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From Baby Face to Cry-Baby

by Chris Willman
Los Angeles Times
April 4, 1990

Johnny Depp of Fox’s 21 Jump Street plays a juvenile delinquent in his first starring film role. The teen idol insists he’ll never do another TV series again.

“Never. I’d rather pump gas. I would never do it again, ever. There’s not enough money in Los Angeles.”

Whose seeming regret and determined resolve is this? Al Davis on the Raiders’ move? Traci Lords on her porno career? George Bush on broccoli?

No, it’s Johnny Depp, the 26-year-old star of Fox Television’s 21 Jump Street, describing the skewed odds of his ever agreeing to act in a TV series again now that his four-season commitment to the show is up. He’s grateful that the series gave him the leverage to work with big-screen directors like John Waters and Tim Burton, but now that his first starring role in a feature film—Waters’ satirical Cry-Baby—is set to unspool in theaters Friday, he shows about as much propensity to look back at his small-screen past as a warrior escaping Medusa’s lair.

“I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me or anything like that,” said Depp in his publicist’s West Hollywood office, preparing to bare just a little incisor over his dissatisfaction with Jump Street’s hip-hunks-with-heat premise. “But I would much rather do movies with John Waters than be undercover in a high school carrying a gun. Cops undercover in high school, in my opinion, is borderline fascist. (But) I don’t sign the checks. I’m a puppet.”

Depp has been likened to a modern James Dean, so it may seem odd to some that for his starring debut in a motion picture, anxiously awaited by thousands upon thousands of heartsick young girls, he picked a project in which he essentially parodies that image.

It is—if you want to continue the analogy—as if Dean had followed up Rebel Without a Cause with some lighthearted Frank Tashlin romp. Cry-Baby, which Depp describes as akin to “Grease on hallucinogens,” is a campy farce with no redeeming social value and nary a serious or realistic moment. Which is just the way Depp likes it, for now, after his very straight-faced Jump Street experience.

“Maybe” it’s a risk to take such a comic turn this early in his career, he conceded, “but for me it’s the only thing to do. I hate that in order to sell a TV show and sell a product, it involves exploiting one person or another, and I had no control over any of those commercials that went DEPP DEPP DEPP ,” he says, mocking the deep voice that gravely intoned his singular last name—a la STALLONE or SCHWARZENEGGER –in the ad campaign Fox developed for the show after Depp’s stardom among the under-18 set exploded.

“It was such a shock to me to see it. If I had had control over that and the posters and the amount of merchandising, I would have put the kibosh on it a long time ago. But unfortunately, when you’re starting out and they have product to sell, they shove you down America’s throat, basically. It’s pretty ugly. So to be able to make fun of all that under John Waters’ wing was important to me.

“I felt fortunate not having to pose with a revolver in my hand and kiss a girl wearing Lycra and do the same old expected leading-man stuff. Whenever a young actor comes out, they have to pin him with some sort of label so they call him a bad boy or that horrible word rebel, which is so played out and stupid. This made fun of people’s perceptions. It was really the only way I wanted to go.”

The bangs that keep loping over Depp’s face as he essays the title role of the ‘50s-themed Cry-Baby may seem like part of the joke, but in person he really does have a lock of dark hair that keeps rebounding back into place over his forehead, though the grease, of course, is absent. Faint traces of mustache and goatee highlight his face, and alongside his engagement ring—the fiancee being actress Winona Ryder—is a Green Hornet decoder ring, complete with secret compartment. Despite his handsome, all-American TV image, Depp in person is long-haired, loosely funky enough and unglamorous to seem more a Keanu Reeves type than a James Dean type.

“He looks like that mostly when he’s in Los Angeles,” pointed out director Waters in a separate interview. “It’s the anti-star mentality. But I think Johnny is an ultimate movie star, and I mean that in a very positive way—I’m a firm believer in movie stars. That’s how I wanted him to look in Cry Baby, because he’s playing a movie star—almost.”

Waters came upon the idea of casting Depp, he says, when “halfway through writing it I thought, ‘Oh God, who’s gonna play this?’ I went and bought all the teen magazines—everything that he hates—and saw him and thought he’d be perfect for it. So I called him and said, ‘I have this movie about a juvenile delinquent whose father got the electric chair’—I didn’t try to make it sound normal.

“And he really laughed; he liked my old stuff too. I just wanted to make sure he had a sense of humor. He did this one little sneer in our first meeting which summed it all up, and I knew that, hey, Johnny Depp is Cry-Baby.”

And then there’s the typecasting factor. Waters enthuses: “Johnny was a juvenile delinquent!”

Depp himself doesn’t go quite that far.

“I wasn’t, really. I was just a curious kid. I was bored with high school so I dropped out; I wanted to play music so I kept doing that. I wouldn’t say that I was one of the cool kids in high school at all, but I also wasn’t square. I probably was perceived as a burnout because I had long hair and played guitar and didn’t really work much in high school. I wanted to be more what John probably was, which was one of the really smart kids. I always envied those guys.”

Depp seems an unlikely candidate for idolization among the preteen fan magazine set: Stories in the adult press have made ample note of his admitted drug use at 11, petty theft and sexual experiences at 13, exit from school at 16, marriage at 20 and divorce at 22. Nothing he’s done offscreen since becoming a celebrity has been aimed at courting that audience, either.

“I’ve never done an interview with the teen magazines or anything like that. They rape newspaper and magazine interviews and reprint them in their magazines. I don’t really keep up on them. I’m gonna be 27 years old; why a 13-year-old would want to read about me is beyond me.”

Nonetheless, both Depp’s romantic liaisons and creative battles have continued to make good grist for the gossip mills. Word got around that the rising young star was becoming difficult; he maintains he was simply trying to uphold a basic standard.

“I’ve certainly exercised (control) as much as they were willing to take from me,” he asserted, unapologetically, of his Jump Street run-ins. “There were a couple episodes that I told ‘em I wouldn’t do because I thought they were dangerous and basically full of it. So I got out of those. But it didn’t stop them from shooting them anyway.”

Now that Depp is working in a medium more to his liking, inquiring minds will have to settle for fewer on-the-set stories and more items about his relationship with Ryder, whom he’s been dating for nine months. (Columnists have previously documented Depp’s engagements to actresses Jennifer Grey and Sherilyn Fenn.)

The two of them have just flown to Florida, where they’re set to co-star in Tim Burton’s bizarre fantasy Edward Scissorhands—promised by its male lead to be a “beautiful, classic fairy tale” about a young man who, true to the title, has an unusual set of extremities. “When it comes to wearing appliances, I run the gamut in this movie,” Depp said.

Once the fan-magazine mania runs its natural course, Waters feels sure Depp’s appeal will endure. “He certainly has those handsome, smoldering good looks, but Johnny is gonna go way beyond being a teen idol. I think he’s going to mature incredibly well, like Robert Mitchum. He could play a sophisticate or a suit, that whole look, or a redneck—all types. I’d love to work with him again and have him play an adult. I don’t want him to play a kid again.”

That idea is just fine by the actor in question. “I think I look young, but I don’t think I can pass for high school anymore,” said Depp. “I’m a little long in the tooth for that. The circles under my eyes are too prominent.”

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors