It is hard to say who’s gotten more press over the years: Johnny Depp or James Dean. Or Johnny Depp or the Pope or Johnny vs. Saddam Hussein or Johnny/Paul McCartney. But we can say, with certainty, that few celebrities have been so discussed (and far fewer dissected in both Tiger Beat and Newsweek). Despite his recent absence from the tabloids, Johnny Depp, one time teen idol, still carries a thick file of press clips. In fact, it seems possible to write about him without actually meeting him, without doing more than quoting the existing “Johnny” lore already out there. A few examples: He has three tattoos (“Betty Sue” for his mother on the left arm; “Winona Forever” for his former fiancée, Winona Ryder, and an Indian, because he is—as you probably know—part Cherokee, on the right). He has, standing in his driveway, a nine-foot-tall fiberglass rooster. He once burned his underwear on the set of 21 Jump Street (apparently his trailer hadn’t been cleaned for some time). He was described by John Waters, the director of Cry-Baby, Depp’s first starring feature role, as potentially “the cutest boy who ever worked in a gas station.” He is reputed to once have feared John Davidson, the singer, and to have had nightmares about Alan Hale Jr., who played the skipper on Gilligan’s Island.
Wading through the Depp press collection, one imagines an eccentric grad student with an occasional attitude problem. Our initial encounter does little to alter the impression.
Depp asks that we meet at Barney’s Beanery, an L.A. dive decorated with rainbow-striped vinyl seats and pool tables—as if a biker bar had been crossed with Howard Johnson’s. One and a half hours after our meeting time, Johnny Depp appears. He is dressed in a battered tux jacket draped over flannel shirt(s) that seem to cover one or more T-shirts. Unhooked suspenders slap against maroon bell-bottoms slit up the sides. Hair hangs in his face. He has on what appears to be combat boots. He yawns.
But just as unkind words—affected, perhaps rude—start to make their way around the brain, Johnny Depp shakes his head and says, almost meekly, “I’m really sorry. Really, man, Really.” He will explain. He wants to. And thus, folding down into the booth, he offers up an excuse so strange, so sincerely put forth that it has to be true: “I was in a serious deep sleep.” He pauses, lifts a stray hair clump from his eyes and continues. “I don’t always get that kind of real relaxed sleep, you know? Really deep, you’re just loving it, lying there, a trance . . . except now I guess I’ve kind of ruined your day. I’m so sorry.”
A waitress brings coffee and Johnny Depp thanks her, as if she’d just handed him a $20 dollar bill. Coffee “happening,” the first of many Gauloises lit, Johnny Depp tries, more definitively, to explain himself. “I’ve just been out of the interview loop for a while, you know? Press free.”
It seems that a “press-free” sojourn was earned. As the star of the late-Eighties Fox TV series, 21 Jump Street, Depp possessed the small-screen power of an Elvis. He typically received 10,000 squealy letters per month (plus the occasional pubic hair). His mail was stolen as a sacred object. Hyperstimulated thirteen-year-olds lined up several hours in advance for his appearances. Even after he quit the show, after he moved on to his real and serious work, Johnny-mania lingered. To this day traces persist. Called recently, Betty Sue Depp, Johnny’s mother, intoned into the phone “I don’t do interviews! Please!” she then hung up, calling Johnny’s agent, who called his publicist, who, learning that Johnny himself had given out the number, refrained from canceling the interview.
Johnny Depp, on his own, consistently tries to be polite. He offers cigarettes, sugar for coffee; he asks considerate questions (“So, are you completely weirded being in L.A.?”) But his impatience with “the star shit”—and with the journalists who fuel it—is quickly palpable. “When reporters can’t think of what to report on they look back and find all this other stuff,” he says, without a great deal of coaxing. “And then they just keep on repeating it so it becomes like this stupid game of telephone.” Having said this, however—having said anything negative, about anyone—Depp retracts his statement. He respects that people, even reporters, have their jobs. He doesn’t want to speak about people “in an unfair way.”
But in the case of reporters, he—and his mother and publicist—are justified. They do tend to get it wrong. Depp is not a semiliterate wild man (at least not now at the age of almost-thirty). He is, on the contrary, shy, prone to uncomfortable don’t-look-at me squirming. He can’t imagine why any one would write to him, “a mere actor.” (Although if the writer seems “damaged,” he has from time to time written back.) He never watches dailies (“Physically ill. Uh, bad stomach, Get me out of here”). And he has “never, ever, ever . . . watched anything and said, ‘Oh, I was great . . . Never!’”
Despite the cheekbones, and the unaffected pout, Johnny Depp was simply not cut out for teen-dream stardom. He seems far more comfortable in disguise (today, as the scarecrow of Oz.) He likes to blend in to observe (today, two fat insurance salesmen sharing a foot-high hot-dog-platter). He enjoys playing real people. Troubled people. The unbeautiful.
This preference helps to explain the Depp resume, a list of credits regarded by some in the industry as “eclectic” and by others as a mystery. First there was a Cry-Baby, the high-camp parody of Fifties teen culture. Next, “another blow to the image,” he played Edward Scissorhands in makeup so heavy he was unrecognizable. This month he’ll be seen in Benny & Joon, as a dyslexic who falls in love with a schizophrenic. He has already completed Arizona Dream, a surreal comedy with Jerry Lewis and Faye Dunaway and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, an adaptation of the Peter Hedges novel about a small-town boy with a slow-witted brother and a mother who weighs 500 pounds. At the moment, Depp is preparing to shoot Ed Wood, a Tim Burton film about the transvestite director who befriended the aging Bela Lugosi in Fifties Hollywood.
“For Benny & Joon, I needed someone who could play a character who’s, metaphorically, an angel,” says Jeremiah Chechik, the film’s director, “someone who could achieve a real naïve innocence that would not come off as foolish . . . I define movie star as someone who makes it hard for the viewer to turn away. Johnny is a star”. But, says Chechik, “he chooses parts based on personal and artistic considerations, not ‘What would the public say?’”
“Hey,” Depp says, hoping to clarify. “I don’t have an allergy to leading man things or kind-of-commercial movies. It just feels good that I haven’t taken a route that should have been planned out for me . . . that I could fight with the labels.” He takes a very long drag off his cigarette, an equally marathon tug of coffee, then, because we are already inside the “career thing” he agrees to get all the standard background stuff out of the way. What Depp, with a brief table-top drum roll, calls “the facts.”
If you don’t know them already:
He grew up in Miramar, Florida, where his father, a city engineer, moved the four Depp siblings (two girls, two boys; Johnny the youngest) from Kentucky, when Johnny was seven. He had no particular film heroes as a child, although he liked the TV show, Hogan’s Heroes. “I liked the fact that they dug tunnels,” he says, “That you could lift up your bed and there was this whole underground world. I fantasized about tunnels. Once I tried to dig one in the back yard.”
The tunnel ended up a mere hole and young Depp sought other escapes. When he was twelve, his mother, a waitress, bought him an electric guitar for $25. Johnny took it and “just locked myself in my room with my guitar and records for two years.” He emerged an alienated teenager—but a musical one. He snuck into bars, gigged with local bands, launched a precocious (and much-chronicled) run of sex, drugs, “yeah and sloppy rock & roll.” At age 16 he dropped out of high school and with in a year formed his own band, the Kids. The Kids became popular: they opened for the B-52’s and Talking Heads and, in 1983, they left Florida for Los Angeles and the L.A. club scene. Depp recalls this time in his life as “hard. Loud. A lot of drinks.”
But within six months all that changed. Depp had married briefly to musician Lori Allison, and Allison was friendly with a young actor, Nicolas Cage, who suggested that Depp, then twenty, meet his agent. The agent sent Depp, who had never even seen a script, to read for Nightmare on Elm Street, and Depp was cast “as, yes, the boyfriend.” Of his first acting experience he says: “I got sucked into a bed.” He also got paid. “SAG scale was, like, $1200 a week? That was kind of inspirational in a way.”
Depp then left the band, did his first interviews (“I felt so stupid”) and made a second film, Private Resort, with Rob Morrow, which he describes as “a paycheck thing.” His first real work, as he sees it, came in Platoon, for which he spent “two weeks in the jungle in the Philippines. Just living there . . . in dirt holes.” And putting up with Oliver Stone. “He has a great ability to piss you off. Somewhere I understood ‘this is directorial method.’ But so much needling to thirty-two guys can really get to you.”
Despite a much-edited part (he played the translator), Depp began to think of himself as a professional actor. He studied with Peggy Feury at the Loft Studio. He read plays and scripts. He turned down a lot of TV work, including 21 Jump Street. He waited. He continued, for some time, to wait. When nothing materialized—and the actor cast in Jump Street dropped out—Depp reconsidered the TV job. And so, for three-and-a-half years, he played tough but lovable undercover cop Tom Hanson, until, as he put it, “I’d had enough. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. I kept saying, how big is our jurisdiction? We’re going into these schools. At one point isn’t someone going to say, ‘Hey you were in that other school?!’ How many years could this happen realistically? They were like it doesn’t matter.’”
During one hiatus, he filmed Cry-Baby. “I had to find a perfect teen idol,” says director John Waters. “I went through a zillion teen magazines and, well, I just felt there was nobody better than Johnny. It’s ironic, of course, that it changed things for him. That was really the end of the teen idol craze.”
Except that he continued to receive the usual offers—“The guntotin’ guy,” as he describes it. “Kiss the girl. Fight a coupla guys. Superhero stuff.” And he was still bound, for a season anyway, to continue in 21 Jump Street. But Depp had evolved a very different vision of himself. And certain directors, Tim Burton, for one, began to see it. Or at least to perceive in him something unusual: An ironic sense of humor coupled, oddly, with a childlike quality.
When Depp talks about Edward Scissorhands (always as “Edward”) he talks a lot about innocents, specifically children and dogs. He based his “Edward” performance on a dog because “he (Edward) reminded me of dogs I’d had. That rapid eyeball doggy thing. The unconditional love thing . . . It’s rare when you’re able to start from the ground up that way. Create someone who’s not really human.” What moved him most was that kids, little ones, responded so strongly to it. “Three—and four—and five-year-olds, they understood the pain that kind of happens. My youngest niece, she started calling me Mister Edward!”
A different waitress interrupts with more coffee. Depp looks around for the first waitress, his “usual” waitress. “Well,” says the substitute, “she just quit.”
“Jesus,” says Johnny, as if he’d just heard someone died. “She’s been here for years.” It is with quiet seriousness that he says, “That’s heavy.”
The Depp residence, up a steep vertical “S” of Canyon Road, is defined by its high altitude and, indeed, by its enormous fiberglass rooster. (“I don’t know,” says Depp, with a one-shouldered shrug. “I saw it. I had to have it.”) There’s a motorcycle, a Porsche, a Chevy pickup in the garage. Johnny’s sister, Christi, “who helps organize my life” makes coffee in the kitchen. He shows me his view (“Your basic L.A. combo platter—fog, smog . . .”) and his improvements (“I bought these patio chairs”—and then he points beyond the pool to the house next door, a onetime celebrity home, where the words, “PISS OFF!” are carved in to the roof. “Guy got sick of the lunatics with helicopters, you know?”
That said, we take the tour, pausing to admire a yellow electric guitar on an old couch; two telescopes; a TV the size of a small European car, although Depp is quick to say that there is no reason to watch it—nothing on except the “surreal” local access channels or very late-night MTV or old movies. “I’m really fascinated by other aspects of the culture,” he explains, heading into a small room that leads to a staircase. “Just not necessarily the one we’re in.”
Nor, it seems, the planet we are on.
The Depp house by any decorating standard is delightfully strange. In every room he’s hung paintings of clowns on fire or juxtaposed with skulls. Surrounding them, in frames, are very carefully preserved and mounted bugs, mostly roaches. “Bugs,” says Depp, “are so mysterious. We don’t know how or what they are. They just are.”
This remark leads, naturally, to a discussion of Kafka, which leads as do all his conversations about literature, to Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road and a Depp boyhood idol. We look at his many framed photographs of the writer. We look at some others of his mother as a pretty, dark-haired young woman. Of Vincent Price, as Edward’s creator. Unavoidably, in the bedroom, there is a black-and-white shot of Winona Ryder, tangled in sheets. “Yeah,” says Depp, glancing at it. “She’s really pretty. She is.” Which is his way of opening and closing a subject he will do anything—talk for any length of time about bugs and clowns and Kerouac—to avoid.
“Hey. I had nothing but bad luck after talking about this stuff,” he says heading off in the direction of the coffee fumes. “It became such a public thing. Everyone felt like they were either part of it or owned a part of it that they had somehow gotten the right to ask me about her. When you’re in the bathroom, you’re taking a squirt, and some guy walks up to you and says, ‘Hey! How’s Winona?’ I mean, Huh? You’re there with your Johnson in your hand. It takes everything, every inch of strength not to turn around and pee on him!”
Back in the living room, Depp apologizes for the mini-outburst about Winona, about privacy, the “star shit.” He offers, instead, to discuss anything else—favorite color? Best screen kisser? He smirks. Pet peeves?
To be nice, however, he agrees to try and sifts slowly through a pile of cassettes on the floor. Even more slowly, it seems, he eases one—a cut from Arizona Dream—into the VCR. Then he free-falls back onto the flannel-covered couch, presses the remote, looks away as his face fills the screen. Johnny Depp confronted with Johnny Depp, tries to seem calm. He lights a cigarette to match the one he has burning in a nearby ashtray. Gets up, sits back down, paces and then, peering out at the blanched white afternoon sky, begins to just talk.
“Jerry Lewis (his costar in the film) is exactly what you’d expect . . . A wacky nutty professor guy. Really generous, really warm,” he says of the man widely regarded as impossible and sometimes cruel. And Faye Dunaway, who is reputed to be worse? “Faye has a specific way of working. It’s not that she’s a bitch . . . she’s a perfectionist.”
“Johnny’s such a nice boy,” says director Waters. “If I worked with him again I’d have to cast him as a serial killer.”
That’s not precisely the actor’s fantasy role. He’d love, someday (somehow) to film On the Road. “I have that romantic thing about the whole train yard—cooking beans on a fire . . . Sullivan’s Travels. You know? he says, which reminds him that he loves Veronica Lake, who starred in the Preston Sturges film. And W.C. Fields. Cary Grant. “So many great actors, man.”
He’s just not entirely convinced that he’s one of them.
The taped segment ends at last. Depp aims the remote at his face in freeze frame. Relieved, he lights up and inhales sharply.
“So, you do wanna know my favorite color?” he asks, walking out to say good-bye to his sister. “It is,” he says, pausing, “cobalt blue.” He laughs, confesses that it’s not. “But,” he says, halfway between the rooster and the “embarrassing” Porsche. “If you can’t have a little humor about yourself . . . what can I say? You’re fucked.”