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In Depp

by Stephen Rebello
Photographs by Michael Grecco
October 1994

The star of some pretty strange movies tells some pretty strange tales—about fighting armadillos, meeting Marlon Brando, getting freaked out at the Oscars and stepping into women's shoes.

Fewer people caught Johnny Depp's charming work in Benny & Joon and What's Eating Gilbert Grape than saw Speed or The Firm in their first weekends alone, but so what? Depp keeps getting hired by directors from Oliver Stone and John Waters to Lasse Hallstrom and Tim Burton. The latter, for whom Depp played the title character in Edward Scissorhands, chose him to play another Ed: Z-budget, '50's movie director Ed Wood, a movie due out next month. Later this year, Depp plays the title role in Don Juan DeMarco and the Centerfold opposite Marlon Brando for new director Jeremy Leven. Virtually every young actor with whom I've talked admires Depp. Older actors say lovely, generous things about him, too. Even though there are those who dis the perverse integrity that keeps Depp resisting such allegedly dangled bait as the role Charlie Sheen took in The Three Musketeers or the one Keanu Reeves took in Speed or the one Christian Slater took in Untamed Heart or the one Brad Pitt took in Legends of the Fall, few doubt his gifts.

Maybe Depp's better off for spurning the chance to flash swords or to defuse bombs on speeding buses. His doe-eyed, touchingly fragile, man-who-fell-to-earth qualities make him perfect casting for magical crazies and disaffected marginals. His melancholic buoyancy is more Fellini-esque than, say, Pollacky. He seems wonderfully unsocialized, stranded somewhere in time. Wherever he is, he likes it there just fine. I'm reminded of this when we sit down to talk, just after he's finished the photo session to accompany this piece. Although he tells me he's feeling flu-ish, he says he wants to talk anyway. Suddenly, a nearby phone rings and a disembodied voice on a speaker pages someone. Depp's brows knit, his gaze narrows. He stares, baffled, at the phone as if he has never seen such a contraption before. "Weird," he mutters, shaking his head. His tone says, "I'm a stranger here myself." The thing about Johnny Depp is that he convinces you this is no act.

MOVIELINE: We've talked by phone but haven't actually seen each other since you shot What's Eating Gilbert Grape. So let's get to the crucial stuff first. As an early tattoo advocate, gotten any new ones? Gotten any body parts pierced?

JOHNNY DEPP: No, nothing pierced. I'm glad people are off the tattoos, though. I was really starting to get depressed about that. I remember when I made my first movie, everybody on A Nightmare On Elm Street was so freaked out, going, "Jesus, the kid's got tattoos!" Then tattoos became a huge trend. Everybody's got one. It's really funny because people in, like, 10 years are gonna be depressed about some of the scratches they got on their bodies.

Are you depressed about yours?

I've always respected tattooing as an art form. I always did it as part of an art that you wear, as a kind of journal. Your body is a journal.

Let's talk about a new page in that journal. You told me once that you believe that having spoken to the press about your relationship with Winona Ryder affected that relationship. Are you doing things any differently with Kate Moss?

I don't talk about it and she doesn't talk about it, 'cause it's nobody's business.

The tabloids recently ran pictures of you two nuzzling in some hideaway.

I haven't looked at one of those magazines since about 1988. Somebody [may have] showed me a picture, but I haven't really looked at one. Because it's all just bullshit, and I really don't care, man. [People] can think what they want, do what they want, say what they want. You're not gonna stop them. They're gonna say whatever the fuck they want, so piss on it.

So, you think the tabloids have pounded you?

They've been shitty to me, yeah. In their eyes, I've screwed everyone from the Queen of England to the Pope.

I'm guessing you did not screw the Pope.

Oh, you know, we dry humped. It was all very innocent, very sophomoric.

Did he take off all those rings?

JD: Absolutely not. I wanted those things there.

What bothers you the most about the tabloids?

Well, the whole unfortunate thing with River [Phoenix] at [The Viper Room]. I mean, they were writing horrible things. They were really disrespectful to him and to his memory, to his family, to his friends, to his fans. The press was trying to tarnish his memory in the minds of all those people who loved him, when it all boils down to a very sweet guy who made a very big mistake, a fatal mistake, a mistake that we're all capable of. I was really pissed off. What took place was so heavy that I didn't even retaliate on the accusations towards me. The fact is, I was there that night. The fact is that it was my club. I said, " I refuse to be a part of this morbid circus that you fucking ambulance chasers have going. Fuck off!"

At that time, someone told me you were thinking of shutting down The Viper Room.

The place became a scene instantly when we opened it. I never had any idea it was going to do that. I really thought it was gonna be just this cool little underground place.

You're kidding. A cool little underground place on the Sunset Strip? Co-owned by Johnny Depp?

On the Sunset Strip, but you can't even see the place. There's no sign on Sunset. It's just a black building and the only sign is on Larrabee, a tiny little sign, real subtle, and I figured it'd be low-key. What soured me was what happened after all that took place on Halloween, you know, the unfortunate passing of River. I closed it down for two weeks out of respect so the kids could write their messages and leave flowers. I thought that was real sweet. I knew for the next month or two, it was gonna be a gawkfest, just filled with gawkers and tourists and all that shit. Graveline Tours, all that stuff. I just didn't go around for awhile. We've weeded out the gawkers. Now it's back to being a good place.

Speaking of rumors, despite those who dog you with stuff about drugs and your relationships with beautiful actresses, nobody much has gossiped that you might be gay.

No, but some tabloid said that I was a huge homophobe. Figure this out. One of my best friends is John Waters. We went for a drink in a gay bar that John has gone to in New York City. A guy comes up and says, "Hey, John, I'm a big fan of your films," and, "Oh, Johnny, I've liked your movies." A real nice guy. He began to tell us about himself and said, "I'm HIV-positive." And what do you say to that kind of thing? At the end, when we were saying good-bye, he said, "John, do you mind if I give you a kiss on the cheek?" John said no and the guy kissed him on the cheek. And he said, "Johnny, do you mind?" and I said, "No, go ahead," and he gave me a kiss on the cheek, too. We finished our drinks and split, went to some other bar or something. The next day, one of those tabloid shitheads said I was standing at the bar with John Waters and some guy came up and kissed me and I ran out of the place freaked out, all fucking weirded out by the whole scenario. If I was homophobic, why would I be in the bar and why would one of my best friends be John Waters? [But] they can say what they want because I don't read it.

Give me your take on why young, rich movie star-type guys pay for sex.

Let's say there's a young guy who's successful, famous, rich, da-dah-dah, can have anything he wants anywhere in the world. We presume. At the same time, this fellow could meet a girl in a bar and say, "God, you're great, let's go make out," and they just go slobber. In his brain, he's thinking, maybe he would like to see her again. Maybe this girl that he met has a slightly ambitious side to her, a devious kind of thing where she starts twisting things around. The next thing you know, this girl says, "This motherfucker raped me," and all he knows is that, "We felt each other's tongues, all right." Let's say the tabloids get hold of it and say, "Well, he fucking did it," and that spins around for a few days or weeks and, bing, the guy's guilty in the eyes of the world before he even has a chance to speak.

So, could you see yourself paying for sex?

No, that's not my thing, paying for sex. Even if I did, I wouldn't talk about it. You're in a certain position, you gotta be careful, you gotta be smart, you gotta think a little bit. And the first thing is: don't say a word to nobody about nothing any time ever. This is a rumor-fueled society.

It's a weird time to be famous.

JD: It's a weird time to do anything. Not only do you have to worry about screwing and wearing condoms and shit like that, you have to worry about kissing, about being sneezed on and your fucking flesh rotting off. It's violence and shit everywhere.

I heard that you and Kate went to Magic Mountain the other day. How did you, being so recognizable, pull that off?

It was a slow day, and we went early, just after the park opened. We went on all the scariest rides we could get on and they were killer, man. It's a strange thing. You don't want to go to the front of the line, but if a line is really long and you stand in it, you end up not being able to talk to the person you're with—you end up signing autographs. The people who run the park found out we were there and asked, "Do you wanna go to the front?" which I didn't, but there was no other way. I love Magic Mountain.

Speaking of roller-coaster rides, tell me how disorienting it was to find yourself attending this year's Oscar ceremony?

There I was. Jesus, I still don't know why. I figured, "Well, fuck it, maybe I'll just see what it's like, you know?" It was Fellini on intense psilocybin, the company picnic gone absolutely screwy. Everybody pretends to know each other. You've never met each other and it's, you know, "Hey, howya doin'?" It was so much like a circus that I was howling. I was really nervous. I'm backstage, pacing around, desperate to smoke a cigarette in this politically correct climate. I just wanted to fill my lungs with smoke. Then I met Al Pacino back there and he was really cool, telling me, "This is awful, isn't it?" It made me feel better because I love Al Pacino. But when I was gonna walk out and do the thing, I didn't know if I was gonna drop, pass out completely, just spontaneously combust, or projectile vomit into the audience. Apparently, I got the words out pretty clearly, went outside, smoked, got into the car and split. I was real freaked out.

You had a few things to say last time we talked about the kind of career Tom Cruise has. Have you met him?

I actually met him at the Academy Awards. He came up and said, "Hi Johnny, how are you?" I said, "Hi Tom, how are you doing?" He said, "This is my wife Nicole," and I said, "How do you do, Nicole? Nice to meet you." And everybody went about their business. I wiped off my shoe and he wiped off his jacket [Laughing]. No, he was actually sweet.

You haven't bought a house yet, right? But I know you like to buy antiques, first-edition books, vintage stuff. So does your place these days look like Charles Foster Kane's home—full of treasures in crates?

Right on the money. I haven't bought a home yet and I don't know if, when I do, it's going to be here in the States. It may be in France somewhere. I buy a lot of paintings and drawings and some photographs, shit like that. It's good to have things around that feed you. One of the greatest things that Vincent Price, really a fucking sweet man, very, very smart, ever told me was: "Buy art." That's a piece of advice that I'll treasure forever.

I heard that you two became very close when you made Edward Scissorhands.

I'd call him from wherever I was just to say hello. He called me every year on my birthday—he was a Gemini, too—and left me these beautiful messages. One of the most incredible moments I've ever had was sitting in Vincent's trailer and I was showing him this first-edition book I have of the complete works of Poe with really amazing illustrations. Vincent was going nuts over the drawings and he started talking about The Tomb of Ligeia, then he closed the book and began to recite it to me in this beautiful voice, filling the room with huge sounds. Such passion! I looked in the book later and it was verbatim. Word perfect. It was a great moment. I'll never forget that.

I hear that Tim Burton, with whom you've worked twice, may do a movie based on Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. How cool would it be to try on one of Price's old roles?

House of Wax, now that would be cool.

Speaking of fright flicks, now that you've played Ed Wood, the Plan 9 From Outer Space director who was into angora sweaters and high heels, share some things you learned about cross-dressing.

The makeup, the brassieres, the garters, the whole deal is really work. You can never, ever understand fully what a woman's life might be like until you step into her shoes. The whole thing makes you appreciate and respect women, what their lives are like, to a certain extent. The same thing goes for transvestites.

I know you can get plenty of tips from women about such stuff. How about tips from transvestites?

I have even more respect [for them] now. I mean, transvestites have made a choice to do something: when you actually put yourself in drag, you realize it's much more of a commitment than a choice. I mean, when you gotta tuck things away and hide things, it's painful. It's not comfortable. So, I have utmost respect for transvestites. I didn't get any advice firsthand, but I did get some literature sent to me from Miss Vera's Academy.

What's that?

It's a school in New York that teaches boys how to be girls, basically. How to be transvestites, how to be cross-dressers. I thought about visiting, but I didn't have the time.

Imagine how much less hassle-filled it would be for Ed Wood today to just order his sweaters and high heels from QVC and Home Shopping Network.

JD: [Laughing] Right. I've never bought anything from them, though. I think I ordered a Hank Williams record or something through one of these "800" numbers, but I never got it.

How do you think Ed Wood turned out?

I haven't seen it, but it was a really great, funny script and I think it's gonna be a good, funny film. It's very different from anything Tim's [Burton] done. It has its own little world. Our working relationship couldn't be better. If Tim said he wanted me to hold that bottle of water you're drinking and treat it as a lover, I would absolutely do it. I just love him, man. We have a similar view of things and, as you know, neither of us can talk properly. It's just a good thing.

Is it challenging to be playing Don Juan in Don Juan DeMarco and the Centerfold opposite Marlon Brando, who plays your shrink?

I thought I was gonna send a present to my laundry man before I first met him. Before we met, I talked to him on the phone and then I went and had dinner at his house. I thought I was gonna be freaked out, but he put me at ease instantly. He's just a guy, just a man, who happens to be incredibly gifted and brilliant. He has an extraordinarily gifted mind, heart, body, all that.

Was Brando spoofing when he said he thinks you should study acting at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England?

I don't think he was saying it as a goof. He feels that actors in the States don't have the same learning opportunities. At the [RADA], you learn and study Shakespeare, the iambic pentameter, the whole fucking dilemma. It's a different kind of suit.

One you might like to try on?

It's something that I would be very interested in doing. I've seen five or ten minutes of footage of John Barrymore doing Richard III and it fucking flipped me out. I'd like to give it a shot, you know? Maybe I will.

One hears that you keep turning down movies that at least sound like they could be hits: T he Three Muskateers, Speed, Sliver, Legends of the Fall and Pyromaniacs: A Love Story. Have you ever considered alternating a Speed, say, with an Ed Wood?

[Laughing] So, your question is: Is there a way for me to sell out?

Would you consider that selling out?

I understand why guys alternate between doing something that's obviously geared towards big popular commercial success, then doing something along the lines of what I want to do. I really don't want to make choices in those terms. If there's something good that has commercial potential, I would be ready to dive into it. But I just can't do that for the sake of the box office, although maybe I will at some point. Now, I don't say that movies are like making art, but . . .

I know we're both fans of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and, though that movie reaches very high, I doubt Cocteau ever said, "Let's make art."

Right. But I don't think he said, "Let's make money," either. Today, money seems to be the primary focus. It's much more the movie "business" than it ever was.

Does it bug you that the studios tend to sell movies like What's Eating Gilbert Grape as "small" and "special"?

I think the stuff I do could be accepted by the wide movie going audience if the audience weren't programmed to think in certain ways. Say you haven't eaten in a few days and somebody puts meat loaf here, a turkey sandwich here, shrimp cocktail here. Which are you gonna go for? You're headed straight for the fucking meat loaf, like nobody get in my way. Why? Because you want to get the big meal down. You don't want to think about it, you just wanna fucking do it. Maybe it's a strange metaphor, but people want to escape from their lives, from their brain, for an hour and a half. Maybe it feels good to watch somebody blow away 50 thousand people with a submachine gun. Maybe that's a great means of escape because there's no thinking to it, but maybe we'd be better off if there were more films around that made your think, made you have to use your own brain to figure things out. That's why people don't read anymore. They don't want to chew their food. They just want to swallow it, get it fucking down, then move. If movie companies had a bit more balls, they could put more money into promoting a thing, then bang, people would go see it. Or more people would go see it, anyway.

What words of warning would you, recovered TV-series heartthrob from 21 Jump Street, give current TV-series heartthrobs like Grant Show and Andrew Shue:

Fight 'em. Fight it. Unless you want that whole ball of wax and there are guys who do want that. My advice would be to fight it. But they can take that golden path, make a big bank account and not have anything to do in a few years.

Given how you feel about the whole "teen idol" thing, why does your name keep getting mentioned for the movie about James Dean that Warner Bros. is making?

I don't know.

I can't imagine you going near it.

I'm not gonna. I wouldn't do that. I mean, who are they gonna make that movie for?

On the other hand, your name has come up to play Bobby Darin in a movie that Barry Levinson has talked about for years.

I'd definitely consider that because Bobby Darin, on the surface, was this great personality who smiled and was cocky. He was a popular actor and singer, who had such an incredible voice, like crushed velvet. Beneath the whole cool exterior was a bubbling brew of rage and imbalance. He was in a weird place inside, but all the while, on the outside, he played the role because, back then, you really had to play the role.

Fill in the blank: Guys in this town overcompensate for tiny penises by ___

By becoming police officers. I've certainly known some cops about whom I've had sneaking suspicions about their genitalia, you know? There are some Nazi cops out there.

Failed actors, some of them.

[Laughing] There are some police officers who do their job and do it well, but there are some cops who've watched way too many episodes of Cops and Starsky and Hutch.

Ever worry about the size of your penis?

I haven't up till now. Should I start pondering? Nah, it has been a good friend to me. I'd certainly miss him if he were gone.

What's the most ludicrous thing you can remember happening when you were about to put on a condom?

I know it sounds far-fetched and you're probably not going to believe me, but I was on the 23rd floor in a hotel room in New York City and suddenly, out of nowhere, this armadillo burst out of the closet and ran across the room. It jumped on my back and we fought and I threw the fucker out the window. They have this real hard armor and I was so freaked out by it, that I just ran and ran and ran. I never went back to the hotel.

Is this like an armadillo version of that old Groucho line, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I'll never know"?

I think it was an armadillo. It felt like it was an armadillo. It may have been an elephant.

So you were putting on a condom when this alleged armadillo attacked you in your hotel room?

JD: No. I was thinking about putting on a condom.

Were you alone at the time?

Yes, I was alone.

So, you were going to put on a condom for the hell of it?

Just 'cause you never know, you know? Like I said before, you could walk out in the street, somebody sneezes and bing, your thing drops off. So you wanna be ready. But, anyway, all that was about 17 years ago and I don't like to talk about it. By the way, is this interview about penises now? Is this National Penis Month? It's fine, fine, fine with me. I think we should talk about vaginas, as well. And some breasts, too.

If you recall, we talked about breasts last time. I just thought penises should have their due.

Oh, okay.

I know you're very into smells. You've been known to travel under the alias "Mr. Stench." Movie sets must be a bonanza for you.

There's like, 150 varieties of stink on every movie set.

Movieline: Such as?

Normally, the makeup girl smells real pretty, she's usually got on a beautiful cologne, while the grip stinks like a gut wagon. Meanwhile, I'm working on my own funk, which is probably permeating the area like the Black Plague. Everybody's got their own scent, it's all mixed together and those big fucking hot lights and shit cook everybody up real nice. So, you got a funk-and-a-half on a movie set.

How about co-stars who smell?

You mean, where there was a slight problem?



Man? Woman?

Both. I'm an equal opportunity sniffer.

What was the source of the smell?

Armpit. It could have been breath. It could have been feet.

Gentleman though you are, have you ever spoken up to the offending party and said . . .

"Fix it"? No, I just step away between takes.

What do you do when you're forced to be close to someone who's hygienically challenged?

You could just use it when you're shooting. It's so incredibly weird that it may make you smile. There are all kinds of things you can be thinking about when you do a scene, you can use anything. Smells, too. Available stimuli, right? Maybe we should change the word from "actors" to "smellers."

I think we should do this again and next time, I promise, it'll be the vagina interview.

Okay, you're on.

-- donated by Joni