Johnny Depp looks rotten. Or so he says. The women on Sunset Boulevard would surely disagree. Many of them would marry him on the spot. But then Depp seldom bows to majority opinion. As he lights another cigarette and drinks more coffee at a bookstore cafe on Sunset, his attention flits to a bee—a killer bee encased in Lucite. It's one of many oddball souvenirs he receives from friends and admirers. Bugs are serious business to Depp, who collects exotic paraphernalia. His career—the other subject under discussion at the table—is taken more lightly. Acting, he explains, is nothing but "making faces for cash." Others take his work more seriously. Depp is "one of the great young actors," says European director Emir Kusturica. Marlon Brando, Vincent Price and Faye Dunaway have said the same. Brando says that Depp should do Shakespeare, while Dunaway claims he is both a superb actor and a super kisser. The on-screen Depp is the world's greatest lover; offscreen he's a famed romancer of actresses and supermodels. "He doesn't belong in show business," his Ed Wood co-star Sarah Jessica Parker once remarked. "He belongs somewhere better." Lasse Hallstrom, who directed him in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, says, "He has real ambitions, but he is deeply afraid of being considered pretentious."
And one other thing: He looks great in a dress.
At 32, Johnny Depp is entering the heart of what he calls, with casual self-deprecation, "my quote-unquote career." His is a goofy oeuvre, perhaps most impressive because he's carved a unique niche without making a box office hit. Thus far, the Kentucky-born Depp has made misfit movies. He was a boy monster in Edward Scissorhands, top-hatted oddball in Benny & Joon, keeper of a retarded brother in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and the unsinkable cross-dressing director in Ed Wood. Nobody plays human frailty like Depp. Even though he made women swoon in Don Juan DeMarco, he played the fabled lover as a committed loon.
His new films are John Badham's Nick of Time, in which he plays an accountant turned assassin, and Dead Man, an eerie Jim Jarmusch Western that is scheduled for release later this year. Even after opting for Dead Man over the slick epic Mobsters, a choice that cost him millions of dollars, he was criticized when he signed to star in Badham's thriller. Industry watchers thought he was doing "the Keanu thing," foregoing his traditional quirky roles for a commercial blockbuster. But for Depp, Nick of Time is no typical action flick. It's one of the first films since Hitchcock's Rope to tell its tale in real time, each screen minute equaling 60 seconds of his character's strife. And it's his task in the film to gun down a female governor. Still, thriller is as thriller seems, and if the film is a hit, Depp will probably be charged with cynicism.
That's one crime he has not committed. Drug use and hotel abuse, perhaps, but not calculation. Which may be why Depp made the difficult transition from teen hunk on TV's 21 Jump Street eight years ago to film star. Along the way, he has escaped the trivia heap by making brave, eccentric movie choices. Imagine David Cassidy as Gilbert Grape. Picture Kirk Cameron as an assassin. Or better yet, consider Richard Grieco, Depp's megacool Jump Street co-star, as a name anyone would recognize.
Depp can be equally defined by the roles he didn't take. He reportedly spurned Keanu Reeves' part in Speed, Brad Pitt's role in Legends of the Fall and Lestat in Interview With the Vampire . Of course, Tom Cruise played Lestat—a neat twist, because Cruise is said to have refused the role of Edward Scissorhands because Edward, while cutting edge, wasn't handsome.
Depp says he respects Cruise but has no interest in "the Tom Cruise thing"—box office godhood. He can now command $4 million per film but often takes far less for pet projects, including his friend Jarmusch's Dead Man.
He has danced to his own drummer since his 1984 debut in A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which he got sucked through a bed into hell. Along the way he has fallen for some of America's most desirable women. He has had offscreen relationships with Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing) and Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks). A rumored liaison—public, if not pubic—with Madonna was followed by a notorious engagement to Winona Ryder and the requisite tattoo, WINONA FOREVER. When they broke up, he had the tattoo removed a letter at a time; at one point it read WINO FOREVER.
Today he and his latest love, ubermodel Kate Moss, are the prom king and queen of young Hollywood—beautiful, thin chainsmokers with an air of sex and tragedy. Or call them, thanks to their morbid humor, the new Gomez and Morticia. Johnny once made a shrine in his movie-set trailer, placing candles around a photo of Kate with a bride of Frankenstein hairdo.
Their hangout, the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard, which Johnny co-owns, was the scene of River Phoenix' fatal overdose in October 1993. The horror of that Halloween has faded, and today's Viper Room more than ever resembles its owners: notorious and nice. "It's a fun place again," he says, passing the strip of cement where Phoenix died, "but you never forget."
Depp is all about his past. In 1970, when he was seven years old, his family left Kentucky for Miramar, Florida, where the Depps moved from house to house and sometimes lived in motels. Depp's father took off when Johnny was 15. His mother, Betty Sue, worked as a waitress, and Johnny counted her tips after work. He also developed a fierce devotion to society's outcasts.
In high school he was suspended for mooning a teacher. Shortly after that he dropped out and worked pumping gas. Once, trying to learn to breathe fire like circus performers, he blew a mouthful of gasoline at a flame. His eyes lit up as the blaze raced toward him—then his eyebrows and hair lit up, too. He barely escaped.
To "get an identity" (and meet girls) he joined a band. He played guitar with the Kids, a group that was good enough to open for the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and the B-52s. They went to Los Angeles to make it in the big time but flopped instead. Depp needed work. That's when Nicolas Cage, a pal from the music scene, said, "You should meet my agent."
Depp auditioned for director Wes Craven. Legend has it Craven's daughter, with whom Depp ran lines that day, fell in love with the new kid in town. He won a role in Craven's Elm Street, which led to Private Resort, a 1985 teen sexploitation pic in which his bare butt played second banana to then-unknown Rob Morrow. Next came stardom.
As a narc on 21 Jump Street, Fox TV's first hit, Depp became a poster boy to female teen America. He hated every minute of it. As soon as he was free of his contract, he spat on his Jump Street image by starring in John Waters' spoof Cry-Baby.
The grungy offscreen Depp is fascinated by the macabre. He is a student of the nether zones of biology and the extremes of abnormal psychology. (He recently bought Bela Lugosi's old house for $2.3 million.) He collects skeletons, paintings of scary clowns and, as mentioned, bugs. As with his work, there is a twitchy humor to his collectibles, his conversation, even his arrests. They're all funny if you view them as he does—as brief excursions on our common march to the graveyard. In 1994 he was jailed for trashing a $1200-a-night suite in New York City's Mark Hotel. Handcuffed and led by police to a sidewalk jammed with reporters demanding his reaction, he nodded toward the cops and said, "I've met some really nice people."
Is Depp a nice person? We decided to send Contributing Editor Kevin Cook to find out. His report:
"Johnny Depp often runs late. To him, a watch would be a handcuff. So I was pleased when he showed up less than an hour after the time we had arranged. He shook my hand and apologized, saying he had run his motorcycle into a pink Ford Escort.
He led me into the quiet, dark Viper Room—black walls, mirrors, black upholstered booths. The booths are marked with brass plaques engraved with the names of preferred guests and a warning to interlopers: DON'T FUCK WITH IT. The place was empty in the early afternoon. We went downstairs to Depp's sanctum, where we sat on a couch near a closed-circuit TV that monitors the club above. We talked all day. I was impressed by his intelligence and earnestness. He was often tongue-tied, struggling to shoehorn his convoluted thoughts into sentences. Watching him grope for words, I couldn't help rooting for him to unearth the mots justes he was trying for.
A minor point: Depp's Viper Room co-owner, Chuck E. Weiss, who happens to be the eponym of Rickie Lee Jones' song Chuck E's in Love, has joked that Johnny is such an artistic, sensitive person that he 'sits on the toilet and pees like a woman.' But it's not so. We did about a minute of this interview in their club's men's room, and I can assure you he's a stand-up guy."
PLAYBOY: You have only one urinal. Does the Viper Room men's room get crowded on weekends?
JOHNNY DEPP:[Nods] It used to get wet. There was a guy who would somehow sneak in here with a monkey wrench. He would loosen a nut on the urinal so that when the next person flushed, water would go everywhere. It was like Niagara Falls. You had people running from the bathroom, slipping, security guys sprinting over to throw down towels. This happened fairly regularly for weeks, and I came to respect the toilet guy. I liked his method, his consistency. He clearly took pride in toilet sabotage. But then it stopped, and I kind of miss him.
Why do you call the place the Viper Room?
After a group of musicians in the Thirties who called themselves Vipers. They were reefer heads and they helped start modern music. [Lights a cigarette] You know one great thing about having your own club? You get free matches.
Do you have any plans to quit smoking?
Nah. I think if you find something you're good at, you should stick with it. I have switched to lights, though. It got to where I would wheeze going up a flight of stairs, so I went to diet cigarettes.
You've been accused of selling out—"doing the Keanu thing," as one critic said—for making Nick of Time.
Who cares? I'm interested in story and character and doing things that haven't been done a zillion times. When I read Nick of Time I could see the guy mowing the grass, watering his lawn, putting out the Water Wiggle in the backyard for his kid, and I liked the challenge of playing him. He's nothing like me. And I wanted to work with John Badham because he made Saturday Night Fever and invented some interesting ways of shooting. Nick of Time is a thriller, and it gives me a chance to play a straight, normal, suit-and-tie guy.
If you wanted big money you could have also made Mobsters, a potential hit. You've turned down other mainstream films for movies such as Dead Man. How much did that one pay?
Less than my expenses during the shoot. But it's a poetic film. I did Dead Man so I could work with Jim Jarmusch. I trust Jim as a director and a friend and a genius.
How do you see your career? Is it something you're sculpting as you go along, a body of work?
It's more primitive. I look at the story and the character and say, "Can I add any ingredients to make a nice soup?" In some sense there is a monofilament running through the guys I've played. They are outsiders. They're people society says aren't normal, and I think you have to stand up for people like that. But I didn't plan it. It's not like I had to play them. Except for Don Juan, I had to play that guy, and Edward Scissorhands. I loved Edward. He was total honesty. Honesty is what matters, and I have an absurd fascination with it, whether it means being true to your girl, your work or yourself.
You weren't on the list for Scissorhands until Tim Burton met you and was won over. Did he ever say what he detected in the former star of 21 Jump Street?
Tim isn't the type to verbalize it, but in snippets of conversations he has said it had to do with my eyes. My eyes looked like I carried more years than I had lived. He also felt my looks were deceptive, because I wasn't what people thought.
What was that?
Oh, whatever catchphrase they sew onto your back.
Yeah. Or confident actor.
Are you a method actor? Are you in character between takes?
No, and I don't buy it when a guy says, "You must call me Henry the Eighth. Even when I go get a Dr Pepper I am Henry the Eighth!" I can't see that. If you're truly in character it becomes unconscious. If you realize you're in character or say you are, then you're fucked. It means that you're satisfied, and that's the worst.
Your eccentric films make people wonder if you're allergic to box office success. Aren't you tempted to make one big score, one Batman, to bankroll your pet projects?
That demon has visited me. He's my best pal. He says, "Look, make two movies that are obvious commercial vehicles, blockbusters, and you'll have the freedom to do smaller independent or experimental films. You can build an audience and bring it into that new world—open some minds." I've thought that, but I don't believe it. I would feel untrue to myself, untrue to the people who appreciate the choices I've made. For me the career thing has to be a little purer, more organic.
And you are happy with your choices?
Maybe I was trying to do movies for good reasons—to make something I believed in—but I never thought of them as small, eccentric films. To me, Ed Wood wasn't a small film even if it ultimately made ten dollars.
You were shooting Divine Rapture, an unusual film co-starring Marlon Brando, when financing collapsed, production stopped and everyone was sent home.
That sucked. One minute we're filming, the next minute there's no money. It was like being in the middle of sex, right at the peak, and a guy walks in with a gun: "Stop it now." That's when you feel shitty, because you remember it's the movie business, based on money.
Brando used to say he was so disgusted with the business that he didn't care anymore, he just wanted the money.
If he could do that, I applaud it. If I could do a bunch of movies and make zillions of dollars and not care, why not? I just can't do it now. It's probably ridiculous the way I talk about honesty and shit when really, what am I being true to? Some company. A bunch of guys who invest in a movie. They buy the product and distribute it. That's not so pure. It's art and commerce, oil and water, and here I am in some sort of artistic frenzy. Maybe I'm just very naive. Twenty minutes from now I'll probably say fuck it and sell out completely.
Do you remember the first time you saw yourself-on-screen?
I got sick. I went to see dailies on Nightmare on Elm Street. I was 21, and didn't know what was going on. It was like looking in a huge mirror. It wasn't how I looked that bothered me, though I did look like a geek in that movie. It was seeing myself up there pretending.
And you heaved?
I didn't actually vomit, but I felt like vomiting.
These days when Hollywood makes you sick, you and Kate Moss run off to London or Paris. What are you escaping from?
Fame, celebrity—it's not such a big deal in Europe. People seem to understand that you just have a weird job. They're not running after you trying to carve chunks out of you. It's strange in the States. Most fans here are great, but there's a handful who have seen the movies and feel they know you. They think it's all right to touch you and ask personal questions.
Like we're doing now.
But I'm selective about my interviews. I may quit doing them, too, because I always feel violated afterward. And stupid, for talking about myself for hours and hours.
You want the job but not the flashbulbs.
Look, I used to work construction. I've pumped gas and sold T-shirts in my adult life, and there's nothing worse than some rich actor saying, "Oh, my life is so hard." I'm lucky to have this job. And celebrity, fame, whatever that stuff is, is a hazard of the job. Maybe I should do what Brando did 30 years ago. Buy an island. Maybe take my girl and some friends and just go there and sleep. And read and swim and think clear thoughts. Because you really can't do that here. You can't be normal, not with people hitting you up at any given moment with bizarre requests. You can't just hang out and have a cup of coffee and pick your nose or [reaching for his crotch] adjust your package, you know?
You should be a baseball player.
Right. I could spit and grab my crotch. Like that lady who sang the national anthem—what's her name?
I liked that. It was ballsy of her.
So there's an island on your Christmas list?
If there's anything I really want, it's privacy. It's the island idea. You do get to where your money can help your family, and that's a great thing. You can buy that wristwatch you want, too. But mostly you now have to pay for simplicity. You use your money to buy privacy because during most of your life you aren't allowed to be normal. You're on display, always looked at, which puts you at a disadvantage for the people looking at you know that it's you. They say, "It's you!" But you don't know them. That's bad for an actor because the most important thing you can do is observe people. And now you can't because you're the one being observed.
Some of it must be enjoyable.
It's very nice when people come up and say, "I really liked Don Juan DeMarco, please sign my napkin." What gets to me is being watched, whispered about. Would you ever walk up to someone on the street and say, "Can I kiss you?" No, you'd get smacked. "Can I look inside your wallet?" "What size is your shoe?" "Can I have your hat?" Some requests are too fucking surreal. On Dead Man I was hanging out with Jarmusch and the crew, smoking cigarettes, and there was a guy lurking, checking me out. He looked normal enough, but his eyes were a little too open. So I knew he'd come up to me, which he did. "Hi, Johnny! Wanna go have a drink?" I said, "Thanks, I'm OK." He said, "Listen, you could really help me out. My wife and I are separating, but I want to get back with her. She's a big fan of yours." He wanted me to go home with him and mediate his divorce. I wouldn't, so he said he'd call her on the phone and we could talk it out. Now, that stuff goes too far. You want to say, "Can't we just kiss? Could you just shove your tongue down my gullet and be done with it?"
Some female fans love you enough to send you highly personal mementos.
Nude pictures in the mail, yes. Tons of them. Some are beautiful—nicely lit, black-and-white, mysterious. Some are out-and-out primitive. Then there are the pubes. I've gotten a lot of pubic hairs in the mail. I don't save them. I guess you could get ritualistic about it, burn the pubes in a fire, but I'm not sure I want to touch them so I throw them away.
How does it feel to be so handsome that women yank out their pubes for you?
I have no control over that. It's demeaning when people talk about my looks. I think I usually look like shit, and most people would probably agree.
You once said you feel more comfortable dining in a movie than in a restaurant.
Calmer, anyway. In a real restaurant you may notice people talking under their breath, staring. It builds up in your head and you want to run.
Do you and Kate have techniques for avoiding bad scenes?
If we run into a gaggle of paparazzi I'll avoid eye contact. I'll also put on my sunglasses. That way they don't get paid as much for the picture.
Are you and Kate going to get married?
I love Kate more than anything. Certainly enough to marry her. But as far as putting our names on paper, making weird public vows that signify ownership—it's not in the cards.
Are you monogamous?
I'm very true. I wouldn't hurt her and I expect she wouldn't hurt me. Fidelity is important as long as it's pure. But the moment it goes against your insides—if you want to be somewhere else, if she wants to dabble—then you need to make a change. I'm not sure any human being is made to be with one person forever and ever, amen. My own parents didn't do it; my dad left when I was 15. And maybe in some of my public relationships . . . maybe I was trying to right the wrongs of my parents by creating a classic fairy-tale love. Trying to solve the fear of abandonment we all have. Anyway, it didn't work. That's not to say I didn't love those people. I have been with some great girls and I certainly thought I loved them, though now I have my doubts. I felt something intense, but was it love? I don't know. So now I can't say I can love someone forever, or if anybody can.
According to a recent story, you and Kate had set a wedding date. She wanted engraved invitations, but you wanted to send out a riddle so your friends would have to guess where to show up.
It's fiction. I can guarantee you that if I woke up one day with a wild hair up my ass to get hitched, there wouldn't be invitations. We'd run out and do it.
What do you think when you see Kate's picture on a billboard?
I think she's beautiful. Calvin Klein is lucky to have her. If we're apart and I see her picture I'll miss her, not because of a billboard but because she's always on my mind anyway.
What's something she does better than you?
Modeling. And she's great at games. She beats the shit out of me at gin rummy. Kate is a great girl, very smart. We're a good team because she's a light sleeper. You could hit me with a baseball bat and I wouldn't wake up. But she'll wake up: "Was that a pin dropping?" So I get some protection.
Does all the gossip bother you?
It's part of the game. You know that the tabloids—from the obvious ones to the subtler ones such as Time and Newsweek—will print anything to sell those fuckers. But you hear it and it can be stressful. Suppose you and I are at a bar, and you say hello to a girl. That's innocent. For me the same thing becomes: They were dangling from the St. James Hotel with hairbrushes sticking out of their asses. That can cause a strain.
You mean that it wasn't the St. James?
Sorry, never happened. Here's another one: Kate and I had a huge fight at a hotel in New York, a real screaming match in the lobby. It was in the papers. I thought it was pretty magical of us, for we were in France at the time.
What happened on September 13, 1994, when you smashed up a room at New York's Mark Hotel?
Another instance of not being allowed to be normal. I was having a bad day. I think we all have those, but if somebody else does what I did it's not usually in the news. A security guy came to my door, and I said, basically, "I'm sorry, I broke some things. I'll repay you." But that's not good enough. I go to jail. And the next day this gets equal billing with the invasion of Haiti, me beating up a hotel room. Imagine if I had hit somebody.
That clearly bothered you.
[With an Ed Wood grin] It's all in a day's work!
Don't you invite it, though, by dating famous people? How come celebs fall in love only with other celebs?
Probably because you have mutual friends. You move in the same circles. It's like working in a factory—you strike up friendships with other employees. Also, you'll go to a restaurant or a bar that caters to other people who know what it's like to be exposed. So maybe they're not after you so much.
With the Viper Room you've bought your own hideout.
It's easier here. I'll have a couple beers or a glass of wine, get up and play my guitar with some friends. Every Thursday is martini night, a good time. One of the best nights for me was when Johnny Cash played here.
He must have matched the black decor.
Yeah, he was brilliant and he blended in. He was just a head floating up there—beautiful.
The tabs have linked you with other celebrities, including Madonna.
I read that I was in bed with her, which is a ton of shit. I have met her and it went like this: "How do you do?" "Hello, how are you?" Now when anyone asks about my affair with Madonna I say no, wrong—it was the Pope. He swept me off my feet.
For the record, how did you get under the robes of John Paul II?
Well, he's shy. I didn't want to push too hard, but we shared a bottle of wine and I can tell you, the man is a great kisser. Watch him when he gets off a plane. He'll really give that runway a good one.
You're known for dodging attention by using fake names when you check into hotels. But your pseudonyms make good copy. Mr. Donkey Penis?
It's just that if you register as Mr. Poopy, for instance, you get a funny wake-up call. I used to use the name Mr. Stench; it was funny to be in a posh hotel and hear a very proper concierge call out, "Mr. Stench, please!" I never really stayed under the name Donkey Penis. That was an example I mentioned to a reporter once. But I have been Roid, Emma Roid.
You've said journalistic "fictions" bother you. What has been the worst?
When something heavy happens and nine out of ten magazines turn it into a fucking vulture fest. They turn you into something sick.
You're talking about River Phoenix.
When River passed away, it happened to be at my club. Now that's very tragic, very sad, but they made it a fiasco of lies to sell fucking magazines. They said he was doing drugs in my club, that I allow people to do drugs in my club. What a ridiculous fucking thought! "Hey, I'm going to spend a lot of money on this nightclub so everyone can come here and do drugs. I think that's a good idea, don't you? We'll never get found out. It's not like this place is high profile or anything, right?" That lie was ridiculous and disrespectful to River. But aside from River, and his family trying to deal with their loss, what about people who work in the club? They have moms and dads in, like, Oklahoma, reading about the place where their daughter tends bar and thinking, Jesus, she's out in Hollywood swimming around with these awful creatures!
It was awful for my nieces and nephews to read that stuff, to have every two-bit pseudojournalist speculating viciously . . . viciously. And it hurt.
How did you cope?
I closed the club for a few nights. To get out of the way so River's fans could bring messages, bring flowers. And I got angry. I made a statement to the press: "Fuck you. I will not be disrespectful to River's memory. I will not participate in your fucking circus."
Is it haunting to walk past the spot where River died?
At first it was. I couldn't go to the club without thinking of it. Later I came to terms with the fact that it had nothing to do with the club. He was here a very short time. It had nothing to do with anything, really, except that what he ingested was bad, and now there is nothing we can do.
Did you shed tears that night?
That's a weird question.
You don't have to answer.
Yes. I shed tears when I heard someone had died. It wasn't until later, four or five in the morning, that they told me it was River. It's so sad to see a young life end. And now I'm starting to feel like I'm on The Barbara Walters Special. Are you going to make me cry?
No, we'll even change the subject. Let's talk about your boyhood. What's your earliest memory?
Catching lightning bugs. Beautiful, fascinating bugs. There was a little girl who lived next door who had a brace on her leg. We used to play on the swing set, and the night the astronauts landed on the moon, her father came out and looked up and said, in all seriousness, "When man sets foot on the face of the moon, the moon will turn to blood." I was shocked. I remember thinking, Geez, I'm six and that's a little deep for me. I stayed up watching the moon. It was a big relief when it didn't change.
Didn't you have an uncle who was a Bible-thumping preacher?
Yes. That gave me an odd sense of religion. He was theatrical in the pulpit. He would start crying, praising the Lord. Pretty soon the adults were screaming hallelujah, getting on their hands and knees, crawling up to kiss his shoes, and I just didn't buy it. I'm not saying my uncle was full of shit, because he was a good guy. I just didn't like the duality—seeing him behave normally at home and a whole different way in the pulpit. It was too convenient. Why did the Lord strike you only in church? Why didn't he hit you in the bathroom or when you were barbecuing hot dogs?
As a boy, did you think you were headed for big things? Did you ever want to be a movie star?
At four or five I fancied myself a Matt Helm, the spy Dean Martin played. I also wanted to be Flint—James Coburn. Those guys got all the women.
Were you geeky as a kid?
I'm geeky now. I sure don't look around and say, "Hey, isn't this great?" I've never felt that and probably never will.
Did you like your name? It's a great movie name, but a kid might rather be Johnny Jones.
It spawned nicknames. I was Johnny Dip. Deppity Dog. Dippity-Do. I didn't mind it, and didn't really think about it until my first movie, when they asked how I wanted to be billed. John Depp? It sounds pumped up. I was always Johnny.
You were a kid when the family moved from Kentucky to Miramar, Florida.
We moved like gypsies. From the time I was five until my teens we lived in 30 or 40 different houses. That probably has a lot to do with my transient life now. But it's how I was raised so I thought there was nothing abnormal about it. Wherever the family is, that's home. We lived in apartments, on a farm, in a motel. Then we rented a house, and one night we moved from there to the house next door. I remember carrying my clothes across the yard and thinking, This is weird, but it's an easy move.
Were you a bully? Ever beat up anyone?
The guys I hung out with in my early teens were bullies, kind of, so I did a little of that. Picking on someone, pushing people around. I didn't like it. It got me so angry that I'd be on the poor guy's side.
Meanwhile, you hated school—
I wasn't learning. I felt the teachers were there to kill eight hours and get paid. I had more fun playing guitar. I was playing in a band in nightclubs at an early age, and that was an education.
How old were you when you lost your virginity?
I was about 13, playing guitar at a club, and this girl who was a little older had been hanging around listening to us. She was a virgin, too. That night we just . . . partook. It was in the bass player's van, a blue Ford. I knew what to do—I had studied the subject for many years. And I remember us laughing, having a good time together. It's a sweet, sweet memory. She became my girl for a while, but then we lost touch. I haven't seen her in a long time, about 19 years.
You were 15 when your parents split up. Were you crushed?
There wasn't time. It was too traumatic for my mom.
Betty Sue—her name is on the heart tattoo on your left arm.
She got very ill. Her life as she had known it for 20 years was over. Her partner, her husband, her best friend, her lover, had just left her. I felt crushed that he had left, but when you're faced with something like that, it's amazing how much abuse the human mind and heart can take. You just get past what you need to get past. Sure, on some level I was thinking, Wait a minute, what happened to my family? What about stability, the safety of the home? But my feelings were secondary to thinking about my mom. All the focus was on her getting through that time, which she finally did, and now everyone is pretty OK. I'm even on good terms with my dad.
At the time, though, you were subject to various fears.
Oh, yes. My sister Christi had a baby when I was 17, and I had just heard about crib death. The horrible thing was that it wasn't understood. For some unknown reason the baby would stop breathing. So I would sneak into where the baby was sleeping and put my hand in her crib, hold her little finger, and I'd sleep on the floor like that. It was stupid, I'm sure. But I thought the warmth of my hand might help, that maybe if she felt my pulse it would remind her to breathe.
You were sensitive.
A total paranoid.
You dropped out of high school about that time. Did the other Depps try to talk you out of it?
No, they were supportive. It was other people, family friends, who thought I was a shithead. They figured I was proving them right by dropping out of school to play guitar in nightclubs. And I thought maybe they were right. My main feeling when I left school was one of insecurity. It was, What the fuck am I gonna do? I'm nobody. I'm a fuckup, just like those outside voices say. I seriously considered joining the Marines because I didn't want to be a fuckup. I thought that if I joined the Marines and learned to deal with authority, maybe I could be a normal guy.
Then why aren't you crewcut Colonel Depp today?
My band had some success.
You were 17. Your band, the Kids, rubbed shoulders with major acts when they toured Florida. There's a famous tale about you and Iggy Pop.
We opened for the Ramones, the Pretenders, the Talking Heads. One night we opened for Iggy. It went great. After the show I was pretty drunk, and in the Iggy tradition I wanted more, so I started screaming at him. Just sophomoric insults: "Iggy Poop! Who the fuck are you? Iggy Slop!" He got in my face and said, "You little turd." And walked away. So of course I was delighted. I looked over at the bass player and said, "Yeah, that was Iggy. He's a god."
A few years later he played a supporting role in Cry-Baby. Did he remember you?
No. He said he didn't remember much from those years.
Pretty soon after that you went out west with the band.
We got bored in south Florida. We had to move to Los Angeles to make it big. I remember the drive out. Driving 18 hours at a stretch, you hit a kind of hallucinatory state of sleep deprivation that sends you into orbit. You blink and look up and you're driving into the devil's mouth. It was a good time. You have high hopes because you're not thinking of yourself as a self but as a band member, that great camaraderie. Then, before you know it, you're on your own.
But the band shattered on contact with the big time?
We broke up, and I couldn't lean on the drummer or the bass player anymore. It was all me. I had to deliver.
So what was your first step?
I sold pens.
On the street?
It was marketing—working the phone from a big stuffy building in Hollywood, near Hollywood and Vine. The best thing about that job was using the phone—I'd call my family in Florida on the pretext of selling them pens. The boss, the pen boss, would circle the room, but when he went by I'd say, "How many pens would you like, 288? Two gross?" After he passed I'd whisper, "Mom, are you there?" The free phone calls were fine, but the sales pitch was a batch of lies. Telling people they could win a trip to Greece or a beautiful grandfather dock. So I learned my pen-selling script—it was really my first acting gig—and then ad-libbed. I actually sold some pens. But I felt so bad lying that I began telling people, "Don't buy the fucking pens. The grandfather clock is made of corkboard."
Ending your telemarketing career. Fortunately, you had a friend, Nicolas Cage.
We became friends through music when I was in the band. He had already done Valley Girl, Rumble Fish and Cotton Club, so I knew him as an actor. But I wasn't planning to be one. We just hung out.
At the parking garage of a local mall?
That's the story. We were messing around one night at the Beverly Center, having a giggle. We may have been drinking. We were goofing around, and the story is that we wound up hanging by our fingers five stories up on the parking structure. I don't remember, but I'm thinking we did.
It seems that there's something particularly postmodern about daredevil acts at a mall.
It was the ultimate death-defying white-trash act.
Cage arranged to get you a tryout for Elm Street and you were well on your way.
But even after that first movie I never thought that there would be others. I didn't necessarily want there to be. I wanted to play my guitar. But with the band broken up, I needed rent money. I needed cigarettes.
After Elm Street you moved to 21 Jump Street. You reportedly detested the show that made you famous. Did you really think 21 Jump Street was "fascist"?
Sure it was. Cops in school? I mean, bad things happen in schools, but this was even worse than cops in school. It was preachy, pointing the finger. And it was hypocritical because the people running that show, the very highest of the higher-ups, were getting high. They were getting loaded. And then to say, "Now kiddies, don't do this" was horseshit. I was miserable living that lie for three years. Mortified. I was getting loaded, too. Am I really the one to say, "Don't get high"?
Did you try to get out of your contract?
I offered to do a year of the show for free. I hate sounding like, "Oh, I'm on television and they're paying me a load of money, poor me," but I would have done two years for free to get out of there. They were trying to turn me into Menudo, into the New Kids on the Block. I couldn't play that game. I would rather shrink back into everyday life than get stuck being that.
You must have enjoyed being America's dreamboat at least a little.
Not for one day. To enjoy lying? Enjoy being a piece of a machine, the product of a huge assembly line? No. And fighting the label of heartthrob is hard, too. By then I wanted to be an actor, and that was impossible on TV.
Jump Street got you invited to the Reagan White House.
Yeah, for a Just Say No event. That was the biggest joke of all. But I took my mom and she loved it. We watched all the people—everyone acting so proper, trying to get close to the president. We were desperate for coffee, but there was no coffee allowed, no caffeine. People were putting away the booze, though. We had a laugh.
Is your mother a movie fan?
She doesn't talk much about my movies, though she knows when I'm real, when it's me at my most honest. She can sift through whatever horseshit I might have thrown in there and find that. I took her to the premiere of Don Juan and we talked later. It was in the anger, the flare-ups, and some of the sad moments when she could see me.
Is she proud?
Sometimes she still looks at me and says, "God, can you believe your life? Going from living in a motel to all this?" She's still a little shocked. So am I. I'm probably more shocked than anyone. Being able to earn money making faces, telling lies! When it all started about eight years ago, she was still a waitress. People, customers, would say, "You're Johnny Depp's mom!" and she'd be all proud. Then it took a turn, and now it's more uncomfortable. Whom can you trust? Who's real and who's just smiling? I think she's getting tired of it.
You've publicly ducked questions about you and Brando, saying the two of you have never discussed acting.
We have talked about it. I think he feels compelled to tell me about his experiences, to offer advice. He has said I should play Hamlet, for one thing. What I remember are scenes we had in Don Juan. There are times when you're trying to get somewhere inside, but there's so much stuff going on around you—the guy with the clapboard, the grip over there drinking coffee, the director going "action"—that you're just not ready. He was there for me then. He helps create an atmosphere that makes those moments easier. Even if it's just by laughing, talking, looking at you. He helped make scenes between the two of us totally private.
Sounds romantic. Did he moon you, too?
[Laughing] A couple of times. I mooned him back.
All the feelings are there: teacher and student, father and son. He's a hero.
Were you jealous when he kissed Larry King on TV?
He did kiss Larry King, didn't he? I think it was sweet. Maybe I should be jealous because I didn't kiss Larry.
You have another passion: collecting odd things. What's the latest?
There's a bug store in Paris off the Boulevard St. Germain. I love snooping around in there. I recently bought a gift for a friend, a bug that looks shockingly like a leaf. The veins, the coloring, all perfect. If this guy were in a tree, you couldn't find him with a microscope—and that, to me, is a miracle. How could evolution attain that disguise? Insects are fascinating. You could never wipe them out. They're too fucking tough and too smart.
What else? Do you collect shrunken heads?
In Lima, Peru I bought an enormous, beautiful bat and two dozen lacquered, stuffed piranhas. Coming home through Customs was funny. "What's in the box? . . . "Oh, 24 piranhas and a bat." "OK, strip-search this guy!"
Do you own anything that is ordinary?
I have a lot of pictures that kids have sent me. They are some of the best things—little kids really identify with Edward Scissorhands, and they send me great, pure-genius pieces of art. Paintings of Edward, some of Sam in Benny & Joon—kids like Sam, too. They like the fairy tales. I frame some of those and put them on a wall in my house.
You also had a painting by serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Why?
I'm fascinated by the dark and the absurd. I'm drawn to what's behind that. And don't we all have a bit of the ambulance chaser in us? The Gacy painting is one he did in prison. It's of Pogo the Clown, a character he used to play at neighborhood get-togethers, family functions. Now, most people believed that Gacy was a pillar of the community, a normal businessman, even as he committed those horrible murders. I suppose what intrigues me is that even after he was caught and put in prison, he was painting this other image he had of himself—the nice guy who played the clown.
Do you think he believed the nice-guy image?
I think he did, but he was driven by his sickness. Anyway, I got rid of it. I paid more than Gacys were going for and naively believed the money went to the victims' families, which wasn't true. I gave the thing away. I didn't want it around anymore.
What else gives you the creeps?
I used to have a nightmare that I was being chased through bushes and fronds by the skipper from Gilligan's Island. I don't know what was on his mind, but it wasn't good and I didn't want anything to do with it. As a kid I was also afraid of John Davidson.
The TV crooner?
Yeah. I'd see him on television when I was younger, and it was that thing that scared me—the smile that was always there. The Man Who Always Smiles. That was frightening because it's not real. You knew he might have been feeling like shit, might have wanted to kill somebody, but this was his persona, to smile. And it's not just him. That thing is everywhere.
Every politician is John Davidson. Eight out of ten producers are John Davidson. I know directors and loads of actors who are John Davidson.
How about you? Have you ever been a Davidson?
[Nods] There are times when you put on a smile. It's a fucking drag, but you mask your feelings because there's nothing else to do. For instance, you're giving an interview and the guy says, "How are you?" You can't say, "I feel fucking rotten, I don't enjoy this shit and I would really like to strangle you."
Strangling is an extreme example. But here's a John Davidson spot—being a presenter at the Academy Awards. I did that in 1994. I haven't seen it, but people tell me it went OK. My face was probably frozen in fear, because there's a weird marionette artificiality to those things. Backstage all I could think was, How do I get out of this? I absolutely almost fled. I had a few options swimming around in my brain. Just collapse, fall over unconscious, that was one. Projectile vomiting. Another option was to tell the truth. Just say, "Before I introduce Neil Young I want to say that I don't know why I'm here. I don't want to be here. I just want to go have a drink. I feel nervous and a little bit sick." Of course, I wasn't actually going to go out and say that. But what was really eating away at me was this: What if I suddenly get Tourette's syndrome? What if I go out and start barking and saying motherfucker to the whole world?
But you did introduce Neil Young and get out of there safely.
That was a good cigarette after that.
Wasn't there a time you had a quasi-Tourette's episode on a plane?
Flying from L.A. to Vancouver for that television show [21 Jump Street]. I was in first class and something came over me. I was already shaky about the flight when it hit me—you have to shout something shocking. Blurt something, or horrible things will happen.
So then you yelled, "I fuck animals!"
And, indeed, the plane didn't crash.
You even faced down your fear of John Davidson, didn't you? He played a talk show host in Edward Scissorhands.
I had nothing to do with that. It was strange to work with him after years of being afraid of him. He was doing Oklahoma! somewhere at the time and he had a perm.
How John Davidson of him.
So I got rid of that demon. It was a weird exorcism. We talked about his perm.
You've had other demons. There was a guy who kept calling around town insisting he was you. He said you were an impostor who had stolen his identity.
Sick. Scary. It was like the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons game, and I was the enemy.
He called the studio demanding the money he had made for Scissorhands. That was funny to a lot of people. Was it funny to you?
It makes you think. I've had other threats, too, and what hits you is that these people believe they're right. They can justify their hatred of you because in their world, you are the enemy. It makes you rethink your job when you realize you can affect someone so intensely. So to me, they're not evil.
Stalkers and kooks aren't evil?
They think their hate is justified.
How can you sleep?
I'm cautious but not really paranoid. I carry a gun. Not today, but when there are threats I carry a gun. I grew up around them and I can shoot a little. I could never kill an animal, but I always liked target practice. Now I have a couple of Winchesters, a couple of .380s and a .38. Because basically, who wants to have a bunch of bodyguards? I don't see myself with that kind of star treatment. I'd rather bounce around on my own. But at the same time, when there's someone out there who actually wants to take your life, you should try to be ready.
Being stalked must darken your view of human nature.
I never had the brightest view of human nature. I think humanity—society, at least—is violent. It's not getting any better. I don't think I'm cynical, but I do think maybe the world is more...sinful than ever before.
Does that feeling find its way into your work?
It must. It's a sense that the world is harsh to some people. Harsh, judgmental and wrong.
Your movie misfits often fight back in funny ways. There's a story that you insisted on filming an alternate line in Benny & Joon at the climax of the love story.
That's true. It's right when the music comes up and he looks into her eyes. The line is, "Joon, I love you."
And your line was—
"Joon, I'm a bed wetter." I'm still passionate about that line. I didn't get away with it, but I think it could have gotten a laugh and been touching at the same time. You can't help laughing at the pain of this poor bastard, but he's honest. And more than that...it's easy to say "I love you." The audience expects it. But to say you're a bed wetter, to reveal something like that, is saying I love you. It's saying I really love you, enough to tell you my deep, dark secret.
Do you have a favorite date movie?
Wuthering Heights with Olivier is a real tearjerker. Or Mike Leigh's film Naked. You won't forget that one.
How does porn affect you?
I like a porn film now and again, but I don't go out of my way to see one. I saw Edward Penis Hands. Tim Burton sent me a copy. It is a great film, really funny. As for most of it, I suppose it's arousing to some people, but I get a little embarrassed watching people fuck. You're sitting there watching and suddenly it seems so strange—the image changes in your mind and they're not people anymore. The guy looks like a dog, making horrible faces. I'm sure there are beautiful porn films, artistically made. I just don't want to see that guy.
How about love scenes in your own films? Are they arousing?
I've never done a love scene that was arousing. The atmosphere is too ridiculous. You're lying there kissing some girl, professing your undying love, and you see that grip over there eating a bologna sandwich.
You've never had a boner on-screen?
Oh, I may have had a boner, but not in a love scene.
You'd better explain.
Who knows what goes on underneath the table, outside the frame? I may have a feather duster down my pants. It's not necessarily sexual, either. If I'm having a difficult time with a scene, getting too serious, I like to take a handheld duster or maybe a wrench, shove it down my pants and play the scene that way. Any object that doesn't belong—it takes your mind off the seriousness of the situation. Just when you're bursting into tears you realize there's a dust mop in your shorts.
So there are multiple tracks in your head. One's in character while another is sending out dust mop alerts.
Yeah, and the other actor knows, too. That can add spice to the scene. I've used tools, fruit, a little squeegee that creates the sound of flatulence. It doesn't have to be in your pants, either. In a close shot where they cut you off at the elbows, say, I may have a banana in my hand, or some guy's shoe.
This from the man Brando wants to play Hamlet. What else can you tell us about acting?
Sometimes you hate it. So maybe you say, Yeah, I make faces for cash, I tell a few lies. And in a way that's right. In a way it's just a gig like any other job. Except it's more unstable, maybe worse for your mental health. If you're doing what you should be doing as an actor, you won't be very emotionally stable. You are constantly manipulating your emotions, fucking with yourself, fucking with your self, opening drawers in your head that you don't really want to open but you have to, to maintain access to them.
Family things. Childhood things. Fear and abandonment. Rage. You just feel stupid having this be a part of your job, and it fucks with you in bad ways. When you're really flopping around in there [bitter laugh], you feel like an idiot for doing it. For going through it. It can make you miserable for three or four months. But you do it. You feel like an idiot, but you do it because it's your fucking job.
You're talking about What's Eating Gilbert Grape, a movie that struck close to home. Gilbert, your character, was trapped in a working-class family, but he had infinite longings.
That's one I haven't seen, Gilbert Grape.
You still don't want to?
No, no. That mixed-up family and him being responsible, those issues clung to me. Making that movie was a bad time. I was as deep in the soup as I could be.
According to the tabloids you were hurting because of your breakup with Winona Ryder.
That wasn't really it. That's what was written, but we hadn't broken up yet, we were still up and down. It had more to do with me, with the difficulty of being inside my skin. I was doing what I could to numb that feeling, doing some in-depth poisoning.
What were your poisons?
Pretty much anything I could ingest. And I was soused, drinking heavily, really doing myself in. When it gets constant, when you're going to sleep drunk, waking up and starting to drink again, that stuff will try to kill you.
Did you think your vices would actually kill you?
At one point I was living on coffee and cigarettes, no food, no sleep. I was sitting around with some pals when my heart started running at 200 beats a minute. That's scary. You're mentally trying to slow down your heart, but you can't. It's like being on a plane when the bottom drops out—you drop a couple thousand feet and one second turns into eternity. You really do get all those family pictures in your head. And you feel so totally fucking alone. I was thinking of my grandfather on my mom's side, a great man I worshiped. His heart just exploded one day. When my heart started racing I hoped it was an anxiety attack, but when it went on for 45 minutes I knew it wasn't anxiety, it was all the shit I'd done to my body. My friends got me to the hospital, where I got a shot—boom, a shot that basically stops your heart for a second. I could feel myself curling up, going fetal. Then it was over. I got to go home. Now, there's an experience that'll scare you into shape.
Did you swear off drugs and alcohol?
Well, I'm a little thick so it took a while. I eventually curbed my drinking. A few beers or a couple glasses of wine, that's not abuse.
Is drug use always harmful?
It depends on the drug and the person. Some kids escape into sports. Some people go to the movies. Some escape with drugs. There's one school of thought that drugs are recreational; there's another school of thought that they can be therapeutic, a way to deal with problems. I think they're usually a crutch, a way to avoid problems. I have never known a junkie who got away, never seen one that heroin didn't get. But it always depends on the drug, doesn't it? Reefer, obviously, is fine. I have never seen a guy smoke a joint and get so stoned he had to beat the shit out of someone.
What about sex crimes? What did you think when you heard about Hugh Grant's misdemeanor near Sunset Boulevard?
I felt bad for the guy and terrible for Elizabeth Hurley, for their global embarrassment. But I could see how it happened, too. To be honest, what he was busted for—isn't that what most men want? Whether it's with your wife, your girlfriend or any female, don't we think of that? Ninety-seven percent of men around the world probably do, or want to do, the same thing. But they don't get caught, or if they do it's not a worldwide affair. As for the way he went about it, I have to say I don't know where his mind was, but was it worth the attention it got? If something that bizarre had happened to me, I think I would have laughed and laughed.
You had a Hollywood Babylon moment of your own in Don Juan when you played a scene with 250 naked women. Is it possible to appreciate 250 nude women at once?
Your brain won't acknowledge it. It's too much. You can't process the fact that these women are real and three-dimensional. It's like a huge painting—you can't appreciate all the details at the same time.
Do you think there's a perceptual limit to the number of nude women a guy can process?
The trouble for me is that I have one bad eye, so there go 125 right there. You might do better. I'd say I can deal with something in the 30s, 30 to 39.
How is a screen kiss different from a real kiss? Do you try different ones the way actors work through various line readings?
I don't work that way. I think it's awful when people plan how to say something. That's the wrong approach because it's never real. The same applies to kissing. I try to kiss normally. But there are times when the other person isn't comfortable or you aren't, so you fake it [miming a near-miss kiss] with a movie kiss. Maybe we should always do that; it's not wise to run around kissing people. It's not hygienically sound. You don't know where they were the night before and they sure don't know where you were. But a movie kiss is never like a real kiss, where there's love involved. It takes emotion to turn a kiss into something wonderful.
Is sex more demanding for a movie Romeo? Have you ever been accused of being less than stellar in bed?
[Laughing] Never. Of course, I've never been called stellar, either.
If you were forced to star in a TV show, which one would you choose?
There's an English show I love called Whose Line Is It Anyway? It's all improvisation. Brilliant, quick, clever comics—spontaneity with both barrels. I wish I could do that show.
Why don't you call them?
No, no. I respect that show far too much to be on it. I wish I were together enough to do what they do, but it's not going to happen, not in this life.
We've talked about your past exposure to fire-and-brimstone religion. Do you have a faith now?
Nothing with a name. I haven't found that, but I hope there's something else out there. I hope that when we leave this world we go on a little trip. Why not? Countless people have had near-death experiences and have come back to say they saw interesting things. Nobody returns from the dead and says, "Hey, there's nothing else." And while there's no organized religion I agree with, I think the Bible is a very good book. Probably a novel.
Do you ever pray?
I pray on airplanes. I get instant religion during takeoff, then when we're safely in the air I sit there thinking about the fact that any little thing that goes wrong could send us crashing to the ground.
Pop quiz: Other than Kate, Brando and all of your other famous friends, who have you learned from in Hollywood?
The people who do the catering on movie sets?
Those people are pros. I have learned a lot from craft services. How to make dips. Tricks for keeping things fresh. It's not just Tupperware—you can put vegetables out on a platter, fine, but they'll last a lot longer on a bed of crushed ice. I recently learned to make a fine seviche. I can cook, too.
What do you cook?
I've made some pretty good beef stew in my day. I'm good at French toast. But most of all, I cook pork like a magician. You're looking at a guy who cooks a fine plate of bacon.
What's the secret with bacon?
Frequent flipping. You have to even it out on both sides. And don't use a high flame. Take your time. You need patience with bacon. You have to maintain a calm attitude with pork.
Cooking for Kate Moss—that in itself would be a high-profile job.
I cook for a supermodel. And contrary to what's been written about Kate, she has a healthy appetite. That girl can put away a plate of bacon.
Not the most healthful diet.
I'm not sure I could give up pork. Steak, OK. Maybe hamburgers. But nothing in the world can make me stop eating swine. I mean, I had a great-grandmother, Mimmy, who ate the greasiest food you ever saw and chewed tobacco till the day she died, and she lived to be 102.
What did you learn from her?
I learned that I never want to see a spittoon again as long as I live. I have vivid memories of fetching Mimmy's spittoon, and it was nasty in there. Not only tobacco juice but toenails too. She'd put her toenail clippings in there and they looked just like cashews. To this day I can't eat cashews.
You've played Ed Wood and Don Juan. Any other notable characters you want to play?
You speak, of course, of the noted Parisian cabaret performer of the turn of the century, the fartiste who tooted grand opera from his anus—the original classical gas?
You have to admire anyone with such great control of his . . . instrument. I'd love to play him. I'm sure there were tragic moments in his life. It's tragic that he left no successors. But what a hysterical scene when he discovers his gift. That's a role I'd do in a minute.
Forgetting your "quote-unquote career" for a moment, do you ever think about your legacy? Film stock lasts; people will still be seeing you 100 years from now.
Yeah, they'll say, "Whatever happened to Johnny Dope? Jimmy Dip? You know, the Scissorhands guy . . . "