LOS ANGELES—“Do you mind the cigarette?” Johnny Depp asks ever so politely, taking a seat. Couldn't be nicer. A bad boy? The actor as punk rocker? Not today. A photographer points out that he is not looking into the light, and Depp blurts, “Oh, sorry,” and immediately corrects himself. You say this guy once owned the Viper Club? [Editor’s Note: In 1995, Johnny still co-owned the Viper Club, and would for several years.] True, on closer inspection it appears he is wearing a skull ring on one finger and has a tattoo on the webbing of his left hand. But in slacks and a dress shirt in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, Johnny Depp is, in sum, the picture of something other than weird. He does, after all, manage to pass as a wire-rimmed accountant in his new movie, Nick of Time.
It is a change of style for an actor who has played Edward Scissorhands and the cross-dressing B-picture flame out director Ed Wood, not to mention the deluded Don Juan de Marco, “the world's greatest lover.” In Nick of Time, a by-the-numbers thriller directed by John Badham, Depp is just a regular guy who happens to get kidnapped by some not-so-regular guys who want him to assassinate the governor of California or they're going to kill his 6-year-old daughter. Synchronize your watches: He's got 90 minutes to beat the clock.
“I've been insanely lucky, insanely lucky,” says the philosophically-inclined Depp, exhaling and reflecting on the career opportunities that have allowed him to create performances onscreen that he says he would prefer never to see. In any case, the opportunities have taken him down some less-traveled roads in Hollywood to heavy name recognition at age 32.
“The more visible I'm made, the more invisible I become,” Depp says about fame, quoting the experimental French writer and director Jean Cocteau. “The more visible I've become, the more sort of inside myself I've gone. I was never a real outgoing-type person, but when you get to a place where you're known by a lot of people, some people take it and become extroverted. I went more inside.”
Maybe this accounts for some of his choices in roles. What other young TV star would have segued, as Depp did, from his success as a cop on 21 Jump Street to a John Waters movie (Cry-Baby)? Or would have thrown his heartthrob looks into the title role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, a little film about a dysfunctional family in which the symbol of dysfunction is a mother so obese that she hasn't gotten out of bed in years? Compared to these, Nick of Time (Paramount) seems like a gesture of good box office, a detour into the territory of popcorn drama and opening-weekend grosses just in case Hollywood might care about such things in evaluating an actor.
Depp chooses slightly different words to comment on the situation at hand. “It's in the grand tradition of the old Hitchcock-style thrillers,” he says about his latest movie. “And I've been accused of doing only strange films and oddball characters. I thought it was a good time to do the opposite--someone who is completely straight, a regular-Joe-type guy.”
He had not previously encountered John Badham, the British-born director whose resume includes WarGames, Blue Thunder, Stakeout and, most notably, the 1977 John Travolta smash, Saturday Night Fever (which Depp had never seen until a couple of years ago). “I had waited seventeen years to see Saturday Night Fever. I refused to go see it when I was a kid, because of the disco thing. I was much more into loud guitars, rock and roll, punk rock.”
On meeting Badham, he recalls, “I thought he was a very nice man with a perverse sense of humor. He seems like Mr. Normal, but he's got a pretty twisted vein, which I like very much. But I was sold when I read the script. I was confident he would do a good job with it, and I'm sure he has.” Realizing this might sound odd to some people, Depp clarifies things. “I haven't seen the movie yet,” he says.
For that matter, he still hasn't seen Gilbert Grape. “It's weird. I'm uncomfortable watching [my films]. So if I can get away with not seeing them at all, I will. Gilbert Grape was just a heavy time for me. It was a heavy subject. I just thought, ‘I don't want to go back there.’ It has nothing to do with Lasse [Hallstrom, the director], whom I worship—the guy's amazing. And Leonardo [diCaprio] is great and Darlene Cates is great. But I haven't been able to bring myself to see it.
“They drag you to the premiere if they can. I saw Dead Man once,” he says, referring to the new Jim Jarmusch western not yet in general release. “I saw Don Juan once. Cry-Baby I saw twice. I can't go back and watch 'em. I feel like an idiot.”
So where is the satisfaction in that? Besides the money, assuming that counts. “I really like creating stuff, whether it's in a movie or making a short film at home or drawing a picture.” But if you never see the result . . .
Is it the difference between being a painter or writer and being a performing artist? “Satisfaction is a strange word,” Depp answers. “I guess I'm never really satisfied.
“As an actor you're trying to be true to the author's intent, to the director's vision and at the same time be true to yourself as an actor. You try to mix those three things together without compromising. Then this other thing happens—[film] editing happens—which can either save you or kill you. Or just make it sort of blah.”
Some people, to quote the ubiquitous Los Angeles bumper sticker, are born to act (or at least think they are). Depp, on the other hand, is one who came relatively late to the profession. His bumper sticker, if he had one, would be something like “God Made Me Do It.”
“From the age of twelve, all the arrows were pointing to music. That was, for sure, my life. I had made the decision. That was just it. Definitely.”
Born in Kentucky, and raised in Miramar, Florida from the age of 9, Depp formed the punk-rock band Kids in high school and moved with it to Los Angeles in 1983, when he was 20.
“I guess I was twenty-one when I did my first movie, which was a total fluke. The first couple I did [Nightmare on Elm Street, Slow Burn] just because they gave me the jobs and gave me some money. But I had always planned on going back to my band and playing.
“Then suddenly everything started happening in the acting. The band broke up and I kept doing the movies to make money. At a certain point it was truly beyond my control. It was almost like I had no choice in the matter.” A mystical thought. “I guess I'm supposed to be here. I guess this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I have to believe in destiny. There's got to be some sort of divine intervention or something.”
His sense of a greater power at work is reflected even in his tattoos. The number 3, for instance. “I just have always felt very close to the number three,” he explains. “For some reason I like it. One night I was at a friend's house who's a tattoo artist and I said, ‘Put a number three on my hand.’ I don't know why. I just felt it. It's been a very important number for me. And I think it's going to be more important, I feel.
“I've got a few more. I'm riddled with 'em,” he says about his tattoos. “I started when I was young. I got my first one when I was, like, seventeen. I think the body is like a journal, your permanent journal.”
Although his life's path is laid through the movies now, Depp still thinks of himself as a musician first. “I certainly don't want a career in music, that's for sure. But I never stopped being a musician. It was and always will be my first love. Now it's totally therapeutic. It's rehabilitation, a great escape from my brain sometimes. I just get lost in my guitar. I don't have to think of music as a job.
“When the band broke up, that was very difficult for me. We'd been together three or four years. Those guys were my brothers. It was like a family unit. There was comfort and safety in it. Whereas, as an actor, you're just sort of out there alone, and there's no team; it's just you. It's a little scary and definitely something that took some getting used to.”
Engaged four times—including once to Winona Ryder—but yet to marry, [Editor’s Note: An error—Johnny married Lori Anne Allison before his move to L.A.; they divorced two years later.] Depp has been keeping company with waif-like model Kate Moss for a year-and-a-half. This requires frequent travel from his home in Los Angeles to New York, Paris, London. “She commutes, I commute. If she has to be somewhere for a long period of time, I'll go there. If I have to be somewhere, she'll come down. It's worked out pretty good.”
Still, it must be difficult. “We're okay,” Depp says. “No problem.”
Without the family fold of his band to rely on, Depp has nevertheless made friends in Hollywood. There is his agent, Tracey Jacobs, who once drove him straight from the airport to a meeting with director Tim Burton that led to his being cast in the title role of Edward Scissorhands.
“I would never have gone,” Depp says. “At the time, I was not feeling that great about the position I was in—like everybody thought of me as a TV boy. And I didn't want to embarrass myself.”
Then there is Burton himself, who Depp says is “like smoke” he's so elusive, yet their happy collaborations on Scissorhands and Ed Wood were the kind that forge ties that bind.
“Tim allowed me a lot of freedom on both Scissorhands and Ed Wood. He didn't really know what I was going to do with the character of Ed Wood until he said ‘action’ for the first time on the set. And to tell you the truth, I had ideas of what I was gonna do and stuff, but I really didn't know until he said ‘action.’
“As we were shooting it I was constantly thinking, ‘I'm way over the top, it's idiotic, it's a cartoon.’ ” Understandable, since he was playing the part of a supremely confident young fool who liked to wear women’s clothes and had no talent except for dreaming the Hollywood dream against all evidence he could ever touch it. Talk about a challenge.
“I kept asking Tim, ‘Tim, you sure this is where you want me to be?’ So every day my job was to try to make Tim laugh, so if I saw him doing this behind the monitor”—and here Depp imitates the director turning his head away to stifle a guffaw—“I knew that I was doing the right thing.”
Anyone who doubted that Depp had talent has had to reckon with the oddly compelling charm he brought to a loser the caliber of Ed Wood. In Nick of Time the task appears less daunting. He must simply maintain a constant look of determination mixed with desperation as he does battle with the forces of darkness, led by Christopher Walken, who shadows him every step of the way toward his improbable rendezvous with murder.
He does manage to bring a lucid, mild-mannered speaking voice to the part that is pure oxford cloth, with no fraying at the edges. Very un-slacker. Very uptown. It makes a useful contrast with the feverish tone of Walken's overheated heavy. Depp says he doesn't know where he gets his voice—he didn't study at Juilliard or Yale—but he does remember losing his Kentucky accent a long time ago so as not to be thought of as a hick.
“It's one thing I'm completely insecure about,” he says about his voice. “Not necessarily when I'm working, but because of these hideous long pauses that I take.”
What will he remember about the time he spent on the set of Nick of Time? “I'll never be able to look at the Bonaventure Hotel again,” he says, referring to the downtown Los Angeles Hotel where most of the story is played out. He says he'll also remember shooting a scene in which he falls over a balcony and is suspended in mid air by a cable.
“Dangling ninety feet above the earth was pretty strange. You find instant religion when you're hanging ninety feet on a wire with all eyes on you.”
Meanwhile, Capitol Records will release sometime in the new year an album Depp made recently with Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones, guitarist Bill Carter, Sal Jenco and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea.
“The experience was great,” Depp says, “but it's certainly not something I'm pursuing. It's a bunch of guys, we're good friends, we got to make a bunch of noise together. What's it like? It's loud, it's sloppy, it's funny. I will say it's a totally organic record . . . We wrote a lot of the songs while we were doing the record. We couldn't have found it funnier that Capitol Records decided they wanted to sign us for a record deal.”