Donnie Brasco and Johnny Depp—the pair of diminutive and rhyming first names suggests, one hopes, larger reverberances between a compelling character and the fascinating young actor who plays him in a movie. Secretiveness and watchfulness are among the traits they share. So are tastes for danger, duplicity and disguise. Most significant, role playing is for both of them—albeit in rather different ways—a matter of life and death.
It's quite literally so for the hero of Donnie Brasco, Mike Newell's smart, suspenseful and neo-Scorsesian study of lowlife Mob life. Based on a true story, the film takes its title from the alias chosen by an undercover FBI man named Joe Pistone when he penetrated a New York Mafia family in the 1970s. He lived this lie for six years, knowing that one miscue, one bad line reading could be his death warrant. Then he spent twice that time testifying against men with whom he had developed certain dubious collegial bonds. Today Pistone, who emerged lately to do some cheerleading for the film, lives under yet another identity—the Mob has a long-standing $500,000 price on his head.
The stakes are obviously nowhere near as high for the performer who, Pistone says, "captured me 100%—my mannerisms, my walk, my talk." Nobody is going to car-bomb an actor who bombs; the worst he's going to suffer is bad reviews and, conceivably, a drop in his asking price. Even so, the evidence suggests that Depp is a man who comes into sharp focus and, more important, attains full life only when he loses himself in a role. The first time director John Badham met the actor he intended to cast in his thriller Nick of Time, he did not recognize him. "He looked like one of those Identi-Kit police drawings," he says, a rough sketch waiting to be rounded out and colored in by his next role.
To be sure, a figure bearing Depp's name runs, occasionally roughshod, through the tabloid life of our times. This guy is best known to the general public for trashing a hotel room a couple of years ago and getting busted for it, for his long-running liaison with supersvelte supermodel Kate Moss and for his proprietorship of the menacingly named Viper Room, the determinedly grungy rock club on Sunset Blvd. outside of which River Phoenix succumbed to a final overdose. What the public does not know is that this character is largely the figment of our gossip-debased collective unconscious.
A certain cultural laziness compounds this misapprehension. It's much easier to write Depp off as just another "actor boy," seeming to strike those inarticulately nihilistic poses that are the type's trademark, than it is to come seriously to grips with his astonishingly rangy body of work. Or even to catch it, since this Florida high school dropout, failed rocker and totally instinctive actor tends to work cult country, where a film's theatrical life-span can be nasty, brutal and short, but where these days the more interesting directors and writers hang out.
"He's an auteur hag," says his friend director John Waters, and Depp's longtime agent, Tracey Jacobs, agrees. "It all starts with the screenplay," she says, "not the bottom line. Then he chooses directors and actors he likes." Among them—twice, including Depp's upcoming directorial debut, The Brave—is Marlon Brando, another instinctive actor, who almost certainly would have preferred a hide-in-plain-sight career like Depp's to the one he got. Depp, now 33, was lucky. He was given his shot at mainstream studdishness early on and blew it off fast. That was after he scored his first major success on TV's 21 Jump Street (where he played an undercover narc), when he was being offered plenty of chances to expand on the part in high-impact action features.
It was Waters who gave him the chance to break that mold before it was fully hardened. "I told him if he did Cry-Baby, we'd kill that image," he says. "So he parodied himself by playing a teen idol, and it totally worked." Then Tim Burton gave him the opportunity to bury it for good with Edward Scissorhands, in which Depp played an abandoned monster with cutlery where his digits should have been, trying with sweetly contained but (considering his weaponry) dangerous eagerness to adjust to suburban normalcy. Everyone from moony adolescents to case-hardened movie critics could read the silent, yet somehow unsentimental, plea for succor emanating from his deep obsidian eyes, wonderfully set off by whiteface makeup.
It was a revelation—perhaps not least to Depp. The success of the film (his only commercial hit) showed that it was possible to subvert stardom's conventional wisdom, which insists that an actor must assert at least some aspect of his nature that the audience can identify and cling to as he moves from picture to picture. Scissorhands proved to Depp that he could work in his own way. "He transforms himself into the character," says Badham. "He's not going to do what some actors do, and transform the character into themselves."
Depp turned down the Keanu Reeves part in Speed and the Brad Pitt role in Legends of the Fall, becoming something rather old-fashioned, a character lead. But he worked in the kind of films—youth-oriented and fringy—that middlebrow traditionalists, the people who sniffishly deplore actors who "just play themselves," never go to see. This is their loss; they have missed out on the filmography of the most interesting actor of the '90s.
It is woven of two strands, one of them boldly colored, the other rather gray and recessive. Besides Scissorhands, the first skein includes Ed Wood, Depp's serenely obsessive portrait of the grade-Z moviemaker and cross-dresser with a special affection for angora sweaters; Don Juan De Marco, where he plays a schizophrenic who escapes from dismal reality by impersonating, with sinuous delicacy, an enviably proficient Latin lover; and Benny & Joon, in which he's an illiterate and nearly speechless waif with a genius for mime. What is perhaps most striking about these characterizations is their fundamental sobriety, disciplined intensity and hints of Depp's other main line, which consists of making something quite hypnotic out of a passivity enlivened by nothing more than watchful alertness. He used this strand in his oddly matched pair of accountants, one of whom is drawn against his will into an assassination plot in Badham's Nick of Time, while the other is bedeviled by various personifications of frontier mythology in Jim Jarmusch's shaggy, satirical western, Dead Man.
Depp has done this so well that Waters claims "he's got other young actors imitating his career. I actually hear people say, 'I want to do a Johnny Depp.' And no, I won't name who they are." What he will argue is that his friend's best work is in his straightest role: the super-responsible elder sibling trying to keep his family from spinning into total dysfunction in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. "He's real. He plays heroes in an uncorny way."
He plays everybody that way. But until now there has always been something a little unformed, a little less than totally grownup in all his performances. That's what makes Donnie Brasco so important. As Jacobs says, "It's the strong, manly role that Hollywood wanted him to do for so long." And more. For as director Newell (himself making a quantum leap from the frothy Four Weddings and a Funeral) observes, Brasco "is a hard man, a brutal man," operating in a narrative that offers him no convenient escape clauses, no soft or fanciful evasions of fate. Forced in anguish to abandon his real family for his Mob family—his wife, whose patience with his absences finally runs out, is very well played by Anne Heche—Brasco must ultimately betray his only real friend in the criminal clan, Al Pacino's very weary, very unsuccessful and finally very touching soldier, a man the movie makes much more appealing than the law-enforcement bureaucrats who show not an ounce of understanding, let alone compassion, for the soul Pistone-Brasco has shriven in their service.
This is good strong stuff, not least because, as Newell says, Paul Attanasio's adaptation of Pistone's book offers "this absolutely novel point of view about the Mob," dealing as it does "with the lowest rung, the have-nots. I loved being at the bottom of the pond." So, obviously, did Depp. "He absorbs so much," says the wondering Pistone, with whom Depp hung out for weeks, perfecting all his mannerisms—right down to a nervous cough—that "he doesn't try. It just comes to him. And he remembers everything. He's like a sponge."
Or perhaps "an unplowed field," as Newell prefers to put it. In any case, an actor unencumbered by ego, and increasingly confident of his gift for transforming himself into anything he wants to be. Or, possibly, anything we need him to be, in our largely feckless search for something that rings true, or at least believable, at the movies.
—With reporting by Cathy Booth/Los Angeles and Georgia Harbison/New York