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Johnny Handsome

by Stephen Rebello
Photographs by Albert Sanchez
May 1990


Can Johnny Depp, TV’s tattooed teen idol with the best cheekbones since Gene Tierney, make the leap to the big time with outré movies like Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands—or is this just his 15 minutes of fame?

Wayne Newton blew away Johnny Depp in Vegas the other night. It all went down in the Goldwyn Ballroom at Bally’s, where thousands of movie exhibitors—woozy from sampling faux butter, state-of-the-art popcorn, and ergonomic theater seats—had gathered to chow down and to ogle movie stars, up close.

Newly named “Male Star of Tomorrow” by the National Association of Theater Owners, 27-year-old Depp was sharing the dais with fellow honorees Anjelica Huston, “Female Star of the Year” for Enemies, A Love Story, a 20th-Century-Fox release, Jeff Bridges, “Male Star of the Year,” for The Fabulous Baker Boys, from Fox, “Producer of the Year” Joel Silver, maker of Fox’s upcoming Ford Fairlane, and Batman director Tim Burton, “Director of the Year,” for whom Depp will next appear in the Fox movie Edward Scissorhands opposite “Female Star of Tomorrow” Winona Ryder, number one foxy lady in the young actor’s private life. Cozy.

Depp sat quietly, “generally at a loss for words,” according to one observer, as lights danced off the obelisk-shaped lucite trophy that sat on the table before him with his name etched on it. Were he and his obviously-in-love girlfriend awed by the responsibility of living up to the standards set by such past “Stars of Tomorrow” as Andrew Stevens, Robert Hayes, Helen Slater, and Morgan Fairchild? We may never know. But after performances by comic Andrew Dice Clay and Tone Loc, stars of Ford Fairlane, came Depp’s blow-away moment supreme: a one-hour “surprise” concert appearance by Wayne Newton, another Ford Fairlane star, who—as if his ebony helmet of superstar hair and rutting caterpillar eyebrows were not sufficient—purred congratulations to the award recipients, but singled out, with a wave of his hand, “My good friend—Johnnnn-eeee DEPP!”

“I was in shock” admits Depp a few days later, slouched in a back booth of a 24-hour Sunset Strip hash joint, where a waiter’s trilly greeting upon his arrival (“Here’s our wandering waif!”) suggests that Depp is a regular. Depp’s jet-black leased BMW ragtop sits wedged between R.V.s and Harleys in the parking lot outside, where up-from-underground trash director John Waters, maker of Depp’s first starring movie Cry-Baby, was recently robbed of $80 at gunpoint. Despite Depp’s matted hair, shades, and facial scruff, every server in the place takes turn filling his coffee cup, pretending not to stare at the kid who became a cover boy cutie-pie playing Tom Hanson, undercover cop, on 21 Jump Street. Dressed in a vintage black jacket with brocade collar over a faded tank top and bagged-out jeans, Depp looks as glamorously disheveled as an off-hours Melrose Avenue waiter, or the canniest scam artist working the Sunset Strip.

Millions ride on whether this kid with eyes that radiate a used-up, fuck-it-all allure will deliver more in movies than the best cheekbones since Gene Tierney. Right now, Depp is chain-smoking Marlboros, wolfing down bacon, eggs, and caffeine, and talking about a Real Star. “I mean, it’s WAYNE NEWTON, man, LIVE! He’s an institution, like Elvis. Wayne Newton said my name and it MADE MY NIGHT.” Newton’s very essence draws from Depp a Vegas riff that suggests perhaps he and kitsch were on speaking terms before he tangled last summer with John (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) Waters. “I love the whole flavor of Vegas,” Depp says, grinning, but serious as a slot-machine junkie. “I love the big, gaudy sunglasses, the bat-wing collars, the Nik-Nik shirts, the leisure suits and white patent leather shoes.”

The subject of Vegas leads to a Depp litany of other guiltless pleasures: Pia Zadora in The Lonely Lady, late-period Elvis (“I gotta get a ceramic bust of him,” he says), true crime books, paintings by John Wayne Gacy, Sinatra, and John Davidson, of whom Depp cherishes a “truly frightening videotape where he sings, like, Hall and Oates songs in really tight polyester bellbottoms.” Depp frowns at his coffee spoon, then holds it up for me to see. “Why do people wipe boogers on spoons?” he wonders. I offer, “Because in a place like this, there’s no room left under the table.” Depp smirks in a sly, white-trashy way that suggests why he and Cry-Baby director John Waters got along like a mobile home afire.

Depp’s thicket of eyelashes, tsunami of hair, and pouty lips would surely have splashed him across the pages of the same fan rags of the ‘50s and ‘60s that devoured the Rocks, Tonys, Tabs, and Troys of the moment. Today, the Tiger Beat Adonis-in-jockey-shorts scenes in Cry-Baby should make pre-teen girls squirm and swoon for him like an old-style screen idol. At least that is what Universal, which is selling the movie entirely on Depp, hopes. But questions arise as the curtains part on Depp’s first movie since he began fluttering hearts as TV’s dishiest undercover cop. Do he and James Dean have anything more in common than a pair of initials? Is Depp more than merely another of the Dean pretenders of the Michael Parks, Christopher Jones, or Maxwell Caulfield variety?

Cry-Baby, or “King Creole on acid” as its director calls it, is PG-13, filtered Waters: no three-hundred-pound doggie-doo-eating drag queen, no lesbian glory hole scene, no “I blew Richard Speck!” punchlines. Depp is the eponymous Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, teary-eyed leader of the ‘50s hoodlum gang, The Drapes. He slides off his cycle, adjusts his crotch, and woos Allison, queen of the Baltimore “squares,” by murmuring: “Orphans have special needs.” Director Waters, who has employed in films such pink flamingos of beefcake as Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue, wrote the script with no fix on who might play his studly comic lead. Then, he found young America’s wet dream in twenty bucks’ worth of teeny magazines. “The only other person who could have played it was Charles Starkweather, and he was dead,” Waters explains.

In search of “a real movie star,” Waters wrote Depp, asking if the actor would look over his script once he completed it. Luckily, Waters says, Depp had already seen and liked his other movies, “which is not something you lie about.” Says Depp, who ranks Waters’s Female Trouble atop his list of favorite flicks, “John’s was the best script around—most unique, best-written, funniest. It makes fun of the whole teen dilemma thing, and was such a joke on how people perceive me, or what has been shoved down their throats. I was doing fast food every week,” he says of his TV series. “I wanted to work with an outlaw.” It hardly hurt that the outlaw—cash-rich from investments in Cry-Baby by director Jim (Big Business) Abrahams and producer Brian (Parenthood) Grazer—could pay Depp’s $1 million salary.

But some in Hollywood advised Depp against starring even in candy-colored, nouveau Waters, which contains such moments to cherish as pregnant gang moll Ricki Lake cooing, “Oooh, I feel so good all knocked up,” and a French kiss montage that must be seen to be believed. Should an incipient sex god do self-parody before his time? “There were people who thought Cry-Baby was a bad idea,” admits Depp, who receives over 10,000 fan letters a month. “But I’ve always admired people like John Waters, who’s never compromised, or Iggy Pop [the singer, also in the movie], who’s been through the wringer just because he stuck to his guns. The easy way is boring to me.”

Shooting the movie in Water’s beloved Baltimore (“the strangest place I’ve ever been,” Depp says) left the star and director wanting more. “I’d love to become a member of his repertory company,” says Depp. Waters, who already has a Cry-Baby successor in mind for Depp, says, “He’s everything a star should be, the very opposite of a flash-in-the-pan. It’s almost as exciting as it must have been working with Johnny Halliday in France in the beginning.”

Part Cherokee, Depp grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky, the son of an engineer, John Christopher Depp, and Betty Sue, a waitress. When Depp was six, his family (he has two older sisters and a brother) moved to Miramar, Florida. Early on, Depp got a line on the marketability of charisma from an uncle, “an old-time preacher” of the fire-and-brimstone-and-salvation school of theatrics. Growing up, Depp caught his uncle’s act as often as possible, drawn by the “strangeness of seeing all these adults bursting into tears, running up and grabbing his feet when he’d say, ‘Come up and be saved!’ It was an obtuse sort of image for a kid.” Obtuse, maybe, and one unforgettable role model.

By the time his parents divorced (each has remarried since), Depp, 15, was Johnny Too Bad. A striking, rangy kid, he had dabbled in “every kind of drug there was” by age 11. Between bouts of swiping six-packs, breaking and entering, and classroom-trashing, Depp lost his cherry at age 13, and ditched school for good at 16. “It was fairly normal,” Depp says. “When you’re 13, 14, and you hang out with a bunch of guys and the junior high prom just doesn’t do it for you, you go out and do something. Experiment. You live in Miami as a kid and [drugs are] everywhere. You try it for the usual reasons: peer pressure, curiosity, boredom.” Depp left home to live in a ‘67 Impala with a buddy who had nowhere else to go.

Rowdy and obsessed with music, Depp kept constant company with a battered, $25 electric guitar upon which he began teaching himself, after catching the fever from hearing a gospel group. “I had blinders on to anything else but music; I made that my life,” he says. Almost overnight, Johnny Too Bad became Johnny Guitar. While working at construction jobs, Depp gigged in 14 different garage bands before clicking with the Kids, a popular South Florida group which he describes as “Muddy Waters meets the Sex Pistols.” He recalls, “There’s no greater feeling than playing guitar in a band.”

In 1983, at 20, Depp and the band members moved to Los Angeles for their shot at stardom. The same year, he married Lori Allison, a younger sister of a musician pal, whom a friend at the time describes as “tiny, dark, pale, beautiful, and quiet. Johnny was the more outgoing of the two.” Money got so tight that Depp sold ballpoint pens by phone. Although he and Allison divorced two years later, Allison’s one-time boyfriend, actor Nicolas Cage, hooked up Depp with his agent.

Depp scored a movie job on his first audition. “Johnny was more worldly, compared to all these pretty boys that were coming in,” says shriekmeister Wes Craven, who cast Depp as the kid who winds up getting sucked into a bed and spewed out as a bloody geyser in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. “Johnny had an ‘80s, time-worn quality, and looked like he’d been around. He chain-smoked and had these yellow fingers. He was an older soul, somehow.” Though the movie made a far bigger star of razor-fingered Freddy Krueger than of its teensters, co-star Mimi Craven remembers, “Johnny had such an innocence about him with that look. He had ‘It’ in spades, more than anybody I’ve ever met.”

Depp’s “It” factor was well-hidden in Private Resort>, a smarmy 1985 teen stinkbomb—featuring Depp’s first nude scene—about which no one has anything good to say. “After I saw how bad I was in my first couple of jobs, I decided I better do something about it,” says Depp, who, despite working on his acting chops with a few estimable coaches, could only scrounge up occasional roles in TV’s Hotel and Lady Blue and a dismal cable-TV-movie, Slow Burn, with Beverly D’Angelo and Eric Roberts. Then Depp found a more prestigious showcase in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, playing Lerner, the glasses-wearing troop interpreter from Toonerville.

Professionally, things dried up again after Depp’s return from several months filming with Stone in the Philippine jungles. Despite no movie offers, Depp turned down producer Patrick Hasburgh’s offer to play a dimpled undercover cop who busts drug-and-porno-mad high schoolers in a TV series. Instead, he accepted an invitation by a friend who lived in his apartment building to join a band—Rock City Angels.

Meanwhile, the producers of the TV cop show were dissatisfied with the actor they had cast (Jeff Yagher, from the TV series V) and again offered Depp the role. The fewer movie scripts Depp got, the more tempting the series sounded. Liking the script for 21 Jump Street, and eager to work with actor Fredric Forrest, Depp signed on, thinking the job might see him through a lean season or two. Instead, the Fox Broadcasting Company turned up the teen god heat and thrust Depp into the living rooms—and fantasies—of pubescent America. Then, Forrest departed the show after a few episodes, and two months after Depp began filming the series, Geffen Records and Depp’s Rock City Angels band members signed the biggest deal since Madonna’s. “It was like, oh Christ,” Depp recalls of hearing the news of his ex-band’s success. “All I wanted since I was 12 years old was to go on the road.” (To date, however, the band has not released a second album.)

Part of Depp’s appeal to kids appears to stem from the hint of grit and fingernail dirt that lurks beneath the mousse-and-bronzer-style dramatics of the TV show. Depp does nothing to polish his image; in fact, the day we met, it looked like his hair hadn’t been washed anytime recently. “If you’re honest with people, without splitting yourself open, sometimes you can help somebody in trouble,” says Depp, who told the press early on about his former drug and alcohol use. He’s no one’s idea of a role model, which suits him fine. “Things are pretty bad if kids have to write to an actor for advice. I couldn’t tell anyone what to do. I don’t want to be the Messiah or some spokesman for ‘Just Say No’ to drugs. I’m just as fucked up as the next guy. If I can help people by saying, ‘I’ve done this and it really feels bad after a while. I wouldn’t do it if I were you,’ that’s great. But also, the [producers] were trying to make me out to be this, like, perfectly baked cake. I don’t want to be what these people created.”

Some observers say that what “these people” created is, in fact, an ego monster who keeps cast and crew members of 21 Jump Street, which is filmed in Vancouver, B.C., in an uproar. According to reports, Depp has set fire to his underwear, been deliberately belligerent to his producers, and even thrown them a punch or two. Two things are known. When Depp refused to do certain episodes, Richard Grieco, who plays Dennis Booker, replaced him (and got his own hit series, Booker, for his trouble). And just before Depp left to begin filming Cry-Baby, he was arrested for assaulting a hotel security guard. (And, later, he was completely cleared of those charges.) “Guys have gotten a little cocky with me sometimes,” Depp says, in defense of his alleged behavior. “They either see that they can make themselves look good in front of their friends by being a man—something about their penis size, I guess—or they see free lunches in their future. So, they figure if they fuck with you, you’ll hit then and they can take you to court.”

Four seasons and major TV stardom later, Johnny Depp keeps this calendar; “Every day,” says the actor, “I mark down the days left. Two more seasons . . . contractually.” After a moment, Depp says of his $45,000-per-episode series deal: “I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me. I’ve been lucky. It’s put me on the map. But once you put your name on a piece of paper, you have no choice. There are people in ties with very big pens and hulking desks who do bad things to you.”

Jabbing his umpteenth Marlboro into an overflowing ashtray, Depp says, “I’m a little long in the tooth to be in high school. Clay won’t help the bags under my eyes anymore. [The producers] really should do a Menudo-type thing, just pop other guys into the role, or else, like on soap operas, if one of the regulars is sick, announce: ‘This week, Lance McGillacutty will be playing the role of Alan Quartermain.’” He sighs, “They only cancel TV after it’s been really bad for a really long time.”

On the evidence of Cry-Baby and the fact that top filmmakers as different as Tim (Batman) Burton and Oliver (Born on the Fourth of July) Stone want to work with him, Depp can probably feel optimistic about the near term. He enthuses over Edward Scissorhands, an oddball romantic parable—Depp plays the title character, a man-made monster who has gardening shears for hands and hits it big with women—which he began filming in March. “Johnny related on a real emotional level to the character’s pain and humor,” asserts Denise Di Novi (producer of Heathers), who says that she and director Tim Burton chose Depp for his “dynamite combination of clear, accessible vulnerability, real strength, and sexuality.” According to some, Depp won out over such contenders as Tom Cruise for the role. Di Novi explains, “We’re creating a new character and didn’t want an actor that carried baggage with him. Johnny could do any movie he wants, yet he chooses to take risks on emotionally complex parts. The camera likes his cheekbones but it also likes what comes through in his eyes. He’s deep, complex, intelligent, and sensitive. To me, that suggests he will fare very well.”

For his part, Depp, who would “sooner fry burgers or pump gas than do Fabian movies,” says, “On my movies, I make my own decisions based on what I feel, not on [what] someone says the public wants to swallow. I try to fight the everyday, normal leading man stuff as much as I can. [Edward Scissorhands] has what would appear to most people as a real severe disability. On the other side, there’s got to be something good from it. There’s a lot of interesting twists to it.”

Not the least of these twists has to do with “Winona Forever.” That’s how the scroll-like tattoo reads when Depp strips off his jacket to proudly display his bared biceps. This is but the latest of Depp’s skin engravings, which even Cry-Baby satirizes as a fetish of the actor’s. “Betty Sue”—a bright red heart commemorating his mother—adorns one arm; an Indian chief’s head, a salute to his bloodlines, stares out from his other.

It was no big deal for him, because he’s had tattoos done before,” says Mike Messina of Sunset Strip Tattoo—“Tattooers of the Stars Since 1971”—whom Depp engaged for about $75 to needle into his flesh his feelings for Winona Ryder, the actress whom he currently acts with by day in Edward Scissorhands and cohabits with by night. “The fact that we’re together and we’re in love certainly won’t hurt the movie,” Depp says, with a warily happy smile. “Winona and I are engaged. It’s official. She has a lot of talent and, aside from that, I also happen to love her. I’m sure we’re going to do more things together. People have had great success at that, like John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. In a perfect world, I’d just do movies with [Winona], John Waters, and Tim Burton, and live happily ever after.”

Depp declines to discuss the fact that he also became officially engaged to his two previous girlfriends, actress Sherilyn (Two-Moon Junction) Fenn and, more recently, actress Jennifer (Dirty Dancing) Grey, except to say, “I’m pretty old-fashioned.”

Depp-watchers profess amazement that his and Ryder’s relationship has the wandering waif putting down roots for the first time. Temporary ones, mind you. “I have a house now that I’m renting,” says the actor whom John Waters calls “a homeless movie star.” Although Depp hints that his and Ryder’s probable marriage has him thinking about “sniffing out a place to own and live in, maybe somewhere on the east coast,” Waters says: “I’ve only known Johnny for a year-and-a-half, but I have a page of addresses for him. The best way to reach him is to write: Johnny Depp. A Bench. Vancouver, British Columbia. By the way, he moved again this week.” Depp adds, cautiously, that for the first time, “I have beds tables, chairs, a TV set. And they’re mine.” And as for friends? “I’ve got a couple who are very important to me and I have Winona who is very, very important to me. That’s all I need.”

Depp is less forthcoming about his big-screen future. He says he has dropped out of Wonderland Avenue, and Oliver Stone-produced project based on the autobiographical reminiscences of an adolescent throwaway who ran with Jim Morrison of the Doors. “It’s going to be an interesting, really dark movie,” he says. “But it was taking too long to work out.” He also chilled on a project based on either On the Road or The Dharma Bums, both by Jack Kerouac, whose work, according to John Waters, Depp “idolizes” (he collects first-edition copies). “I thought about buying the rights, then thought I’d be doing an injustice to the real thing,” Depp explains. “Kerouac had to write those books. Most movies only get made because a company thinks it’s a good idea, financially.”

I propose that Depp try to talk John Waters into directing him and Ryder in a whacked-out remake of Viva Las Vegas with Depp taking over for Elvis’s hip-swiveling grease monkey and Ryder for frenzied, lip-smacking Ann-Margret. “That would be beautiful,” Depp says. “I would love to do something like that. Especially with the Dead Kennedys’ version of the theme song.” But for the present, once Depp completes his inspired weirdness with Tim Burton in late spring, it is back to Vancouver for another season of kiss-kiss, run-your-hands-through-your-tousled-hair, bang-bang.

Awaiting fans’ and critics’ verdicts on Cry-Baby, Depp is aware of how quickly one’s 15 minutes of fame can boomerang. “Most of this business is so full of shit,” Depp observes. “People take it so seriously, as if their life depended on this episode or that movie. I mean, film burns. You can light it on fire. It’s not like fucking Confucius written on stone.” I ask how Depp foresees future pop culture historians noting his career. “Johnny Depp got his big break on 21 Jump Street,” he says, without missing a beat, “went into films, then went on to become a Las Vegas entertainer.” Johnny Depp, a lounge act? “Sure,” he says. “I would hope that my final hootenanny might be in a Vegas or Tahoe nightclub.” Okay, so even a godhead like Wayne Newton cannot croon forever. But, as he tears off down Sunset back to Winona, Johnny Depp—whose singing voice in Cry-Baby is dubbed by someone else—is still a long way from doing encores of “Danke Schoen.”

-- donated by In-too-Depp