In a few hours, Johnny Depp will squirm beneath a vaulted ceiling in the guise of legendary make-out artist Don Juan, surrounded by fountains, silken shrouds, and a harem of 250 women—250 naked women. He will want desperately to take each one aside and ask, "Are you OK with this?" Are you comfortable shedding your clothes?
For now, seated in a tutti-frutti vinyl booth at the West Hollywood grunge cafe/billiard parlor Barney's Beanery, he'll do his darndest to make life a little easier for a harried, apologetic waitress named Kelly. Kelly, with obvious discomfort, has just informed the bleary-eyed movie star that the only coffee she can offer him this sun-drenched July morning is chocolate mint.
"Sounds like a Girl Scout cookie. Wild," Depp says, his mouth curling into a secret smile at the absurd image. Kelly, shifting from foot to foot, has a look on her face that says, "You know, Johnny, if it were up to me, I'd run out to the supermarket myself . . ." Depp's smile vanishes. He fixes his soulful doe eyes on hers and, in his best nicotine voice, soothes, "You know what? I'll have Coca-Cola instead. Jumbo." Kelly begins breathing again.
After she takes the rest of his order, scrambled eggs, sliced tomatoes, bacon, and rye toast—which will remain untouched for the next two hours, gathering a fine coating of pool chalk and cigarette ash—he says, "I have large respect for waitresses. My mom was a waitress when I was growing up. Years and years I watched her wait tables. I'd count her change at the end of the night. I used to skip school. She'd feed me, me and my pal. Give us hamburgers or something . . . " His voice trails off.
Despite the accolades, the sacks of fan mail, the screaming mobs at airports and movie premieres, Depp's ego is firmly tethered to the past. Moments like this, he says, bring out the part of him that is still the "seventeen-year-old gas-station geek" in Miramar, Florida, who dropped out of high school to pursue dreams of rock 'n' roll stardom.
Today he is the epitome of bad-boy chic in a paint-splattered black T-shirt, black jeans, scruffy industrial boots, and a tattered fifties jacket, a trio of heavy silver chains dangling beneath features that have enjoyed the caresses of Winona Ryder and his current love, superwaif model Kate Moss. His great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, which explains the cheekbones—and the Indian-head tattoo on his upper right arm. It's hard to imagine that Depp once envied the ease with which the captain of the football team chatted up the cheerleaders. But he insists, "I was not the most popular kid in school. I always felt like an absolute and total freak. Edward Scissorhands. That feeling of wanting to be accepted but not knowing how to be accepted as you are, honestly. Wanting to hold a girl but thinking I'll screw it up."
What better revenge than getting paid a seven-figure salary to live out the ultimate adolescent fantasy? His own harem. But instead of reveling in the exposed flesh, the star of Don Juan DeMarco and the Centerfold will only feel discomfort and disorientation. "It's really strange," he will say after filming the scene. "The first thing I felt was uncomfortable. When you walk into a room full of 250 naked women, you can't . . . you almost can't, it's impossible to focus on it. It's almost, in a way, wallpaper." He interrupts to edit himself. "Like a painting. 'Wallpaper' is the white trash in me slipping out. The painting is much more, yeah, that describes it better. There are so many girls and they're so nude, it's not . . . It almost would have been more intense if there were three nudes. It would have been more like, uh, shocking. 'Cause you just, I don't know, you're just not able to register the fact that . . ."
Depp inhales deeply on a cigarette and tries again with a quote from his Don Juan costar, Marlon Brando. "Brando once said 'Acting is a strange job for a grown man.' Nobody's expressed it better."
And growing up is a hell of an act for a strange boy. With his next two films, Tim Burton's Ed Wood (out next month), in which he plays the title role of the twisted movie director, and Don Juan, Depp, now 31, is tentatively wading into adult waters. Although his speech remains in suspended adolescence—a staccato of stutters, curse words, and uncompleted sentences—he's "done" with the preverbal oddball characters who lofted him from teen idol to respected actor. Gone also are his bravura tales of juvenile delinquency. These days getting neoadult Depp to talk about his stints in jail, his chemical abuse, his tattoos, his scars, paying people to smell rancid sausages, is like squeezing tears from a rock. Depp reinvented himself once before, shrewdly spoofing his image in John Waters's Cry-Baby to escape the bubble-gum strait-jacket of 21 Jump Street. Now he's determined to graduate from boy-man to, well, at least man-boy.
The first step was to find his voice. In Ed Wood Depp chatters up a storm as the exuberant 1950s cross-dressing director of C-movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. "I've never had to talk that much in my life," says Depp. "Nonstop verbiage. It was tiring, but so much fun."
Fun is not an adjective Depp uses to describe last year's performance as the title character of What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Playing the small-town son who takes care of his mom and retarded brother was too much like reliving the past. His own parents split when he was fifteen, and he did more than his share of filial hand-holding, as well as picking up the support checks from his dad. "It's always taxing to play something that's closer to reality," he says. "Those four months were a very difficult time in my life. I just felt awful." (Asked what he inherited from his parents, he replies, "Insanity and chain-smoking.")
"build a character from the ground up," soar on a flight of
fancy. For Ed Wood he concocted a "weird soup"
ingredients include bits of the Tin Man, Ronald Reagan, radio
personality Casey Casem, and swashbuckler Errol Flynn. Flynn was also
an inspiration for Don Juan, along with a pinch of
Montalban and Fernando Lamas.
Both characters also appealed to Depp's innate, and slightly antiquated, sense of chivalry and his identification with the underdog. Wood fancied himself another Orson Welles, but his low-budget films, starring a motley assortment of has-beens and wannabes, wallow at the bottom of critics' Worst 10 lists. Whenever reality impinged, Wood retreated to the comfort of angora sweaters and high-heeled pumps. Depp, reteaming with Scissorhands director Burton, scraped off the tarnish to find a misunderstood knight in shining armor. "He's one of those guys from the forties who were real gentlemen, very charming, loyal to his people," says Depp. "Don Juan was also very chivalrous. Those guys don't exist anymore. Everybody is trying too hard to be hip or be accepted."
Suddenly a call comes in on his cellular telephone. It's Jeremy Leven, the writer-director of Don Juan, in which Depp plays a psychiatric patient whose therapist must determine if he is insane merely because he thinks he's a fourteenth-century seducer and walks around in suede pants and knee-high boots. (At Depp's suggestion, Brando was hauled out of semiretirement to play the therapist.) Depp has arranged for some buddies to see dailies, and Leven is calling to ask if Depp is planning to attend. "No, uh, it's just for my friends," he says.
Leven should know better. The one and only time Depp braved dailies, on his first movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, he nearly vomited, and he has refused to watch them since. "I'm better off not even seeing the [finished] movie," he says.
fact, the only
professional accomplishment Depp can watch without gagging is a
ten-minute short film he directed called Stuff, a
journey through a man's beer-bottle-and-pizza-box-encrusted life.
"It's completely honest. We just examined this guy's house with
a Steadicam," he says. "With writing or directing, you can
almost get to the point where you're satisfied. With acting, you're
forming images with emotions. If you're satisfied, you're dead in the
water because you stop. I can just make this face, and make it look
like I'm sad or like I'm angry. If I ever look at something I did and
say, 'That was great,' I'll immediately dive in the river."
Eleven years have elapsed since Depp drove to Los Angeles with his band, the Kids, in search of a record contract that never materialized. It was his pal Nicolas Cage who suggested he try acting. Cage introduced Depp to his agent, who sent Depp to see director Wes Craven, who cast him in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Depp was paid scale wages to play a kid who gets swallowed by a bed. He next appeared in a teensploitation film, Private Resort . Then came a real break: Oliver Stone cast him in Platoon—but most of his scenes landed on the cutting-room floor. By 1987 Depp was broke and living in Cage's old one-room flat just up the street from Frederick's of Hollywood. He was thinking about picking up his guitar again when an offer came to join the cast of the fledgling Fox network's new undercover teen series, 21 Jump Street. "I remember scraping together Mexican pesos Nick had left in the drawers and exchanging them at this check-cashing place on the corner. One day it was that way and the next I was on a plane to Vancouver and they were handing me money. It was wild."
Within a year he was receiving 10,000 fan letters a month—and he wanted out. John Waters provided the escape hatch and Tim Burton the slide. Depp knew he had a talent for communicating with his eyes and body language, so for Edward Scissorhands he convinced Burton to drop most of his dialogue; he modeled the character after a dog. "I feel closer to that character than any I've ever played. Like me, he was an outsider. That's the string, the monofilament, that ties all [my characters] together. I can't escape that."
As a kid, Depp loved to dig tunnels in a vacant lot near his home, getting off on the fear of a cave-in. A few years back, he hung by his fingers five stories above the ground from the edge of the Beverly Center. Now he looks for that same pure adrenaline rush in his roles; the possibility that he might mess up keeps it exciting. To make taking the plunge easier, Depp has surrounded himself with "a little built-in family" who trail him from set to set. They include makeup and wardrobe people as well as his elder sister Christi Dembrowski, 33, whom he has hired as his personal assistant.
An informal poll of the Don Juan makeup trailer comes close to qualifying Depp for sainthood: sweet, kind, and above all, generous. Patty York, Depp's makeup artist on four of his last five films, says, "He'll give you the shirt off his back." (Literally: The other day she said she liked the shirt he had on. He took it off and gave it to her.) He also regularly treats the crew to champagne at the end of the day.
And they return the favors. His wardrobe person Ken Smiley has helped Depp transform his trailer from beige Americana to oriental salon, draping walls, ceiling, and furniture with gold-embossed Indian fabrics. One end of the living area has been converted into a shrine: A copy of William Saroyan's The Trouble with Tigers, a purple lava lamp, and a pewter heart-framed portrait of Depp and Moss flicker in the light of a dozen votive candles. Burning incense and Ravi Shankar sitar music complete the effect.
"Johnny is so totally different from most actors," says Smiley. "He really likes who he is, and he's really secure in that. He treats other people the way he wants to be treated. That's why we stay with him."
Saint Johnny is not without his demons. Between takes, he reveals these: insomnia, a fear of crowds, chain-smoking, an antagonism toward authority figures that has landed him in jail on at least three occasions (after jaywalking in Los Angeles, assaulting a hotel security guard in Vancouver, and speeding in Arizona), and an "erratic" personality that makes him a little tough to live with. "I'm 30 different people sometimes," he says. "One day you wake up and you're somebody else, nowhere near who you were when you went to sleep."
None of those wear a dress, he says, though as a teenager he did borrow frilled blouses and seersucker flares from his mom's closet to augment his rock 'n' roll wardrobe.
Dressing in drag for Ed Wood, says Depp, "tripled" his respect for the ordeal "women go through when they get Zsa Zsa-ed." And, he adds, "I was the ugliest woman ever." (Costar Patricia Arquette, who plays his wife, Kathy, disagrees. "He looked great in a dress," she says. "But we both hated those period stockings; they don't hold up. I think the angora by the end was getting on his nerves.")
"Let me show you something," says Depp, disappearing into the back of his trailer. He returns carrying a box of Ed Wood mementos: a pair of Rita Hayworth-style cross-strapped pumps; a two-piece gold-and-black-tasseled brocade number used in a striptease sequence; and, carefully wrapped in tissue, long-sleeved angora gloves joined at the back, designed by Colleen Atwood to hide his tattoos. "I keep stuff from movies so I can give it to my grandchildren someday . . . if I have them."
There was a time not too long ago when Depp would readily volunteer to interviewers that his only real goal in life was to "get married and have kids." These days the actor is more circumspect. "I believe in loyalty and commitment, but the idea of marriage is not the end-all. I don't think that's the ultimate answer to true love, if there is such a thing as true love."
He was married once at 20, but divorced two years later. Depp legend has him again popping the question to Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey, and, of course, Ryder. He insists that reports of his engagements have been "complete fabrications" but refuses to elaborate "because I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings." He's also mute on what exactly happened to the famous WINONA FOREVER tattoo inked on his right shoulder. "It transformed itself," he says, then adds to further cloud the issue, "But it was never WINONA FOREVER. They got it wrong." (Photos would seem to contradict this.)
Cultivating an aura of mystery has always been a major component of Depp style. And now more than ever, he seems compelled to keep secrets. "There's a huge part of him that's not within your reach," says Mary Steenburgen, who played his lover in Gilbert Grape and is now a close friend. "He doesn't casually let himself over to people and let you know who he is. If you're his oldest friend or his lover, perhaps that's not true, but for most people, I think he's both accessible and inaccessible."
Still jet-lagged and shell-shocked from the paparazzi assault during an extended weekend in Rome with Moss, he is in no mood to discuss his love affair with the model, which began in February. If she voiced any objections to his numerous love scenes in Don Juan, he's not telling: "I've got a job. She's got a job. It's a job. And movies are make-believe."
It does seem an odd pairing. Depp has attended only one fashion show in his life, an Isaac Mizrahi AIDS benefit. A single designer outfit hangs in his closet, a suit given to him by "that Armani guy," which he wore to the last Academy Awards. "It was real sweet, real nice of him. Otherwise, Christ knows what I would have put on," he says—feigning ignorance of the claw-and-fang battle among designers to get their outfits worn at Oscar time.
Depp is also outspoken in his views on America's greed and consumerism, while Moss gets paid a fortune to hawk products from trendy underwear to designer gowns. What does he think of the modeling profession?
"It's an oddball gig," he says with an uncomfortable shrug. "I'm nobody to pass judgment. I can only have my opinion. It's real weird."
When pressed for details, he closes the door, gently but firmly. "My relationship with my girl isn't something I'm going to discuss with anybody, especially a guy with a tape recorder," he explains. "No matter how much I like them."
If there is one thing he learned from parading his four-year on-again, off-again relationship with Scissorhands costar Ryder, it's that no matter how many details you feed the media (or as he likes to call it, "the sick pig machine"), it is never satisfied.
"Initially, I tried to be open," he says of his Hollywood Camelot days. "[I thought,] I'll just say what I'm feeling right now, let them swallow that, and then they'd leave me alone. But that creates even more of a monster. You're walking around, you eat a piece of pizza, go visit the Coliseum, next thing you know there's a guy with a lens as long as your leg taking pictures. Whether Kate and I are together or not is not going to save anybody's life. It's nobody's business but mine or hers. I'd rather come out in the press and say I'm [screwing] dogs, or goats, or rats than attempt [to rely on them to] write anything real about my relationship."
There is venom in his choice of words, but they are spoken matter-of-factly, with an almost eerie absence of malice. Depp is uncomfortable in the role of the angry man; he'd much rather play the clown.
Or the knight in shining armor. On Arquette's first day on the set of Ed Wood, she recalls, one of the extras in a wedding scene went ballistic. "Between takes she would turn to me and say, 'I'm going to kill myself because of you.' Then they'd say, 'Rolling!' and she'd stop. I was in a very perilous mental state with this constant mental assault. Johnny went up to her and said, 'Hey, listen, she hasn't done anything to you, you have no right to spew that stuff out at her.' He was very chivalrous. He has a really calming effect on people. He completely stabilized her insanity."
Under other circumstances, he might have befriended the woman; Depp has an appreciation for the more absurd characters and circumstances of life. He derives fiendish pleasure, for example, from checking into hotels under naughty pseudonyms, forcing friend and stranger alike to participate in the joke. "It's funny to get a wake-up call at some ludicrous hour, like 5:30 in the morning, and the guy has to say, 'Good morning, Mr. Donkey Penis. Good Morning, Mr. Drip Noodle. You have to get up now."'
Asked for an example of something that really gives him a belly laugh, Depp relates the time he woke up at 5:00 A.M. at a friend's house in the South of France and spotted his host in the backyard quietly reading Proust. Depp grabbed a big knife and snuck up behind him. "This noise came out of him that was absolute terror," recalls Depp. "Pure, pure fear. I fell over laughing. That destroyed me."
Depp also responds to smells and shapes, the stranger the better. His most extravagant purchase in the last year was an oddly shaped Arts and Crafts lamp. The lamp, along with his collection of Art Deco furnishings, black-and-white photographs of favorite authors Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and gilt-framed seventeenth- century Italian oil paintings he bought in Paris, is currently stored in a house Depp rents in the Hollywood Hills.
"Homeless" since the house was knocked off its foundation in the January earthquake, Depp has been gliding between hotel rooms and the guesthouse behind his agent's home. Most nights after work he can be found at his Sunset Boulevard club, the Viper Room, modeled after a speakeasy from the 1930s. Despite the media frenzy that ensued to look for a scapegoat following River Phoenix's overdose there last Halloween, it remains one of the few safe places he can retreat to. "It's horrible when anybody dies, especially when somebody's made a fatal mistake," he says. "But the tabloid press grabbed ahold of that thing and made a circus out of it. Drugs are the number one business in this country, yet they have to come down on one club on the Sunset Strip. River was trying to escape something. He could have been at a supermarket, in a hotel room, driving in a car. Either way it's really sad."
Recently Depp has begun plotting his own Brando-style escape from Los Angeles, possibly to Paris or the serenity of a twelfth-century monastery in the South of France. "There's a part of me that would like to have a place with endless land around me," he says, "a haven in the country, somewhere you could ride a horse or ride your bike and wouldn't have to worry about 800 greedy people trying to get somewhere half a second in front of everyone else."
For the time being he'll have to be satisfied with the protected world of the movie set. "Unfortunately, I feel more comfortable in front of the camera now than I do in life," he admits. "On the set, you feel close to the people, you're working together. When you're in a restaurant in real life, you're having dinner with the girl, drinking wine, you're looking around and there are all these people looking at you. It's a little weird."
Depp pops up and announces, "I have to get [my beard] taken off my face." On his way out, he tosses me a book to leaf through called Le Petomane, 1857-1945 , the biography of Joseph Pujol, a fin de siecle Moulin Rouge performer who could play "Clair de lune" out his, er, derriere. "That's courage," Depp says, completely serious. "A guy who says, 'Here's my talent—take it or leave it.' Blows opera out his butt. That man was a true artist. I mean that."