Mention to him that he is a celebrity and back comes the reply: “Celebrity? Who's a celebrity? I'm just a guy doing a job.” Open and friendly about most things, 24-year-old Depp turns uncharacteristically inarticulate when the conversation shifts to his fame, shrugging off references to his talent as “no big deal.”
He has described himself as a slob and won't even admit to being the star of the top-rating show, 21 Jump Street, a fact most viewers in the U.S. and Australia take for granted. “The star? I don't know,” he mumbles, lighting one of many cigarettes. “Last season 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 are getting equal time.”
Depp's publicist, Sharon Magnuson, isn't as modest as the actor. “His character, Tom Hanson, was developed to be the lead, and he is unquestionably popular. 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 James Dean clothes, 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 Florida, Depp is the youngest of four children. His mother is now remarried and living near him in Vancouver, Canada, where Jump Street is taped.
The itch to pick up a guitar came from a preacher uncle who led a hard rockin' gospel band, The Gospel Sunlighters. “When I was 12 I thought they were the greatest thing in the world,” said Depp.
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,” he said. He quickly got into the glitter rock sounds of Kiss and Alice Cooper, and at 13 joined a band. “It was called Flame—and it was terrible,” he said, laughing.
Zaphyre followed Flame (“more Kiss-type stuff”) and when he was 17, Depp joined The Kids. "We had a nice following in South Florida. But after playing the local club scene to death, we knew we were stagnating and we moved to LA in the hope of getting a record deal.”
That was in 1983. Sal Jenco, Depp's best friend at school who now stars as Blowfish on 21 Jump Street, became road manager, and the four band members spent six months learning the realities of the music business. Like getting by on little food.
After clearing $2,200 a week back home, Depp and the band were barely surviving on $100 a gig. “I walked the streets trying to get work,” Depp recalled. 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). “He suggested I see his agent. Even though I wasn't an actor, Nic thought I could get work,” said 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, 1984, and started shooting almost the next day,” he said.
Breaking into movies wasn't quite the happy ending for which Depp had hoped. Making the successful horror classic Elm Street proved a professional nightmare. “I was scared and lost,” confessed 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,” he added, laughing now at the extent of his ignorance.
Despite his inexperience, Depp's acting career moved right along. The second film was a flop called Private Resort, 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 Philippines jungle.
“They wanted to see if we were snot-nosed kids or guys who had guts,” said Depp. And after 10 weeks of rigorous filming “there developed such camaraderie among the actors—we were like brothers.” Six months after returning to the U.S., 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 mould,” he explained.
“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. 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—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,” he winced.
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 admitted. “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.”
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? I'm flattered. It's the label of teen idol that I hate. It really limits an actor.”
What fans seem to like about Tom Hanson are the very things that are likeable about Depp. The vulnerability and quirky sense of fun he brings to the role make what could have been a cardboard character very appealing. The actor describes himself as a “slob” who divides his time between “pits” in Vancouver and LA. “We work very long hours, so when the weekend comes I sleep, listen to music, and rent a lot of videos.”
In case you think he hasn't a romantic bone in his body, Depp reveals a more tender side in his love of art. “I like Picasso, Chagall and Van Gogh,” he said. “Any guy who would cut off his ear for a woman is okay in my book.”