“My lips are fucked.” Johnny Depp groans and reaches for some vitamin E cream. He’s right. His pretty-boy pout is in trouble. Dry and cracked, burnt red raw in places. The result of another day’s work in the boiling hot 100-degree centre of nowheresville, Arizona. Depp’s here to shoot The Arrowtooth Waltz, a magically offbeat coming-of-age comedy which also stars Jerry Lewis and Faye Dunaway, and the first American film by Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica of Time of the Gypsies fame. [Editor’s Note: The film’s title became Arizona Dream.] The last outpost of civilization—a one-laundromat, two-street town called Patagonia—is an hour’s drive away. Along with his blasted lips, it’s another indication of just how far Johnny Depp will go to leave behind the heart-throb image given to him by the U.S. TV cop show 21 Jump Street.
In last year’s Cry-Baby, he let John Waters have his wicked way with him. In Tim Burton’s upcoming Edward Scissorhands, he wears a Robert Smith wig and hides his face behind white paint and scars. Yesterday, he was stuck in the hottest spot in a very hot place, on top of a ranchhouse in the middle of a sun-smoked stretch of prairie, doing reaction shots as a microlight biplane looped and swerved a few feet over his head. Today, he’s been repeatedly pushed at a barn door while perched on top of a bicycle with wings. There are several more weeks of surreal routines and slow dehydration to come. “Since I’ve been in Arizona, I’ve had dry lips, dry hands. Everything’s so dry. The cowboys must have been masses of flaking, chafing skin.”
It’s probably worth the pain—the film, in which Depp plays an innocent on the run from the “real world” of his uncle’s Cadillac dealership—sounds great. Anyway, he wears his battle scars pretty well. Pre-pubescent fans might disagree, but he looks even better dried up. And though the sun may have cracked his lips, it’s thankfully left his mind, or rather his temper, alone.
There have been reports that Depp has been “difficult” in the past, but there’s no sign of that today. Cooling off in his trailer, crunching a rock-hard Snickers bar straight from the freezer in between frequent cigarettes, he’s charm itself, apologizing for delays and introducing me first to his pet pig, then to Faye Dunaway. (The pig ignored me; Faye Dunaway shook my hand, offered me a sweet she’d just made, and asked me earnestly what was happening in London.)
Relaxed and thoughtful, down to earth, and possessed of a sense of humor that, like everything else, is dry, he chats affably about favourite books (the Beats, Salinger, Hunter S. Thompson, John Fante’s appropriately-named Ask the Dust), his favourite actors (Richard E. Grant rates highly), even his one go in a flotation tank (“I fell asleep, then I woke up, couldn’t find the door and panicked”). But the main topic of conversation is Edward Scissorhands, out here at the end of the month. In his second starring role, Depp plays the eponymous Edward, a leather-clad boy robot whose inventor/father (Vincent Price) dies before finishing him off, leaving him with bristling sets of scissors where his hands should be.
Rescued from his gothic castle home by Avon Lady Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest), Edward is transported to an abnormally normal archetypal TV suburbia of pastel-tinted exteriors and trimmed lawns, trash interiors and polyester daywear. There he cuts something of a figure, first as a hedge trimmer with big ideas, then as a high rise hairdresser. Treated as an exotic real-life toy boy, passed around like a new consumer fad, patronized with feel-good banality (“Son, you’re not handicapped—you’re gifted”), Edward is desperate to fit in and win the heart of blonde cheerleader Kim Boggs (Winona Ryder in a very unconvincing blonde wig). But in true, doomy fairy-tale style, the course of true love never runs smoothly.
Given that it’s made by Tim Burton of Batman fame, Edward’s cartoon visual excess, trashy surreal surfaces and balance of naïve charm with dark intelligence should all come as no surprise. What does is how good Depp is. The talent for physical comedy that emerged in Cry-Baby’s campy routines is brought out in some well-judged slapstick, and is balanced by a calculated restraint and an affecting simplicity. Depp says that as soon as he read the script, he had to play the part. “I connected with it really well. I sort of already knew the character and what he represented. Edward seemed more of a feeling than a person. The metaphor of the scissors is about wanting to touch, but if you touch, you destroy. Nothing you do seems right. It’s the feeling you get when you’re growing up, very adolescent. I felt that way. I think everyone did.”
Did he really base his portrayal of Edward on a dog? “Kind of. It’s like, if a dog is trying to please the master. It breaks something, you scold it, and it goes to the corner. But as soon as you call it, it comes right back. It forgets everything. There’s this unconditional love. I thought Edward would be like that.”
So did he go method and hang around kennels? “No, but I did look at babies, to get the way Edward gazes at things.” He also watched old Chaplin films to get Edward’s “handicapped” clockwork waddle, something accentuated by the restrictive leather body-suit he wore.
Pre-shoot practice with the scissors—which were actually plastic—helped him turn them into expressive instruments and avoid too many on-set accidents, although Anthony Michael Hall (the bad-guy jock and Edward’s competitor for Kim’s affections) did get spiked twice. Depp apparently became adept enough with the clippers to hold his fags between takes. As to what else he managed to grip without a slip . . . is he getting tired of all the cracks about how Edward goes to the bathroom? He grins. “That was the first thing I asked. No one could say. I decided he would sweat it out.” Not having that particular option, despite a shoot in Florida that was almost as hot as Arizona, Depp decided to cut down on his water consumption during filming.
He wasn’t the studio’s first choice for Edward. Tom Cruise was interested, but pulled out, allegedly worried by the character’s lack of masculinity. “I heard that,” Depp smiles and shakes his head. “What’s Edward going to do—pull out an Uzi? I doubt Tom Cruise really thought that.” Certainly, it wouldn’t fit with the film in which, as in most of Tim Burton’s movies, “real men” are grotesque, destructive or plain useless, like Bill Boggs, the suburban dad as human black hole, superbly played in the film by Alan Arkin. There were also suggestions that Cruise wanted Edward to be transformed at the end into a handsome young blade. “That would have been a different movie. Let’s just say I’m real glad they didn’t pick Tom Cruise.”
One person who’d agree is Depp’s fiancée Winona Ryder, who became available to shoot Edward after falling ill on the set of Godfather III. It is the first film they’ve starred in together. What was it like playing opposite his wife-to-be? “I was nervous. It’s like another level of exposing yourself to someone. You know you can be together, but then to act together, be different people, especially someone like Edward . . . it was scary at first. She was nervous, too. But it was great. Besides the fact that I love her and everything, she’s a great actress, very giving and considerate. It was really easy working with her, because stuff automatically happens. You don’t have to try. Stuff comes out.”
It goes without saying that Depp is a man in love. Visibly. His romance with Winona has been consummated and consumed in public. The details are well known. Their eyes met at the premiere of Great Balls of Fire, but they didn’t. A few months later, they were introduced by a mutual friend. Going on for two years later, they’re engaged and Depp has “Winona Forever” tattooed on his arm.
The Hollywood publicity machine has always thrived on star romance, but it seems in the post-AIDS age, with Warren Beatty-style bedhopping publicly frowned on, big-name couples are a real item. Yet amid all the usual sleaze about Bruce and Demi and Julia and Kiefer, the youthful Depp and Ryder have been treated with kid gloves so far, cast as hip, romantic innocents. A recent fashion shoot in Vogue, which showed the couple embracing, packaged them as a “fairytale couple”—a symbol of “Hollywood Romance”—along with Pretty Woman and Green Card.
Not surprisingly, it irritates Depp to see his love-life diagnosed like a cultural symptom. Still, isn’t he scared that once their press honeymoon is over, the scandal rags will go all out to break them up? “We’ve already had rumours we’re splitting up. Such bullshit. Things like People Magazine don’t really bother me—it’s like the flies buzzing around this trailer. I can deal with their presence if I have to, but I’d much rather squash them like a pea.” Another problem they face are all the dodgy team-up scripts they get sent. “They’re so obvious. Like, they offered us a gangster movie together. I’m a mobster and Winona’s my moll.”
Depp and Ryder seem so well-suited that you forget that she’s 20 and he’s nearly 28. Depp seems younger, in looks and attitude. In fact, he’s difficult to place in time. Tim Burton says that Depp reminds him of the classic movie stars of the Thirties and Forties (in fact, he’s called Johnny and Winona a dark Tracy and Hepburn), yet with his Anglophile dress sense and tastes in music, he comes on like a post-punk hipster. Then, with his easygoing drawl and thoughtful cool, you start to think of him alongside the better actors on the fringes of the ageing Brat Pack. But he missed all that. Whereas Matt Dillon has nearly 20 films to his name, Depp has five or so.
The reason is that he was never a Hollywood teen. Growing up in Kentucky, then Florida, he never wanted to be an actor. “I just wanted to play guitar.” He played in a local band, supporting acts like Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, and The Ramones when they came to town. The band went to LA, but nothing came of it. So Depp tried his hand at acting in A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which he suffered an iconic teenage death, eaten alive by his bed while listening to the stereo and watching TV at the same time. He followed it up in 1986 with a stint as a grunt in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam odyssey, Platoon. Then came 21 Jump Street, which took four years out of his life.
A hysterical piece of Eighties trash, the show cast Depp as a baby-faced cop whose youthful looks allow him to work undercover in that den of iniquity, the high school, and dealt in stereotypical moral panics (school bully crack dealers). From a distance, it looks quite camp. It didn’t at the time. Depp was so embarrassed by the show, he couldn’t watch it. What irked most was being a teen heart-throb.
“I got angry because it wasn’t me and I couldn’t control it, all these publicity fuckers from Fox TV trying to market me like I was a box of cereal. In that position, it’s up to you. You go with it, make more money than you could ever want, are really famous for two years. Or you fight it. I was lucky in that at least I had half a brain cell, so I fought it.”
Hence his reputation for being “difficult.” “For myself, I felt it was a kind of fascist thing to have undercover cops busting kids for half an ounce of weed. Like, he’s a real bad kid, he needs a lot of therapy and time in jail to straighten out.” Depp has even used a cameo role in Elm Street 6 to work out his anti-Jump Street feelings. “I’m a public service announcer on TV. I hold up this egg and say, ‘Now this is your brain.’ Then I crack it into a frying pan, it starts to sizzle and I say, ‘This is your brain on drugs.’ Then Freddie smashes me in the face with the pan. It says everything I wanted to say.”
So he won’t be doing any more TV? “I’d rather dig a hole through the center of the earth with my tongue.”
Depp’s first post-TV break came with John Waters’ Cry-Baby. “The daughter of his best friend suggested me. He asked what I looked like, she told him to buy any teen magazine. So he did. Then he wrote the script.” Aside from the pastiche of teen pics, Waters slyly reworks Depp’s heart-throb image, presenting his baby-faced tough guy moves as an object of gay as well as straight desire. It seem pretty clear that Waters fancies the pants off Depp—he even got him down to his Y-fronts at one point. Depp assures me they’re just good friends.
Still, Waters has said that he was born to play a sexy mass-murderer. “John said that? Wow! If he writes it, I’ll do it. We share a fascination with mass-murderers. It’s the sickness of it. You can’t believe people have done these things. We’re all ambulance chasers.”
But not everyone owns paintings by serial killers. Like Waters, Depp bought a clown painting by convicted murderer John Wayne Gacy. He has since sold it, but the memory still troubles him. “Before he was caught, Gacy used to go around dressed as Pogo the Clown. Now, on death row, he paints clowns. And if you send him a photo, he’ll paint you. Really sick.”
So you haven’t been tempted?
“No way! The clown painting was enough. Just looking at a clown fucks me up bad, but to know who painted it, what was behind the mask, sent me into shock.”
On the subject of clowns, thanks to Depp, the Pope of Trash is now Reverend John Waters. Depp got him ordained in the Universal Life Church and wants him to do the honours at the marriage. The big day will have to wait, though. After Depp finishes here, Ryder is due to start doing Dracula with Francis Ford Coppola. “We’ll do it when we have a chunk of time and we can do it quietly with a three-month honeymoon. I’ve heard about places in Australia, islands where you can be dropped off and there’s nothing there at all. I guess you just run around eating coconuts and foliage and bugs.”
Now that the subject has come up again, it’s perhaps time to broach the touchy matter of proposing. There have been suggestions that the holes in Depp’s jeans could have come from the number of times he’s been down on his knees to the various women in his life. Apart from Winona and his first wife (he’s now divorced), he’s been engaged to Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey and Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn.
“That’s not quite true. I was sort of engaged. But if you haven’t made some mistakes by 28, it’s abnormal. People do whatever they do for whatever reasons, and it’s not for anyone else to understand. And basically, it’s none of their business. If some guy came up to me on the street and said, ‘I understand this and this about you,’ I would fucking club him—in a second. But because people know you and you have a past, the attitude is, ‘Let’s dissect this fucker.’ ” As in all the pseudo-psychological suggestions that Depp is trying to make up for his parents (divorced when he was 16).
So does he believe in marriage as an institution? “I believe in marriage if that’s what feels right. If you feel something, do it. Why regret later? But it’s true you never really know until you hit that one. Believe me, when I met Winona and we fell in love, it was absolutely like nothing ever before, ever.”
Interview over, Depp offers me a ride back to his motel with the assistant director, KC. As we gun through the prairie twilight in a big white Cadillac, occasionally slowing so as not to scare the cows, he chats about his taste in music—The Clash, Pistols, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, The Replacements, Alex Chilton, old blues, some newer independent rock, especially the La’s, but not much post-Stone Roses indie dance. “But I’d like to go to a rave. They sound interesting. They tried to do them in LA, but someone told me they weren’t the same.” Despite his past, he has no plans to form a band and release a record, and grimaces when I mention would-be rock stars such as River Phoenix. “It’s just kind of uncool. If you’re doing one thing, you should do that. I’m acting now.”
Back at the motel in Patagonia, I’m out of questions, but Depp is keen to carry on. “Ask anything,” he says. “The dumber the better.”
OK. Would he do a nude scene? “I don’t think so . . . there isn’t enough money.”
Did his tattoos hurt? “Yeah, but I liked the pain. It was electric, kind of nice.”
Who does the dishes, you or Winona? “We live in hotels, so it’s not our responsibility. But I’ve done some dishes. We’ve actually done dishes together. I washed, she dried.”
Who were you in your past lives? “I think I was an animal, a ferret maybe, or an insect.”
Does fame turn people into assholes? “I think it reveals what people are rather than changes them. I’m pretty sure I’m not an asshole, although I could be wrong. But fame does fuck with you. I’ve become more paranoid.”
What did you do with the pubic hair that one fan sent you? “I threw it away. I didn’t touch it. I thought about burning it, but I didn’t want to inhale the air. You never know, it may have been poisoned, cyanide pubic hair.”
He pauses. “Hey, I’ve got one! Someone once asked me which three things I would take on a desert island. What I said was cigarettes, matches and an ashtray.”
He’s joking, but if the immensely likable Johnny Depp does have a problem (which is arguable), it’s that he’s a little too cool for his own good. He’d love to be in a Jim Jarmusch film, and he’s probably much better suited to it than he realizes. Blame 21 Jump Street. It’s still shaping his career. After suffering what he sees as a four-year embarrassment, he’s determined only to do things he likes. And, he admits, he’s picky, and not too keen to cooperate with the business. After Jump Street, Fox was so interested in keeping him interested, it gave him a production deal, but Depp didn’t really approach it like one of the new breed of actor operators. “I was doing it with my brother. We took them ideas for films, but they didn’t bite. I guess I took them stuff I knew they wouldn’t do. But I did get a year’s supply of free phone calls and an office. It was quite funny.”
In fact, since Jump Street, Depp has gone from being a teen idol to cultivating a poised idleness and a rigorous quality control. After Arrowtooth Waltz, he doesn’t have anything solid lined up, although there are vague plans for a film of Ask the Dust, which may involve Winona Ryder.
Obviously, it’s admirable that he doesn’t want to bash things out for money. It’s great that there’s a young American actor who doesn’t see Tom Cruise as a role model, who would rather make hip, eccentric choices than smart choices, would rather do off-the-wall arty comedies than blockbuster team-ups. But it would also be nice to see him work more. The thing is, he really can act.
But, then again, acting isn’t the only thing on his mind. At heart, he’s a regular homeboy. “I’d love to have kids. I’m rapidly approaching 30. I want to put down roots, have kids, dogs, pigs. When I’m 50 or 60, I want to have all gold teeth, a big fat belly, a big thick beard. I’m working on my belly.” He rolls up his shirt to reveal not even the beginnings of a gut. “Maybe I should drink a few beers or something. Once I get to a certain age, I want to be this big, fat, ugly American.” Despite the cracked lips, he has some way to go.