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Depp Perception

By Steve Pond
Photographs by Greg Gorman
US Magazine
June 26, 1989

Johnny Depp is the coolest guy on TV, but can he heat up the big screen? 21 Jump Street’s smoldering star ponders his film future, family and wilder days

He has been compared to James Dean, Marlon Brando, all those tough-but-sensitive outsider guys. He has a hit TV series (21 Jump Street) on which he plays an undercover cop. He wears battered clothes and combat boots. He has two tattoos. He rides a Harley-Davidson.

But forget about all that tough-guy stuff for now. On a warm afternoon in the San Fernando Valley, Johnny Depp is tapping his foot, chain-smoking, eating a slice of pepperoni pizza, drinking a Coke and talking about one of his favorite movie stars, and it’s not James or Marlon or anyone known for driving fast or wearing tight T-shirts. Right now, Johnny Depp is talking Pia.

As in Zadora. As in The Lonely Lady, the flick Entertainment Tonight’s movie critic, Leonard Maltin, calls “rock-bottom stuff, not even fun on a trash level.” “I think we can learn from that movie,” Depp says.

Sure, he has a little grin on his face as he’s praising the movie, but at the same time he’s clearly got a real fondness for this stuff. “You know,” he says with a shrug, “people trash Pia Zadora and make fun of her. But I think she’s got a lot of balls. I saw her sing live once, and I was very impressed. She’s Pia.

As he goes on about Pia, it becomes clearer why Depp, who probably could have had his pick of several high-profile Hollywood movies (“Movies where I play this tough guy or I pull out a handgun and shoot at people”), is spending his summer hiatus making a small film called Cry-Baby. The movie’s writer-director is John Waters, the cult-ster who made his name with aggressively trashy films such as Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living before the more mainstream success of last year’s Hairspray (in which Zadora had a cameo as a poetry-spouting beatnik chick).

Waters, who wrote the role of bad boy Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker with Depp in mind, doesn’t think he and his star make for an odd artistic pairing. “I don’t think there’s anyone else who could play it,” he says. “Johnny’s not a bad boy in real life, but he’s had some wild moments in the past which come in handy.”

As the title character, the leader of a gang of Fifties hoodlums, Depp, 26, has his first major movie role since becoming a TV star. It puts him under a lot of pressure, but he swears that he is looking forward to spending his summer in Waters’ considerably less glamorous (next to L. A., that is) hometown of Baltimore. “The big thing is crab cakes and thrift stores,” he says happily. “So I’m pretty excited.”

Depp, of course, doesn’t need crab cakes and thrift stores; he can afford to eat fancier foods and shop in more upscale environs. His $45,000-per-episode deal with Jump Street and the cool million he is pulling in for Cry-Baby could conceivably buy truckloads of caviar and designer duds. But today he is dressed de rigueur for Depp: torn jeans, black boots and a plaid shirt unbuttoned far enough to show a chain from which a cross and a medallion hang (actually, it’s a pop top from a Japanese Coca-Cola can). Glamorous, he’s not.

But he is something else: He doesn’t like to think about it or talk about it and he would rather journalists didn’t write about it, but Depp is indeed a full-fledged sex symbol, and a teen idol to boot. Jump Street turned the trick. Each week, he comes onscreen with his perpetually disheveled, offhand cool. As undercover cop Tom Hanson, he’s the tough kid who looks a little lost underneath the cool.

“When I first saw Johnny,” says 21 Jump Street producer Joan Carson, “he had a felt hat pulled down and these deep brown eyes peering out, with a coat that went to the floor. He was as cute as a bug’s ear, but he looked like a waif. And I think that is part of his appeal: He can be waiflike, but his charisma comes through.”

Waters concurs. “First of all, he’s a good actor,” he says, “but secondly, he’s handsome in a real way. He’s just got that thing that makes a star.”

Talk like this makes Depp nervous, although sitting on a couch in the den of his publicist’s Sherman Oaks, California, house, he initially seems comfortable and relaxed. Perhaps that’s because he spent most of last summer on this very couch after subletting his own L. A. digs. A year later, he still doesn’t have an apartment; nor does he own a house. And while he once lived in his best friend’s car when they were teenagers, that option isn’t open to him today because—you guessed it—he doesn’t own a car (his vintage Harley-Davidson sits idle in Vancouver, British Columbia).

He is friendly and talkative when the conversation concerns rock & roll, his occasionally wild teen years or his dissatisfaction with some recent Jump Street episodes. But when the talk turns to his stardom, and especially the sex symbol/teen idol stuff, he fidgets more and says less; the pauses get longer, the answers shorter.

“After we’d shot the first season, it got a little strange,” he says quietly, lighting another cigarette and running a hand through his trademark tangled hair. “I don’t hate it; I don’t mind it; it’s not an ugly thing,” he says, perhaps considering the fluttery girls who show up at his personal appearances and the sacks of fan letters (more than 10,000 a month). “But it’s a little strange. I’m still not used to it.”

Nor is he used to the invasion of privacy that comes with having a recognizable mug. As a result, Depp said little during his three-year (1985-88) engagement to actress Sherilyn Fenn of Two Moon Junction fame; or of his most recent engagement to Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey. When the relationship with Grey ended this spring, he admitted it was over but declined to elaborate. (Friends attribute the breakup to geography; with Depp in Vancouver and Grey in Los Angeles, they simply didn’t see each other very often.)

“It’s like when you’re in high school,” he allows, “and you’re going steady with someone, and your friends say, ‘Hey, man, are you seeing this girl?’ and they start razzing you. If you love this girl, you’re not gonna tell your friends. I think you have to shield things; otherwise we’d all be out there cutting our arms open and showing you. ‘Here’s my blood. Have a vein.’”

Ask the private Johnny Depp to discuss his love life, and you get the impression that this is one young man who doesn’t like to wear his heart on his sleeve. But when he rolls up that sleeve, a heart is exactly what you see: a bright red, lavishly decorated heart bedecked with a banner that says Betty Sue. It is the latest of Depp’s two tattoos (a large Indian head adorns his other biceps; he is part Cherokee), and it’s a tribute not to any of Depp’s girlfriends, but to his mother.

“She’s the greatest lady in the world,” says Depp, proudly hiking up his sleeve. “Best friend, coolest thing in the world . . . just unbelievable. Her whole life she’s been a waitress, but I won’t let her wait tables anymore.”

For a while, Depp moved his mother to Vancouver to be closer to him while he was shooting 21 Jump Street. Now, she is back in South Florida, where Johnny’s dad, John Christopher Depp Sr., an engineer, moved his family from Kentucky in 1970, when John Christopher Depp Jr. was only 7. Though they are divorced and have remarried, both his parents still live in that area, as do his two older married sisters, Debbie, 33, and Christie, 28. Brother Danny, 35, is a writer who lives in Kentucky.

“Man, family is the most important thing in the world,” says Depp softly. “Without that, you have nothing. It’s the tightest bond you’ll ever have. When you’re in your teens, family’s family. You think it’s always gonna be there. You think, ‘I want friends and I want cars and I wanna do things different.’” He laughs. “But there’s a certain age you hit when you realize, ‘What am I doing? This is my family.’”

And when did he realize that? “When my parents split up was when I think I realized these are the most important people in my life, and you know, I’d die for these people. I was 15, and it just sort of happened. You just deal with it, but there’s no escaping the hurt. I mean, it definitely hurts, man.”

Before that, Depp had been more concerned with keeping himself entertained than staying close to home. The entertainment took some serious forms: He started taking drugs at age 11, got involved in petty theft and vandalism around the same time and had his first sexual experience at 13.

“Everybody puts a label on it and calls me a bad boy or a delinquent or a rebel or one of those horrible terms,” he says. “But to me, it was much more curiosity. It wasn’t like I was some malicious kid who wanted to kick an old lady in the shin and run, you know? I just wanted to find out what was out there.

“The only reason why any of my past came out is because I brought it out,” he continues. “And the reason is that, hopefully, people can learn from it. Kids can say, ‘Jesus, he went through the same thing I’m going through now. Maybe I’m not a bad kid like everybody says.’”

Depp’s “bad kid” phase was mostly over by the time he was about 16. But all the same, after his parents’ divorce he dropped out of high school in his junior year and devoted more of his time to his real passion, rock & roll. A self-taught guitarist and occasional singer, he moved through a succession of garage bands before becoming part of the Kids, one of the most successful bands in South Florida. In 1983, when Depp was 20, the group pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles in search of the big time.

Instead, they found a club scene chock-full of bands in similar circumstances, all of them desperately scrambling for a few low-paying gigs. To support himself—and his new wife, Lori Allison, the sister of a musician friend—he sold ballpoint pens over the phone.

He grins and says: “I got very good at it. But guilt started to get me. I felt like I was ripping people off. The last couple of times I did it I just said, ‘Listen, you don’t want this stuff, man.’”

Depp’s marriage didn’t last much longer than the job: Married at 20, he was divorced at 22. But he and his ex-wife stayed in touch, and when she later dated actor Nicolas Cage (Moonstruck), Depp and Cage became friends. Cage then suggested that the struggling musician meet his agent, Ilene Feldman.

Once again it was his looks that impressed. “He came in with long hair and an earring and a T-shirt with cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve,” says Feldman. “He was not what someone usually looks like when they’re coming in to look for an agent, which was what was so great about him: He just wasn’t into it.”

She sent him to see horror director Wes Craven, then casting the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven, who had been auditioning beach-boy types, took notice when Depp walked in. “Johnny was a chain-smoker; he had yellowish skin,” he recalls. “But he really had sort of a James Dean attraction—that quiet charisma that none of the other actors had.” The director’s daughter and a friend were also at the auditions, and when Craven casually asked the girls whom he should cast, they both said, “Johnny Depp.” That clinched it.

While he was shooting Elm Street, Depp’s band members went their separate ways, and he figured, “Well, I have no band, I’ve had some pretty good luck with this, so why don’t I see what this acting stuff is about and just give it a shot?”

Sure enough, he quickly won the lead in another movie, the ghastly teen sexploitation comedy Private Resort. His costar, New York-based actor Rob Morrow, says that although Depp still had a lot to learn about the movie business, he displayed a natural talent. “He had no idea what he was doing,” recalls Morrow. “Yet he had an understanding of how people operate. He had obstacles, but he was aware of them.”

While neither actor looks back on the movie as one of life’s most memorable moments, they had a few good times together. Take, for instance, their scam to get into a test screening of the picture. “Nobody affiliated with the film could go, but Depp and I heard about it and wanted to see it,” Morrow explains. “So we dressed up in the weirdest possible way. He had dorky glasses and a knit hat on and I put cotton in my mouth so my face puffed out. We walked right past all the execs who knew us.”

Depp may have hated the movie, but it was when he was making Private Resort that he began to think seriously about his acting future. “It wasn’t like I ever kissed the guitar good-bye,” he explains, “but I seemed to be having more steam with acting.”

He took some acting lessons, read a lot of books on the subject, went looking for work and didn’t find much—one episode of Hotel, another of Lady Blue, the made-for-cable movie Slow Burn and an American Film Institute student film. Just as he started to wonder if he’d made the right decision after all, director Oliver Stone cast him as the interpreter, Lerner, in Platoon. The experience was great, he befriended costars such as Charlie Sheen, the movie won lots of awards, including 1986’s Best Picture Oscar, and Depp figured his career was back on track.

And then 21 Jump Street came calling. The first time the show’s creator, Patrick Hasburgh, approached Depp, the young actor declined without even reading the script; on the heels of prestigious Platoon, the last thing he wanted to do was a TV series. “It wasn’t that I was snubbing television or anything,” he insists, “but I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.”

So Hasburgh hired an actor named Jeff Yagher (from TV’s V series) for the role, while Depp sat around and waited for better offers. But he discovered that even an appearance in a prestigious movie didn’t make him a hot property. Luckily for him, destiny intervened. Yagher didn’t work out on Jump Street and Hasburgh approached Depp a second time. Suddenly Depp was more receptive to the idea.

“People weren’t banging my door down with scripts,” he admits, “and the pilot was very good, had a lot of strong possibilities. Plus, the average life of a TV series is not a long one, you know?” He laughs. “So I decided to do it.”

To the surprise of many, the show turned into a hit, and Depp found himself signed to a show that looked as if it would stay on the air for years. And now, at the end of the third season, that longevity is beginning to bother him.

The first season we hit a lot of good issues,” he says, “the second season, the same. We dealt with AIDS, sexual molestation, child molestation, things like that. Unfortunately, Patrick [Hasburgh] left the show after the second season, and the direction seemed to change.

“I don’t wanna bite the hand that feeds me or anything,” he adds quickly, “and the show has done a tremendous amount for me. It put me on the map. But in a lot of instances the people pushing the pens have been very irresponsible. And that’s scary.”

For instance, he says, one episode showed a student building an electric chair in shop class. In another, a high school student is murdered because he was wrongly suspected of being a narc; Johnny’s character, the actual narc, has to prove to the students he is not the narc. “I wanted no part of that one,” says Depp, who refused to appear in the episode. In his place, the producers brought in new cast member Richard Grieco (who plays Dennis Booker).

“I don’t always agree with him, but I see where he’s coming from,” says Jump Street producer Carson. “He fights hard for what he believes in, and he has a tendency to fight for other people as well, which sometimes puts another strand of gray in my hair.”

Depp is still under contract to do the show next season, and despite rumors to the contrary, says he doesn’t plan to break the contract. All the same, he sounds a cautionary note: “If they want to make the show I signed up for three years ago, I’ll be there. And if not . . . I’ll definitely be there to talk about it.”

Depp, of course, has made his feelings known on the Jump Street set. Late in the season, gossip columns were suddenly full of reports of Depp’s on-set tantrums, misbehavior and egotism. If one were to believe the reports, Depp was not a well-liked man in Vancouver. In March he was arrested and charged with assault and mischief in conjunction with a noisy party he attended; the charges were dropped.

According to Depp, one ought not to believe the reports. “I have a couple of ideas where they came from. I think that there are a couple of people”—he leans forward and speaks directly into the tape recorder—“and you know who you are, who don’t like the fact that I am outspoken about certain things. But, as far as temper tantrums and throwing punches at my producers, it’s such bulls--- that it’s hilarious.”

Carson agrees that Depp’s fights on the set have all been over the work, that there is little truth to the reports that he has turned into a prima donna. And not surprising, Depp concurs.

“I don’t think my ideas or my principles have changed,” he claims. “But I’ve learned a lot about this business, how political it is, and how people manipulate other people. It’s scary, man. Power is a scary thing.”

If movie stars wield more power than TV stars, Depp should be scared to death when Cry-Baby hits the screens early next year. The movie is his first real chance to break out of the image he created via Jump Street. It is perhaps a surprising choice of role; at the very least, it is not the accepted path for a youngster in his position.

“Given a certain amount of luck and opportunity,” he says with a shrug, “I think anybody could do movies and continue to play the same character and make tons of money and buy a big old house in Bel Air and, like, smoke cigars all the time. But, you know, I’m not so much interested in that.”

Instead, he’ll star in an offbeat John Waters film and dream about making movies from Jack Kerouac’s Beat era travelogue, On the Road, and Danny Sugarman’s recent autobiography about sex, drugs and rock & roll, Wonderland Avenue.

For now, of course, Johnny Depp can fall back on his 21 Jump Street success, family, money, movies, motorcycles and, oh yeah, those Pia Zadora videotapes. And, it seems, an idyllic vision of the distant future.

“I made a point, I wrote it down when I got this tattoo,” he says, fingering the Betty Sue art on his left biceps. “When I’m 90, and I’m sitting around with, like, my grandkids and my great-grandkids, and they go, ‘Gramps, when did you get that? I want to be able to say, ‘May 31, 1988.’”

He pictures the scene, and laughs. “And then they can go, ‘Wow, Gramps! You’re really old!’”

-- donated by Part-Time Poet