“So, you’re in a bar and you go to the bathroom to take a pee, right?” says Johnny Depp, spewing smoke from a cigarette at our table in a breakfast joint in Los Angeles’ trendy Melrose Avenue. “And you’re standing at the urinal with your dick in your hand and some guy comes up to you and goes, ‘Hey how are you and Winona doing?’ I mean, Jesus Christ!” Glamorously pallid in fashionably scruffy clothes, faint violet circles ringing his eyes and locks shoved under a baseball cap, Depp squints, lets fly a deep, amused chortle and adds, “What I call ‘The Display Case Syndrome’ has got to be dealt with because, after all, if you’re in the public eye, that kind of stuff . . . well, it just goes with the territory, ya know? But man, in a public restroom?” After a beat, he mutters, “Ooops, gotta take a pee,” excuses himself and cuts across the joint, where, every few tables, he reciprocates boisterous greetings from various black-clad, sunglass-wearing, many-earringed habitués. The room is his.
I’m wondering whether I ought to follow Depp, then stride up beside him at the urinal and ask how are he and Winona doing? I mean, I’ve interviewed this guy before and one of the things I know about him is that he loves a good goof. After all, isn’t his “Are-they-or-are-they-not-a-couple?” status with Ryder one of those have-to-get-out-of-the-way Depp essentials? Just then, though, a leggy waitress sidles over and refills Depp’s coffee mug while purring to me: “Johnny’s the real kind of cool, cool for life.” Before I can say anything, she adds, “Not like Richard Grieco, who comes in here acting like King Shit!”
These days, the former TV-show teen idol has a thing or two to feel cool about. By the time he’s finished a new film in Texas, a total of three Depp movies will be ready for the screen, his first since Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands if we don’t count his cameo in the last A Nightmare on Elm Street (and we don’t). First up is the oddball Benny & Joon, featuring Mary Stuart Masterson as Depp’s schizophrenic girlfriend and Aidan Quinn as her domineering brother. Then comes the oddball Gilbert Grape, which director Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) made from Peter Hedges’ novel about an emotionally shut-down guy who tries to break free from a fabulous assortment of small-town loons. And later there will be the equally weird Arizona Dream (aka The Arrowtooth Waltz), from the set of which arthouse director Emir Kusturica bolted (then, months later, returned), and in which Depp beds Faye Dunaway and out-quirks both Jerry Lewis and Lili Taylor. Admirably, there’s not a high concept nor a low-brainer in the pack.
Unlike the trying-too-hard-to-be-bad- to-be-really-bad guy I met and interviewed a few years ago, the current-model Depp shapes up as rather more than just someone with whom the camera wants to pick out sofa beds. He’s speedier, edgier. The former pin-up looks ready to play grafters, sociopaths, doomed romantics, sexy flotsam, saints.
When he shambles back to our table, I calculate where exactly to jump back in.
I realize I could take the high road with my questions, but where’s the fun in that? “How are you and Winona doing?” He laughs, torches a cigarette and replies. “At a certain point, that stuff is really no one else’s business. There’s certain things you just don’t want to talk about. I have to partly blame myself for the situation, all those rumors. Let’s say that my mistake, from the beginning, was thinking I could do interviews, talk about it and be fairly open. But my doing that started a whole chain of events that were kind of disturbing. It somehow gave people in the street—total strangers—the key to open up my little treasure chest box. I know this sounds whiny, and I don’t mean it to, but it can be real unfair to the people involved.”
Not whiny exactly, Johnny, just evasive. He shrugs, grins and says, “Everything’s, you know, fine. To the public or to the people in Hollywood it doesn’t appear like we are together sometimes because she’s working there while I’m here or I’m somewhere else working while she’s here.
“We don’t go to a whole lot of functions. I went to a function one time when she was out of town and it was like some junior high-school thing. I mean, I would never walk up to another actor or anybody and say ‘How’s your romance?’ or ‘When was the last time you two . . . ?’”
So what’s all this about Ryder’s recently “buying” him a star and having it named for him? He breaks up in a happy cackle. “Oh, the star thing. Yeah. It’s true. Romantic isn’t it? I didn’t know it was coming. I was completely surprised. I’d like to see it through a telescope. Get to know it. From what I know, it looks exactly like me. Same nostrils and all. It’s amazing.”
I’m curious to know what sort of hand Depp thinks the press has dealt him since, hell, even I knocked him in print in the past and yet here he sits again, obviously game for another go-round. I tell him that I’ve heard that he recently did an interview with an American magazine, even though they’d given him a hard time in the past as one of Tinseltown’s worst-dressed young actors. He laughs. “They also voted me one of the worst actors for Edward Scissorhands, but, considering some of the ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ stuff they’ve done on everybody in the past, I took that as a very high compliment. As far as being one of the worst dressed, I was proud. My goal is to be number one worst dressed. Press stuff just rolls off me.”
The waitress comes along to refill our coffee cups and, when she’s retreated, Depp suddenly declares: “There are definite disadvantages to not having been breast-fed.” Excuse me? Seeing a blank look on my face, he waves his smoking cigarette through the air and says: “I wasn’t breast fed. But then, that’d be pretty obvious, considering my smoking. I got addicted to these in Paris. I tried going back to Marlboros, but they tasted like apricots.”
Depp leans back in the booth, then says, “Breast deprivation can also lead to a fondness for alcohol, to a certain extent. I figure that there’s got to be a balance, another advantage-type side to the whole breast question. And there is: breast feed and yes, breasts are back in. Not that they’ve ever been out. But now women are taking pride in them, and men are taking pleasure in them—whether they’re real or not. Breasts are just nice things that help get me through the day. They’re classic, right?”
While pondering the deeper implications of Depp’s mammarian rhapsody, I ask whether there’s any truth to the stories that he deliberately shies away from doing parts like Keanu Reeves’ role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Billy Baldwin part in Backdraft, the Christian Slater roles in Mobsters and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Brad Pitt’s part in Thelma & Louise.
He shifts in his seat, clearly less than comfortable with this topic. “Maybe one of those guys who actually did those movies—and I’m not saying I could have done them either—thinks he got the offer first, you know?” he says. “Then he reads this interview and, all of a sudden, it destroys his whole thing. I pretty much know the people who are going to get a shot at a role before me and I definitely know who’s going to get it after me.”
I persist. “OK, on one of those movies you mentioned,” he says, “I thought about the era it was set in, the cool cars, pinstriped and double-breasted suits . . .” I’m guessing we’re talking about Mobsters here; whaddya think? “On the other hand,” he continues, “I thought about the piles of money they were just willing to put into my hand, and I smelled something wrong. The more I thought about that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s amazing how easy it is to get on a big money trip of doing the routine stuff that comes your way.”
But has he been chasing off-kilter stuff—movies that aren’t necessarily the hot tickets at mall theatres—by design or by default? “Cry-Baby wasn’t this esoteric thing,” he points out. “It had plenty of cool jokes—ones that apparently no one got—and plenty of music. The people putting the movie out sold me and [cult director] John Waters out for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which destroyed us that first weekend. At least I can say: ‘It’s not my fault nobody saw Cry-Baby, because there was this really sick turtle-karate-judo thing going on.’ But when that happened, I thought: ‘If this is how it’s going to be, better just keep making movies I like.’ It’s not really my goal to become that Tom Cruise thing, being one of the biggest box-office stars in the world. But it’s not like I’m allergic to commercial success either.”
Still, it hasn’t escaped Depp that Cruise rakes in a zillion dollars a movie, boasts his own production deal, and can pretty much call his own shots. Depp’s quote reportedly weighs in at a couple of million, but his deal at Fox, proffered him around the time of Scissorhands, is kaput. “No disrespect to [former Fox bosses] Joe Roth or Roger Birnbaum, really good guys, but basically, it boiled down to I’d bring them projects and they would go ‘I don’t think so,’ and they would bring me so-called commercial things and I’d go, ‘I’m not so into that.’ Most of the things I like and want to be involved in aren’t big-budget things. We’ve all read formula stuff over and over again, so I can’t help responding when I read something that really makes me cackle, stays in my memory, makes me feel!”
The mere suggestion that he glam up for a big fat commercial movie again—just for the hell of it—conjures up memories of his cover-boy 21 Jump Street days as a national adolescent pastime. “The image of me that was being catapulted into people’s guts made me sick. I’m sure it must have made a lot of people sick. Once I realized I had no control over what they were doing, which was, like, selling this product, I also realized, ‘These people will drain your blood and fucking leave you by the side of the road.’ I knew that I had to fight real hard and had to go completely against the grain, against the expectations. The amazing thing is that, since then, I’ve so far been able to do what I’ve really wanted to. I don’t know how long anyone gets to do that. I just hope that people will keep giving me jobs.”
Which is another way of saying that he’s hip to the perils of making too many outlaw movies, a strategy that nowadays can often pave the road to outlaw cable-TV movies. “It’s dangerous,” he admits, drumming the edge of the table. “It can be a little frightening at times. I don’t want to sound like some pompous actor asshole telling you he only wants to do ‘important’ stuff. I mean, some of the things I’ve been offered were not so bad. Not bad at all, even. They were just things I didn’t really feel like I wanted to do. Or couldn’t see myself doing. That could be a very big mistake at times, because it’s just like anything—you have to keep a balance. I’m not going to be able to do the things I want to do if I don’t do a certain amount of—whatever you want to call that stuff—to stay up in the eyes of the studio people.”
That might help explain the hot and heavy rumors that Depp will soon do a quintessential studio package, a Three Musketeers movie for Jeremiah Chechik, his Benny & Joon director, playing D’Artagnan, perhaps to Winona Ryder’s wicked Milady de Winter, swashing and buckling with a bunch of other doll-face swordsmen. “At first, I liked the idea,” Depp admits, sounding almost sheepish, “because I’d like to do that book, that period and because Jeremiah’s got a real good notion about making it brilliant and rich with guys in long hair, goatees, swordfighting and leaping over each other.” Fine, so what’s the “but” I detect in his voice? He laughs, “But . . . it started to smell like Young Guns in Tights, you know? Like Guess? Jeans boys flashing swords. If that’s what somebody else wants to do, great. For me, though, no—I got real nervous. Right now,” he says, gesturing his hand in a fifty-fifty sign, “it’s exactly in the middle for me. I couldn’t make a movie until I know exactly who else is going to be in it. How’s it going to be done? What’s it boil down to?”
Whether or not he decides to step into those musketeer’s tights, it’s clear that Depp prefers more unconventional stuff. Ask how he and director Lasse Hallstrom are getting along while making Gilbert Grape and the response is pure, unadulterated Depp: “My character’s uneasy with people so, like if I’m feeling, ‘God, I’m doing a scene,’ Lasse automatically starts talking about radishes to get me back into how uncomfortable my character is. Lasse says stuff like, ‘If a radish were up your butt, how far would it be? All the way in? Half way? Just entering?’ A radish is a pretty solid image, you know? So, that’s how he communicates. He’s allergic to bullshit.”
If the Gilbert Grape chat suggests they’re not making a movie for Hollywood suits, it also remains to be seen what the suits will make of Depp in Arizona Dream. All Depp’s certain of is that he’s “thrilled to have made it with Emir Kusturica,” whom he met three years ago when the Yugoslavian director was riding a wave of international acclaim for Time of the Gypsies. Observes Depp, “Emir was wide-eyed and sort of shocked by everything he was seeing in LA. At the time, I was really miserable doing the TV series. It was a great combination.” The director surrounded Depp, reportedly the only actor he wanted for the role, with hellacious co-stars: the legendary Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis, supermodel Paulina Porizkova, and to round things out, Lili Taylor (a gifted actress who played one of Julia Roberts’ pals in Mystic Pizza). Rumors flew: language barriers, on-set tantrums, hand-wringing producers. Then the movie, already months into production, shut down.
Putting the best face on an experience some might recall as a nightmarish career-staller, Depp says, “Emir got sick because he had never made a film in the States and had no idea, really, about the merging of commerce and art. He doesn’t think about money. Giving someone like Emir all kinds of rules about budget—schedules, timing, things that are really stifling—was a shock to the system. Look, I can’t even say that he’s a great film-maker; he’s just an amazing guy with nothing but talent and this gift for just inventing scenes.”
Depp is more forthcoming about working with Faye Dunaway, whom he calls “the last of her kind, a real old-time movie star,” someone who’s “all extremes, like a fire that never stops moving.” So what’s it like being around a woman aflame? “She’ll take no shit and compromise nothing, which I really admire,” he asserts. “Hers is a very specific way of working, which isn’t necessarily a way for me. Sometimes, when we were working, it could get, uhmm, interesting, but the result is staggering. I’d be doing a scene with her, watching her the whole time, and only later, watching it on screen, could I see what she was actually doing. I enjoyed everything I could get from her: sweetness, anger, sadness. We have some good, good fire together. Sometimes, I couldn’t get over the fact that, you know—I’m making love with Bonnie Parker.”
What happened to this chummy little dysfunctional-movie-making family when their surrogate father stormed off the movie, leaving them stranded? “The whole thing was really weird,” Depp admits, pulverizing a cigarette butt. “But after loving this guy’s work, getting close to him during the shooting, I just had to go as far as he wanted to go. In fact, everybody made a sort of pact and said ‘All right, it’s going to take as long as it’s going to take.’” Which meant that although Depp in the meantime met such directors as Francis Coppola to talk over the role Keanu Reeves got in Dracula and Richard Attenborough to discuss his playing Chaplin, he knew he wouldn’t necessarily be free to accept offers that came his way. “I met up with Attenborough,” Depp says, “knowing all the while that I was totally wrong to play Chaplin. I just wanted the chance to meet him, to say hi. With Francis, that possibility came up just when Arizona Dream heated up again, so off I went to finish it.”
The shooting of Benny & Joon, in which Depp plays a hapless guy who meets up with a schizy girl and her brother, was no waterslide either. Early on, MGM launched a lawsuit against Woody Harrelson for ditching the role of the brother when Indecent Proposal came his way. Then co-star Laura Dern defected. “I’d gone through the whole mess I usually go through when I’m about to start a movie, and then there was this strange thing with Woody, who actually lives down the road from me. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with his work. I’d never seen Cheers. I was in France doing voiceovers for Emir and I’m hearing all this kind of weirdness, like, ‘Laura Dern’s out because Woody’s out,’ then ‘Woody’s in.’ On and on. I was shocked by the whole thing.”
More shocks lay in store once Depp realized director Chechik, best known for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, was “like a guy who jumps behind the wheel of a truck with bombs strapped to the sides, who says: ‘I think I’ll drive this thing cross-country ‘cause it might be fun!’” On the other hand, Depp strews verbal rose-petals before the feet of his co-stars Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn.
“Hearing it was to be Aidan Quinn in the part, not Woody, really made me happy. I didn’t know how happy until I started hanging out with the guy, who’s so strong, smart, centered. The movie’s a kind of weird triangle, so I’m falling in love with him, because he’s this guy I can never be like.”
But Depp’s main kick came from playing a character “who’s Buster Keaton-like, and Keaton is one of my all-time heroes.” The mere mention of the silent movie genius causes Depp to break out in the symptoms of an advanced case of film-geekese. He’s suddenly spouting from memory—hell, practically acting out for me—a slew of connoisseur’s moments from such lesser-known Keaton films as Seven Chances and The Playhouse, stuff that holds a sacred place in his home library of virtually impossible-to-find videos. When I mention that there’s more than a nod to the Great Stoneface in his Edward Scissorhands performance, he beams.
“Stuff that Keaton did in movies 60-odd years ago is shocking, so brilliant. He did stunts without wires and head spins that—and man, I know, because I’ve tried to do them again and again—cannot be done by a human being. Unless you’re Keaton. Or a 12-year-old Russian gymnast.”
I ask Depp who he most would have wanted to work for if he’d been around in the 20s and 30s and he answers, “Tod Browning!” The man who directed such shockers as The Unholy Three and Freaks, the latter of which starred real-life sideshow attractions, is another cultural hero. “I love his movies, especially that last sequence in the rain in Freaks, where the entire freak-show chases the bitchy blonde woman who has mistreated them, surrounds her and turns her into one of them. Whew, man! I definitely would have connected with Browning.” And to prove just how much he would have connected, he starts filling me in on his prized collection of dead bugs and animals that, mounted and prominently displayed, adorn his rented Hollywood home. “When I was a little kid, like seven years old, living in Florida,” he says, explaining the origins of his strange fixation, “I used to go out and catch lizards. I was sure I was ‘The Lizard Trainer’ and I’d take one of my lizards, touch its head and command him, ‘Stay.’ Idiot, I thought I’d trained him because he would stay put. Now my house has lots of cool stuff I’ve collected, like I’ve got the most beautiful bat you can imagine. I also bought a bunch of lacquered piranhas.”
Not exactly Littlewoods Catalogue items, so where exactly does one find such treasures? “Various places,” confides Depp in a so-glad-you-asked tone. “For instance there’s an amazing bug store I go to in Paris, which is also where I got my pigeon skeleton.” Wait. Is he telling me he actually condones the mass slaughter of little birdies so their carcasses can serve as tchotchkes? “It’s an old-age pigeon,” he assures me, laughing, adding that ferrying such treasures through customs “can be a bitch, really. It’s the kind of thing that, depending on your next answer, could determine whether they pull an ounce of coke out of your pocket. I bought a bunch of cool stuff and was coming back through Miami and the customs man goes, ‘So what do we have in the bag?’ And I said: ‘Well, I’ve got some books, clothes, dead piranhas and a bat.’ At that point they searched every nook and cranny.” After a beat he adds, laughing, “It was hell, but hey—at least I didn’t have to pay duty.”
Suddenly, up to our table saunters local rock-scene holy man Chuck E Weiss who, slowly taking off enormous black shades and looking every inch the lizard Romeo about whom Rickie Lee Jones gargled Chuck E’s in Love, introduces himself. After Weiss shambles off, Depp says he borrowed some of Weiss’s authentic zoot-suits to wear for our photo-shoot.
“He turned me on recently to a movie that flipped me out beyond belief called Stormy Weather. It’s got Fats Waller and Cab Calloway. I’m obsessed by that whole era. Amazing.” When I say I too like Calloway, Depp insists. “You’ve gotta hear this!” and takes me outside to visit his Porsche, which looks as if he’s driven it through Dust Bowl. Etched by a finger into the layers of grunge powdering the hood and fenders are such catchy slogans as “Pee-Pee” and “I’m Pee-Pee. You?” Depp explains such custom features as, “the only way I can stand driving something so . . . so . . . you know what I mean?”
We wedge ourselves into the car’s cockpit, though it’s piled high with a fishing rod, paperback books, funky threads and lumpy brown bags. Depp keeps muttering, “You gotta dig this, man,” while foraging through a spangly, psychedelic-hued stashbag. Finally he yanks out a cassette, jams it into the player, and cranks it up. Cab Calloway, sounding like this planet’s hippest, down-est dude, wails a rare, growly tape of his signature song, Minnie the Moocher. Depp rasps delightedly, “I started picking up on the things he was singing about, like that ‘Minnie loved a guy though he was “cokey”,’ and about how he showed her how to ‘kick the gong around,’ and ‘jump’ and ‘jive’ and talking about ‘getting your steady groove.’”
While we’re grooving to the hot, righteous music, we talk about where Depp is heading. “I’m not that outspoken or aggressive,” he answers when I ask whether he’s ever tried doing something really out there to land a role. “But I did steal a script off someone’s desk, a Neal Jimenez script called It Only Rains at Night. I read it and couldn’t help thinking, ‘If I could only do this and never anything else, I wouldn’t care,’” Depp says about the gloriously weird screenplay about a government executioner and his beloved decapitated head. Yet, as if to prove his reticence, he adds, “It took me years to get the balls to call Neal and tell him ‘I’ve really got to do this.’”
Once he polishes off Gilbert Grape and—maybe—The Three Musketeers, Depp and Lili Taylor plan on doing Kusturica’s modern-day version of Crime and Punishment. He also hopes to take on Anthony Burgess’s One Hand Clapping, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh would kill him when he goes psycho after winning a fortune on a TV game-show. He wouldn’t mind another Tim Burton or John Waters, the latter of whom, thanks to Depp, is available between pictures to perform marriage ceremonies. “I’m proud of how, for just $60 and some help from my lawyers,” Depp says, grinning, “he became Reverend John Waters.” The idea behind it all was that Waters would then preside over his and Ryder’s nuptials; instead, Waters baptized former porn star Traci Lords before her marriage to his own nephew, who served as a role-model for the sexy greaser that Depp played in Cry-Baby.
Historians of pop culture, Depp says, can make of his career what they will. But he observes, “I hope they can say: ‘He’s still alive.’ Just so long as I’m not remembered as a TV showboat.” If he could choose his own epitaph, Depp says that nothing would be cooler than a couple of lines from blues empress Bessie Smith’s theme-song. Doing his bad-boy smile, he recites, “‘Give me a pigfoot and a bottle of beer, lay me ‘cause I don’t care, and Give me a reefer and a gang of gin, slay me ‘cause I’m in my sin’—two of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard.”
Personally, though, I’d like to suggest the words of wisdom droned by a quack hypnotist on the tape on Depp’s answering-machine: “Your breasts are starting to tingle now . . . you can feel your breasts starting to tingle . . . A sensation of growth is taking place!”