Site menu:

1 9 9 1

Johnny Depp: Hollywood’s Tough, Rough New Romeo

by Tom Burke
January 1991

He dropped out of school, had tried “every kind of drug there was” by age eleven, and his tattoo reads Winona Forever. Your typical leading man this raunchy maverick is not!

The girl at the bar who has been gazing at Johnny Depp with obvious longing now slips over to his table. She wants an autograph or a kiss or much more, but though she’s foxy, facing him, she’s dumbstruck. With a tear streaking her cheek, she just stands there staring at him, this twenty-seven-year-old whom television’s 21 Jump Street turned into what a British tabloid called “the 1990s’ woman’s ultimate wet dream.”

You wonder if this adoring fan knows what a pro Johnny Depp really is. Rather than exploit his TV persona with the dozen safe, sexy formula films he was offered last year when Jump Street went into syndication, he took two impressive risks: the title roles in Cry-Baby, which laughed at the Johnny Depp image, and Edward Scissorhands, one of the chanciest movies ever made for a mass audience.

But no, this girl is hardly thinking of his acting credits or that theater owners named him Male Star of Tomorrow or that he makes the Ten Sexiest Bachelors lists. She’s mesmerized by Johnny’s sensual brown eyes, his full mouth, his used-up street-kid allure. (“Orphans have special needs,” he croons to his virginal Cry-Baby sweetheart, shortly before he shoves his tongue down her throat.)

Still he can seem vulnerable, sensitive, which is why the lady dared approach him at all. When she doesn’t speak, Johnny gets to his feet. In a crowded room that’s very aware of him, he gently takes the girl’s hand and whispers something to her. She murmurs something back, then, reassured, returns to the bar. When Johnny sits down again, he smiles at his draft beer and lights another Marlboro.

“She just wanted to say hello,” he explains. “She’s from Europe. I think Jump Street is big overseas now; so is Cry-Baby. Nice.” He’s suggested we meet here, in McSorley’s Old Ale House in lower Manhattan, because he thought it wasn’t trendy, but the bar has filled with bright young professionals, out for a Saturday-afternoon beer. More ladies—has word of Depp’s presence spread on the street?—come over, request autographs; some kiss his cheek. Johnny smiles, signs, and quietly thanks them. His voice, which you thought would sound smoke-cured, is as clear and untroubled as his skin. There are no circles under his eyes, and his once long black hair is quite short and neatly cut. His plaid flannel shirt and gray pants are unremarkable.

But his face is unmistakable to thousands, and he doesn’t sit facing away from the bar’s crowd. He seems more pleased than embarrassed by the attention, though he is a touch shy. No matter: He still projects a down-and-dirty sexuality that has caused even seasoned Hollywood types to lose their cool.

“We all got to Baltimore to make Cry-Baby,” he’s told you, “and when John Waters, the director, introduced me to this slightly older actress, she looked me over, then said something very sexy and very, very unprintable. I was speechless! It was her test of me—show no fear and you don’t go to jail.” Women stop him on the street to suggest sex; they also mail him nude self-portraits, X-rated homemade videos, panties, pubic hair. “It’s not like, every week I get an envelope of pubes,” Johnny says, and then blushes when you bring up John Waters’s claim that one woman begged to buy the sewage from Johnny’s dressing room.

“Terrifying idea,” Johnny says, with a mock-desperate smile. Early on, you’ve seen that his humor is ironic, grown-up beyond his looks or even his years. McSorley’s, an ancient, obscure saloon, seems an unlikely spot for him to have heard of, but then, you’ve read that his favorite films include John Waters’s old camp cult classics like Pink Flamingoes and Female Trouble, which feature the now-deceased, three-hundred-pound drag queen Divine.

“I wanted to see McSorley’s because I heard Abraham Lincoln drank here,” Johnny said when we first sat down at a corner table. “I love old things.” Of Waters’s classics, he now says, “I’d like to be part of his acting company [which includes players with names like Mink Stole]. I’d like to do a movie in drag. I had John Waters ordained a minister, so he can marry Winona and me.”

Johnny and Winona Ryder, named Female Star of Tomorrow by theater owners for her work in Beetlejuice, Heathers, and Great Balls of Fire, have lived together for two years and want to get married, although no date is set. Hollywood gossiped all last year about how Johnny and Winona played lovers on-screen, too, in Edward Scissorhands, and about how Johnny Depp got to play Edward, one of the most sought-after roles in recent movie history. Nobody could believe that he beat out even Tom Cruise for the part.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Johnny adds, regarding his beer mug intently. “The script was one of the top five things I ever read—any story, novel, anything—but I thought I had no chance. Who wouldn’t want Tom Cruise in their movie? Automatic box-office.” Tim Burton, the film’s director, who also made Batman and Beetlejuice, thought otherwise—“I guess,” says Johnny, “because Tim and I felt the same way about the story—that it’s a classic fable, a metaphor, like Beauty and the Beast. It’s my Wizard of Oz.

“It fascinated me that Edward wasn’t human, that he had the innocence and trust a child has, but instead of hands he had these long, lethal shears. What he loved, he couldn’t touch. Winona was involved with the movie before I was, and I was thrilled that her character was the only one who doesn’t see Edward as a freak and that she’s the one he falls in love with.”

Just like in real life. During the filming of his TV series, Johnny sometimes stayed at the Chateau Marmont, the old, odd Hollywood hotel where crazies congregate. “One day, a friend brought Winona to lunch, and it was an instant connection between us. Skyrocket!” He thrusts his cigarette toward McSorley’s moldy ceiling, causing those in the bar not already aware of him to turn. “A BLT and love. Winona and I hung out the whole day—and night. We’ve been together ever since.” Jump Street was shot mostly in Vancouver, Canada, “and during the show’s fourth and my final season, Winona was in Boston making Mermaids, so for six months, every Friday night, I caught the red-eye out of Canada, and Sunday night, caught the red-eye out of Boston. It was worth it, but man, I was a world-weary traveler.”

He still is. For all of Johnny’s spirit and obvious intelligence, there’s something used and sardonic about him. His eye, if not red, is jaundiced. When you ask if he gets any exercise, he shoots back, “I chain-smoke. I drive cars without power steering.” Probably, he was always like this; at least, his life was never spent in quest of the obvious. His divorced mother, a waitress who’s part Cherokee, moved him at age eight from his birthplace in rural Kentucky to rural Florida. “I heard my first electric guitar and became obsessed. My mother got me a used one, and I locked myself in my room for a year and taught myself to play.”

He stayed in high school three years, “but I only had, like, eight credits. I was bored to death, hated it. When Jump Street hit, they wanted me to do ‘Don’t Drop Out’ TV spots, but by then, everything about me had been in print, and I did not want to say on TV, ‘Hi, I’m Johnny Depp. Stay in school and graduate, because it means the world to me and to you.’” Neither were “Just Say No” spots his thing. “Though I got it out of my system, by age eleven I’d tried every kind of drug there was.”

Wearing his mother’s crushed-velvet shirts and bell-bottoms, Johnny played Florida clubs with a rock band that a promoter sent to Los Angeles in 1983. Johnny was twenty; he married a girl, divorced her a couple of years later. “There were so many rock bands, we couldn’t make any money, so I sold fake grandfather clocks by phone for commission. Horrible.” But his ex-wife was dating Nicolas Cage, who introduced Johnny to an agent, who sent him to writer-director Wes Craven to read for 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.

“I was totally not what Wes had written the script for—a big blond jock football player. I was emaciated, with old hair spray stuck to my spiked hair and earrings, this little catacomb dweller.” Five hours later, the agent called to say he’d been cast!—as the boy who gets pulled into a bed, then spurted out in a fountain of blood.

“I did study acting after that, though,” Johnny adds. “It amazed me that somebody would pay me to do this.” For Nightmare, he got union scale. Director Oliver Stone paid him a little more to play Lerner, the troop interpreter, in Platoon, “but nobody was banging on my door with scripts. The agent said, ‘Somebody wants you to read for this TV thing about an undercover cop who busts high-school druggers,’ and I said I didn’t want to sign a contract that would bind me for years, but the agent said, ‘The life span of a series is thirteen weeks, if that,’ and I badly needed the money.”

He leans forward and, through a Marlboro haze, says, so that no one overhears, “Look, I know how lucky I was. I know Jump Street put me on the map.” But the quality of the scripts, he feels, quickly deteriorated, and certain powers-that-be were determined to make him simply a sex symbol. Say those words to Johnny now and he comically mimes vomiting.

“God, I looked way too old to be in high school, but at the show, they said, ‘We want you to do interviews for all these magazines.’ I said, ‘What magazines?’ They said, ‘Sixteen! Teen Beat! Teen Dream!’ That’s how TV’s sold.” Of the ten thousand letters a week Johnny got, he says sadly, “Really, things are very bad when kids have to write to an actor for advice. I can’t tell anybody what to do. I’m just as screwed up as the next guy.”

The beer sends him to the men’s room, but he returns to report that it was not a refuge: “Two guys tried to shake my hand, another welcomed me to the john, somebody else wanted my autograph, all while I was peeing.” He laughs, drinks up, lights up. “Actually, I get more of this in Los Angeles, although Winona and I don’t go out there either. No, we never go to parties.” If there are premieres, galas, Brat Pack gatherings, Johnny’s unaware of them: “Nobody could invite me anyway, ‘cause I’m always moving. A friend once said that my address is ‘A Park Bench, Anywhere, U.S.A.’ In LA, people wear red jogging suits and they don’t smoke, so I can’t be there very long. It makes me insane.”

New York City’s okay, at least until he and his lady marry and maybe get a house somewhere in the East. “We don’t go to New York clubs; I don’t even know where they are. We walk, wander, frolic, then we rent movies for the VCR and go home.” But doesn’t making a lot of money ever make him want to go out and spend it? When did he first feel rich?

“When I could pay my rent on time.” His dry wit is part words, part timing; he also means these cracks. “When my checks didn’t bounce. I just bought a truck. First car I ever owned, except an ancient Chevy Nova that finally stopped running, and which, at one point, I lived in. It’s parked in LA. I have two motorcycles there, too. And a nine-foot cock.”

At the next table, two ladies who’ve been listening to him as closely as possible react to this statement by staring rigidly at each other. “Yes, a nine-foot cock,” Johnny continues, not missing a beat. “A rooster, made of fiberglass. It was outside a wild Hollywood shop called Off the Wall. I had to have it.” The cock is now in storage, as it’s hard to move, much less find ceilings high enough for. “I do like to shop for weird things if I’m with Winona. We found a genie inside an old lamp, and clown posters. Clowns have always scared me, so I think if I surround myself with them, it’ll ward off evil. The nine-foot cock used to protect me from the clowns.”

Since the bar has begun to feel claustrophobic, Johnny suggests we walk, and we exit rapidly. The streets are alive with hurrying Saturday shoppers and slim, chic women walking in the brisk, definite way that only New York women do. Johnny slips on sunglasses; as he ambles along, no one notices him, though he notices the women. Not surprisingly, he’s been involved with young actresses before, though that subject isn’t a welcome one. Johnny studies the ground, walks a little faster. “I’m old-fashioned,” he murmurs. “I believe that Winona is forever.”

He slows to look in the window of a tiny store full of old things—a wine-colored cutaway, a yellowed ivory fan. “Great,” he whispers of these items, respectfully, as if they were magical. “But I don’t think I’m into shopping today.”

Then what is he into—not just today but in his life, his work? Without much of a pause, Johnny, hands in his pockets, answers, “To be good at what I do. To keep my integrity. To be happy.” And without warning: “To be really rich!” That he’s startled you delights him. “No, look, I’ve been so fortunate, to work with Oliver Stone, John Waters, Tim Burton. What I want is to maintain that level—good scripts, directors, things I’ll be proud of. And that’s the truth.”

Lots of young actors feel that way, but the good scripts don’t come, the money does, and they opt for the latter. “Okay, but I know that making a lot of money in this business didn’t make me happy, so it’s not my goal. Four years of a TV series convinced me that it was as far as I ever want to go toward selling out. It’s now my turn to make choices—and usually, things I like are not commercial, not money-makers. Formula films bore me—maybe everybody’s getting bored with them? I don’t see why rich actors go on doing them. Once you’ve got ten million, what do you need more for?”

If he had ten million, Johnny says, he’d use five to finance a movie he really wanted to do and the other five to buy an island, just as Marlon Brando, an idol of his, did. “Brando says, ‘Everybody acts, every day, every second,’ and that’s so true. Most of the movie business is such bull. TV ratings and Oscars are taken as seriously as if life depended on them. All I am is a guy who pretends he’s someone else and gets paid for it.”

And one, too, on whom fame was thrust. He’s built good defenses against what it can do, but you wonder, watching him, if the full weight of it has hit him yet. If he’s going to act, he’s saying, he’d like to do it with Brando or Robert De Niro (“Amazing”) or Meryl Streep (“Incredible, the real thing”). And he’d like to keep working with his fiancée, though he was “terrified,” doing Edward Scissorhands with Winona—“to expose myself, in that way, to a woman I love more than anything in the world. You’re together every moment off camera, and that’s one level of give-and-take. Then there’s the acting, a whole other level: it’s what you do for a living, a strange job to begin with. To love Winona as I do, then to suddenly be in front of the director and the whole movie crew and have to get it out there for them—very odd, man, very odd.”

As for having to do sex scenes for a camera and crew, that’s odder still, though he couldn’t have on-screen sex as Edward, not with scissors as hands, and Cry-Baby was noted for its meant-to-be-absurd French-kissing sequence. “That was also weird, but I had to do it; it’s the job. For the camera lens, it’s very mechanical.” John Waters, he says, made him do his first Cry-Baby make-out scene the first day of rehearsals, “with Amy Locane, who played my girlfriend in it. In real life, Amy was just out of Catholic high school. Like, she missed her prom to be in the film. And John said to her, ‘Amy, meet Johnny Depp; okay, now lie down on the floor.’ She turned purple.”

If movies are sexier than ever, Hollywood life, at least what Johnny’s seen of it, is far more reserved. “Those who did drugs, a lot of them are cleaned up, and Alcoholics Anonymous has become really huge out there, almost like a club.” No, he hasn’t been to an AA meeting himself. And as for sex, the luckiest thing, he feels, is to have a girl who makes promiscuity unnecessary, unthinkable. Ask what keeps him grounded in the face of stardom; why a wild kid is now a quiet man; why, instead of popping pills, he’s popping corn, and every answer begins with the name Winona. The countless ladies who’d love to love him for a night? Since Winona, they just don’t apply, and the inevitable day when he’ll no longer look young, or even good, doesn’t matter a whit.

“When I age, I’ll be able to do more character parts, which is what I want to do now anyway. In Hollywood, it’s ‘All young actors have to look a certain way, because they have to be the leading man.’ Ridiculous, and it’s why the movies I’ve been in were so welcome to me—all character parts. I tell you, I look forward to getting old.”

 Though the day is brisk, the sun is intense, and he’s taken off his flannel shirt. With only a T-shirt beneath it, his tattoos are revealed. One shoulder bears an artful scroll that reads Winona Forever. Below that, there’s an intricately drawn Indian chief, wearing a full feathered headdress—a bow to Johnny’s heritage. The other shoulder bears a beautifully done heart with the name Betty Sue in it.

“That’s my mother,” Johnny says proudly. “You’d really like Betty Sue. She curses like a sailor, plays cards, smokes cigarettes. Great lady.” Timidly, he admits that he has bought Betty Sue a house in Palm Springs, his only big expenditure.

“I did take the Concorde to Paris once,” he adds, trying to be helpful. “I wanted to go there because I’d never been. I stayed at the Plaza Athenee Hotel; ever hear of it? It’s really beautiful, really old. Yes, people recognized me, but I don’t speak any French, so I didn’t really talk to anybody. I walked around. Then I came home. Of course, that was before I met Winona. I did many things alone back then.”

Now he asks the time—Johnny doesn’t wear a watch—and steps to a phone booth nearby. “Winona’s kind of expecting me about now,” he says apologetically when he returns. When you ask a last question—what he’d do if the career falls through—he says, “I’ve thought about that. I could become John Waters’s gardener.” He seems serious. “Or I could play Las Vegas lounges. Yeah, really! I love Vegas—the clothes they wear there. Oversize dark glasses indoors! Polyester leisure suits! White patent-leather loafers with gold chains! I could, like, open for Wayne Newton.”

Laughing, he waves once and strides off up the street, girls eyeing him as he heads resolutely home.

About the author, from the Editor’s page: Florida resident Tom Burke has been “talking to celebrities for twenty years.” His profiles have appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, often in COSMO, and he’s currently “struggling with a novel—but it only has one movie star in it. It’s not about all the people I’ve profiled. As an interviewer, my task is to see through the ‘act’—but are you ever sure you’ve gotten beneath the public persona? It’s a challenge! I’ve usually interviewed very well-established actors—Michael Douglas, Arnold Schwarznegger, Cher—but it was a delight doing Demi Moore [COSMO December 1990] and Johnny Depp [this issue, January 1991]. Young celebs aren’t jaded, they haven’t got a whole monologue prepared for the media. Johnny Depp has a terrific sense of humor.” Meet this offbeat, supersexy actor in the profile beginning on page 122.

-- donated by Part-Time Poet

-- additional photos added by Zone editors