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The Buzz On Johnny Depp

by David Blum
Photographs by Wayne Maser
April 1995


Fuck you, okay? Just—
Jesus, what a week. You know, you're staying at this hotel, the Mark. It's not your regular place, but come on—you're paying twenty-two hundred goddamn dollars a night for the presidential suite, you think at least they wouldn't look at you funny every time you cross the lobby. Is that too much to ask? Every time . . . especially this one guy who works there. You can just tell he doesn't like you, he doesn't like you at all. And why? Because you didn't change your jeans or wash your hair?

So it's five in the morning and a couple of million cups of coffee later, and you punch their stupid couch. So what? Technically speaking, you're paying for this couch. Right now, you own this couch. And the lamps and the coffee table—oh, sorry, was that an antique? Bummer. But, you know, for the first time, you're really enjoying yourself here at the Mark hotel.

The next thing you know, you're in jail and all these female cops want your autograph and the papers are making up funny names to call you. You get your stuff back, and it turns out somebody wrote "Fuck you" in your Brando book. You were reading that book, man.

It's not fair. You're a nice guy. You pick up the checks, you pay the bills, you help people out. No problem. You're rich, and the gold card means you don't have to carry a wallet. You have this thing about stuff. You don't want too much of it, but some of it is nice to have, like a good red wine and a fine car and a new pair of jeans once in a while. But you're famous. They know you wherever you go. That means you gotta be careful. Every time you get a tattoo, they wanna know all about it. And the new one says, KATE FOREVER, right? They watch you, man. You stand in front of a mirror and cut all your hair, and they say it's an image change. You make one movie that tanks, doesn't matter if it's good, and they say you gotta make a hit or you're dead. It's not fair. You try to make good movies, smart ones; you find these cool directors who have something to say, and you help them say it. That's it. You read the lines and hang out in your trailer. You just wanna be an artist and make beautiful, important movies and date really good-looking women and have a nice house in the Hollywood Hills where you can stash your suitcases—you hate to unpack all the time. Who doesn't?

John Christopher Depp II makes a forceful case for the plight of the American celebrity in the modern age. The thirty-one-year-old actor feels he must do so to correct a false impression held by a substantial percentage of the world's population, who would drop everything to start life over as Johnny Depp. He wants everyone to know that driving a fancy sports car (he cruises around Los Angeles in a Porsche Carrera, parking wherever he feels like and paying the tickets), dating beautiful babes (his current girlfriend is London-based Kate Moss, whom he jets off almost constantly to visit), co-owning a Sunset Strip nightclub (the notorious Viper Room, just outside of which River Phoenix collapsed from a drug overdose), and making Hollywood movies for a living (his asking price just passed $4 million) isn't as great as it sounds.

Being famous is also what got Depp arrested last September for trashing a suite at the Mark in New York City. Depp knows his celebrity turned a trivial incident into a media event, and he feels certain it was all to promote a hotel and help it trade on his notoriety.

"It's good for them," Depp says. "Now they can say they have this little bit of history, this ridiculous morsel of history. They can say, 'We had Johnny Depp arrested.' I'd like to ask five people: Have you ever had a bad day? Have you ever been harassed in a passive-aggressive way? What does it make you feel like? You have no room to breathe. Have you ever punched a hole in your wall at home? Hotels are my home. I live in hotels more than I live in my house."

He pauses, as if to allow a nation of home dwellers to consider that remarkable fact.

"If it had been you," Depp goes on, presuming that countless millions out there can barely resist smashing hotel-room furniture when they're having a bad night, "nothing would have happened. They would have come to the room and said, 'What's going on?' You would have said, 'I'll pay for the damages, and I'm terribly sorry.'"

Johnny Depp is pissed off, a fact that may surprise those who know him only through his movies. In a wide-ranging series of performances since 1990, Depp has established himself as a sensitive and compelling screen presence. In Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Benny & Joon, Depp set a tone dramatically removed from his public persona; his misfit characters played up his soft, delicate qualities. This, along with his Cherokee cheekbones and wavy long hair, helped Depp make an easy transition to fame.

Like so many young stars before him, Depp now suffers from an aggravated fixation on Marlon Brando. Brooding actors from James Dean onward have been struggling to emulate, surpass, or, at the very least, get to know the seventy-one-year-old eminence grasse of American movies. In Brando's recent autobiography, he ridicules Dean's efforts to mimic his behavior by once crumpling up his coat into a ball at a party they both attended. "It struck me that he was imitating something I had done," Brando wrote, "and I took him aside and said, 'Don't do that, Jimmy. Just hang your coat up like everybody else.'"

Some actors are born Brando; some achieve Brando; and some, like Depp, have Brando thrust upon them. Depp (whose first name matches that of one of Brando's own favorite movie roles, the rebel biker Johnny in The Wild One) has managed to costar with him in Don Juan DeMarco, coming out this month. It's the story of a psychiatrist (played by Brando) and a delusional patient (Depp) who believes he is Don Juan. Depp now calls Brando a friend, though his voice almost trembles at the thought of the Large One.

"I think he's one of the greatest minds of this century, a genius," Depp said recently, focusing on one of Brando's lesser-known attributes. "Brando never got caught up in the illusion. You go to a Hollywood function and there's 50 million teeth smiling and talking and chomping. It's all teeth and hands. Pats on the back. I know that 50 percent of the conversations I've had in this town didn't start because they thought I was a good guy. What can you do? There's a game to be played here. You can play it to the hilt and make shit-piles of money. I don't want to be ninety years old and look back and see how full of shit I was. The people I admire didn't do that."

Depp has been associated with his own conspicuous acts of aggression ever since he became a teen heart-throb in 1987 as the breakout star of Fox's first hit TV series, 21 Jump Street. Throughout the last decade, while praising cult classics like Cry-Baby, Scissorhands, and Ed Wood, the press has reported incidents to support the image of an attention-seeking renegade: hanging from the Beverly Center parking garage; blowing gasoline onto an open flame; even yelling at Kate Moss in the dining room of New York's Royalton Hotel, where journalists are known to roam. The events at the Mark have tapped right into Depp's violent image. "I had a bad night," he says modestly.

"There have been times that he's misbehaved," says his agent and close friend, Tracey Jacobs of ICM, to whom Depp placed his one phone call from jail. "I'm very tough on him about that stuff."

But sometimes bad news turns into good news. Six months later, not even close friends of Depp's believe that the Mark incident caused any damage to his reputation. One month after it happened, he landed on the cover of People, and his only complaint about it was the poor choice of the photo. ("They used one with bags under my eyes," he moans.) He has since been on the covers of The Advocate and Premiere, and nominated for a Golden Globe for Ed Wood (he lost to Hugh Grant). In Hollywood, six major movie roles beckoned by late January, when Depp finally signed with Paramount to make Nick of Time, a big-budget, Hitchcock-style thriller co-written by Ebbe Roe Smith, the screenwriter for Falling Down. In it, Depp plays a young professional forced into a political assassination to save the life of his small daughter.

Depp as daddy is hardly what you'd expect from an actor whose name has been linked exclusively with the adjectives quirky and oddball. His upcoming movie Dead Man is a black-and-white western by independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Depp fantasizes about making a silent film someday, but in Nick of Time , he's trusting himself to director John Badham, who probably thinks Jarmusch is a Danish beer. It should be noted, though, that Badham's movies (like Saturday Night Fever and War Games) often gross more than $100 million, whereas Depp's movies have been nowhere near as successful. Such distinctions are not lost on Hollywood executives, but despite his low budget returns, Depp has managed to keep the industry believing he is a star—a title sometimes defined by an actor's talent for keeping his name in the papers.

"The hotel thing hasn't hurt his career," says director John Waters, Depp's friend. "He looked good under arrest. I loved the handcuffs—they always work. Criminal movie star is a really good look for Johnny." Waters adds, "The success of a hotel-room trashing should be calculated by the amount of damage divided by the amount of column inches." When Depp pal Mickey Rourke got thrown out of the Plaza for trashing his suite two months later, a MICKEY'S PLAZA RAMPAGE headline in the New York Post didn't stir interest. "What's he trying to be," Nicolas Cage asked the Post, "Johnny Depp?"

Something alerted Depp's keen sense for imminent conflict right after he checked into the Mark early last fall. This wasn't one of his regular haunts, but when you're in the market for a presidential suite at the last minute, you take what you can get. He'd come to New York in part to do publicity for Ed Wood, the Tim Burton project he felt so passionate about that he'd passed up the part of Lestat in Interview with the Vampire and the lead in Speed. In retrospect, what followed—especially his arrest for two counts of criminal mischief resulting in $9,767.12 in damages owed—did not surprise Depp all that much. Nor did the media response, which resulted in precisely the morsel of history Depp envisioned. Depp has joined a long, distinguished line of celebrity hotel-room trashers throughout history, one that stretches back at least as far as Ludwig van Beethoven, who is said to have tossed a chair through the window of his Vienna hotel room.

"Did Beethoven go to jail for it?" Depp asks the question with an extended blink of both eyes, which to a woman might be an alluring wink, though it also resembles a bizarre facial tic. (After looking in vain for something wrong with Depp's perfect features, you start getting picky.) His blue work shirt, white T-shirt, and gray jeans do a nice job of not distracting you from his face. At the moment, he sits in a black vinyl booth at his black-walled Hollywood hangout, the Viper Room, demonstrating his perfect ability to be cool without trying. He's almost annoyingly good at it. Without waiting for an answer, Depp gets up to pour himself another cup of black coffee from behind the bar. The guy drinks an enormous amount of coffee. After hanging out with Depp for a while, you start to realize how he came to be awake in his hotel suite at five in the morning and maybe a little jittery.

Across the room, a swing band goes through a sound check on the stage. Tonight is Swing Night—or Martini Night, depending on whom you ask—at the Viper Room. The tiny, dimly lit space will soon be overflowing with members of the Hollywood elite. One couple will command the dance floor while the rest will sip their five-dollar drinks and tip the cigarette girls Depp has hired to re-create the world of Old Hollywood. Between sets, the music on the sound system will be hip and wild. "My idea was to play Louis Jordan and to segue to the Velvet Underground," Depp says. The room has only five booths, one of them permanently reserved for agent Tracey Jacobs, with a gold plaque that warns, DON'T FUCK WITH IT.

He returns to the booth, and within seconds another cigarette comes out of the open pack of Camel Specials at his right elbow. That pack sits on top of an unopened one. He picks up a gun and pulls the trigger. A flame comes out. "It doesn't always work," Depp says, glaring at the lighter contemptuously.

Depp knows his reputation for anger. He's been in trouble with the authorities since his early teens—from breaking into classrooms as a self-styled delinquent in a blue-collar Florida suburb to an arrest for assaulting a security guard in Canada in 1989. He's well aware that the incident at the Mark supports the public view of him as a menace, which he doesn't really care about, which is why he sits here this afternoon with thirty cigarettes within easy reach. He pauses frequently to tap each cigarette vigorously on the black Formica tabletop.

"Let's just say that my stay there wasn't particularly comfortable," Depp says. This may strike those who stay in Marriotts as a relative term. But for a man who has spent the better part of three decades in jeans and T-shirts, comfort is a top priority.

In Depp's view, the source of his discomfort at the Mark was Jim Keegan. As the hotel's midnight-to-eight security guard, Keegan saw Depp frequently coming in and out of the Mark's quiet, austere lobby. Depp, an insomniac, had been out several nights on the town in New York, and his peak partying hours coincided with Keegan's watch.

"It seemed like this guy couldn't stand Johnny," says Jonathan Shaw, a close friend since the early 1980s, when Depp was a Los Angeles rock 'n' roller in the slow lane and Shaw a local tattoo artist. "Johnny dressed in leather and jeans and not all fancy like everybody else in the joint." Shaw remembers this from his own visits to the hotel to see Depp, who confirms the description. "The guy was a little froggy," Depp says. "He decided that he was going to 'Let me get in the famous guy's face.' I don't really take too well to that."

That night, Depp was in his suite with thin-as-a-Calvin-Klein-billboard Kate Moss. She and Depp had been dating for months. No one had yet labeled them "engaged," but all of Depp's previous girlfriends had eventually been promoted to the title of fiancee, at least by the tabloids. You were not likely to read DEPP CAUGHT IN LOVE NEST WITH SINGER headlines; he'd won a hard-earned reputation for serial monogamy. At one time or another, Depp had been reported as engaged to Sherilyn Fenn ("Neither one of us was famous," Depp insists), Jennifer Grey, and Winona Ryder, who even got herself a spot among Depp's legendary tattoos. Moss may not have yet earned herself a mention on Depp's body, but friends say the two are definitely in love. Are they engaged? "I just don't know what that means, engaged," Depp mutters. "That's just something that gets reported." Depp seems almost depressed over the public's fixation with Moss's weight. "She eats like a champ," Depp says sweetly, defending her against criticism of her waifish figure. "She really puts it away. Why punish somebody because they have a good metabolism? Because they digest their food better? It doesn't make any sense."

He wasn't drunk or on drugs, and he wasn't fighting with Kate Moss. That is all Depp will say about what went on between him and Moss that led up to crashing noises from room 1410 at five that morning. The commotion summoned Keegan to Depp's floor; the security guard told police later that he'd heard crashing sounds from inside the suite and saw a broken picture frame in the hallway outside the room. (Keegan referred all questions about the incident to Raymond Bickson, the Mark's general manager, who repeatedly declined to discuss the matter.)

"That guy had probably one too many cups of coffee that night," Depp reflects, and he is in a position to know. "He was particularly feisty. He decided to call the shots in a way that I didn't think was particularly necessary. If I walk into an antique shop and I bend down to look at something over here and I accidentally knock a pot off the rack, it's $3,000, of course I'd pay for it. If I bust a piece of glass, I smash a mirror or whatever, I'll pay for it. I can probably handle the bill. That's that."

Keegan told Depp he'd have to leave the hotel or he would call the police. Depp offered to pay for the damages but argued that he shouldn't have to check out. So Keegan called the police, and by 5:30 A.M., Depp had left in the company of three officers from the Nineteenth Precinct. (By the time of his release the next afternoon, Depp had occupied three cells: at the precinct, at Central Booking, and in the Tombs behind New York City police headquarters. Women officers mobbed him at all three.) According to the police report, Keegan listed ten damaged items: two broken seventeenth-century picture frames and prints, a china lamp stand, a Chinese pot, a shattered glass tabletop, broken coffee-table legs, broken wooden shelves, a shattered vase, a cigarette burn on the carpet, and a red desk chair.

"Did Johnny do all that?" asks David Breitbart, the New York criminal lawyer who handled the case for Depp and who recounts the experience, a gun shoved prominently into his pants. "I don't know, and neither do they. That crazy damage figure they asked for was also for what he owed for the room, two nights before, three nights after, something like that. This was a fucking shakedown. I wish I could have gone to court on this, because no one saw him do a thing. They put together the list of damages while he was in custody. Anything could have happened in that hotel room."

But Depp doesn't deny what happened. "It wasn't a great night for me," Depp says. "I'm not trying to excuse what I did or anything like that, because it's someone else's property and you gotta respect that. But you get into a head space, and you're human."

Depp is smoking in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. "I gotta load up on some nicotine," he says without apology. His caffeine of choice tonight is Coke. The valet parkers here know him and nod happily toward the high-tipping star as they walk past. Depp claims to have lived in every hotel in L.A. at one time or another, including this one just a few blocks from the Viper Room. At the moment, he's living in his Laurel Canyon house for practically the first time since he bought it two months before the 1994 earthquake. He'd been in London during the quake, and it wasn't until somebody asked him, "How did you make out in that earthquake?" that he called and found out his place had been wrecked. It took seven months to rebuild, and now he's back in it, at least until his next departure.

"Hey, Johnny!"

Standing over Depp is a baldish, pumped-up man in his late thirties with only a passing resemblance to the comedian Andrew Dice Clay, even though that's who he is.

Clay and Depp haven't seen each other for years. They aren't really pals, but they did spend a few months together in Florida in the mideighties, making a soft-porn comedy called Private Resort. Depp has been trying to forget it ever since, but somebody's always bringing the damn thing up. And now what's he going to do? Clay's here shooting the shit with his old costar Johnny Depp, and you can tell it's all pretty exciting for a guy whom at least a few people in Hollywood are trying to avoid.

"I've seen all your movies, all except that Ed Wood thing," Clay says. For a guy whose trademark is the nasty remark, he's surprisingly good at flattery. "You're picking great stuff, doing great stuff. It's great."

"Thanks, man," Depp says. "You look different. You look bigger. You're working out, right?"

"Yeah, but it's my kids. They're a workout," Clay says. "I got two of them. They keep you movin'."

Depp nods as if he understands, even though he doesn't. He lights another cigarette.

"I'm off those," Clay says, gesturing at the Camel and explaining that he now wears a nicotine patch. Clay then tells a quick story about a guy whom he'd been telling about Depp, back in the prefamous Private Resort days. The guy called Clay up after he saw Depp's name on the credits for 21 Jump Street and said, "So there is a guy named Johnny Depp. I thought you were makin' it up."

Depp smiles and exhales. "It's real, man," he says.

America first heard his impossibly perfect showbiz name in 1987, when it tripped off the lips of every American teenage girl. The son of John and Betty Sue Depp, now divorced, had dropped out of high school eight years before and had spent most of his youth tearing up his hometown of Miramar, Florida, outside Miami, where his dad was a public-works official. It was no small irony that Depp would shoot to fame at age twenty-four as an undercover high school narc on Jump Street. Only four years earlier, he'd been committed enough to rock 'n' roll to pack up his guitar, his wife (Lori Allison, whom he married and split from within a year), and his band (the Kids) and move to Los Angeles, where he subsisted by selling pens over the phone ("My first acting job") until his wife's ex-boyfriend Nicolas Cage helped him get his first real acting job, in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Depp remembers making $1,200 a week for six weeks of work. ("Never had I seen anything like that.") He kept at it with TV roles (you can catch him on a Hotel rerun), and even though Private Resort didn't make him famous, it did show his naked butt. In 1986, Depp got a small part in Platoon, but he still escaped much notice. Jump Street introduced Depp to big-time celebrity and led to a peak of ten thousand letters a week from lovesick fans. But he hated Fox's packaging of him as a Tiger Beat cover boy and left as soon as his contract expired in 1989. "I always thought Johnny should have been more into the teen-idol thing," John Waters says, "and live in a big house with huge gates and have screaming girls outside day and night." But instead, Depp made Waters's Cry-Baby, which turned his TV image on its head and was the first of back-to-back cult classics. Even though Cry-Baby flopped, Depp's choice to go with the director ofPink Flamingos and Hairspray led him out of television in a cosmic way. His second starring role elevated him to the level of movie star. Tom Cruise had to turn down Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands before Twentieth Century Fox would offer the title role to Depp. The studio had no regrets. The movie grossed $54 million.

"That character was the closest to me," Depp says fondly. "Edward had a lot more dialogue in the script. But I personally felt that he was a little baby in the brain. A really small child." After Scissorhands's success, Depp's career was assured. Five years later, Depp has reached Hollywood's A-list without a single box-office smash. Along with Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Keanu Reeves, Depp gets a look at most major screenplays in Hollywood with a starring young-male role.

Depp likes to travel almost all the time and has proudly memorized American Airlines' schedule of New York departures. He fantasizes about one day living in France and confesses to a continuing weakness for fine red wine and "a couple beers." He carries no wallet and has only a few crumpled dollar bills in his pocket, though also crammed into his baggy jeans is that well-worn gold card. He helps provide for his family and friends; his best friend from Florida, Sal Jenco, manages the Viper Room, and his sister, Christi, works for him full-time. "She's organizing all my stuff," Depp says. "I still have suitcases I haven't unpacked from Scissorhands."

Depp's money supports the accumulation of yet more stuff. He financed an eleven-minute short film he codirected in 1993, not surprisingly called Stuff—one long tracking shot through a house full of messy stuff in front of graffiti-filled walls, with a rock 'n' roll soundtrack. "I like the idea of images and sounds that don't necessarily mean story and plot," Depp says. "My arm's in it." Depp followed up in 1994 with an eight-minute movie he directed on his own, Banter, a gruesome but provocative excursion into the world of hard drugs. He hopes to keep directing and is considering his feature debut with a screenplay based on a Gregory Macdonald novel called The Brave. "The script needs a rewrite," he says without hesitation, apparently having mastered the rudiments of Hollywood directing already.

A few days after the incident at the Mark, after Depp had taken his belongings to another New York hotel and unpacked, he glanced inside his copy of the Brando autobiography that had been on his night table and discovered the notes. "Fuck you, Johnny Depp," someone had scrawled on one page. "You're an asshole," had been written on another. "I hate you," on yet another. The notes went on and on, covering many pages inside the 468-page book. Depp figured it had to be one of the hotel's staff members. Sometimes guys just want to get in a movie star's face.

"There are two kinds of fans," Depp observes. "There's the kind who just wants your autograph or to say something nice. That's fine. But there are these guys who are too cool for autographs. People try to piss you off. They want to get your attention."

The next night, Depp went with Jonathan Shaw and some other pals to a downtown bar called Babyland. By the next day, he'd become another headline across Page Six in the Post: DEPP PALS IN EAST VILLAGE BRAWL. "It didn't take long for Johnny Depp-lorable to show his wild side again following his hotel hijinks the other night," Page Six read, saying Depp "allegedly sparked a fight." The item quoted one man's version that Depp "slammed into me" and said, "Fuck you."

Depp tells it differently: "This guy walked past me in the bar. He pulled out what resembled a penis—but I have a sneaking suspicion it might have been a thimble, this goofy fucking guy—and said something like, `Suck my dick.' I'd just gotten out of jail. They'd said, `You're to stay out of trouble for six months.' Meanwhile, it's less than six hours later. My first instinct was to . . .we all have that animal instinct inside of us . . . your instinct is, Go for the throat."

But nothing happened. He let it go. Man, who wants to go back to jail for that?

-- donated by Joni