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Johnny Depp—Portrait of the Oddest as a Young Man

by Chris Heath
Photographs by Albert Watson
May 1993

Over breakfast in a Berlin hotel, Johnny Depp, actor, brandishes with pride some local confections. They are a small, rectangular white candy with irregular yellow stains in the middle. Verpisste Windeln. "Piss diapers," he helpfully translates. We are barely a minute into our first conversation. I had been told Johnny Depp is shy. Perhaps this is his way of breaking the ice.

JD: A man gave them to me yesterday.

DETAILS: Why did he think you would like them?

I don't know. [Smiles] I'm kind of frightened.

But you do like them? What does that say about you?

There's something wrong with me?

What else do you like along these lines?

[Shrugs] I don't know. I have this strange thing, when someone begins to choke it kills me. Like if a piece of meat gets jammed in their windpipe, it floors me.

You'll start laughing?

Yeah. I don't want to, but I just do.

You sick bastard. Why is that funny?

I think it's that initial panic that registers on the face. That kind of . . . (He makes an extreme gagging sound. The diners at the next table look around, alarmed, and he apologizes to them.) I think it's that there's nothing you can do that gets me. But I'm scared at the same time. I don't want anybody to be hurt.

Can you remember the first time you saw someone choke?

Yeah. It was me. I was five or six. A piece of steak. I didn't chew it properly, I guess, and it got jammed in my windpipe.

Did you think that was funny?

[Laughs] Yeah. I was scared, then my mother sort of hit me on the back and it just vaulted across the room, and I remember thinking how funny it was. It's terrible. One of my good friends in L.A., he was eating a club sandwich and I hear this . . . [the same gagging sound] . . . and he was stretching his neck out and then he started almost convulsing, and I began to cackle and I couldn't stop. He was almost blue, everyone was trying to help him, and I was on the floor laughing.

I guess you can't help what you find funny.

[Nodding] Another thing . . . if someone were to fall from a building—a large, tall building—what is the first thing they do? (I convey my ignorance) They flap their arms!

He roars with laughter and so do I. They flap their arms! Over scrambled eggs with Johnny Depp in Berlin, this seems funnier than almost anything else in the world.

But for Johnny Depp this isn't just affected silliness. It means something. It matters. Later we will try to pick apart why such things can be funny and he will say this: "There's something about how honest it is, you know? Like when someone trips. It's really funny, but at the same time it's really heartbreaking. Because it's honest. It's not made up at all."

Johnny Depp is here for the screening of one of his forthcoming films, Arizona Dream, the first American film by Time of the Gypsies director Emir Kusturica, at the Berlin Film Festival. The day before we meet they show the movie—all flying fishes, heady dreams, magical realist flourishes, and Depp having sex with Faye Dunaway—and afterward there is a press conference.

You might think people would have things to ask Depp. After all, enough has been asked before now. The historical questions, about how a Florida youth who wanted to play guitar found himself in the movies. The teen questions, about his four-year stint as a high school narc in 21 Jump Street, a program Depp will refer to only as "that show." The love 'n' romance questions, about his relationship with Winona Ryder. The film career questions, about how he slipped into adult role respectability after parodying his teen credentials in Cry-Baby. The spiritual questions, about the niche in which he seems to have found himself, playing lost souls in films like Edward Scissorhands, Arizona Dream and Benny & Joon. And the big question: Is he just a doe-eyed actor with cheekbones and a knack for playing frail victims, or the great talent of his generation? And does he care?

But they don't ask any of this. These people are interested in another story, a potentially sharp human-interest sound bite, and so they direct most of their questions to Kusturica: What are the links between the film and the events in his homeland of the former Yugoslavia? Never mind that there seem to be few. At one gruesome moment an American restates the question, demanding "a little bit of emotion, please." Kusturica stares in his direction. "You want me to cry?"

As this unpleasant charade is acted out Depp chews gum, smokes Marlboros, and occasionally flashes Kusturica a conspiratorial glance. When someone finally asks him about the difference between American and European films, he shrugs. "There's more guns and explosions in American films. More Lycra bathing suits." His hair is shaggy and red from What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which he just filmed in Austin, Texas. Last night he tried to dye his hair back to his usual dark brown with some stuff from the hotel's hair salon, but it didn't work.

"I guess I gotta go back to Miss Clairol and do it right," he shrugs when we meet the next morning. He dyed his hair red because the character in Gilbert Grape reminded him of a guy called Bones he knew when he was young.

Bones saved his life once, when he was about thirteen. They were trying to blow fire. Like circus freaks. Or the guy from Kiss. They wrapped a gasoline-soaked T-shirt around a pole and then lit it and blew gasoline from their mouths. It looked impressive until Johnny's face caught fire, and he began to run—an action that he would later find ludicrous and very funny. It was Bones who knew what to do. He dragged his hands down Johnny's face to extinguish the flames. His eyelashes and some of his hair were burnt. You can still see a little scarring on the right of his face, just below the outside of his smile.

Depp. Berliners will never tire of reminding him that Depp means "village idiot" in German. An English journalist will tell him about the Van Morrison song, "Village Idiot," in which the idiot is praised for actually knowing more than everyone else, at which Depp will smile and quietly say, "It's a lie." When the "village idiot" visits Germany he will pick up a few lines of the local lingo. "Ich bin eine Wassermelone," he will announce to anyone who will listen. "Mein Vater ist ein Stierkampfer." I am a watermelon. My father is a bullfighter.

John Christopher Depp I was a civil engineer. He still works down south, "director of public works or something." John Christopher Depp II, the youngest of four children, never asked his father why he wanted his son to have his name. He did ask one time whether he was an accident. His parents insisted he wasn't.

He was born in Kentucky, though his family moved to Miramar, Florida, when he was seven. There was Cherokee blood on both sides of the family, but mostly his mother's. His great-grandmother, Minnie, was a full-blooded Cherokee. "She died when she was 102," he recalls. "She chewed tobacco until the day she died. I think she had a Coke and a pickle every morning, too." This heritage was the inspiration for Tattoo Number One (upper right arm): an Indian. It was done in Long Beach, on a trip to California, when he was about seventeen. It's based on an Indian picture used as a TV test pattern in the '50s.

When he was about fifteen his parents split up. It was a strange time because just as Johnny's father left, his mother got ill, and Johnny was too busy trying to make sure she was O.K. to think about the other stuff. A journalist will ask him, perhaps a little insensitively, how that time was, and he will answer, "It was a real weird thing. It always is when you've been with someone for twenty years and then suddenly it's over. That would certainly put a damper on the day."

It drove him closer to his mother. She is the inspiration for Tattoo Number Two (left upper arm): BETTY SUE. He was messing around at the house of a tattoo artist friend one day and they came up with the design. When he showed his mother, she got teary-eyed. They're close. He speaks to her all the time. "Somewhere along the line my mom became more like a real good friend," he will say, and then when pressed for the psychological significance he will scoff, "I haven't had sex with her," and talk about how noted serial killer Ed Gein "as the story goes, was found dancing wearing pieces of his mother."

A rapprochement was eventually reached with his father, but for a while after the split Johnny blamed him. It didn't help that each week he had to go round to his father's office and collect the family support money.

We are interrupted by a man with gray hair and too much suntan, wearing a grotesque colored leather jacket featuring many of the more blinding flags of the world. His name is Folkert. He wants to talk to Johnny about being on his talk show. Then he presents a more immediate request. He explains—sweat breaking out on his brow—that, wherever he is, Jaguar provides him with a car. He has one such outside, and he would like Johnny to be photographed with it.

"O.K.," says Johnny, promising to oblige after breakfast. He is lying. Folkert leaves.

"When he started to perspire," hoots Johnny, "I thought he was going to hack us up." Then he wanders back to our discussions. "When I was a little kid . . . Oh, I can't tell you this . . ."

"Go on . . ."

"When I was about four or five . . . I was absolutely positive that I was going to be . . . the first white Harlem Globe Trotter!"

As we laugh Folkert returns. He now wants, as an even more immediate favor, to be photographed at the table with Johnny. Johnny acquiesces, then asks, his tone polite and inquiring, "Where did you get that jacket?"

"From San Francisco. If you like I can try to get one for . . ."

"No," Johnny speedily demurs.

Folkert leaves and Johnny shows me the video camera he bought in Paris earlier in the week. I watch his travelogue through the viewfinder. Most of it is wandering around a restaurant kitchen in Lilles. He zooms in on the kitchen clock. Around the circumference, instead of numbers, are twelve different vegetables. Out in the street the lens follows a French cyclist, a bicycle wheel strapped to his back.

Folkert, clearly insecure about the Jaguar arrangement, returns again. On this visit Johnny asks him to sing into the video camera, and he treats us to "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." "I like people all over the world," he explains to the camera after his performance. "Why not? Life is short."

"That was profound," praises Johnny.

Folkert arranges to meet Johnny in five minutes outside the hotel, and leaves.

"O.K.," says Johnny, once he's out of sight. "Let's get the fuck out of here." We use the back stairs.

Johnny Depp says he always had an idea he was going to be something different. Not a movie star—"in Florida that just didn't exist." But guitar heroes did. There was one at his high school, a guy named John Rock. "You couldn't get a cooler name in the '70s than that." So Johnny decided to become a famous guitar player. For the girls. And to make a place in his world. "You've got to have some kind of identity," he says. "We weren't jocks, we weren't rednecks—we were probably considered burnouts, although we weren't fully burnouts. So we decided to be rock stars instead."

Good thing, too. Johnny was going nowhere in high school. He had no credits for anything much. He would skip a lot. One day, late, walking down the hall with a friend, the two simply looked at each other and knew. They turned around, walked out.

A few weeks later Johnny Depp changed his mind. He went to see the administration and said he wanted to come back. They didn't think it was a good idea. So Johnny worked for awhile printing T-shirts, then at a garage, first pumping gas then aligning wheels and stuff. It was around this time he read Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, with the usual consequences.

And he played in the band. They had all sorts of names. Flame. Bad Boys (he's fairly embarrassed by this one). Bitch (he's very embarrassed about this one). They settled on the Kids, and were soon supporting name bands from out of town. Iggy Pop. The Pretenders. The Ramones. Chuck Berry. A Flock of Seagulls. A Flock of Seagulls! Johnny couldn't believe it, but that guy really had that flammable hair.

Johnny Depp has a morning of German TV interviews. He tells me he hates doing this stuff and insists he's not very good at it . But I watch, and he's not so bad. He graces them with an effective spaced-out, "Wow! Yeah?" demeanor, but it's cleverly managed. Each interviewer asks him about his dreams, and each time he considers the question as though he truly has never thought about this before. It is a long morning . . .

Interview Number One. He interrupts a dull question to say, "Wow! Those are great socks!" At the end they ask him to do something silly with a microphone that has a big red foam bubble with their station's name. "I don't know what to do," he demurs. "I'm awful at that kind of thing. I can't do promos. I'm not a good salesman. Even for myself."

Interview Number Two. They set up their cameras then ask him to wear a baseball cap festooned with their logo. He asks them how to say "I need a monkey" in German. They insist there is no way to say that. "What if you do need a monkey in Germany?" he asks with concern. Then he gets to work. He tells them his missing talent is speech: "I'm not a good talker. Someone else's sentences, that's O.K. It's my own that are difficult." He tells them his favorite actors are Robert Mitchum, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Marlon Brando, and Buster Keaton. He tells them about his next film, the Tim Burton-directed story of C-movie director and noted cross-dresser Ed Wood. "Who?" the interviewer asks. "Ed Wood," he repeats. A flash of recognition. "Edward Scissorhands!" proclaims the interviewer triumphantly. "No," he deadpans, "I've already done that one." The final question is whether he is a vegetarian. "No," he says. "I rip meat apart with my hands, raw." There is a pause. "Are you?" he inquires. "Yes," says the interviewer.

Interview Number Three. A print journalist starts out earnest and conceptual. Johnny obliges: "The art of being fake, it's kind of an obtuse job . . . I've had all the obvious labels—the bad boy, the teen idol, James Dean—and I do anything to fight them . . ." Then the interviewer gets nosy. Is Johnny still with Winona Ryder? "Yeah." She gave you a star in the sky? "Yeah." What is its name? "I don't want to go into it," he says. Has he seen Dracula? "No." The photographer asks him to bare his tattoos, but he refuses. "I don't want to pose. You need a beefcake guy for that. I'm not a lumberjack type."

Interview Number Four. The interviewer has brought an interpreter. "Her sister is twelve," explains the interpreter, "and she's all excited about you." "I'm all excited about her, says Johnny. "What?" snaps the interpreter. "Just a joke," he smiles painfully. He tells Interviewer Number Four that he hates watching his own films. "Arizona Dream was the first time I watched myself where I didn't feel sick." He chats about the self-financed short film he directed then pulled after one showing. "I went for a cheese effect," he explains, "but I didn't have any specific cheese in mind. It came out sharp cheddar." He considers for a moment. "Or Jarlsberg."

As he finishes up, I grab a word with the disheveled, unshaven Kusturica, who speaks halting English in a manic tone. He said he knew Depp had something when he heard him play guitar. "That is more important than how good an actor he is. Acting, who cares? Everyone could be an actor." He tells me how rich Johnny is spiritually and that "he has a certain self-destructive side which I like very much." His most intriguing comment is this: "He's one of the great young actors, in that he has a rich mythological eruptive internal life. In America I stopped seeing people with secrets. They just become part of the CNN global system. He has secrets, and secrets are the main sign of human existence. It's beautiful to have a guy who was not eaten by TV civilization, who is still human in its shadow."

It's over. The Germans in the anteroom tell him that a man in a strange flag-festooned leather jacket had been trying to find him, but has gone. Johnny picks up his backpack and Butthole Surfers tape in his room and leaves for the airport. We arrange to meet in New York in a few days. "Call me at the hotel," he says. "Mr. Stench."

When Johnny Depp told his parents that he was going to be a rock star, "they thought I was nuts." But they had greater worries than this flight of fancy. Their youngest child seemed . . . strange. For a while they even considered professional help. "I used to make weird noises," Johnny explains. "And I used to do everything twice."

DETAILS: Like what?

JD: If you shut off a light, shut it off twice.

Well, that means it's back on.

No. I'd go off . . . on . . . off. I still catch myself doing that sometimes.

Was it just a silly affectation?

Oh, no. It was something I had to do. Just like if you were walking down the street and you pass a telephone pole and you get a hundred yards and suddenly the thought hits you: I have to go back and go around that phone pole. And I would do it.

And the noises . . . ?

[Sighs] Yeah, I made some noises.

Why would you make them?

It was happiness. I can remember being so happy that I made noises.

Do you still do that?

Maybe, if I'm in a good mood. [He smiles to himself] It might have been some form of Tourette's syndrome.

What's that?

[Enthusiastically] Tourette's is one of my favorite things. It's a person who can't control certain things. It's like if I was walking down the street and suddenly went, "Fuck me! Fuck me! Cunt!" It's an actual disease. I've seen it on Geraldo or something.

Several days later he tells me a story. A few years ago he was sitting in the first-class cabin of an airplane, heading off to Vancouver to record more episodes of "that show." That was a part of his life when he wasn't so happy. Suddenly a thought came into his head and he couldn't drive it out. There was something he wanted to say. He had to say it. So he said it.

"I fuck animals!" he blurted.

He can remember the reactions of his fellow passengers: the heads snapping round toward him and then carefully turning back again. Taking it in. He fucks animals. It was the man next to him, an accountant, who finally broke the silence. He had a question. "What kind?"

The Kids drove from Florida to Los Angeles, changing their name to Six Gun Method because they weren't kids anymore, to search for a record deal. It never came, but in his new home Johnny got married for a couple of years. He also got to know an actor named Nicolas Cage—Cage went out with Johnny's ex-wife in a hiatus before she and Depp got married. They would hang out. "We were walking down the street one day," Johnny remembers, "and I was looking for a job, and he said, 'You ought to meet my agent.' It didn't register as anything other than, 'Maybe I could get extra work.'"

The agent just talked to him, then sent him to meet the director Wes Craven. He read opposite Craven's daughter, who was reportedly taken with him, and he was given one of the lead roles in Craven's next horror film, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Simple as that. "I was kind of excited," he recalls. "The possibility of being in a movie. The thought was miles away from anything I had ever dreamed of."

His first appearance on film, at the beginning of Nightmare, is walking to school, laughing uneasily at a penis joke. Two-thirds through the film he is sucked into his bed while watching TV and regurgitated as blood. He got paid scale. It seemed like a fortune.

After that he would audition for parts, but he still wanted to be a rock star. This was just a cool way to finance it. His second film was called Private Resort. It was a "teen kind of exploitation, tits and ass and basic filthiness. What the fuck did I care? I had no aspirations." Not yet. But then his band self-destructed, and he took a look at what he had left. "It seemed I'd fallen into this thing, or it had fallen into me." He decided it was time to take it seriously. He began to study, first at the Loft Studio, then with a private coach. When he appeared in a Showtime movie called Slow Burn with Eric Roberts and Beverly D'Angelo, he finally felt something happen. After that, Oliver Stone cast him in Platoon, and even though most of his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, it was another step.

Nevertheless, when he returned to Los Angeles he still formed another band, the Rock City Angels. Then he was cast in "that show," 21 Jump Street. He was Tom Hanson, under-cover school cop. He knew it was a mistake before the first show aired. The show's people wanted him to do these interviews with magazines with names like Sixteen and Big Bopper. They wanted him to pose for photos in these geeky clothes. One night he was sitting in his Vancouver hotel room and a commercial came on TV. Not just for 21 Jump Street, but for him. A Johnny Depp commercial. "This awful, slow-motion montage of me. I was scared to death," he remembers. The usual teen star pattern is to move from anonymity to the thrill of being celebrated, and, only after some time, to rue the limitations this sort of celebrity places on both your current life and future prospects. But Depp missed out on the happy stage. He didn't want to be celebrated. Not like this, anyway.

And so he slowly suffered. He had unwittingly signed a six-year contract, expecting the show to run a single thirteen-week course and be forgotten. Over the next four years he would try everything to get out of that contract. He even offered to work a season for free if they would let him go at the end, but they refused. Instead, he entered teen-zine hyperspace. He is a Gemini! He was a wild kid, doing drugs in his teens but clean now! (Today he laughs at this, the most repeated of all Depp details; the idea that the last time he took a drug was as a teenager is "absolutely a lie.") He was a bad boy who dropped out of school! He once got green beans stuck in his teeth! He's frightened by clowns!

He could have got into the merchandise himself, made some big money, but instead he did everything he could to stop it. He even vetoed the Depp doll. After a couple of seasons they asked him to film a promo advising kids to stick with education. Didn't they read the press they so keenly generated? He was a bad boy who dropped out of school!

He tried to keep himself human by adapting Hanson's dialogue for his own pleasure. In one show one line was something like "This is a great place, Doug, this is like your other place." Depp changed it to "Nice digs, Doug, you dog—I dig 'em."

He got out after four years. They were supposed to renew his contract by a certain date and they messed up. His agent called him on the set of Edward Scissorhands. You're free, she said. He remembers it well. "My posture changed. Suddenly everything got bright. It was like Nelson Mandela, man."

Mr. Stench ("I think there's a beauty," he will tell me, "in people having to ask for Mr. Stench") is asleep when I call. He just flew in from Paris and isn't feeling well. He blames it on walking around with wet hair in the chilly French air. We discuss what we should do. "Maybe we could go to the hospital," he suggests, "and I could get my lungs pumped."

Instead we decide to eat. We walk up to a delicatessen on Fifty-seventh Street. Johnny's hair is still orange, and no one stops him. He stops himself twice, though. The first time is to stare at a driver asleep inside his car, with the TV on. He likes that. The second is to watch a pigeon feeding on a splatter of vomit on the sidewalk. He likes that even more.

He has the Reuben and we talk about filming John Waters's subtly depraved Cry-Baby, which he made during a hiatus from 21 Jump Street. He played the title role—Mr. Baby, as Depp will have it. It was the perfect meeting of minds. Waters, who had spotted Depp in teen magazines, loved that he was a teen star. Depp himself hated it. The film exploited both emotions and deftly allowed Depp to make his statement without resorting to disfigurement or unnecessary facial hair.

Baltimore's Depp fans couldn't believe their luck at finding him in their midst. And not all of them would settle for an autograph. Some hid under his trailer and asked a Teamster whether they could purchase Depp's waste products. There was also the letter. He had signed an autograph for this girl earlier in the day, and later she slipped a message under the door. "Hi, Johnny," it began. "I met you on the set. Jeez, it was real nice taking to you. You're a really good conversationalist . . ."—he loved that bit! And then, no warning—". . . by the way, I can suck a bowling ball through a garden hose. If you're interested, here's my number . . ."

Depp and Waters are still in touch. They exchange gifts. Waters gave Depp a book of medical and surgical oddities, photographs like a bowl with amputated feet in it. On the set Depp gave Waters a Father's Day card, and now he occasionally clips and sends good Weekly World News articles: $10,000 BIRD SINGS UNRECORDED BEATLES SONGS! These days, though, Depp is hard to find. "I always joke, Where shall I send letters: A Movie Star, A Bench, L.A. . . ." says Waters.

Except for the one he bought for his mother, Johnny Depp owns no houses. He rents one in the Hollywood Hills. He tries not to answer the phone even though he has two lines and sometimes they never stop ringing. He hates that. His current answering-machine message was provided by a friend from an LP offering breast enlargement instruction for women. Your breasts are starting to tingle now. You can feel your breasts starting to tingle. A sensation of growth is taking place. His mother heard this. "I think I dropped you on your head when you were small," she said.

It was the heartbreaking, pseudo-autistic fable of Edward Scissorhands that was the making of Johnny Depp. When he met with Tim Burton in a coffee shop, he had few expectations. "I was just this fucking guy on a series." The meeting went well, but he was told Tom Cruise was getting the part. But Cruise passed—the rumor was that he insisted that Scissorhands end up with boyish good looks—and Depp was in.

Burton says he'd wanted Depp from that first meeting. It was his eyes. "His eyes are incredible. They have the feeling of having been around for a long time, being older than his years." (When I convey this ocular appreciation to Depp, he says, clearly embarrassed, "I'm glad. I'm a big fan of his eyes, too.")

Playing someone as tragically misunderstood as Edward Scissorhands came easily. "A lot of people grow up being perceived as something that they're not," says Burton. "Johnny looks the way he does, and people see him as something he's not. There's always a little sadness that comes with that."

Later I mention this to Johnny.

"I do feel very lost at times, and very confused about everything," Depp says quietly, "whether anything means nothing." Recently he's realized that there are things he notices that some other people simply don't. "It sounds stupid, but you see that woman sitting over there, eating? There's something sad about that. You look a little closer, and you see the way she's cutting her meat. And the way she puts the fork into the food and takes a bite. And the way she's chewing. You know? Normal, everyday things. But I see that . . . and I could cry my eyes out."

Why? What are you seeing?

"Some kind of loneliness." He shrugs. "She could have a hundred people waiting for her in the car. And it can destroy me. Just the honesty. The need for it."

I telephone one of Johnny's best friends in Los Angeles, a musician called Chuck E. Weiss. Chuck tells me about how Johnny likes '30s Viper music, and how he thinks Johnny is happiest watching an old Warner Bros. cartoon. "I would say he's one of those people who doesn't fit in this era. His standards and integrity are different. He's sort of a backlash to technology." But he differs from those he plays in the movies "because he doesn't think of himself as a victim. He would be the champion of victims, but he's in the position to do something about it, and he does." Weiss doesn't expand on this, but I hear tales of Depp's largesse: privately buying plane tickets for the family of a dying girl, and so on. The last thing Weiss says to me is, "If I were to describe him, I would simply say that he sits on the toilet and pees like a woman."

The giant pickles sitting at our table have been troubling us for the several hours we have sat here. They look so disgusting, and it seems inconceivable that anyone would ever eat one of them. In their midst is one single gnarled pickled green tomato. We have been casually daring each other to indulge. Suddenly, while evading a question about his early sexual experiences, Depp demands, "How much for you to eat it?"

How much are you offering? I ask.

"A hundred dollars."

Are you serious?

"Are you?"

I take the tomato and bite. It is genuinely disgusting. We collapse into hysterics, myself trying not to choke on the bitter putrid flesh. Slowly, I finish it. He hands over the money. I protest, but he won't accept it back, so eventually I take Johnny Depp's virgin twenties and press them into my pocket.

I ask Johnny Depp when he first knew he was good-looking. I am being mischievous. He is mortified and, more convincingly than most in his position, insists that it is a notion that he has never internalized. He tells me a story that means a lot more to him. Just after his family had moved to Florida, he was standing outside elementary school waiting for his dad to pick him up. This guy walked by and—he still thinks this is awful—stopped, looked at Johnny, said, "God! What an ugly kid!" then continued on his way.

"I'll never forget that," he mutters. "He fucked with me really bad. Even if I was an ugly kid I couldn't figure out how somebody could be so . . ." He doesn't find the word, just shakes his head. "Still can't."

Johnny Depp first had sex in his "early teens" on the shag carpet in the back of the van his band used to carry themselves and their gear. By the time he was twenty he was married. It lasted until he was twenty-two. When I ask him about it he says, "Oh, I can't talk about this stuff."

DETAILS: (persisting) Do you remember it as a big mistake, or a small thing that happened?

JD: It was definitely a big thing.

Did you believe in it completely at the time?

I really don't know. I wanted to believe in it, and the whole institution of marriage. I mean, you don't ever know what's going to happen at any time.

It makes sense, except that you're the man whose tattoo reads WINONA FOREVER. It seems to run against it.

[Quietly] It doesn't run against it at all. I consider all my tattoos as specific moments in my life. My body is a journal in a way. It's like what sailors used to do, where every tattoo meant something, a specific time in your life where you make a mark on yourself, whether you do it to yourself with a knife or with a professional tattoo artist.

Have you marked yourself with a knife?



(He rolls up his sleeve. On his left forearm are a series of seven or eight scars.)

(Trying to hide my shock) Wow. You did that yourself? (He nods.) What kind of things do they mark?

Just . . . moments.

Some people would think that was slightly psychotic—to draw your own blood.

Really? You're not at liberty to judge after you've eaten that pickled tomato that has been sitting rancid in this deli for months.

There is another theme that is a staple of the Johnny Depp article. It is the portrait of the actor as the compulsive engager. Depp had engagements of sorts with Sherilyn Fenn and Jennifer Grey before Winona Ryder. This made him, in some eyes, a figure of fun. His jeans, they said, were frayed at the knees from all the times he'd knelt to propose. There was, it was claimed, a bumper sticker: HONK IF YOU HAVEN'T BEEN ENGAGED TO JOHNNY DEPP. It will, I suspect, not be his favorite subject.

DETAILS: Why do actors go out with actresses?

JD: [Shrugs] Why does anyone go out with anyone? You have a connection . . . I gotta get my hair dyed soon.

Before you've answered my question?

[Smiles] There's a lot of actors who date actresses and I don't see it's anybody's business, really. It's not like I've done anything abnormal. If people want to sit around and talk about who I've dated, then I'd say they have a lot of spare time and should consider other topics, or masturbation.

Tattoo Number Three (top of right shoulder, above the Indian) is WINONA FOREVER. They started dating not long after their eyes locked at the Great Balls of Fire premiere: Soon after, there was an engagement ring and public proclamations of the depth of their love for each other. The two of them went to a Los Angeles tattoo parlor together. We talk about it some more. "If Winona dumped me tomorrow, it doesn't mean that I would run to some surgeon to shave skin off my ass to cover it or anything. It's a section of my life."

DETAILS: Why do you assume it'd be she who would drop you?

JD: Well, either way. Either way.

When you started "dating," (he winces) or whatever word you prefer . . .

[Smiles] "Courting."

When you started courting, it was all very public.

[Nods] We made the mistake of talking about it in interviews. It became sick. Suddenly every interview became about that. So we decided to stop talking about it, and instantly rumors started that we broke up. Really disgusting. And, you know, when you're in the bathroom with your dick in your hand, taking a pee, and some fucking yuppie who has just had his first six-pack comes in and says, "Hey! How's Winona?" you want to eat his nose. You want to kill him. When it reaches that level I'd rather sit in an interview and lie.

Have you lied today?

[Shakes his head] But it's always an option.

In the bar of the Paramount Hotel, Johnny Depp tosses a coin to decide whether to have a rum- or vodka-based drink. He catches the coin, inspects it, frowns, and throws again. "Best of three." He tosses it twice more, and frowns again. "Best of five," he laughs. It says vodka. He chooses rum anyway, a strawberry daiquiri. Midway through the conversation, I visit the bathroom. Later, when I listen to my tapes, I find that Johnny has filled the time by reciting, mantralike into my microphone, "Chris Heath makes pee . . . Chris Heath makes pee . . . Chris Heath makes pee . . ."

Nominally Johnny has been spending time with me to promote Benny & Joon. On my final day with him I am to see a screening. He hasn't seen it yet and seems a little apprehensive. We have an agreement that, should I hate the film, I will spare us both mutual embarrassment by simply disappearing into the ether. But it's fine. Depp plays Sam, an almost autistic, angelic boy-man who wears old-fashioned clothes and can do old Chaplin and Keaton routines. This character turns up in the lives of Benny (Aidan Quinn) and his sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), who is mentally ill. A typical piece of dialogue: Sam, upon being told "You're out of your tree," misses a beat, then evenly replies, "It's not my tree."

The Johnny Depp in this film, with his pauses and gazes and untamable flights of imagination, is the closest I've seen on-screen to the Johnny Depp I've met. When I tell him this, he is silent, and I can't tell whether he feels that it's his personality or his acting ability that has been insulted.

He has one burning question about the film, and when he finds out the answer he is extremely disappointed. Sam and Joon contrive a tryst of sorts, and afterward they hold each other in silence, a silence that Sam breaks with one line. Depp begged them to use his version, and they filmed both. Even though Johnny's was more in keeping with the off-kilter magic to which the film aspires, his words were in vain.

Their version: "I love you." Depp's version: "Joon, I'm a bed wetter."

-- donated by Joni