"Hipster," "wild one," "bad boy," "rebel": None of the labels regularly affixed to Johnny Depp quite correspond to the guy with whom I recently spent an evening over coffee and cigarettes in Los Angeles. Clad in denim and driving a vintage navy-blue pickup, the thirty-two-year-old actor, who has brought his stuff to such unusual love stories as Cry-Baby (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990) , Benny & Joon (1993), and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), is an unlikely movie star. His genuine low-key manner may strike some as merely a ploy to make us think he is the very definition of cool, but Depp isn't one of those people who works at being cool; nor is he one of those actors who insists on being called an "artist."
He doesn't have to. With his recent performances as the angora-loving director in Ed Wood (1994) and a delusional seducer in Don Juan DeMarco (1995), he silenced critics who doubted that his talent had range. He has become possibly his generation's most resonant icon and one of its finest film performers, as well. It's a reputation that should last, no matter if Nick of Time, his new beat-the-clock thriller; Dead Man, an upcoming western directed by Jim Jarmusch; and Donnie Brasco, the Mob tale Depp will shoot this winter with Al Pacino, do or don't make money. Depp may be the only young Hollywood star to have acquired clout without the aid of big box office. He's that respected.
Nick of Time, in which he plays an unassuming young father who's ordered to assassinate California governor Marsha Mason when his daughter is held on pain of death, and The Brave, a socially concerned story that he will direct and star in next year, both signal a maturation of Depp's image. But, as our conversation revealed, an unsettled soul is what lurks within him, and is probably what gives him his extraordinary capacity to leave himself and go deep into the characters he plays.
INTERVIEW: I want to start by talking about The Brave, which will be your first feature film as a director. What's the story?
JOHNNY DEPP: It's about a guy and his wife and their kids. They live at a really intense level of poverty, out in the middle of nowhere. And the guy is given a choice to make a lot of money, or what seems to him a lot of money, that could bring his family out of this soup bowl. He's given the choice of doing a snuff film in which he would be tortured and killed.
It's his family's only way out?
Yeah. It's the ultimate sacrifice. It's that thing we always say and we've always said since we were kids: "I'd die for my family." If there's a baby in a baby carriage in the middle of the road and there's a car coming at it at one hundred miles per hour and you've got a split second to think and you run out and push the child out of the way and take the hit yourself, what is that? Is that suicide? Or is that the ultimate selfless loving act?
The question here has a contemporary twist, because the choice is not one of, say, dying in battle or taking a bullet to prevent your wife from being killed but of being in a snuff film.
But, in a way, going into a snuff movie is like going into battle for this guy, because of his upbringing. He doesn't have a real education, he's done a couple of years in prison, he can't get a job because of that, and as a Native American and Mexican, he's been exposed to the kind of racism that really does exist in this country. He wants to provide for his family but he can't, so it's a really extreme situation—and a very heavy subject to deal with.
You wrote the screenplay with your brother, Danny, right?
Not the original script. It was submitted to me a couple of years ago as something I might want to act in. I thought it was good and I wanted to direct it, but there were other things I thought should be incorporated into it. I had so many ideas for it and such a specific vision. I called up my brother, who's a writer, and we got together and wrote a quick draft, just to get our bearings, although I'm not really a writer myself. Now, we're just getting ready to go away for a month to try and rewrite the thing.
Do you think you'll want to direct another feature again after you do this one?
I don't know. I never really had any plans to do much of anything, except for years ago when I played the guitar in bands. That was the only thing I could do, so that's what I did do. I started playing the guitar at age twelve, when all you want to be is a rock 'n' roll star, for whatever reason—for girls, for money, for whatever. That's the only plan I've ever really had in my life.
That dream went somewhere for a while, because the Kids, the band you were playing in, opened for some really big-name acts.
Yeah. We did some great shows with some really great people—Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, too many to even name.
What happened to those rocker dreams?
My life took a severe turn. I was dropped off in this other field. It was like getting off one bus and getting onto another. Once I'd become an actor, I knew at a certain point that my career as a musician was dead. I knew that I could never go back and do that for my job.
Because people would always be thinking of you as an actor who happened to play a guitar?
Yeah. I don't want to be one of those actors who tries to sell a zillion records or anything like that. For example, I just made a record with some friends, but I did it as a goof.
Is this the group called P?
Yeah. It's like a bunch of guys who enjoy each other's company and like to make noise together. So we did it and it was a great experience for all of us just to get together and spew. The fact that it was being recorded was almost insignificant. We could have been in a warehouse somewhere in Wyoming and had as much of a good time.
Do you plan to play any live dates?
No. The main thing for me is that I don't want to go out and face all those people. That, to me, is the ultimate kind of screaming-for-attention kind of thing. I'm just not good at all that. It just doesn't fit me. I don't want to be someone who tries to capitalize on success in another field to get people to come see me play, for instance. I don't think of music as a novelty. It's still my first love—absolutely. Music is a real sensual thing. You can hear a song and it takes you right back to that moment in 1967 or whenever you first heard it.
When you were twelve or thirteen and you were just starting to pick up a guitar, was there certain music that meant everything to you?
Let's see. Twelve . . . I think there was a song by Aerosmith called "Season of Wither."
What does that song bring back to you?
It takes me back to right outside Davie, Florida, hanging around the county fairgrounds with my friend Tommy. There was a girl both of us had this crush on. Tommy and I may have been smoking dope, and I was catching my face on fire. [laughs]
People have an image of you as being an outsider or a little rebellious. Was music tied into the formation of that side of you?
It absolutely was. I picked up my first guitar at the age of twelve, and I loved the fucking thing so much. All I did for the next two years was play the guitar. I literally locked myself in my room every day.
After school. I was teaching myself chords, picking things up off records. That's how I got through puberty, just sitting in my room playing guitar, slobbering. Rarely do I remember seeing my family.
Did you grow up feeling separate from them?
In the teen years, yeah, sure. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I dropped out of school and my parents split up. So there was this kind of big scare. My mom got very ill and so the family really came together for a minute or two. By "minute or two" I mean for a period of time. We bonded there, and then that sort of dwindled. So I guess anywhere from twelve to seventeen I felt pretty weird.
So many of your movie roles—in Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert Grape—seem to capture a kind of adolescent awkwardness. But in a funny way there's something strangely comforting about that. Do you ever wish you could revisit those years?
Yeah. I wish I could go back to the place where my head was when I was fifteen or sixteen.
Because even though my family was kind of separated at that point—my sisters were married and my brother was living away—I still had that feeling of safety, like nothing could go wrong. That kind of gets lost in your twenties.
When do you feel you want to be a teenager again?
When my head is swimming and when I'm forced to make decisions about something that might have to happen in six or eight months. I can't stand having to plan something a year from now.
You know what they say: "If you want to make the gods laugh, make a plan."
Well, I went through a lot of years when I didn't take any time for myself.
Because you were working all the time?
I was working constantly, or I was getting fucked up. Trying to hide from whatever feelings or weirdness might have been inside me. I was trying to numb it by getting loaded or whatever. I was postponing the inevitable—that I would have to wake up and stare at the guy in the fucking mirror. [laughs]
When did you start saying to yourself, "I've got to take some time for me now, and I've got to start looking at myself?"
Within the past year. I got great advice and great perspective from people whom I've worked with—friends and family.
Did Marlon Brando give you advice when you worked with him on Don Juan DeMarco?
Sure, he was great for perspective.
Who else have you been listening to lately?
My mom, first of all. My sisters, my brother. The heaviest perspective I got from being with my nieces and nephews was when I realized suddenly that they were looking at Uncle Johnny and they know Uncle Johnny's a fucking weirdo and they know his brain is in the muck. [laughs]
Is that because you weren't sleeping or you were getting out of it too much?
All of the above. I was just everywhere at once and nowhere all at the same time.
Did you decide to stop drinking or doing drugs?
I'd stopped drugs and drinking for years, but just never practiced it. [laughs] I'd begin again, you know. That's the problem with stopping something. You're always looking for the feeling you got the first time you got drunk or smoked a joint.
It never feels the same, though.
It's never gonna. Never.
Sex will never feel like the first time.
And this may be one of the most common artistic themes—wanting to recapture the first time.
It does sound as If you don't need to drink or do drugs as much as you used to.
It's fine, for people who can do it. But after a while, everything starts catching up with you. You only have a limited number of years where you can abuse your brain and your insides and your heart. I feel I've wasted so many years. And there were times when it was a wonder I survived.
But you didn't waste time in the sense of not working.
I worked hard. At the same time, there were times when I played hard. But then there were times when I hid and tried to numb and postpone things and that was really a waste of time.
Do you think that some of the moments of bad-boy behavior that people love to fasten on when they think about you—when you lashed out at someone who bumped you in a club, for example—were often just times when you were a little fucked up and not in touch with what was going on?
There were times when it wasn't even that I was fucked up. Just that I was mixed up or angry and didn't know where to turn or what to do. I didn't have any perspective. You're loaded with anger and resentments. It's very close to the surface. And if somebody pushes the wrong button, then the demons come out. [laughs] There were a number of years when I was controlled by those demons.
Are you getting better at expressing your emotions now?
It's always tough.
With the girls you went out with, would you find yourself having to get loaded in order to say what you wanted to say?
Yeah, I went through that, for sure.
Do you think that made you a difficult person to be with?
I'm sure I was pretty difficult already, but booze or whatever doesn't make anything easier. I would love to be one of those guys who can go out and just have a few drinks and get a little goofy with my pals. Maybe I was that way when I was a teenager, when there was a little more innocence about my life, but when you start doing it to escape from something, you're compounding the problem.
Are you conscious of the relationship between your bottled-up emotional life and what you can express as an actor?
Every actor is different and every actor has a different process. But I think you don't have much choice if you want to do your best: You have to use that stuff.
Brando, as I'm sure you know, likes to say that we're all acting, all the time, in life. Most people just don't think about it.
I agree with him. Everybody's acting. We put on these false smiles to say hello to people that we can't stand. We say, "What a really nice hat you're wearing," and then we walk away and go, "Oh, Jesus, what a piece of shit." That's acting. Brando's right.
Does Brando still work hard?
Sure, he's there for you. He's not like one of those people who are so serious about it all, who, when you're on the set, gives you this upright thing. He's a lot of fun. So you end up fooling around a lot and laughing and stuff like that. But it doesn't take away from the fact that he is very responsible in terms of what's necessary for the scene. He puts a lot of thought into it. You understand why he is as amazing as he is.
When did you first meet him?
When we got together to talk about Don Juan DeMarco a few months before we did it.
Had he seen any of your movies?
I don't know. That would be the last thing I would ask him. [laughs] I still don't know. I don't really care.
Did you feel close to him?
I wouldn't say that I felt really close to him. But I felt an immediate connection with him because I was immediately comfortable.
Is that rare for you?
Yeah. It's very rare. I can't explain why that is.
Tell me what happened on the project you and Brando and Debra Winger started shooting last summer in Ireland?
Divine Rapture. [laughs] You want my experience of it? I had gotten a script from Marlon. He said, "Hey, come over and join me in Ireland. We'll do this thing. It'll be fun." I said, "Sure." I went over. We started shooting and were having a great time. Everything was real good. The next thing we knew, they were saying, "It's over." And that was it.
How did you feel about that?
It was like being in the middle of good sex, and then having—
The lights come on and your mother is in the room.
—the lights turn on and fifteen people with machine guns come in and say, "Stop or die."
I want to ask you about your arrest last year for busting up a Manhattan hotel room. Now, as one who was arrested once myself in New York, and who spent the night in a rank holding pen, I want to say that it was the most humiliating experience of my life. But at least I had the cover of anonymity. You did not.
No, I didn't. I did to some extent, though, because people didn't expect to see me there. [laughs] They had other things on their mind, and seeing me there was not so important. The New York cops that I experienced were pretty nice. They were just doing their job and some goofy actor decided to get into a little bit of trouble and ended up in the pokey.
When you were arrested, did the police realize immediately that you were Johnny Depp? Or did it take them a while to figure it out, like it did when Hugh Grant was arrested last summer?
No. They knew my name.
I won't ask you to rehash the scene of you in jail, which I understood involved the other prisoners screaming your name and the cops asking you for autographs. But I would like to know: Were you taken aback by being arrested in a situation like that?
I just thought, I've done much worse things and not been arrested for them. As a kid you get into stuff and you get away with it. The idea that some guy, like everybody else, gets upset, freaks out, smashes a couple of things, and goes to jail for it—that's one thing. But then for these kinds of things to turn into this media frenzy is another thing. O.K., Hugh Grant got busted with a prostitute. Fine. Leave it at that. What'd I do? Broke a couple of things. I paid for it.
You said that at the hotel that night you just sort of freaked out for a moment. Had you had too much coffee? An argument with your girlfriend [Kate Moss]? A really bad day?
There's one thing I do want to clarify. It had nothing to do with an argument with Kate. It had to do with me.
So no one thing set it off?
O.K. There was a bug in the place that I was trying to kill. This thing had tried to attack me and tried to suck my blood—a big cockroach. And I tried to get it, I tried to whack it. I'd miss and I'd smash a lamp.
So this was all about trying to kill a bug?
One very big bug.
Do you have a thing about bugs, generally?
I like bugs, normally.
Enough about bugs. It may disappoint some people who want to see you as a bad boy that you're not really at a place anymore where that's relevant—that you're less likely to express your anger in a way you might have done before. Do you know what I mean?
I've never thought about any of that stuff. We all have to do what we think is best for us. We all have to survive and keep walking forward through all the obstacles. The fact that I'm not getting heavily polluted anymore and self-destructing with substances—all that doesn't mean that I'm Mr. Conformity now, 'cause I probably am not. I'm not better or well, although I'd like to be well, whatever "well" is. It's all a big crapshoot.
Do you have anything invested in not being a conformist?
I just don't . . . I'm not going to play the game just for the sake of winning, whether it's the Hollywood game or the nice-guy game or whatever game it is. I just want to do what I want to do. And if it works within my career, then great. If it doesn't, fuck it. I won't be a slave to success.
What about your new movie, Nick of Time? Some people might think that you're making a conscious attempt to do something a little more commercial than usual.
Well, it's not a conscious attempt to be commercial at all. I read the screenplay and liked it a lot. I was on the edge of my seat when I read this thing. It reminded me a lot of the old Hitchcock films. I wanted to do it, and I wanted to work with [director] John Badham. I was a big fan of Saturday Night Fever, which he directed; it's a great movie. I also wanted to work with Christopher Walken, whom I've always admired. And on my next movie [ Donnie Brasco] I get to work with someone else I admire, Al Pacino.
It's interesting to see you with a daughter in Nick of Time. To my knowledge, it's the first time you've played a father. You're so believable in it. I think a lot of people who thought you could only play troubled teens were amazed to see you pull off Ed Wood and Don Juan DeMarco. Now they'll have to accept you as a young dad. They'll have to sit up, as I did after watching Gilbert Grape, and realize how convincing you are.
What happened to me for a while is that people started calling me "oddball." They thought I could only play these outcasts. So, this was a chance to play something really straight.
With Donnie Brasco, it's back to something with a little more edge. And then you go right on to direct The Brave. How de you feel about that?
I got about six months off after Nick of Time. It's nice to have some uninterrupted time. Most of the time, I'm just swimming around, man, and going mental—too much activity in the skull. Right now, I have a little bit more clarity.