NEW YORK—Johnny Depp is ready to confess.
But first, another cigarette. There’s smoke blowing from that pretty mouth almost all the time, and never more than now.
Now that he hasn’t touched “a drop of liquor or anything in quite a while.” That would be about four months.
Now that he’s trying to clear the air about his nightclub, the Viper Room, where River Phoenix spent the last half-hour of his young life before dying from drugs on the sidewalk outside.
Now that there’s nobody special, Winona Ryder being ex-special, though her name is still tattooed into his flesh. (“Just because we broke up doesn’t mean that when I put it on my body it wasn’t an honest moment,” he said.)
Now that he’s promoting his new movie, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Now that the grueling interviews about Grape are done.
Now that The Today Show and CBS This Morning appearances are taped for broadcast around Dec. 15, when Grape opens in Los Angeles and New York.
Now he is ready to confess.
“I mean, I’m finding myself interested in silverware, you know?”
The forks, knives and spoons from the 1930s, made of Bakelite and silver, beckoned to him from the window of a Los Angeles antique store.
“It was really kind of funny,” he said. “I go, ‘Those are really neat. Those are beautiful.’ And I bought ‘em. And then I realized when I got home, ‘My God! I bought silverware!’”
It is as if Edward Scissorhands himself had sought membership in the Rotary Club or subscribed to Martha Stewart’s Living.
Because Johnny Depp, who became a mainstream movie star as Scissorhands, was first a rebellious, fast-track rock musician, a teen idol and TV star of 21 Jump Street, a genuine Hollywood Johnny Cool hanging out with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gibby from the Butthole Surfers, gettin’ down and gettin’ high, but never once gettin’ anything to set a gracious table.
And then, in June, just like that, he turned 30.
“We gotta go back to family values,” he said all of a sudden. “We gotta see what worked in the past. Everything has gone way too far.”
Cool Johnny Depp a coming-out-of-the-closet conservative?
Or more likely Circumspect Johnny Depp engaged in heavy-duty damage control, trying to distance himself in the media from the young Hollywood drug scene that did in Phoenix.
“As far as drugs and the unfortunate, untimely death of River Phoenix—and that nightclub—they’re not connected at all,” he insisted.
“Let’s put things in perspective. River was in the club for all of 27 minutes. And do people think I’m insane? Do they think I’m ignorant? To open a nightclub and allow people to do drugs, even in the bathroom? That I’m going to throw everything away so that some people can get high in a nightclub?
“If you’re talking about drugs, you’re talking about America. People die from drug overdoses every single day. You can’t say specifically Hollywood or Sunset Boulevard. The problem is everywhere, and it’s been going on for 30 years at least.
“And the people benefiting from the drugs are very rich, and it’s a huge business.
“So let’s not pretend. The problem is not necessarily on the streets with the kids. Though there’s a lot of curious kids who will try this and try that. The real problem is way up there—with the higher-ups. The upper, upper echelon.
“And you can’t own a nightclub where you shake down every single person who walks in the room. You cannot do a body search and check their pockets.”
Depp would like his nightclub to survive, even though he said he didn’t spend much time there.
“It’s not a bad place,” he said. “It’s a good place, where people can hear Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway.”
He said Phoenix was not a close friend, and besides, “What’s done is done. We all make mistakes, and I’ve made ‘em just as much as anybody else—done things that I shouldn’t have. Spent a lot of time getting drunk or gettin’ high or whatever. Spent too much time being very indulgent and pained.”
So how come he’s still alive at 30 while Phoenix will never see 24?
“I saw it was enough,” he said. “And luckily, I had friends and family who saw a different side of me that wanted to be saved.”
Depp has a brother who is 40 and owns a small book shop in California, two older sisters, and six nieces and nephews he sees often. His mother also lives nearby, but his parents separated when he was a child, and his father remains in Florida, where Depp was born and raised.
“My mom and dad are very smart,” he said. “I’m actually very lucky. Very lucky. I’ve escaped some of the traps that actors of my generation can easily fall into. The tortured artist thing. ‘Oh, it’s so painful to be famous.’”
If it’s not painful, is it fun?
“I wouldn’t say it’s fun,” he said. “It’s a privileged position. I get to do things that I want to do, and I get paid for it. And that’s not bad, you know?”
Having traversed the treacherous 20s and emerged on the other side of 30 safe and sound, not to mention rich and famous and the surprised owner of fine silverware, Depp said, “The late 20s were not the greatest period.
“I felt suspended. I don’t like middles; I like extremes. I like very hot and very cold, you know? And the late 20s were sort of unextreme. Kind of just gray.”
He never did see himself as a voice of twentysomethings because he doesn’t think his generation has a specific voice.
“It’s a dangerous, very confusing world out there for my generation and the generation beneath mine just coming up—it’s not a great time to grow up.
“There doesn’t seem to be any hope. There doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon. Everything’s been said. Everything’s been done.”
But now that he’s 30, Depp does feel more focused. “I can feel things changing, and I like it,” he said. “I’m paying more attention to things. I like different things. I’m growing up.”
He feels no sense of loss.
“It feels like all gain,” he said. “Because I do still feel 17 in a lot of ways. It’s 17 but better, a clearer 17, a more adult 17
“Part of me still needs the freedom to wander, you know? To go anywhere, everywhere and do anything. That’s a strong part.
“But another part of me wants the stability of normal family life, or what we think of as normal family life. I want kids, and I want a wife who is beautiful and brilliant and . . . fun. I want all those things.”
What he already has is a real shot at a superstar career and that’s as good a reason as any to grow up, clean up and settle down.
The director of Grape, Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) cast Depp in the title role of the young man stuck in a small town with a dead-end job and a 600-pound mother because “he’s a very sensitive guy and also very intuitive.”
As Gilbert Grape, said Hallstrom, Depp had to communicate subtle emotions without much dialogue.
Others have noted Depp’s charismatic winsomeness darkened with a hint of something sinister.
Children respond to what’s childlike in him, and young adults identify with his alienation. And nobody can take their eyes off that beautiful face.
Once a teen idol, Depp is bringing his original adolescent audience with him into mainstream movies like Tim Burton’s Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, the as yet unreleased Arizona Dream with Jerry Lewis and Faye Dunaway, and Gilbert Grape.
Kathy Ward, a 20-year-old hairdresser who lives in Birmingham, Mich., remembers every detail of the first day she watched Depp on 21 Jump Street. She’s never lost interest in the actor and even managed to get his phone number through a friend of a friend of a friend and then taped his voice message.
“I’m not sure what first attracted me,” she said, and then recites his attributes precisely. “His voice, his looks, his attitude, and something mysterious . . . he seemed so innocent but he had to be tough.
“And it’s not just his good looks. There are so many good-looking guys. I’m not attracted to Christian Slater, for example. But with Johnny Depp, I have a feeling I’d really like him for who he is.”
Depp’s most adult and biggest movie may be the one he just finished shooting, reuniting him with Scissorhands director Burton. Ed Wood is the story of a few years in the life of legendary 1950s B-movie filmmaker Edward Wood Jr., a heterosexual cross-dresser.
“To me, Ed was a combination of Ronald Reagan, the Tin Man and Casey Kasem mashed into one optimistic individual who also happened to be a transvestite,” Depp said.
The movie will likely be a major summer release. It also stars Martin Landau, and Depp said, “I’m starting to appreciate, just now after working with someone like Martin Landau, the profession of acting whereas I never really did.
“Guys who paved the way for guys like me—Landau, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg—important people from the theater, I’m starting to appreciate and respect that now.”
Real humility or publicity hokum, Depp does it well.
Said director Hallstrom, “He is not able to fake a performance.”
Depp said, no, he didn’t see the Seinfeld episode about Edward Scissorhands. He doesn’t watch Seinfeld, though he hears it’s pretty funny. In fact, he doesn’t watch any TV really, except for “old stuff—old cartoons, old episodes of Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, things I watched as a kid.”
His escapes, now that drugs and booze are history, are cars and music.
“Old bebop stuff, old jumpin’ jive, the swing era. I love it all. Pearl Jam, Booker T. And I love classics. I can play one Bach piece on the guitar, ‘Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desire’ (‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’). I love listening to Yo-Yo Ma and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins.”
Cars? “I got a very reliable car which is, like, a Porsche. That’s my pretentious car. It’s a ‘91 Carrera. Black. And I have a 1958 Chevy Apache pickup. Cobalt blue. And my favorite of all favorites: a 1951 Mercury, chopped and dropped. Black.” Vanity plates? “I’m allergic to them.”
And he lives in Hollywood, right?
“For now,” he rents a home in the Hollywood Hills.
“I haven’t found where I want to live yet. But I gotta put my silverware somewhere, you know?”
And what about that ring he keeps fingering, the dull silver skull?
“There’s this group of six guys—not really a club but just a clique of guys—yeah, some of the names you would recognize but I wouldn’t want to say—and one of those guys bought these rings for everybody. It’s like a reminder, that you’re here right now in this moment and that’s all there is.”
A memento mori? “Sorry?”
If the classic Latin phrase for a reminder of mortality doesn’t mean anything to him, the sentiment behind it most certainly does.
And never more than now.