full of it.”
“When I’m on the show, when I’m doing Jump Street, I’m playing a character. I’m playing Tom Hanson, who’s a cop and all that. And when I’m not working, then I’m me. You get a sense of a person from looking at him, I think, from looking in his eyes. If you read their words, if you read what they say, that just enhances it a little more. If people are reading what I’m saying and they’re looking at me, I think they understand where I’m coming from.”
Still, it’s where Johnny is going that seems to captivate many of his fans. Particularly those drawn to a young actor who looks like a peer but enjoys the perks of an adult, from a vintage Harley motorcycle to a taste for (and the means to indulge in) expensive cognac. In other words, Johnny Depp is every teenage girl’s dream. Hence the screams. Johnny understands, he says. He’s no judge of whether he really is all that sexy. But who is?
“There’s truth in it if people see me that way,” he says. “I can’t see it myself that way, but if they do that’s okay. I’m not mad about it. I’m comfortable with people seeing me that way, if that’s the way they want to see me. I don’t mind it. I think it’s nice.
“But I would hate for it to limit me. I would hate for it to put me in a hole and leave me stuck there and that’s all I could do. You gotta do everything. When an actor says, ‘Okay, I’m satisfied with my work, and this is all I can do, I’m great now and I’m the best thing I can possibly be,’ I think when he gets there he’s screwed. When he thinks he has nothing else to learn, that’s when he’s going to go down. You can never learn enough. You can never learn enough. You gotta know it all. You gotta be a sponge.”
If Johnny keeps his professional side clear of The Image, his personal side is even more closely guarded. His manager offers guidelines on subjects to avoid. High on the list: Johnny’s love life. The manager needn’t bother. Johnny is extremely adept at avoiding the subject on his own. He does date, he says. He does have a normal personal life. But it takes work and is worth protecting. So he is reluctant to talk about it, refusing to divulge more than the vaguest of details.
“I just do what I’ve read about what other people have to do,” Depp explains. “It’s just like anything else. If you’re a jeweler, you take what’s precious, a precious stone, and you put it in a place where the temperature’s fine, and it’s in a nice case, and nobody’s going to touch it, and nobody’s going to take a hammer and crack it, or smash it. You’ve got to do that with your relationships, with the things that are precious to you. You take them and keep them in a place where no one can touch them. Keep things private. You want to keep your personal life personal and your business life business.”
It’s just that the line blurs so easily, with a onetime troubled teen now playing a cop who counsels troubled teens and keeps them out of trouble. And because the line is so blurred and Depp’s portrayal is so convincing, the role brings him letters from kids who are in just that kind of trouble. “Scary letters,” Johnny says. “Suicide, all kinds of stuff.” Johnny admits the whole thing still feels a bit close.
“When we first started Jump Street it was strange going into schools. It was the first time I’d been in a school since I’d left high school, so it was real odd. You feel that feeling. You know how you walk into school and you’re walking down the hall and you feel that authority or something? You’re waiting at the next corner for the dean to come out and say, ‘All right, get to class.’
“When I was a kid, I went through the drug phase. A lot of kids do. I’ve done the drugs, I’ve experimented, when I was much younger. Then I saw what was going on around me. I saw what was happening to me. And I saw people I was hanging out with and I realized this is not what I want.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to stand back and take a good look, and see the people you’re hanging out with, and think: What is their interest really? The guy who sells you a nickel bag or a dime bag or an ounce of pot, or whatever—what’s his interest in it? Money. He wants to make a buck. He doesn’t care if the pot’s laced with PCP or THC. He doesn’t care. He just wants to make some dough. So when you start thinking about it and realize that these people are not really your friends, and they’re just getting you deeper and deeper into something that’s eventually going to mess you up—that’s when you get out.
“On Jump Street we try to show the kids what we think will make a difference. People end up making their own decisions, whether they want to believe us or not. But I think the reason why people are listening to us is we’re not pointing the finger at people and saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ We’re not preaching. We’re saying, ‘We’re going to show you something here. Take a look, and tell us what you think. What looks right to you? And what looks wrong to you?’
“I wish,” says Johnny Depp, who now has pretty much everything he wants, “I wish I would have had that as a kid.”