A producer on 21 Jump Street describes Johnny Depp like this: “I don’t always agree with him, but I see where he’s coming from. 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 grey in my hair.”
If that makes Depp sound difficult, then it could be argued he’s earned the right to be. In the three seasons that Jump Street, the tough, hard-hitting series about a gang of young undercover cops, has been on the air, Depp has achieved the kind of status—compared to the rest of the cast—that Joan Collins enjoyed on Dynasty, though fortunately he isn’t afflicted with her taste in clothes. But then Depp doesn’t need a Liberace-style outfit change every 10 minutes à la Don Johnson in Miami Vice (a show Depp himself claims to have watched only twice). The battered jeans, scuffed boots and T-shirts he wears in Jump Street are his character Tom Hanson’s signature—and his moody, troubled cop role has turned him in TV critics’ eyes at least, into a kind of MTV generation replica of a ‘50s movie star.
Depp might hate the predictable label but he has the fan mail (10,000 letters a week), the teen magazine covers (countless, though he doesn’t often give interviews) and the ratings to make the press clichés stand up.
In its regular prime-time TV slot, Jump Street is the show most watched by young American females in the 18-34 age range. He’s as big a teen star as Michael J Fox was at the height of his Family Ties days, and in the States he’s got the kind of status that makes most of the young Hollywood movie Brat-Pack look practically anonymous.
Surprisingly, considering its star’s success in the pin-up stakes, Jump Street is a long way from being mere visual candy floss featuring pretty boys running around in torn T-shirts. Instead, it’s more of a thirtysomething for young people, a sort of thirteensomething.
Based on a real life police programme which involved young police recruits being trained as undercover cops and sent back to high schools, streets and clubs to infiltrate the youth crime world, it tackles issues such as drugs, AIDS, teen suicide and racism. In America’s new introspective style of TV show this means that the character he plays, Tom Hanson, has to suffer nearly as much as the crime victims he’s protecting. He’s had a nervous breakdown, a girlfriend blow away at the counter of a convenience store, and he’s even had to talk to his mother about her sex life. No wonder, as one American magazine breezily put it when glibly summing up Hanson’s character: “He’s often confused and pensive.”
“My feeling is that the show needs to go deeper into certain issues,” says Depp. “Issues like racism and gang violence. In television there are strict boundaries, so there’s only so much you can do, but the only way to change something is to fight it.”
So valuable is Depp to Jump Street that his power on the show is considerable. When he doesn’t want to do something he doesn’t have to. His whims, however, seem to be based not on quibbles like how many close-ups he gets but on issues he feels strongly about. “Sometimes there are things that I personally and morally don’t agree with. Like one episode where my character had to set a cross alight. It was supposedly dealing with racism, but I don’t think it worked—I had to light this cross and I found that pretty repulsive. In the end I did it, even though I didn’t think the episode dealt with the issue correctly.”
He refused, though, to appear in an episode where a high school student is murdered because he’s wrongly suspected of being an informer, while the real informer stays quiet to keep in with the students. Depp thought it was morally dubious. But in person, Depp, who’s surprisingly slight and waif-like, seems about as unaffected by the power of being one of TV’s hottest commodities as it’s possible to be.
Ensconced in London’s Blake’s Hotel, he insists on showing you round his hotel suite, giggling in awe at the overpowering chintzy furnishings. Decorated throughout in soft, feminine pink, complete with white lacy scatter cushions, walls covered from floor to ceiling in framed prints and a pungent floral perfume wafting through the air, it seems to have been decorated according to the Barbara Cartland school of interior design. You could imagine other TV cops, Bruce Willis perhaps, storming out butchly and demanding something more suited to their macho image, but Depp just rummages in the fridge for a can of Coke and settles back easily on the squishy pink couch.
On his position as one of America’s most popular young sex symbols—“the number one teenage star in America: according to Jump Street’s co-creator Patrick Hasburgh—he’s amiably low-key. “It’s better than being in jail, I guess,” he laughs. “I can’t see myself that way but if people do then that’s okay. I’m not mad about it, but I’m comfortable with it.”
Practically the whole of the US seems to have been affected by the Depp factor. Hairspray director and master of kitsch cinema John Waters has written a role specially for him after seeing his TV show. Depp has just finished filming the part, the title role in Cry-Baby, cramming it into Jump Street’s summer break. As the leader of a gang of local toughs, in 1954 Baltimore, Depp sports a quiff as well as knee-length ‘50s jackets and lurid peg-pants, all done with the casual understatement we’ve come to expect from the man who made Divine an international star.
Cry-Baby also features Waters’s usual eclectic casting. Depp’s screen step-dad is Iggy Pop, while urban guerrilla turned socialite Patty Hearst and porn star Traci Lords add their own unique charms to the film.
“It’s kind of John Waters’s very, very warped vision of Romeo and Juliet,” says Depp. “I had a hilarious time and I’ve already told John I want to be in all his films for the rest of my life.
“The sort of offers I was getting were the sort of movies that get made every day, the sort of movies where you pose and look good with a gun and go out and beat people up. What was so seductive about Cry-Baby was that John is not your everyday film-maker, and the movie makes fun of the sort of image people want to see me as. They always take a young actor and call him a rebel, bad boy and all those idiot terms. Cry-Baby really makes fun of that, and I was more than happy to make fun of myself.”
Part of Depp’s appeal comes from the fact that he’s no squeaky-clean movie star’s son, boasting by today’s safe teen movie standards a faintly risqué past, an aspect of his character that Jump Street’s producers have not been slow to publicize. “He’s a kid who has often experienced the same problems we’re dealing with in this show,” says Hasburgh.
Depp, in London to publicize the launch on satellite TV of Jump Street (to be shown on SKY channel from September), gives a slightly different perspective. “I was very concerned from the beginning that Jump Street would never be preachy or point the finger. I’m not a good-guy role model. Hanson’s pretty gung-ho about his job.”
Depp, whose adolescence included taking drugs at the age of 11, dropping out of high school to play in a band at 16, and later married at 20 and divorced at 22 (he has since been engaged twice, once to Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey) grew up in Miramar, Florida, the son of an engineer and a waitress, and only became an actor by accident. He was bumming around Los Angeles with his band playing the sort of music that sounded “a bit like U2 maybe mixed with the Sex Pistols” (which may explain why they didn’t get an awful lot of work) when his friend, Nicolas Cage, suggested he should go and see his agent.
“I was working at a day job selling ink pens over the phone and getting maybe 100 dollars a week and I thought what have I got to lose?” says Depp. “His agent sent me to audition for a low-budget Wes Craven film called A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I got the part.”
According to Craven, the success of whose cheaply-made horror film took Hollywood by surprise, Depp’s appearance at the audition attracted his attention immediately. Dark-eyed with fine bone structure (he’s part Cherokee Indian and has an Indian chief’s head tattooed on one bicep), disheveled-looking and chain-smoking, he had, says Craven “a quiet charisma that none of the other actors had.” Craven had been thinking of a conventional, beach-boy type, and had brought his daughter and her friend along for consumer reaction. When he asked the girls who should get the part they instantly suggested Depp.
So Depp was terrorized by Freddy in Elm Street before suffering the best death in the film—being swallowed up in a bed and spewed out again as a geyser of blood. A few forgettable film roles followed before he got the small part of the interpreter in Platoon, a production which led him acting in two short TV films directed by Platoon star Charlie Sheen.
Now Depp, like all the big name TV cops that have gone before him, is planning his transition back to the big screen. “A lot of TV stars are very much into over-exposing themselves to the public eye and I’m very cautious of that,” he says. “Anybody can go out and make schlock movies and make a million dollars, but I don’t intend to do that. I rate Spike Lee a lot as a director. I just saw his new movie Do The Right Thing and I thought it was incredible. There were a lot of things in there that people really needed to see. That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in doing. I sometimes think people need a little shaking into reality.”