Like Keanu Reeves, Bridget Fonda and Brad Pitt, Depp’s just hit that most interesting of ages for today’s Hollywood stars—30. But while he might have started out opposite Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone’s testosterone fest Platoon, you won’t see Depp in tights in The Three Musketeers II; he’s taken a different, more individual route through Hollywood. Hot young director of the moment Ben Stiller (whose film Reality Bites is being flagged as 1994’s most promising debut) put it succinctly recently in the American entertainment magazine US when he said, “The big-name stars . . . are always going to be playing what they‘ve played before if they want to remain so-called A-list stars. That’s why someone like Johnny Depp is doing more interesting roles not caring about the size of the movie.”
OK, so Depp’s avoided one kind of the stereotyping, but he faces the opposite danger: will he still be playing kooks when he’s 40? It’s not something that seems to worry him overmuch—and after all maybe he’s right not to worry. Would you, if the choice was between ending up like Christopher Walken or Don Johnson? Take this month’s Arizona Dream, in which he’s a weirdo lost-child fish-inspector who falls for a barking older woman, Faye Dunaway.
The first thing I notice when I meet Depp in his mid-Manhattan hotel is his hair. Where are the shoulder-length locks that have graced the covers of a thousand magazines and made Depp into an X-generation hero? Johnny Depp with short hair is somehow a very different person—not, maybe, quite so different as a cross-dressing 40s B-movie director, which is what he’s currently playing in Tim Burton’s new movie, Ed Wood, but different nonetheless.
Maybe it’s the influence of his most recent film, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, in which he looks after a mentally-handicapped younger brother (Leonardo DiCaprio); maybe it’s the whole River Phoenix thing; maybe it’s the fact he’s just turned 30 . . . Or then again, maybe it’s just the hair.
So what do you think about the twenty-something generation, of which you’re supposed, if American magazines are to be believed, to be a major icon?
JOHNNY DEPP: Well, I think this generation got screwed over in a way. We didn’t get to experience the optimism of the early 1960’s—and even the decades before that—and so we have a generation of kids who are cynical and more jaded than any other before . . .
Oh dear, you think we’re in trouble, then?
If there aren’t some major changes, we’re all in trouble, yeah. We have a situation where we’ve seen it all and done it all—nothing is fresh, nothing’s new. Violence has become a random thrill for people. There’s nothing to look forward to, nothing to be hopeful for, and there’s no innocence any more.
Does that apply to the way you feel personally?
For me, to able to invent a character, it’s important to keep the brain occupied—to learn to be stimulated by learning. Kids nowadays are somehow bored with learning—there’s no inspiration, no stimulation. In the 1960s, there was optimism because it was experimental—those people were finding themselves and creating new worlds for themselves. Today, instead of being experimental, it’s all about capitalizing on things, making the most of them. For profit. I don’t see any idealism.
Is there any of this in your character in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
Yes: on the surface, Gilbert Grape would seem like a pretty normal guy, but I was interested in what was going on underneath, in the hostility and rage that he has and that he’s only able to show a couple of times in the film. I understand the feeling of being stuck in a place, whether it’s geographical [the film’s set in a small, washed-up middle-American town] or emotional. I can understand the rage with wanting to completely escape from it and from everybody and everything you know and start a new life.
He sounds a pretty sad guy . . .
For me, it’s like Gilbert at some point or another allowed himself to die inside, slowly kind of killing or martyring himself for his family, becoming a surrogate father even to his mom [brilliantly played in the film by 35-stone Darlene Cates]. That kind of loyalty may start out as pure love, but it can work against you, with love and devotion turning into resentment and guilt and losing yourself, which is the worst thing anyone can do—because then you hate others because of what you’ve done to yourself.
So, in fact, the movie is about us sad loser twenty somethings.
Yes, but it’s optimistic in that this girl [Juliette Lewis] comes into his life and gives Gilbert very simple, very direct information that begins to crack his shell—and he realizes the mistake he’s made. Also, in life we tend to judge people harshly based on their appearance, whether they’re overweight, ugly, handicapped or mentally challenged. Sometimes these people are looked on as freaks because they’re different. What of lot of the film is saying is that they’re human beings like everybody else. The first time I met Darlene [Cates], I looked beyond her size and I saw this sweet face and these soulful eyes and I thought she was so beautiful. I found her to be very brave to be able to unravel her emotional life in front of the whole world—and this from someone who never acted before!
So what about Ed Wood, the film-director you’ve just been playing. Wood’s been called the worst director in the world?
I think you must play God to say what’s good and what’s bad about someone who’s obviously creating something honest and true to himself. He was a guy who remained optimistic and made his films when they said he couldn’t make them, and he got them released when they said he couldn’t get them released, and all the while having his own inner life, which was being a heterosexual transvestite.
Are you a freak?
Yeah, sure. I feel like a bit of an oddball, only because there’s a lot of hate in the world—hate and greed—and I don’t feel greedy and I don’t hate too much, so I feel a bit freakish because of that.
You sound like you were in a weird state of mind while making Gilbert Grape . . .
It was a hard time for me—I was just having a weird time myself, personally, which kind of helped me creatively . . .We were shooting in Austin, Texas, which to me seems like what America must have been in the 1950s. But I was trying to escape from my own brain: I didn’t know what was right and what was wrong; I didn’t know who was who and who wasn’t . . . It was very confusing. I don’t know if I subconsciously made myself miserable for a little bit because I knew that’s what the character needed, or if it was just what I had to deal with at that particular time. I was drinking a lot. I poisoned myself regularly. But I’ve been straight now for about five months.
This might be a good moment to ask about River Phoenix . . .
He was a great actor and a great young man; a great human being. He had a great family, a very level view of life, and a promising future. And this is my quarrel with the press—they could have said, “Look, this was a normal guy, who had some things he was confused about, and he made a mistake. Anybody could make that same fatal mistake, and it could easily be any one of us. Watch yourself!” Nobody said that.
And instead, you think that the press was—
Incredibly irresponsible! There was a lot of speculation going on, a lot of people playing backyard detective and exploiting the situation to get ratings and to sell newspapers and magazines. The tabloids were complete fiction. It’s really tragic and sad. How many times did people need to hear that 911 tape? How many times did they have to print that stuff? For how long does his brother Leaf have to live with that rewinding in his head? It’s incredibly irresponsible. We’ve become a society of ambulance-chasers. Everybody focuses on the bad. Nobody’s interested in the good! Where has the media been for the last 20 years? This “epidemic” has been going on for years and years. It’s supply and demand: if there’s no supply, there’ll be no demand. Drugs is a huge business.
The papers said that drugs dealers were all over the Viper Room.
I’ve worked 10 years in this business, and to say I opened a nightclub to allow people to do drugs, even in the bathroom—do people think I’m insane? Do they think I’m going to throw everything away—including my children’s future—so people could get high in a nightclub? It’s ridiculous!
You’ve played on stage at the Viper Room—would you like to be a rock star?
I think of it just as a goof, really, not as a second career—just to mess around with friends. It’s good to be involved in other areas. I wouldn’t want to just be an actor for the rest of my life.
Why is music better then acting?
It’s a way of creating something on the spot—right then and there. It’s not like taking four months to make a movie, or like painting where every stoke takes time. Music is instant, and feels good—it’s a good escape.
You’ve been called the King of Quirky. Will Johnny Depp ever play a normal person?
I’ve been real lucky. People have mentioned that I like doing offbeat roles in some strange movies, but I’ve been lucky in the sense that I haven’t been typecast. It’s important to keep changing. There’s a lot of stuff that I just don’t buy into, like being an actor who takes himself so seriously that he pretends to be this tortured artist . . . . I think that everybody has pain and an actor doesn’t necessarily have more of it than others.