NEW YORK—Earlier in the long afternoon, the pale and serene Johnny Depp erupted. Asked by an officious British reporter if he'd ever marry Winona Ryder, his eternally Maybe Baby, Depp briskly aimed his gargantuan brown pupils at her: Are you married? How long have you known your husband "in the biblical sense?" Where did you honeymoon? All the mischief hidden within Depp's mellow-fellow cool tumbled out like his stringy brown locks from his baseball cap. It was Edward Scissorhands on a tear.
Six years after Fox TV's 21 Jump Street made him into Teendom's latest pretty boy, Johnny Depp still wrestles with the privacy thing. "I'm shocked by how curious people are," Depp says two hours later, over a tightly packed Marlboro red. Everywhere, on either coast, in Baltimore, even "at a urinal in a men's room," strangers ask Johnny about Winona, and Johnny dodges the question. And when he doles out a tidbit, he says, "They just keep hammering away, they need more and more, they want details. Like that reporter. I don't really want to know when she had sex with her husband. I just wanted her to see what it feels like."
Wearing black jeans and a charcoal sweatshirt, Depp is here submitting himself to Winona interrogation to promote Benny & Joon, an offbeat love story that opens Friday. It's the kind of film—like John Waters' Cry-Baby and Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands—that has made the 29-year-old actor the emerging prince of low-concept quirk. Rather than traveling the Hollywood teen-idol route with mainstream movies like Mobsters or Young Guns, Depp has taken a detour down Alternative Lane. As if to illustrate his wacky streak, Depp rises from the couch impulsively to turn off the hotel-room lamps: "I hate lights before the sun sets," he mumbles.
Seated once again, Depp rolls up his sleeves before continuing. For the briefest moment, a red-green-black gremlin peeks out from under his right sleeve—ah, the Winona Forever tattoo? "I have a fascination with the absurd," he says. "I have this fascination with clowns. I have this fascination with people who are insane. With oddities of all sort, freaks, what people would call freaks. That stuff to me is fascinating. But the intimate details of a puppet's life? It's not so fascinating to me. Because basically an actor is a puppet who goes out and says a bunch of somebody else's words."
His romantic history, he says, has been "stretched out of proportion, it has become a big joke." The reports include his two-year marriage at age 20 to a Florida musician, engagements to Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing and Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks and, of course, Winona, whom he met six months before they costarred in Edward Scissorhands. Johnny-Winona press angles have the couple tumbling to the floor in a groping embrace at a Las Vegas bash, and Winona purchasing a star to name it after Johnny. Aficionados have even noted that Depp lost his virginity at age 13. "OK, here's my belief about, like, everything," Depp says, clearing his throat. "I would rather regret something that I did, than something I didn't do. To tie your arms behind you so you can't touch things and feel things, to go through life like that, limiting yourself—I don't want to do that."
Professionally, Depp also has lived up to his risk-taking credo. Originally, he was a guitarist—"that's what I thought I was gonna do for life," he says—and he moved from Florida to LA with his band, The Kids, in 1983. Daylighting as a gas-station attendant and gigging at night, Depp was introduced by his ex-wife to actor Nicolas Cage, who introduced him to an agent. He was quickly cast in the first Nightmare on Elm Street, after which he went bare-bottomed in a teensploitation flick called Private Resort and went hard-headed as a soldier inPlatoon. "When I started out, it was kind of an accident," he says. "I wasn't real serious about it. It was just a way for me to make money. I didn't really care because I still wanted to make music." 21 Jump Street, which he joined in 1987, changed everything: "Things got weird. I realized there was no going back."
As he tired of his 21 Jump Street image, Depp did what every miserable teen idol should: He spoofed himself in a campy John Waters movie. In Cry-Baby, Depp played a softhearted 1950s delinquent who wears black leather but sheds very obscene tears. "It was really healthy for me to go from such an unhappy period on Jump Street to Baltimore and experience John and his sort of family. It gave me confidence. If I hadn't done Cry-Baby, I'd probably have walked off the show and been sued, and never heard from again." Instead, he moved on to artsy big-budget director Tim Burton and his pet project, Edward Scissorhands.
Like his postmodern Hunchback of Notre Dame in Scissorhands, Depp's Sam in Benny & Joon is intensely recessive and depends on his body language to communicate. He's obsessed with the silent-movie world of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, because a lifelong learning disability has made him uncomfortable with words. "He feels like a freak, an oddball," Depp says. Benny and Joon, played by Aidan Quinn and Mary Stuart Masterson, are the dysfunctional siblings whose lives Sam disrupts. To prepare for the role, Depp says, he studied, and was awed by, Keaton's work. "He was a master of expression. What those guys said without words was much more interesting than hearing somebody spewing off a big monologue, or emoting. What he was able to do with just a look."
The shape of Benny & Joon changed before filming when Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern, the actors set to play the siblings, dropped out. But the film's director, Jeremiah Chechik, says Depp was his "first choice" to play Sam: "He can say so much with so little. His instincts are so great and so true, he has few peers." As far as Depp is concerned, the performance came naturally: "Do I feel like a freak? Yeah! I do feel like a freak. I felt like a freak as soon as I was able to think. I don't know if it's genetic. I don't know if it's this innate thing. I guess we all have our problems. We're all kind of messed up in a way."
Future quirk from Depp includes What's Eating Gilbert Grape by director Lasse Halstrom, best known for My Life as a Dog, and costarring Juliette Lewis. Depp will play Gilbert, "a guy who has a difficult time allowing himself to feel. He's basically shut off emotionally, basically shut down." Depp's Arizona Dream may also see the light of day, after a troubled, on-again-off-again production. In the film, by Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica, Depp has an affair with Faye Dunaway.
The quirk to beat all quirks, however, will come when Depp reteams with Burton for a biography of classic B-movie director—and cross-dresser—Edward D. Wood Jr., maker of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Depp recalls a Wood story: "He was in World War II, and he said he wasn't worried about being killed, he was worried about being wounded because then they'd find out that he had women's lingerie underneath his uniform." Depp says he hopes the film will earn Wood's work some respect. He's also eager to negotiate Wood's complexities: "I may like being in women's lingerie—heh! I may like being in a dress!"
In the midst of all this work, Depp says his LA home is more "like a storage facility." He's an old fan of Boston, he says, and gushes about the Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield, whom he's hung out with, and Jack Kerouac, whom he'd like to have met. "I'm still obsessed with that whole period," he says about the Beat generation. "I went to Lowell, actually. Had to see all those places Kerouac wrote about. And I could see, it's still exactly like it is in the books. The factories. It's really cool."
By now, the room is next to dark. Night in New York has officially fallen, and more pressing matters have arisen: It's time for Depp to head off for "a drinky-poo" with a few other Benny & Joon people. Lighting a cigarette, he walks toward the door, then stops suddenly, steps backward and reaches to turn on a fat gold lamp. "Now lights are OK," he says with a wry, deadpan smirk. And then he's off again, a gust of smoke curling in his wake.