Johnny Depp remembers when the La Brea tar pits were different. Older. Not as old as when saber-toothed tigers got stuck there until they died, of course. But back about ten years, when he was newly arrived in Los Angeles, before the fences were built and the people showed up. Now he sits on a peeling wooden bench and stares into a pool of black goo, his fragile beauty safely obscured by a baseball cap and scraggly red hair. His voice is deep and slow and smoke-scraped. He talks about old things, which are his favorite things.
Time passes. Eventually, Depp mentions that he has to meet a guy about a thing at three o’clock. (This is as specific as he gets about most details of his life.) He is not the type to wear a watch, but he has an idea. He climbs into his cobalt-blue 1954 Chevrolet pickup truck and solemnly studies the phone in the otherwise perfect period interior. “I don’t know if this will work,” he says, then punches in seven digits. An eerie, cheery voice fills the cab: “At the tone, the time will be 2:19 and 20 seconds.”
Depp shakes his head, amazed. Here he is at a prehistoric site, in his old truck, on a cellular speakerphone. Weird. He does not find it strange, however that he knows the number for time. In this peculiar but effective fashion, Johnny Depp lives his life.
Teenage girls swoon over horses and ballet dancers and rebels. Depp, 30, is somehow all those things. He wears work boots and befriends fringe people and gives money to sick children. He thinks deep thoughts and pulls stupid pranks with his friends. He is a stoner—he is the philosopher-king of the stoners.
Onscreen, Depp is tenderness incarnate. The way he touches his retarded brother in his new film, Gilbert Grape. The single tear that slides down his cheek when he’s moved in Cry-Baby. The sad, sad eyes of Edward Scissorhands. And the little smile that flickers across his face in Benny & Joon when he learns that Joon, a schizophrenic, hears voices.
Because he became famous for playing a high-school cop on the Fox TV series 21 Jump Street, from 1987 to 1990, Depp should have been lost in pink teen-idol hell. Instead, he escaped into self-parody in Cry-Baby. Then he veered further left, playing waifs and loners in oddball films that established him as a certified-genius Boy Artist. Now everyone idolizes him.
“Johnny didn’t ignore his fans, he brought them with him,” says actor Nicolas Cage, a friend. “He was smart about it. He took this large group of people weaned on formula TV and exposed them to things exciting and new.”
“The first day on Benny, my husband and I had just split up, and I was in that hysterical funk you get in when you’re trying to be pulled-together,” says Mary Stuart Masterson, Depp’s costar in the film. “But when Johnny walked in, the energy in the room changed. There’s something really amazing about him, his generosity of spirit.” The girls still swoon, but they respect him in the morning.
One good thing about being a teen idol: You get all the babes. One bad thing: You’re hounded for it. All together now, let’s recite the story of Depp’s love life—lost his virginity at 13, married at 20, divorced two years later, then proposed and proposed and proposed, to Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and, especially, Winona Ryder.
Throughout their nearly four-year relationship, now ended, Depp and Ryder were a tabloid staple. They were simply too young and gorgeous to be left alone. And they kept doing these ridiculously romantic things. She bought him a star, the way one can buy acres of rain forest. Depp tattooed her name on his body, a banner reading “WINONA FOREVER” all over his upper right arm. It was more than romantic, it was reckless.
“I think of my tattoos like a journal,” Depp says. He now has four. “To have it removed, or erase it, is to try and say it never happened. If I alter it in some way, make it funny—put her next boyfriend’s name on top of it, say—it would still be honest.”
But what happened between Depp and Ryder? Where did all that rebel love go? “It’s one of the mysteries of everybody’s life,” he says. “It’s not like you suddenly one day go ‘Uh, you know what? I just don’t love you.’ She’s a sweet kid, man. It’s always a little weird, you’re like ‘We used to do this and that, we used to have fun and hang out together.’ But at least were able to feel that for each other. I feel real lucky that we got that.”
Suddenly Depp stops, transfixed by the sight of a little girl on a Hot Wheels tricycle coasting down a slope nearby. Her pigtails stick straight out and so do her legs; she’s taken them off the pedals, the better to simulate pure flight. “Look how sweet she is,” he says. “That’s adorable. I don’t mean to sound spacey or new age-y or anything. I’ve listened to no Yanni today. But whatever she’s thinking, it’s better than you or I could ever think.”
Later, when more-depressing topics arise, he will mention her. “There’s a lot of bad shit going on,” he will say. “But when you see that little girl riding her trike, something like that is so innocent, so honest and so beautiful that even the most pessimistic person has to feel it.”
Birdies chirp loudly in the trees overhead, and Depp seems in danger of levitation from the bench on an invisible puffy cloud. “Uh . . . ,” he says. “Um . . .” What, Johnny, what? “Do you want to drive to a store with me so I can get cancer?”
Depp’s alter ego, the way-cool burned-out bad boy, grinds his truck through the traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, banging a new pack of Marlboros on his knee for several long blocks. The Corvette engine he stuck under the hood revs and revs. He stops for five seconds in a towaway zone to light a smoke. A security guard materializes at his window. “Sir, you can’t park here,” the guard says.
“Yeah, yeah Officer, we’re just looking at the angle of light across the dashboard here. It’s important to see it from just this angle,” Depp says in the exaggeratedly polite, deliberately stupid voice of the die-hard delinquent.
The guard is baffled. “Sir, you can’t park here for any length of time.”
“Yeah, right, okay, hmm, right,” Depp says. He waits another two minutes to prove his point, then drives away.
The angel, you see, has a devil inside. The birdies chirping in the park and the engine revving in his truck are the twin sound tracks of Depp’s life; the little girl on her Hot Wheels and the obtuse security guard, his dual muses.
Johnny Reb dropped out of high school at 16, experimented freely with chemical substances and came to California to play guitar. “I’m sure my brain stopped at 17,” he says. “I was really happy then. I was playing in a band, reading books I hadn’t wanted to read in school. There were girls around. In a way, I’m sort of stuck there.”
Depp has been arrested, twice, though nothing came of either charge. Once for getting into a fight in Vancouver, where Jump Street was shot, and once in Beverly Hills, for jaywalking.
“The cop was one of those guys who puts on a uniform and suddenly he feels his penis begin to grow,” Depp says. “He’s all bent out of shape and hard as nails, a real idiot.” As he was writing out the jaywalking ticket, the cop ordered Depp to put out his cigarette. Depp refused, so the cop twisted his wrist until the cigarette fell from his hand. He lit another. “Next thing I knew, him and his partner handcuffed me and put me in a cell for a few hours. I’m not scared by those people, they just make me angry. You get the feeling there’s nothing you can do, but there is something you can do. Don’t take shit from them.”
That’s the Depp philosophy in a nutshell: Live, give, and don’t take shit. One night he was dangerously drunk, hanging by his digits from the top of the five-story parking garage at the Beverly Center Mall with Nicolas Cage. Another night, he and Gibby Haynes, lead singer of the Butthole Surfers, spotted some guy’s motorcycle in Sherilyn Fenn’s driveway, kidnapped the helmet, painted it garish colors (including the visor), and returned it with a love note. He paid Leonardo DiCaprio (This Boy’s Life), his costar in Gilbert Grape, $500 to smell a rancid pickled sausage. Depp himself once inhaled the scent of a television remote that had found its way into the anatomy of a girlfriend of Haynes’s. “The look on his face was priceless,” Haynes says. (Depp likes smells. Smells are real.) Just as blithely, he’ll have thirty pizzas flown from L.A. to the Benny set in Spokane because a crew member said he missed good pizza.
Entering the Depp Zone, however, is more than just a matter of going where he goes and waiting for him to show up. You can try the Viper Room, for example, the landmark bar on Sunset Strip that he and Chuck E. Weiss (guitar-playing namesake of the Rickie Lee Jones song “Chuck E.’s in Love”) bought and restored to Deco splendor because Depp was sick of being “invaded by other people’s taste in music and decor.” But once you’re there, you still have to learn to tune in to his frequency, where deep thoughts are communicated though sentences are never finished.
“I was talking to Armand Hammer this one time,” Depp will say.
Excuse me? Armand Hammer, the late financier, a man unlike Depp in every way? How did this happen?
“I was at this thing, there were people there,” Depp says.
Which thing would that be? “This thing at the White House when Reagan was there,” he says.
Depp went to the Reagan White House? “I had this publicist, he wanted me to, I just had to check it out,” he says.
Check what out? He sighs. “It was about the ‘Just Say No’ thing.”
Wait a second. Johnny Depp, self-proclaimed taker of every drug known to man, went to a “Just Say No” event?
“I know, I know, it’s absurd, but I had to go and check it out. There was Reagan, wearing makeup, practically on machines. And she, Nancy, was a machine. She’s like a thermometer, this mercury ball of a head. It was a huge joke for me, because you could get a scotch on the rocks but you couldn’t get a cup of coffee. Caffeine is a drug, you see. Armand Hammer was at my table, he was actually demanding a cup of coffee, and they wouldn’t give it to him, either.”
Depp’s ability to see way beyond the other side of the coin inspires deep Depp-love in people as diverse as Roddy McDowall, Vincent Price, Timothy Leary and Douglas, a homeless man who frequents Highland Avenue. Depp’s phone rings almost nonstop. He rarely calls anyone back. They always forgive him.
Depp’s best friend, since they were 9 years old, is Sal Jenco. Depp helped Sal and his dad build their house. “Watch it, I have pinkeye or something,” Sal says, sliding into a booth at one of the adamantly untrendy bars Depp frequents. “If I have pinkeye, Johnny probably does, too. We’re connected by fungus.”
A night out with Sal, a sometime actor and drummer, goes like this: He refuses to answer any questions about Depp that smell faintly personal but he sits and chats for hours, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He orders an orange soda from the fifty-something waitress and stares at her as she shuffles away. “Wow. Wow,” he says. “She goes home at night, she puts her change on her bureau, she counts her tips. I wonder if she’s lonely. Man, I bet she’s lonely. I hope she’s not. Shit. I’m depressed now.”
Sal slumps down, smoking away, rubbing his scruffy goatee, while the lounge band saws “New York, New York” to bits. He tells you about a girl who broke his heart not so long ago. But then his orange soda arrives, and he takes a sip. “This is the best orange soda in the world,” he says. “You have to taste this orange soda.” He is cheered.
The band is doing a jazz number now; Sal eyes the drummer. “Look at that guy. He is the real thing.” He salutes the drummer with his orange soda; the drummer waves a stick back at him. Sal and Johnny have shared thousands of nights like this.
One long, dull afternoon in Miramar, in southeastern Florida, where Depp and Sal grew up, Depp actually set himself aflame while trying to breathe fire. His friend Bones, a skinny guy with chipped teeth and lank red hair, put the fire out with his hands. The scars are visible on Depp’s right cheek.
That’s how desperate guys like Depp get in towns like Miramar. It has two grocery stores, directly across the street from each other on the main drag, Depp says. “There’s Winn-Dixie here, with a drugstore next door, and next to that a card-and-gift store. Across the street was Publix, with its drugstore and card-and-gift store, the same thing, only different names. Either way, you were just . . . there.”
Gilbert Grape, the title character of Depp’s latest movie, is stuck in a place like Miramar. Mentally and emotionally, he’s as mired as the plastic mastodon that’s knee-deep in the La Brea Tar Pits. Gilbert’s story is about the dark side of loyalty, about how love can suffocate, not save.
“I figure Johnny knew a lot about Gilbert,” director Lasse Hallstrom says. “I think he’s studied this kind of guy closely.”
Depp experienced a numb depression while playing the part. “Gilbert never really had the opportunity to go and make his life. He had to take care of his mom and his retarded brother. He stayed at a very slow speed,” Depp says. “And sometimes you play roles that are close to you, you identify with the guy. Not that you become the person, because I don’t buy into that shit at all. But this movie was a rough time for me. I poisoned myself constantly: drinking, didn’t eat right, no sleep, lots of cigarettes.
It was really a lonely, really fucking lonely, time.”
Gilbert’s life could easily have been Depp’s. During Depp’s “weird upbringing,” his family moved all over Kentucky before he was 7. When they finally landed in Miramar, they lived in “probably thirty different houses” before he left, at 20. Thirty houses, in a town of 33,000 people.
“We’d go from neighborhood to neighborhood, sometimes from one house to the house next door,” Depp says. “I don’t know why. My mom would get ants somehow. There’s a huge history of my family out there: Furniture, my toys, schoolwork, everything, everything, everything, was abandoned, left in attics or garages—all gone.”
John Christopher Depp Jr. joined the town football team; he thought it would make his dad, a civil engineer, happy. But after a month he quit. Then he joined and quit twice more.
Depp’s parents split when he was 15. His mom became extremely depressed, and he helped take care of her for a year. Now Depp’s father and one sister live in Florida; he sees them whenever he can. He’s tight with his other sister, Christi, who lives in L.A. and works for him as his “sister-slash-savior-slash-manager. She keeps me organized, because I am not organized.” And he adores his brother, Danny, a “genius, genius brain” who turned him on to Kerouac and Rimbaud and who is half of his mini-production company.
As for Depp’s mom—well, his other tattoo, on his upper left arm, is a heart with her name across it, Betty Sue. Chuck E. Weiss, John Waters, hipster filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, they all have regular chats with Betty Sue. Depp loves going to her place in Southern California. “I don’t sleep or eat much as a rule, but at her house, I’m so relaxed, I immediately become starving, then fall into this deep sleep.”
To play Gilbert Grape, Depp had his teeth bonded and then chipped into snaggles, and his dreamy brown hair was dyed trailer-park-red, in homage to Bones.
Depp hasn’t bought a house of his own yet. “Part of me wants to walk a dog and change a diaper and the other part wants to go and eat dirt somewhere,” he says. The driveway of the house he rents in the Hollywood Hills is so steep that his other car, a ‘51 Mercury, can’t make it. “I park it down there, in some building,” he says helpfully.
The place is carpeted with books and CDs and ashtrays; heaps of eccentric collectibles (bats and bugs, a pigeon skeleton and paintings of clowns); photographs of heroes (William Burroughs) and family members (his late grandfather, dead drunk, propped against a tree in his sailor uniform); the hat and cane from Benny & Joon, a scissorhand hanging on the wall.
Depp also owns “a bunch of Jack’s stuff,” Jack being Kerouac: two jackets, a raincoat, a suitcase, some correspondence and first editions. Depp loves Kerouac, the rhythm of his writing and his “need for honesty.” He made a pilgrimage to Lowell, Massachusetts, met Kerouac’s in-laws and convinced them he wasn’t some asshole movie star padding his identity. “I got real worried that these things were going to get into the wrong hands,” he says. The wrong hands? “That these, to me, museum pieces would end up in some yuppie stock-exchange guy’s office as a novelty, until he decided to sell it to some other yuppie fucker who in my opinion doesn’t deserve it.”
A huge man with more than a few big tattoos lounges by Depp’s grotto-like pool. “That’s Paul,” Depp says. Um, who is Paul? “He’s a friend of mine. He’s helping me with the club and stuff. I get real psychos, sometimes. I’ve gotten death threats. And there’s some guy who thinks he’s me. For a while, he was calling studio chiefs, saying ‘This is Johnny Depp. I never got paid for Edward Scissorhands.’ So Paul helps me when I go out, out there.” He gestures toward L.A., laid out like a TV test pattern far below.
So Paul is Depp’s bodyguard? “Oh no, no, no. I wouldn’t say that,” Depp says. But he goes out with Depp in public? “Yes.” And Depp pays him? “Oh, yeah.” But he’s not a bodyguard. “Right.”
Depp also employs “business managers, who are like accountants to fill out the checks and send them to me, and I sign ‘em. You know how checkbooks have lines, those lines, you’re supposed to write ‘I wrote this check to this person’ on them? I’ve done that maybe three times. The rest, I just say ‘Fuck it, if they bounce, they bounce.’” This is life in the Depp Zone, where unfinished sentences and ignored details seem accidental but serve a necessary function: They protect what’s left of his privacy and give him freedom.
Hours later, with L.A. glowing and humming below, Depp sits on a lawn chair in his living room. He wears a holey T-shirt, blue sweatpants and black pumps, size 12. He’s practicing walking in them for his next role, that of cross-dressing marine turned D-movie-maker Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space). Tim Burton is directing; Wood is a mutual hero of theirs.
“I’ve got some nice slips and hosiery and garters, a couple of nice brassieres,” Depp says. And he loves angora sweaters. “Oh, man, they're unbelievable. They feel really good. This girl I dated when I was a teenager, she had an angora sweater. When we broke up, I was upset, but not about her. It was the sweater.”
Deborah Piper, his hairdresser for Gilbert Grape, is dyeing his red hair back to brown. Boxes of Miss Clairol litter the floor. “Watch it, this stuff is flammable,” Piper jokes as Depp lights another cigarette. Iggy Pop blares on the stereo; Piper’s niece turns cartwheels across the floor.
“Show me your tattoos,” the little girl bets, and Depp does. “My sister used to work for this guy, and Tony Danza came to see him once,” Depp says. “Danza was real mean to her. So spread the word: The guy has a ‘KEEP ON TRUCKIN’’ tattoo. Can you believe that? If I had a ‘KEEP ON TRUCKIN’’ tattoo, I would never show my face again.”
He suffers a brief coughing fit. When he recovers, he gazes into a dark corner of his living room. “My goldfish are dead,” he says. “It just hit me. That I had some goldfish, they were on that table. About four or five days ago one died, then a couple days later—no, yesterday—the other died. Yeah, goldfish die quick. Or maybe they die slow, but to you it seems quick.”
Another mystery of life. Depp exhales a thundercloud of smoke, stares hard into the night and crosses his legs—at the ankles, like a lady.